How to Make $25,606.29 with a Side Project Selling PDF Reports Online
In 2012 I read a forum post that motivated me to create my first online product. In simple steps, it explained how the author had made a full-time income creating and selling PDF reports online.
That post may be the most important forum post I have ever read.
Not long after reading this post, I launched my first online product — a simple PDF report — and with that, became a product vendor.
At 14:18 September 24, 2012 I sold my first product.
Since then I have sold products all over the world from the comfort of my home. When I’m sleeping, on vacation, at work, and even right now — as you read this — my websites are selling products for me.
I have made money off the internet for 7 years in a row now. And my hope for this post is to do what that magical forum post did for me back then — inspire someone to create their first online product.
Becoming a product vendor is one of the best decisions I have ever made. And if I can inspire just one person to attempt creating a product, I’ll consider this post a success.
I hope that person is you.
Tl;dr Get my cheat-sheet
This post has grown into a rather large piece. Every word is worth reading though. But if you don’t have time — or just want to save the highlights — you can download my own personal product cheat-sheet below.
It contains the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past 7 years, all on a single piece of paper.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
First, some PROOF
This isn’t a story about overnight success or rags-to-riches. It’s a true, honest recount of how I became a product vendor and what that meant to me.
Before we begin the story, here’s proof to back up my claims — that I actually am a product vendor making money online.
I’m not rich and I don’t live off the internet. My websites have always been — and still are — side projects. I work on them in my spare time and don’t rely on the income to pay my bills.
Still, a couple hundred dollars a month doesn’t hurt.
Here’s what I have made on my three biggest payment platforms:
This revenue didn’t come to me overnight. Nor did it suddenly explode from zero dollars a day to a full-time income.
It developed over time. With struggles, challenges, failures, and luckily also some successes in between.
As an example, here are the traffic numbers for one of my products that has been live since 2014:
As you can see, slow and steady climbing.
What to expect from your first product
My first product was a small report about a single website traffic strategy — a strategy I had experience with myself and wanted to share.
I called the report The TrafficSpike Report as the strategy could spike your website traffic overnight (I’m not super creative when it comes to naming things).
The TrafficSpike Report was just 14 pages long.
To be fair, the actual product contained more than just the 14-page report. It had some additional resources, but the report was still the main thing.
And those 14 pages changed my online journey for good.
I’m still amazed this report received so much positive feedback despite its tiny size. But as you’ll soon see, this was the first hint I received that size doesn’t matter as much as you may think.
- Making money online is possible. The biggest lesson I learned was that I could do this — I could make money by selling my own products online. And you can too.
- Selling is all about the sales page. And much less about the actual product. When I first launched the product, it didn’t sell. But after a few tweaks to the sales page — adding social proof being the biggest one — the product became profitable. This was rather interesting as I didn’t change anything about the product, only the way I presented it.
- Putting your own product out there is scary, but also rewarding. This was the first time I ever charged money for something I had created all on my own. And that came with some anxiety. As a product vendor, you learn that the feedback spectrum is wide: some will email you for a refund with harsh words, others will thank you and tell you how your product finally helped them solve their problems.
How NOT to create a product
After stabilizing my first product (The TrafficSpike Report), it was time to increase my profits with another offer.
But this time I had much bigger plans.
I created a product that would teach people how to make money online using nothing but email. How to get subscribers, build a relationship with them, and finally how to sell using email.
It was an ambitious project.
And even more so when you consider the fact that I had never actually done this myself. Yep, I was creating a product about something I didn’t have much experience with myself.
Which — rightfully so — turned out to be my downfall.
The product didn’t turn out well. It lacked the details that only hands-on experience can provide, and it was too broad for me to cover all the areas properly.
I launched the product nonetheless, knowing that I didn’t truly believe in it myself. And then I closed it soon after — only 9 copies sold.
- Value isn’t about size or length. This product was much bigger than my first one, but it provided less value to my customers. Furthermore, it required much more of them — they had to get through the full course to get all the value.
- Experience is gold when creating products. You can research many things, but personal experience gives you an additional layer of knowledge. I know from personal experience (pun intended) that this will shine through in your product.
- A product can quickly become too broad and big if you are not careful. My first product was simple — one traffic strategy. This time I tried something much broader — a full marketing course with everything included. But to include everything, the product quickly grew beyond what I could manage, and I had to sacrifice depth and quality.
What to do if you don’t have any good product ideas
After failing with my second product, I became even more hungry for another success. I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony.
Luckily, I now knew what I needed — a product based on personal experience.
