cancun wedding

June 22, 2011

When it comes to working online and making money on the internet, most discussions tend to look at specific tactics.

How do you set up a mailing list? How can you get a merchant account? And so on.

The answers to these questions may be useful, but you can learn about them elsewhere, and I thought it would be helpful to take a step back and look at something higher-level.

Fundamentally, how do you make money on the internet?

I’ve been making my living online for more than a decade now. The specific projects I work on have changed over the years (and may change again), but I can’t imagine not doing something that pays the bills through online work.

There are essentially two broad approaches to working online: you can either profit from an inefficiency in the marketplace, providing a solution to a problem someone else should have fixed, or you can make something valuable and share it with the world.

For the first 5+ years of earning all of my income through online projects, I focused on profiting from inefficiencies in the marketplace. In my case, this meant things like selling on eBay during its early days, when it was a seller’s market and high profit margins were normal. (Things changed later on.) Then it was playing an arbitrage game with Google Adwords and Adsense, profiting a small amount, many times over, from the split between the two. (Again, things changed later on.)

There was nothing wrong with these projects, but they also weren’t very exciting. I didn’t go to sleep at night thinking about how my business would help people the next day. For a while, that was OK, because I was involved in plenty of other things that were at least somewhat helpful. But as time went by, I felt challenged to contribute in a greater way, so I began to shift to the second approach: making something valuable and sharing it with the world.

I’m writing my next book all about unconventional entrepreneurs, and the topic of value has been coming up in many of the interviews. Value is something that is frequently mentioned, but rarely analyzed. What is value, actually? Your definition may vary, but I think of it like this:

Value means helping people.

With this definition in mind, you can easily find the most important principle of making money online: be incredibly helpful. Be useful. Provide something valuable, and people will be eager to support your work.

In any kind of business, the marketplace — i.e., your customers — decides what is valuable and what isn’t. You may think you are offering something highly valuable, but if it doesn’t get the response you hope for, you’ve probably got the value part wrong somewhere. (This can be different for non-commercial art, since you can make valuable work that may not be recognized commercially. But in business, the market decides what value is and how it should be rewarded.)

If you keep the focus on helping people, regardless of what kind of project it is, you’re off to a good start. There’s just one more important thing to keep front and center before we go on to more details:

To make money on the internet, you just need something to sell, someone who wants to buy it, and a way to get paid.

This short list is really all you need. Don’t get hung up on anything else! I share this concept frequently, because it’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all kinds of other questions, ideas, and concerns that are completely irrelevant. You don’t need to borrow money, you don’t need write a 60-page business plan that no one will ever read, and you certainly don’t need to wait until everything’s perfect before you get started.

Again, you just need:

a. Something to sell (a product or a service)
b. Someone who wants to buy it (your target market, which is hopefully more than one person)
c. A way to get paid (you can solve this problem in two minutes by opening a PayPal account from almost any country in the world)


In addition to these two core concepts, here are some additional principles that may be helpful to you.

Figure out what people want, and find a way to give it to them.
You can sometimes do this through surveys, directly asking your prospects or existing customers what they want, then making it for them. It also helps to relate your offer to core emotional needs. Most of us want more love, money, acceptance, freedom, and purpose. Similarly, we want less stress, worry, and hassle. Give people more of what they really want or take away something they don’t want, and you’re halfway there.

Instead of selling, issue invitations.
Most of us like to buy, but we don’t like to be sold. Therefore, treat your customers with respect, and don’t try to sell them all the time. One of the easiest, most helpful things you can do is make it clear who your product or service is NOT for. This kind of filtering helps you as much as anyone else, because it’s never good in the long-run to sell the wrong thing to the wrong person. Be clear about the benefit you provide, and make a good offer, but don’t push.

