Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by PSECU, a Pennsylvania-based credit union
I talk about my side hustles a lot and report my monthly income with thousands of dollars in revenue and profit. But it's not always that easy. I've had a LOT of failures along the way and some of them were pretty costly.
In this article I'll show you specific examples like my old niche websites, products I've launched on Amazon and some reviews people left like the one saying my product "bitchslaped" them. Yep.
I'm gonna take a trip down memory lane to look back on some of my biggest failures in trying to start new side hustles. Some of the highlights include:
- Embarrassingly horrible affiliate websites
- Choosing a garlic press as my first product to sell on Amazon and losing thousands of dollars
- Accidentally violating someone's patent and having to throw away hundreds of perfectly good products
- Making thousands from importing fidget spinners only to be left with thousands of dollars of inventory I couldn't sell
- Inventing my own product, filing a patent, then getting horrible quality from my factory because the workers had to build them at night to avoid government detection...
But all of these experiences led me to where I'm at today. If I hadn't taken the plunge into building websites and physical products businesses, I wouldn't have the profitable side hustles that I do today.
I wanted to share these stories because it can seem like some people get lucky and always succeed. But the truth is everyone fails. Some people don't share their failures but I've always had more respect for the people I follow that share EVERYTHING about their journey; not just the highlights.
Failure #1 - ToothImplantGuide.com
In early 2013 I Googled "passive income" and came across a website called SmartPassiveIncome.com. Pat Flynn's website was my first introduction into the world of making money online and I was instantly hooked.
Reading Pat's stories about his websites and apps that made thousands of dollars per month was really appealing to me. I knew right away that I needed to start doing this.
So I got to work researching how to build websites to make passive income. The first piece of advice I found said you need to find a niche that has a high CPC, or cost per click. This is the price that advertisers pay when someone clicks on an ad on your website. So I did some research and came across some high paying niches, one of them being tooth implants.
If you look up the search volume for "tooth implant", Google says it gets 50,000 searches per month with a cost per click of $5.59. That's really high compared to most niches and it looked good to me at the time. I registered toothimplantguide.com and I was off to the races.
Except I wasn't, because who the hell knows anything about tooth implants? I tried to write articles for the site and it was a complete disaster. I didn't know anything about this niche and all I could do was read other people's articles then rehash the information in a slightly different format.
I think at the time I might have even copied the images from their site and used them on my own which is a huge no-no since you're violating copyright and opening yourself up to a lawsuit.
So in the end I created 2 or 3 crappy articles, the site sat there for a year, then I gave up on it and let the domain expire.
Total expenses were probably around $75 and my revenue was a big fat 0. My first attempt at a side hustle was a total disaster.
Failure #2 - Home-Refinance-Guide.com
So clearly I didn't learn my lesson the first time. I went into another niche based solely on the high CPC ($51.08 CPC for home refinance!!! Gold mine!!).
I don't even know if I got more than 1 article written on this site. I quickly realized I knew nothing about this niche and gave up on it.
Total expenses again of $75 and revenue of 0.
Thanks to Archive.org, where you can look up anything in the past, we have a glimpse into this beautiful creation of mine:
Failure #3 - TripLobster.com
I actually think this one is still a good idea and if someone put in the effort, they could probably make a LOT of money with this idea.
I learned my lesson from the first two sites. High CPC doesn't mean jack if you don't know the niche. Around the same time I realized this, I had also got into churning (shoutout to reddit.com/r/churning). Churning is using credit card rewards to earn points, then cancelling the cards, signing up for them again later, and earning more points. Repeat the cycle over and over and you'll get a ton of points so you can basically travel for free.
My first experience with this was signing up for the Southwest credit card that gave you 50k points. But at the time there was a special promotion. The promotion was called the Companion Pass and the way it worked was if you earned 110k points, you'd get a pass that let 1 person travel with you for free.
So I got the first credit card and got 50k points.
2 months later I got the second credit card and got 50k more points.
Through my normal spending of ~4k per month (thanks daycare bills!) I earned another 10k points in the next 3 months.
Once I got the 110k points I got a Companion Pass in the mail and my wife and I went on some free trips. It was amazing! I could use about 30k points to book my ticket and my wife's ticket was free. We went on a couple vacations and used up the points and life was good.
But I realized a lot of people didn't know about this world. There were tons of websites like FlyerTalk, ThePointsGuy and a billion others all figuring out ways to game the flight system and get awesome trips for free. On top of that, credit cards have some of the most lucrative sign up offers. If you can get someone to sign up for a credit card you can see commissions in the $50-$100 range.
Then the light bulb went off. I could help people travel for free/really cheap and link them to the credit cards that I'd use to pull this trip off.
And for the record, I still love this idea. If I ever got bored and want to try something new I'd probably pursue this idea further.