There was one big problem though — I couldn’t come up with anything useful from my internet marketing journey to create a product around.
I looked and looked, but nothing passed my criteria.
So I did what I had to: I created the experience myself. I took a challenge — growing Facebook pages — and learned everything I could about it. Then I applied it, and finally — wrote my findings in a report:
The FBCommunity report became my second success as a product vendor, selling more than 600 copies.
- Need experience to create a product? Go get it. You’ll be motivated to face most challenges, knowing that overcoming them will lead to a better product.
- Create a specific product solving a specific problem. Creating FBCommunity reiterated my lesson about product specificity. Although the product is just about Facebook pages, I had enough content to write 80 pages — and I could have made it even longer without broadening the topic. Don’t be scared your product is too specific, be scared it’s too broad.
- Be careful with rapidly changing topics. The biggest mistake I made with FBCommunity was to base it on things that were rapidly changing. Facebook is evolving so fast that it is next to impossible to keep up. This meant that the report quickly became outdated if I didn’t spend time updating it. If you base your products on evergreen ideas, this won’t be an issue.
What’s your offer?
After my success with FBCommunity, I quickly wanted more. So I created another product using my newfound recipe for success: create a specific product based on personal experience.
The product — The Viral Traffic Report — was well received by customers, but it lacked a very important element: a good sales page.
The product simply didn’t convert well enough.
As I was — and still am — a newbie copywriter, I couldn’t see how to make the sales page better. As it turns out, I was faced with another important product concept: the offer.
And unfortunately, mine wasn’t great.
The offer I was selling with The Viral Traffic Report wasn’t easy to explain and therefore hard to sell. With my limited copywriting skills, this would be an uphill battle all the way.
I abandoned the offer instead and turned to other things. The report sold 38 copies before I gave up on it.
- Think about your offer and how you are going to sell it. What is it exactly that you are selling? If you can’t easily explain this, your offer is doomed. And if it is not exciting, you may have issues to. You should think about these things before and during your product development. Not after. If you wait until your product is done, it may be too late to pivot to a better offer, and you’ll end up in a situation like mine — with a fine product but a difficult offer to sell.
The secret behind my best report to date
With almost 900 sales, Instant Traffic Hacks is my most successful report to date.
The report is building upon the lessons learned in all my previous products. It has great social proof, is specific, evergreen, and the offer works.
- Keep trying. It took me 5 attempts to finally produce a product that worked. But those attempts weren’t failures as much as they were practice rounds and experiments. Your first product may not be a success. Your second one may not either. Even your third and fourth products may still not live up to your expectations (as happened to me). But that’s part of the game. And to win this game, you need to keep playing.
- Build on what works. Each time you create something, you learn something. You learn a bit more about what works, and what doesn’t. As long as you build upon what works with your next products, you are eventually going to succeed. And when you do, it’ll be worth the struggle.
Going even more specific
Instant Traffic Hacks is my most successful product to date. But it is far from the last one I’m going to create.
My latest product, Project W.S.O, is a very specific product. It teaches other warriors how to create and sell so-called Warrior Special Offers — essentially it’s a guide on how to create and launch products.
Because the offer is so specific, it doesn’t get as much general attention as Instant Traffic Hacks or FBCommunity. (It has almost as many overall impressions as the other two products, but way fewer offer impressions — meaning people see the offer, but don’t check it out.)
Here’s the impression graph for 2018:
The lower general attention may sound bad at first, but there’s a big upside to creating a very specific product like this:
When you have targeted visitors, they are worth much more.
Because the product is more narrowly targeted, it speaks directly to a target group. And that target group will love the product.
How do I know?
Because that’s exactly what happened with this product. The front end sales aren’t nearly as high as my other successful products, but the back end sales are much higher.
The result is that each Project W.S.O customer is worth much more.
- Not all customers are equal. Same goes for visitors. A lot of my profit is from back end sales, and some customers are more likely to convert on these offers. Once you have a product or two under your belt, you should start to think about the bigger picture — where does your front end products fit into your overall strategy?
- Don’t be afraid to limit your audience. You may like an attractive offer that targets a broad audience as a front end product. But if you have such an offer, your customer audience is also going to be broader and more difficult to upsell. Instead, if you focus your audience with a narrow front end offer, you are going to get a more defined customer base.
My journey so far
There you have it. My product vendor journey so far, and the lessons learned along the way.
But enough talk about me.
The rest of this blog post is about you — how you can create your own products and make money while you are sleeping, on vacation, or working on new exciting projects.