Language has consequences, so carefully consider your words.
Be deliberate about how you describe your offer–the words you use matter. For example, I always advise information publishers to avoid words like “ebook.” When you say you have an ebook, you automatically create the impression of low perceived value. Don’t sell ebooks! Sell guides, manuals, blueprints, strategy plans, or whatever you want to call them… but if you sell an ebook, be prepared for a lot of consumer resistance.

That’s an example of what not to do. It’s also important to clearly communicate a vision for your project, and how the project will benefit customers. In my work I try to communicate a sense of scale, community, and meaningful independence. That’s why I have a small army of remarkable people. That’s why we talk about empire building and world domination. Not everyone likes these phrases, which is a good sign — as Bill Cosby put it, “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone.”

Maintain a balance of free and paid work.
Since beginning AONC, I’ve maintained a balance of doing at least 80% of my work for free, with only 20% or less for sale. (I am actually way over the balance on the free side lately, but that’s OK. I’m having fun and I’ll get back to “business stuff” soon enough.) Your ratio may not be that high, but there are almost certainly things you can do in your business to help people that you don’t need to be paid for. How can you help people without being directly compensated? Megan in Omaha recently described her business plan to me as “strategic giving” — I liked that a lot.

Whenever possible, make it fun.
You don’t have to make it fun, but it’s a lot better when you do. If you make it fun, you’ll generate interest and trust, not only from those who purchase from you, but also from people who just enjoy following along. The best example of this from my own business was the first Empire Building Kit launch, where I traveled across the U.S. on the Empire Builder train for a time-limited launch. It was an exhausting-but-fun experience where I built up a lot of attention and respect for the Unconventional Guides business. (Naturally, I’m working on something just as fun for the near future…)

Base your price on value, NOT time cost or materials cost.
Unless you are selling a commodity (which you shouldn’t, because why would you want to compete with Wal-Mart?), you should think about pricing based on the value you provide to the customer, NOT what it costs you to create the product. The time or materials cost is irrelevant; what matters is how people benefit from what you make. This is yet another reason why “be incredibly helpful” is the most important lesson in making money online.

Side note: once in a while, someone will complain that something I sell is “too expensive.” I always reply that it may indeed be too expensive for them, and I’d never try to persuade them otherwise — but only the marketplace will decide if it’s too expensive overall. If large numbers of other customers are happy buyers, it’s NOT too expensive.

Try to get paid more than once. Getting paid once is nice, but if you can get paid over and over for something, it’s much better. You can do this either by creating something that people need to buy in multiple, frequent units, or by creating a subscription service where access is provided over time in exchange for regular payment.

It took me a while to switch to this model, but I finally did so earlier this year with the launch of the popular Travel Hacking Cartel, where members pay for access to a series of Deal Alerts each month. This much-needed transition has caused a big shift for my whole operation, as it requires a less launch-intensive approach elsewhere. I haven’t done much business development work lately (writing a book and hosting a 500-person summit takes its time), but as I get back to things later this summer, I plan to produce much of my commercial work in a subscription model going forward.

If you want to consult, just start consulting.
There is no “consulting school” — if you want to be a coach or consultant, get a $10 domain, set up a one-page site with WordPress, describe what you do, and get the word out wherever you can. It will help you greatly if you can be highly specific about the kind of service you provide. The more generic, the less valuable. Also, make it easy for people to pay you — if you require people to contact you for a quote, you’re missing out on a lot of business.

Advertising is like sex.
I like this quote from a Fast Company magazine article: “In the future, advertising will be like sex: only the losers pay for it.” For the most part, I think the future is already here. I recently conducted a “$10,000 vs. 10 hours” experiment, where I compared the results of a targeted advertising campaign to an amount of time I spent working on free publicity. I’ll share the whole story in the book I’m writing, but the short version is… the 10 hours of “free” work easily beat $10,000 of advertising.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As long as you’re being helpful and doing work that matters, you’ll be building trust with people (customers, colleagues, blog readers, Twitter followers, etc.) over time. These people will help when you ask them. Always remember that there are many ways people can help you, and giving you money in exchange for something is only one of them.