So why did it fail?
Well there's a chicken and egg problem that online marketers never talk about. You see websites recommending credit cards left and right and you think "I could do that". But you can't. If you don't have 50k+ visitors per month, you can't join these credit card programs.
So you have to build up a huge audience and get tons of traffic before you can start to monetize your site with credit card offers. But this shouldn't have stopped me. I still could have pursued this idea and made it work; I just wouldn't have made money for quite a while.
But I was chasing the money and was looking for something more "get rich quick" so I bailed on it and moved to the next thing.
Failure #4 - Selling Garlic Presses on Amazon
Towards the end of 2014, Amazon FBA was blowing up everywhere on the internet marketing scene. Every website or podcast you turned to there was someone talking about how they just start selling on Amazon and were making $100k per month.
I don't remember the exact podcast I heard but as soon as I had listened to it I knew I had to give Amazon FBA a try.
My day job involves working with manufacturers, building products, sending them out to warehouses/stores to sell and making sure we don't run out of stock and lose sales.
This is basically exactly what the Amazon FBA business model involved. You identify a product that has a lot of demand, find a factory to make it and slap your brand on the product. List it for sale on Amazon and watch the money come rolling in.
So I started researching Amazon physical product businesses and I came across a course called The Amazing Selling Machine. Their course cost $3,000 which is way more than I could afford. My son had just turned 2 and we just moved into a new house so there wasn't a lot of cash lying around to throw at crazy ideas.
I found a website where 50 people all chipped in and purchased the course together. I ended up paying about $60 and got access to the course. I followed all of their steps to find a product to sell which were based on rules like:
- Your product should be small and relatively lightweight
- It should fit in a shoe box
- It should sell for $15-$50
- There should be very few moving parts and no electronics so you don't have to worry about defects
- There should be existing demand for the product, ideally at least $10k per month in sales based on current competition.
So after a few days of research I thought I had identified the perfect product. It was a garlic press. Simple to make, just two pieces of metal joined with a hinge. They were pretty small and lightweight and I could easily slap my brand name on it.
And when I found this product, there were just a couple of sellers on Amazon and they were easily doing $50k+ per month. I thought it'd be easy for me to slide in there and scoop up $10k per month just from showing up on the first page of search results.
So I found a factory and placed an order for 250 units. The cost per unit was about $7.50 including the cost of shipping them by air to the United States. I plopped down the $1600 or so for the order and waited. A month later I had a table full of garlic presses. At least my cat thought they were cool.
But there was a huuuge problem (a couple actually).
First, the competition had EXPLODED. Apparently I went through the Amazing Seller course at the same time as everyone else and they all decided to sell garlic presses as well.
By the time I got my garlic presses and had pictures taken to get the listing created, the competition had gone from 4 other sellers to 50+. Literally the first 5 pages of search results were just filled with identical garlic presses.
But the real problem was that my product wasn't different from anyone elses. In fact, some of the other garlic presses came with bonuses like a garlic crusher or a brush to clean it out. Mine didn't have any of those and there was no reason to buy from me over one of my competitors.
Another problem was the price. My competitors were already selling 2,000 units per month and were shipping on the ocean. It cost me $4.50 per garlic press to have it made and $3 per garlic press to have it shipped.
With their volume they were probably buying the garlic presses for $2 each and shipping them for $0.10 each because it was going by ocean.
This meant if I sold them for $10 and Amazon took a $4 cut for fulfillment/shipping fees, I was netting $6 and my cost was $7.50. I'm losing $1.50 on every sale I make...
My competitors could net $6 and only have $2.10 in costs so they were actually making about $4 which is a nice profit margin.
And to make matters worse, you can't just show up and start getting sales. Most people only buy items that show up on the first page of search results. And the first page of search results is full of existing sellers who have hundreds of reviews.
If you're a new seller you have to spend extra money on advertising and 4 years ago, you had to give product away. You'd give 50 units away in order to get 25-30 reviews. This would give you some initial sales velocity so Amazon would start ranking you higher.
Hopefully your product would be high quality, get 5 star reviews, and start taking off. The problem is that anyone else could do the exact same thing. And if they decided to give away 200 units compared to the 50 you did, they'd probably have way more reviews and a higher number of sales (even if they were all for free!), so Amazon would rank them above you.
It was a vicious circle and it ended up turning Amazon into a winner-take-all competition to see who could lose the most money to capture that top ranking. It wasn't uncommon to lose money for months on end while you battled your competitors to give away as much product as possible so you could try to hold on to the top search rankings.
So after a couple of months I was able to sell through all of my garlic presses and only lose about $1,600. It was a hard pill to swallow but I didn't give up. I decided to start over again with just $50 and see what I could do.