I hope you have absorbed the lessons I learned on my journey — there’s no need for you to make the same mistakes as I did.
If you want to remember the lessons, I’ve created a small cheat-sheet that will give you the most important points.
Now onto your journey…
The 3 challenges you will face
Creating your own product isn’t rocket science — find a problem you know how to solve and write down your approach for others to follow.
You don’t need suppliers, middlemen, employees, or any physical manufacturing.
All you need is a laptop and a connection to the internet.
With that said, creating your own product is still a challenge. Not a labor-intensive or technical challenge, but a mental one.
Your inner voices will try to convince you that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, that this can’t possibly work, and when results are looking bleak, they’ll say they were right.
But I say they are wrong.
You have just as much useful knowledge as anyone else. This stuff works for regular people. I’m the living proof. And when results aren’t what you hoped for, you need to tweak and improve — not abandon the journey altogether.
The only help you need
If you are looking for another step-by-step how to create a product guide, this isn’t it (see here instead).
You don’t need another one of those. There are already plenty of guides out there, and honestly, I bet you already know the steps involved: get a product idea, create the product, sell it.
Again, not rocket science.
What you need instead is this: you need to believe it is possible, and you need to believe in yourself.
Throughout your early product vendor journey there are three phases where this belief will be challenged:
- Finding a product idea
- Overcoming your fear of selling
You may notice that creating the actual product is not listed as one of the challenges. And that’s because it is often much easier than you’d expect.
Once you have a good idea, the product more or less creates itself. Which makes a good segue into the first challenge we’ll talk about:
1) Finding a product idea
You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.
- Zig Ziglar
Like many marketers, I used to struggle with product ideas.
But two things changed that.
First, I learned that it’s okay to create products like everybody else. Of course, your product should have something that makes it stand out, but that is not the same as saying your product idea should be entirely unique.
My products are all about very common internet marketing themes: traffic and product creation.
Two of the biggest product categories in my marketplace. And there’s a reason they a so big. It’s the topics that people are interested in.
Don’t try to be too unique or innovative with your product idea. Instead, take a look at what other people are doing and see if you can do a better job at some parts of it.
Second, I learned that it’s okay if you aren’t the expert on the topic when starting out. If you have a product idea, you can gain the experience needed to create your product — or you can borrow it from an expert.
To create FBCommunity I had to learn everything about Facebook pages. To create Instant Traffic Hacks I needed to have four traffic strategies that could be applied to most websites.
And I had none of that when I decided to create the products.
But once I had a clear goal, I quickly gained that experience. And the result is two of my most successful products.
Put together, these two lessons — that you don’t have to be too unique and that you can learn as you go — made me realize that finding a product idea isn’t as difficult as most make it out to be.
Really, it’s more about picking a product idea than finding it.
Go look at popular categories in your marketplace and pick one. Then learn everything you can about that topic and you are ready for the next step.
Can you create a product without being the absolute expert
So am I really suggesting you create a product without being the absolute expert on that topic?
Yes, yes I am.
You don’t have to be an expert to share your knowledge with other people.
If that had to be the case, none of us would ever learn anything. Because the truth is, this is going on all the time, everywhere. At home, in school, at work — essentially throughout your whole life — you’ve been taught by people that weren’t absolute experts.
They were just experts relative to you. As in, they knew a bit more than you did. And that’s all it takes.
All you need to teach people is relative expertise. If you have more experience than them, you have something to share.
And you should share it. That’s how we all grow together.
2) Overcoming your fear of selling
The starving artist works for free. The thriving artist always works for something.
– Jeff Goins in Real Artists Don’t Starve
I firmly believe selling is a good thing. Charging money for your work is both beneficial for you and your customers.
So if you want to help people — and if you want to help yourself — you should be selling something.
This is my personal belief, shared with many successful marketers and creators. You may disagree with me. But if you do, please read some of my arguments in why you should stop giving everything away for free and how to properly take care of your visitors.
Now to the harder part: overcoming your fear of selling. Believing that selling is a positive thing is a good start, but you also need some concrete tools to nudge yourself towards that scary first product launch.
Money and other risks
Your fear of losing big sums of money can be cured in an instant.
Here’s how: launch your product on a shoestring.
It’s actually simple to keep your production costs low — Amazon AWS can store your report for next to nothing (if you even need this), you can use a free payment processor like JVZoo, and you can write and publish your report using Word or Google docs. If you need graphics, you can use free services like Canva, Iconfinder, and Unsplash.
Really, there’s no reason why your report should cost you more than a few bucks to make.