This longer-than-usual overview could be greatly expanded, but of everything mentioned above, the most important is… be incredibly helpful.

More than making money, think about how you can make something valuable and share it with the world.

What has been your experience with making money online?


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China produces 70 percent of copies of famous masterpieces for export to North America and Europe. The fastest copy artists chug out 30 paintings a day. In his series Real Fake Art, photographer Michael Wolf took portraits of professional artisans next to the Lichtensteins, the Van Goghs and the many disproportionately giant Mona Lisas mass produced in this fascinating, multimillion industry, timeless classics and contemporary art blockbusters alike. A painter stands shyly by her Francis Bacon in an alley. A sharp looking gentleman holds a Gerhard Richter canvas copy, similar to his Sonic Youth Daydream Nation cover. As a series, the project explores the interplay between the Chinese tradition of artists copying master works to develop their skills and the capitalist structure that makes it lucrative. Check out some of our favorite individuals in our gallery.

This, from Flavourwire: “China produces 70 percent of copies of famous masterpieces for export to North America and Europe.”

“In his series Real Fake Art, photographer Michael Wolf took portraits of professional artisans next to the Lichtensteins, the Van Goghs and the many disproportionately giant Mona Lisas mass produced in this fascinating, multimillion industry.”
“The fastest copy artists chug out 30 paintings a day. In his series Real Fake Art, photographer Michael Wolf took portraits of professional artisans next to the Lichtensteins, the Van Goghs and the many disproportionately giant Mona Lisas mass produced in this fascinating, multimillion industry.”
“The work deals with the phenomenon of mass production within the increasingly democratized world of modern art, raising questions about the value of art in the age of mass reproduction.”
Not quite Jasper Johns.
Obviously the Mona Lisa is not unpopular.
And some Vincent van Gogh.

Via Flavourwire and Michael  Wolf.


nterview with Michael Wolf

February 7, 2011 in

In the context of the release party of his latest book „FY“ at 25books in Berlin Michael Wolf – well known for books and exhibition projects such as Tokyo Compression, Hongkong Inside Outside, Transparent City or his latest Google Street View project – was kind enough to answer some questions for the FEATURE section of the Seconds2Real website.

Photo: Michael Wolf - from his book "Maloche: Leben im Revier", 1982Photo: Michael Wolf – from his book “Maloche: Leben im Revier”, 1982

When and how did you start photographing?

I started taking photographs when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I lived in America and my parents gave me a camera. I just started experimenting and I found that I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed taking pictures and I enjoyed even more going into the dark room and developing the films, seeing the pictures come up and editing and cropping things.

In 1972 a friend of my father came for a visit. He saw my pictures and he said „I teach at the Folkwang School in Essen and there is a very famous professor named Otto Steinert“, whom I’ve never heard of before. And he said „Why don’t you apply?”. That’s exactly what I did and six months later I received a postcard from the admissions office that said “You’ve been admitted to study photo journalism with Otto Steinert”. So I went over there in October 1973. I never went there with the intention of becoming a photo journalist. I went there to take a time-out year from studying in California. But I suddenly realised that photo journalism was such an interesting thing to do. It gave me an excuse to go out and sniff into other people’s experiences and lives. So I thought „Wouldn’t it be great to do this and be able to earn money with it?”

Photo: Michael Wolf - from his book "Maloche: Leben im Revier", 1982Photo: Michael Wolf – from his book “Maloche: Leben im Revier”, 1982