I ended up stumbling on to a product I found on Aliexpress that only cost $1.50 and I could order 1 at a time. I grew slowly and only ordered more product when I had verified the demand for my product through real sales. This line of products ended up doing well and is the only reason I stuck with FBA for the next 4 years.
Failure #5 - Inventing My Own Product
After a couple of successful product launches on Amazon, I had hit my peak at around $15k per month in sales. My margins were strong, around 25%, so I was bringing in $3k-$4k per month in pre-tax profit. Not too bad.
I was looking for some new products to launch and I noticed that these little Amazon Echo Dot holders were doing really well. They only had like 10 reviews and they were doing $10,000-$20,000 per month in sales.
I had just bought my own full sized Amazon Echo (not the Dot) and the market for full size Amazon Echo holders was pretty weak. There were 1 or 2 offerings and they were just things people found on Alibaba and threw directly on Amazon. They didn't change anything or modify the design at all, just the laziest white labeling of Alibaba product you can imagine.
So I figured if I created my own unique design it would blow everyone else away. It would look good and would be different from everyone elses.
I started by drawing my design out on paper. I made a rough sketch and sent it to a supplier I had worked with previously. They said they could create this product as well, no problem. It would be made entirely of wood and would cost about $7 to product. Here's what the initial sketch looked like.
I even filed a provisional patent myself which still costs like $120. I figured this thing would blow up and be a top seller. I'd be rolling in cash and needed to have the patent to protect my intellectual property.
I spent a few months going back and forth with my manufacturer creating prototypes. They'd make one and send it to me. I'd test it out and find that it was too small or the hole for the cord on the Echo wasn't the right size. Issue after issue came up but I kept working with my factory and tweaking the design.
Finally after about 4 months I was ready to enter production. Knowing this was a new product and basically an untapped category, I wasn't sure how strong the demand would be. I decided to start small with just 250 units.
Here's what the final product looked like:
There were a couple of issues right out of the gate. One thing I had discovered when I was inspecting the initial order is that the wood was very rough, like it had not been sanded at all. The samples I received were super smooth and you could tell they had paid a lot of attention to them. The mass produced ones? Not so much.
So I messaged my supplier and asked what was up. I was informed that around the time of production, the Chinese government was cracking down on pollution. This had been in the news a little bit so I had known about it, but didn't realize it would affect me at all.
Turns out, this factory had resorted to operating during the night since the government inspectors came during the day.
So they couldn't really see what they were doing and did a very poor job of finishing the product. The staining was uneven and they only sanded about half of them. Awesome.
I started to sand a couple myself by hand but it took forever. The vertical slats that let the sound out of the speaker took too long to do and you couldn't really tell a difference just by looking at it.
I said screw it, and sent them into Amazon as is. I took the pictures myself (another mistake) and got the listing up. Then I sat back and waited for the sales to roll in.
And I kept waiting. And waiting. And the sales never came, of course.
Turns out, nobody really needs this product. It doesn't solve a problem that anyone has. The Amazon Echo is pretty durable and pretty good looking. Nobody is actively looking to spend $20 to make their Echo look like a wooden vase.
But I did get a few sales to roll in. Then the reviews.
Amazon customers are something special. 99% of them are just regular people but there's a special 1% that will leave scathing reviews no matter what. Maybe they just don't ever read anything on the product page before smashing 'Buy'. Maybe they just hate the world and want to burn everything to the ground so they do it through leaving bad reviews. I dunno. But here's the first gem I received:
Hey thanks bud. Here's the first bullet point in the listing:
The Echo Dot is really small and the full sized Echo is probably the size of 10 Echo Dots stacked on top of each other. I thought with the pictures I had taken and the wording I put in the listing it would be obvious that my product didn't work for the Echo Dot but it didn't matter.
After the first 3 reviews I had a 2.5 star rating which is the kiss of death on Amazon. People don't like to try products with bad reviews so you get stuck in a feedback loop of no/bad reviews -> no sales -> no reviews -> no sales.
I was spending money on advertising and losing money on every unit I sold.
After about 3 months of trying to turn things around I ended up having Amazon throw them all away so I didn't get hit with more storage fees.
Total flop, net loss of somewhere around $2,000.
Lesson learned: Solve a problem. People won't pay for something unless it solves a problem they have in their life.
Failure #6 - Violating Someone's Patent
In my early days of selling on Amazon I was always looking for new opportunities. My wife would mention a product she saw on Instagram or Facebook and I'd instantly go look it up and assess the market to see if I should start selling that product too. I was hooked on Amazon FBA and wanted to expand as quickly as possible.
One of the products my wife came across was a hair tie bracelet. You can wear it on your wrist and store your hair tie on it so it doesn't squeeze your wrist. Seemed dumb to me but people were buying them by the ton so I found a supplier and ordered 300 units, 100 in each color (gold, silver, rose gold). Here's what they looked like:
There was another model available from some suppliers that had a curved edge for holding the hair tie in place. It looked ugly and I thought the straight edge would function better too so that's what I went with.
