Matt Barrie: The art of making $30k a year for doing nothing

Published 02 October 2012 03:58, Updated 21 November 2012 07:33

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Matt Barrie: The art of making $30k a year for doing nothing

Trifecta ... The Holy Grail of business – full automation – is on the verge of being made possible using a combination of software, freelancers and online platforms. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Technology is the great productivity enhancer; it puts at our disposal online tools, services and platforms that allow us to work smarter, rather than longer.

Instead of hiring teams of researchers, we just type things into Google; instead of hiring teams of salespeople, we simply upload a product to eBay or Amazon.

Software today is ubiquitous; Marc Andreessen’s thesis that “Software is eating the world” is coming to fruition at an astonishing rate as every industry wakes up quite abruptly to discover it is suddenly dominated by a software company. The biggest direct marketing company in the world? Google, a software company. The biggest bookseller in the world? Amazon, a software company. The list of industries being disrupted and transformed into software goes into the hundreds. I struggle to think of an industry that hasn’t been affected in some way.

We also have at our disposal a global online workforce of millions of freelancers skilled in just about any task you can imagine. They’re inexpensive, employed on demand and available instantly any time of day, through marketplaces like mine, Freelancer.com. The median time it takes before your first bid comes in, for a basic website on Freelancer, is 167 seconds. You can assemble a team fast. On top of that, using an API you can task freelancers from software. This trifecta is now on the verge of making possible the Holy Grail of business – full automation – using a combination of software, freelancers and online platforms.

I set up a small automated business as an experiment a year ago. It sells art and craft supplies online to retail customers. The website is a clone of the website a wholesaler has, with identical products, a different skin and a two times mark-up on prices. When an order comes in, it automatically goes to the wholesaler, which drop-ships the goods to the customer with, for a small fee, my company’s branding on the box. The payments are taken automatically using PayPal, integrated into the shopping cart software. I hired a freelancer from the Philippines to manage customer service. That job involves: (1) answering all the incoming customer queries by email and live chat, (2) checking the drop-shipper’s website for any new products or prices and updating my site (this can be automated in software), (3) twice a month putting a few items on sale and sending out an email newsletter, (4) dealing with returns or refunds (you can set up privileges for this easily in PayPal) and (5) when the balance hits a certain level, sweeping it to the bank account. Your freelancer also, for example, could manage more selling through online marketplaces such as eBay.

I put in a little work to set this all up. I selected a site name, bought a domain name, had a freelancer design a logo, bought a theme for the shopping cart (TemplateMonster.com has a theme for shopping cart software for just about any industry), customised the theme (freelancer) and loaded in the products from the wholesaler (freelancer). I then hired an SEO expert to get me on the front page of Google for high traffic keywords related to art and craft, and optimised some of the product pages.

Shopping cart software is open source and free (ZenCart), the domain name costs me $7 a year, the hosting about $10 a month. The drop-shipping is a few dollars per order. The freelancer is hired full time, at $300 a month. The site brings in an average of $300 a day pretty reliably, which is about $90,000 a year. After costs and shipping it nets about $30,000 a year in earnings before tax.

The great thing about this? I don’t do a thing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. In fact, I logged into the PayPal account today for the first time in a year but only because I’m writing this article and wanted to check the finances. It’s been so long since I logged into the admin panel for the shopping cart, I’ve forgotten the password. Once a month I do get an invoice, however, from the freelancer, but it’s only a couple of clicks to pay it (through Freelancer).

The smart thing to do would be to scale this up and set up online stores in a range of industries; the economies of scale would also bring the costs down as a freelancer could probably run a couple of sites of this magnitude comfortably, and I could share the hosting account. But unfortunately I’m a sucker, still working a full-time job! Thanks to the internet, many types of businesses can now be automated. Why don’t you have a think about yours?

Matt Barrie is the founder of Freelancer.com.

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