…but after years of photo journalism work you moved on to the art world…

Yes, I haven’t done an assignment since 2003 when I decided to quit doing editorial assignment work and only to work on my own projects. The reason for this was that the conditions for working as a photo journalist have changed tremendously since the year 2000. Until the year 2000 when there was the big dotcom crash, there were still very good assignments to get. You could work for Stern magazine or GEO for four, six or eight weeks on a topic, travel extensively, taking an assistant. So you could really go into depth. That was a very rewarding thing to do. But after the dotcom crash the magazines lost advertising customers and suddenly realised that they had to save. So the assignments became shorter, you had much less time to work on them and you had very clear art directors who told you “We need three pictures and that’s it”. So while I was getting older and more demanding in what I wanted to do, what I was doing was actually getting stupid and boring. So I decided I don’t want to end my life this way and rather do something else. For me the alternative was to only work on my own projects. But then the question is how to earn money with your own projects. The only way I found for myself is through the art world. Find galleries and sell your work at the art fairs through gallerists. I was fortunate enough that this way worked out for me.

Let’s talk about your work Tokyo Compression which is very successful as a book and in exhibitions as well. It deals with the daily hell in the subway of Tokyo. How long did you work on it and what triggered you to do it?

The first time that I became aware of this situation was in 1997, I think. I was working on an story for Stern magazine in Tokyo. This is how I happened to be on this one train station. The peculiar thing about this station is that there is only one track and not two. So when the people get in on one side of the train I can get right up next to the window of the other side. There’s no track separating me from the train. So I took a series of five pictures at that time. When I got back to Hongkong and looked at the developed Kodachromes they were so powerful, the way these people were looking out of the window so I filed them away in my folder for future reference with topics I want to do at some point. In 2008/2009 I went back and spent a total of thirty days there. Always from Monday to Friday, always during rush hour in the morning from 7.30 until about 8.45. Every thirty seconds a train would roll in, I would take my pictures and at 8.45 I would go back to the hotel.

Photo: Michael Wolf - from his book "Tokyo Compression", 2010Photo: Michael Wolf – from his book “Tokyo Compression”, 2010

You worked very close, but in the book the images are cropped, right?

Yes, I worked extremely close. I could get up to 3 or 4 inches away. In the beginning I wasn’t really sure how I was going to solve this problem conceptionally. I had photographed a lot of total windows and inside of each window of the train there would be three, four or five faces. In-between I would go up closer. When I was editing the project and thinking about how I was going to show it and how I was going to publish it I realized that conceptionally it would work best if they are all cropped very close to the faces. So I basically took every picture and set my crop tool to 8 by 10 inches. Of course some of the files are a bit smaller and I would need to make a big – say 30 by 40 inch – print. But what I realised is that by printing them with an inkjet printer on a hahnemühle rag paper you get an almost painterly quality which really endorses what the images have to say.

Photo: Michael Wolf - from his book "Tokyo Compression", 2010Photo: Michael Wolf – from his book “Tokyo Compression”, 2010

Another work of yours that is extremely successful is your Google Street View project. What was your intention for taking photographs from a computer screen and where do you think is the difference in your approach to other artists working with Google Street View like Jon Rafman or Doug Rickard?

First of all, let’s get to the genesis of me photographing Google Street View. This happened when my wife moved to Paris in 2008 after we had been living in Hongkong for 16 years. I realised quite quickly that Paris was visually a very boring city for me. I was very unhappy. I had no idea what to photograph. The problem was on the one hand that Paris has been photographed millions of times and there are so many clichés out there that I felt overwhelmed. The other problem is that the law in France is quite strict. You can not photograph people in groups less than five without risking a lawsuit. So in August 2008 I had the first idea to look at Street View and to use this new technology to take a different picture of Paris than that which had existed.

Until then I haven’t been aware of anyone’s work – it was when I put my work up on my website that friends send me a few links, e.g. to Jon Rafman. I’ve been following his work but I think our work is entirely different. He is usually using the whole street view scene including all the tool bars so it’s more a documentation of what Google sees. What I’m doing is interpreting the Google pictures making my own narratives and my own pictures out of them by doing extreme crops, sometimes of only a foot or of a hand disappearing behind a tree. That’s one approach I take. Another one is that I work in typologies as I do all the “Fuck Yous” as a comparative series or a whole series of portraits of people whose faces have been blurred by the Google technology.
So I think there are many of different approaches to Street View just as there are many different approaches to any photographic project.