Oops. After about 2 weeks of strong sales I got a notice from Amazon that I had violated someone's patent and I was no longer allowed to sell this product.
Turns out that there's a hair tie bracelet patent and it specifies this straight edge that holds the hair tie in place.
The crafty Chinese factories had gotten around the patent by making their edges rounded instead of straight which let them keep selling.
I was shut down and forced to remove all of my product from Amazon. To this day I still have about 250 hair tie bracelets sitting in my basement.
Lesson: Do your research. Amazon is quick to enforce patents and if you violated a patent you're screwed.
Failure #7 - Selling Sunglasses
This one isn't as much of a failure as it is just me not doing enough research. I didn't lose any money on this and "got away" with it but it could have been bad.
It started when my dad bought a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses. They were awesome sunglasses and I wanted a pair but I didn't want to pay $139 for a pair.
Almost every brand of sunglasses has a knock off equivalent you can find on Ebay/Amazon except Maui Jim. Nobody copies their rimless, lightweight style.
So I decided I would.
I found a factory on Alibaba and got to work. It went pretty smoothly and 2 months later I had a couple hundred units in my house. Here's what they looked like. My sunglasses are on the left, Maui Jim's are on the right:
When I got the sunglasses, I was really happy with how they turned out. They looked and felt just like Maui Jim sunglasses. They cost me $16 to make and ship to the U.S.A. I priced them at $29 and started seeing some sales roll in.
Overall people were pretty happy with them. I even started wearing them around the house and sometimes would confuse them with my Maui Jim's.
There was a small issue though. When I placed the initial order with my factory in China I had requested polarized lenses. When they were 90% of the way done with making the sunglasses they informed me that due to the rimless design and small area to attach the lenses to the frames, there was no way to do it with polarized lenses.
So I was stuck with non-polarized lenses that were obviously inferior to Maui Jims. It wasn't even close. Maui Jim has AWESOME lenses and mine were a little darker and felt kind of cloudy in a side by side comparision to Maui Jim. It wasn't the end of the world and since they cost $100 less, it was something most people could overlook. My supplier also promised they could make the polarized lenses work on the next run.
The second issue is that the quality control was garbage (noticing a trend here?). Some of the frames were totally off center and out of whack. This made the sunglasses sit crooked on your face. Here's one particularly elegant review I got on Amazon explaining the issue:
Yep. The reviewer looked "bitchslaped". Awesome.
But that can all be fixed. I'll get my factory to do a better job and improve the quality, this is pretty much par for the course if you are importing physical goods from China.
But the kiss of death was from my own government. It turns out that sunglasses are considered medical devices by the FDA and you have to register with them and pay a $4,000 fee just to sell sunglasses. Whoops.
From my initial product run of $16 per unit, plus the costs of product photography ($250), advertising to get sales (hundreds of $), my net profit margin was in the single digits, I think around 3%. I was basically breaking even.
Spending $4,000 would drive up my per unit cost from $16 to about $32. I could probably raise my price to $49 and keep selling but why bother. I had the quality issues to fight with and I noticed some competition creeping in. There were other companies (hell, probably my own supplier) who were basically copying the Maui Jim design.
The hole in the market had been filled and my work was done. I decided to quit while I was (slightly) ahead and just stop selling the sunglasses.
Lesson: Do your research on regulations! The odds of being caught are low but the punishments can be harsh.
Despite all of these failures, I currently have an Amazon FBA business doing $8k-$12k per month in revenue, 2 affiliate sites bringing in $1k per month in passive income and a 3rd affiliate site I've just gotten off the ground and is growing by 300% every month for the last 4 months.
The most important lesson I learned from all of these failures is to just keep trying. It's easy to look at someone else's success and say "Oh you just got lucky". Maybe I did. But the only reason my new website is growing so quickly is because I stuck with it and didn't give up. I learned the basics of SEO 5 years ago and have spent hundreds of hours since then learning everything I can about it.
Your first idea might not work out, your second idea might not either, but the odds of your next idea working keep going up every time.
The more you try, the more likely you are to find something that works and all it takes is that one idea. One website or one product to sell that hits it big and you'll be set. Once you find the one idea that gets some traction you can double down there and focus all your effort on it. From there it will grow and you'll be on your way to having a profitable side hustle or even a full blown business.
If you're still stuck looking for side hustle ideas you can get my free e-book that has some of my favorite side hustles. These aren't just BS ideas like drive for Uber or return pop bottles like a bum. These are side hustles that can scale up to $10k+ per month without requiring any more of your time than when you're making $1k per month.
Check it out and leave a comment if you've got any questions.
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