Don’t invest in “advanced” things like membership sites, expensive themes, or anything like that. It will just slow you down, and it doesn’t add much value in the end.
What if people don’t like it or me?
This fear is a bit more challenging to get rid of. But it is entirely possible to reason about and realize that it’s another ungrounded fear.
First up, being liked isn’t a good aspiration to have. It’s a goal that is entirely outside your sphere of influence — you essentially leave your success criteria in the hands of other people.
Having a product that converts is a better measure. This you have more influence over, and it indirectly tells you whether people want your offer (note that it still doesn’t tell you much about your actual product, just the sales page and offer).
We’ll tackle conversion in just a moment.
But before we do, I want to make sure you get rid of this fear that people won’t like your product.
As a product vendor, you are going to have disappointed costumers. That’s part of the game. Even if you create the best product in the world, there are still some people that will dislike it.
If you receive negative feedback, remember that this can be fueled by a thousand different things — conflicting expectations, a general hatred towards product vendors, a specific issue, or maybe it’s just a bad day.
You can’t control all of these things, and therefore you can’t guarantee that everybody will enjoy your product. And that’s fine.
However, there’s one tool that will help alleviate all of this — a money back guarantee.
If you offer a full refund to unsatisfied customers, you’ll be able to solve most problems smoothly.
And moreover, you’ll be able to soothe your own fear of selling — now you don’t have to be worried that people won’t like your product. If they don’t, they get a full refund. No harm done.
Get yourself a collection of good ads and direct mail pieces and read them aloud and copy them in your own handwriting.
- Gary Halbert
I’m not a great copywriter. In fact, if you pay attention to the numbers presented throughout this post, you’ll realize that my conversion rates aren’t great.
With that said, my products convert well enough that I make money from them, year after year.
So I must have done something right.
Copywriting is everything
If you want your product to succeed, you need to accept this fact. Copywriting — and selling in general — is more important than anything else.
More important than your product quality, budget, idea, format, size, etc.
If you can’t sell your product, none of that matters. And with an online product, your primary selling tool is a sales page to present your product.
My copywriting confession
I may be bad at copywriting, but I know where to find good copy.
It’s all around us. On the websites we visit, the ads we read, the stores we go into, and the television we watch. And all of that can be used to create your own sales page.
My copywriting confession is that I haven’t created any of my sales pages from scratch. I’m more a copy-assembler than a copy-writer.
The world is filled with great sales pages and other copywriting pieces — right at your fingertips. Why not use that?
When I have to create a sales page, I always look for inspiration elsewhere first.
The first thing I want to settle on is the flow to use — what is the intro, how is the offer presented, where is the social proof, etc. You can quickly pick up a template to follow just by looking at good offers in your own marketplace.
Next is the individual elements. Elements like a guarantee box, proof, demonstration, etc. These are the pieces that make up the overall flow. Again, to find elements I want to model after, I browse good offers that can be used as templates.
Finally, I start assembling my own page using all of the resources I have gathered. At this point, it is just about taking the models you have found and readjusting them for your own use.
This process is about a million times easier — and much more effective — than writing your own sales page from a blank piece of paper.
And moreover, it works brilliantly. I’m a testament to that.
What if my copy doesn’t work?
Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.
- David Ogilvy
Not even the best copywriters in the world can accurately predict how well their advertising will perform.
Which is also why copywriting is considered part art, part science. It takes an artist to write great copy, but a scientist to test it.
The only way you’ll know if your copy works is by testing it. And when it doesn’t live up to expectations, you need to make adjustments and try again.
You can stand on shoulders of giants by copying what already works, but at the end of the day, you’ll have to do some experimentation yourself. There’s just no way around it.
This is one of the harder parts of selling your own product, but also one of the most rewarding ones. A tiny increase in conversion can lead to a massive increase in profit.
If you want to spend your time wisely, this is where you spend it.
How to test
To test as sales page you change something and see what effect it has.
In the simplest scenario, this can be done manually — you change something and see if the offer converts better. This is a rather barbaric way of testing, but in some cases that may be the only method available.
A more sophisticated approach is with one of the many split testing tools out there. For example, Google Optimize can help you improve your pages with a number of different tests.
There’s no need to make testing harder than it is. At the core, it’s all about experimenting with different version and finding the best one. How you do the testing is up to you. It often depends on the scenario, the tools available, and your expertise level.
Go create your own product
That’s all I had for this post.
You’ve now seen my product vendor journey, and some of the challenges that may face you should you join me on this road.
And I hope you do.
Launching your own product will cause you some struggles, but one thing is for certain in my mind — it’s worth it.