No idea is stupid if you can monetize it.
To explore projects outside of clients’ demands, we began a Labs initiative in March 2012. Think of it as a palate cleanser between client work. It's resulted in about ten completed projects. The formula is pretty simple. Find a problem, build a website to solve it. If it can be done in an afternoon, we don't even think about it. We just do it.
Of the ten sites we've built in the last year, the most popular are:
Getting traffic is a pretty straight forward process. Submit the site to blogs in relevant niches. In the case of RainyCafe, we submitted it as a tip to Lifehacker who posted it the next day. Once you've got a major blog exposure like that, having frictionless sharing (in the form of social media buttons) is enough to keep it going. However, this assumes the content is compelling enough to share to begin with.
Sometimes doing that much isn't even necessary. CalmingManatee was different. We tweeted it once, and about a week later it was everywhere. A million visits in the first month everywhere. We received requests for interviews from NPR, Huffington Post, and some other random blogs as a results.
The success of these afternoon projects was a pleasant surprise, and the free publicity was welcome, but what would be even better is some extra revenue. As freelancers, having recurring revenue is critical to building our business.
Our first attempt at monetization was to sell Manatee greeting cards through Zazzle. After six months, we sold so few that we couldn't meet the the threshold to get paid out. Fail.
We switched to donations. Using WePay, we allowed people to donate via three suggested donation levels. That netted about $100/mo. Better but not great. We had to reconcile dozens of micro-transactions in Quickbooks which, when you factor the time, made it a net loss. Fail again.
Then we tried making a RainyCafe iOS app that we planned to sell for $1. Apple rejected it because they found that our Rainy Cafe app provides "a very limited amount of content and a very limited set of features" specifically because it "only contains two ambient noises." Strike three.
Finally, I got off my high horse and switched to AdSense. Here's our earnings for the last 30 days:
Not only did we hit out of the park with AdSense, but it was the easiest of our four monetization attempts to implement. I wish I'd done it sooner.
Lesson learned: Simple is great. Ever since CalmingManatee, if someone in the office has an idea that can be implemented in less than an afternoon, we don't even debate it, we just implement it, put AdSense on it, and see what happens. Some work, some don't. At the very least, we always learn something from it.