Photo: Michael Wolf - from "Street View Paris", 2009Photo: Michael Wolf – from “Street View Paris”, 2009

"Street View Paris" - installation in Amsterdam“Street View Paris” – installation in Amsterdam

You are featured in the Street Photography Now book. Do you consider yourself a street photographer? What does that term mean to you?

I don’t consider myself a street photographer at all. I come from photo journalism which of course has many aspects of street photography but I think the traditional street photographer would be someone like Garry Winogrand who basically walked the streets and looked for interesting moments which he could photograph. I dont think I’ve walked the streets for random images in at least ten years.
On the other hand you could call my Google Street View project a form of street photography and of course it is very directly tied to the street because what Google is doing is it’s only photographing everything one can see from the car. So in that sense I would say I’m a very contemporary virtual street photographer.

You said that you didn’t have an idea what to photograph in Paris because there are millions of pictures already taken in Paris. Do you think this is a key problem in street photography or in photography in general – the fact that “Every picture has been done before”?

I think we have to be very careful because iconic pictures tend to ingrain themselves in the collective consciousness of all photographers and it’s very easy to fall into a trap and repeat things. I remember when I was studying I fell in love with cars parked which had a huge tarp over them. And of course Robert Frank was the first person who took this picture and whenever you do something like that, its derivative. There are thousands of examples like that. The question is how we can discover new images. That’s the challenge what every artist goes through. You always have to evaluate what you are doing and measure it against what has been done because to simply repeat something is a boring exercise. It’s a much greater challenge to find a new way to express things or pushing the idea of photographs and their limits farther.

For me for instance in Hongkong I had the good fortune of photographing my Architecture Of Density series in a way which hadn’t been done before that rigorously. I cropped every building that there was no sky and no horizon so the result was that you had a very tight picture which could be credibly large because you had no idea where the building ended on the sides and on the top. If you looked at it from far away hanging on a wall it looked very abstract. But when you came up close you suddenly realised that this was a huge building and it had life inside. You saw the details on it so it suddenly became a statement on how we live in mega cities. The good fortune on this was that I found this formal solution which made these pictures suddenly look different and interesting and I think one can find the same in street photography. One just has to go out and do it.

Architecture of Density - from the Book "Hongkong Inside Outside"Architecture of Density – from the Book “Hongkong Inside Outside”

A good example concerning the image of Paris is William Eggelston who came here and did his Paris book with Steid. This is suddenly a totally different view on Paris that I think is very exciting. Details of plastic bags and things like that. So you see – you can always develop something further.

When I studied in the Seventies with Otto Steinert I was h3ly influenced by the formal classics like Eugene Smith or Catier-Bresson. These were very important people for us. But then along came someone like Eugene Richards who did this incredible work which was formally very different – everything was mixed up and you had no idea really where the middle point of the photograph was and thereby it became much more interesting. Someone had suddenly discovered a new way of looking and a new way of framing things and thereby people looked again!

Then you had Sebastiano Salgado, then James Nachtway – you have a whole bunch of photographers who make it their trademark to have a very unique style and try to intentionally look very different to anyone else because you need to have a trademark that makes you look different to be successful.

Which comtemporary or emerging photographers impress you?

I don’t care about the age of a photographer, I just look if their work interests me or not. I like the works of Sebastian Girard, Olaf Unverzart and Raimond Wouda.

Any new projects intended that you could tell us about?

At the moment I still have this huge amount of work to do with Street View. I’m planning a book in 2012. It’s quite a challenge to sit in front of the monitor every day and photograph for three or four hours so I’m doing it piece by piece. Otherwise I’m always going back and forth between Europe and Asia and there are several things I’m working on in China. But that will be a surprise.

Thank you very much, Michael, for taking your time for this interview.

Michael Wolf’s website: