When offers of quick cash become failed gigs…
You’ve probably seen a lot of ads, articles, and random recommendations about different gigs you can do online to make some quick cash. “Make money while watching TV” or “learn new stuff, make cash” – you know the type. Well, I’m proud and/or sorry to say that I’ve tried a lot of them over the years: here are all the failed gigs that didn’t quite make me a millionaire. (There were some that actually made me money, but that’ll be a different blog post.)
Filling out surveys. This is the online gig that most people have probably heard of, and quite a few have tried. Good news: you can, indeed, make money doing this. Bad news: unless you’re infinitely patient and have more free time that most people, this is a really bad way to make money. There are lots of sites out there, and they pay anywhere from 10 cents to $5 per survey, with the pricier surveys taking up more of your time.
Aside from focus groups (which I haven’t tried, so I won’t comment on), product surveys will generally get you about $1 an hour. Perhaps $2-3 if you’re lucky. One other major caveat is that this doesn’t scale: there are only so many surveys out there, and even if you have the patience of a saint, you won’t be able to find enough to turn that into a full-time job. In terms of pure profitability, you’d be better off washing dishes at a nearby diner: at least that way you’ll get some minimum wage for your troubles. In the end, all I got was a few dollars and a small sample box of breath mints. (For what it’s worth, they were delicious.)
Lessons learned: consider how much (or rather, how little) you’d actually make per hour before taking on a new online gig. Will it actually be worthwhile?
Googling answers for random people’s questions. This particular failed gig was a strange chimera: technically, you can google any information you want. However, there’s so much of it out there that it may be easier to just text a hotline and get an answer from a real human being within a few minutes. I remember signing up for ChaCha in 2011: they charged their customers up to $1 for a human-researched answer, and they paid their contractors (such as myself) a few pennies per answer. If I recall correctly, at the time the minimum withdrawal amount was $75, which was kind of brilliant: most people (myself included) would eventually run out of steam and give up, and the company wouldn’t have to pay anyone at all.
Even so, they went out of business sometime around 2016, and now there are lots of other companies that do the same thing: you can be a human google extension or flirt with anonymous strangers, but the hourly wage still appears to be roughly the same. As failed gigs go, this one was a bit interesting, since I learned random trivia while answering people’s questions. (Did you know there’s no such thing as truly sugar-free yogurt?) In theory, if you find a good combination of low payout limits and relatively high payments for each text message, you can rush the process and make some pocket change, but it’ll be time-intensive and possibly emotionally taxing. (Some of those questions were more disturbing than others…) Like with many other failed gigs, this one delivers a lot less than minimum wage.
Lessons learned: always make sure to check how long it’d take you to get to the minimum-payout level.
Reselling comic books on eBay. I was a broke college student with a budding entrepreneurial streak and zero real-world experience. (A hilarious combination, I know.) Imagine my surprise when I discovered a bunch of old comic books for sale at the local antique shop, and when I learned that some of them had pretty high valuations on major comic book sites. That was back in the flip-phone era (2005-ish?), so I made a lot of trips back and forth. I’d write down the comic books’ titles (i.e., Fantastic Four #5), then hike back to my dorm room to look them up, then go back and buy all up those little treasures (or so I thought) for anywhere between $3-15 each.
While I was at it, I also found a craigslist ad where a lifelong collector wanted to get rid of his entire comic book hoard for just $200. From what I recall, that included roughly 15 long-boxes. A typical long-box is about 28″ long and weighs roughly 30 lbs when full. Those things filled up all the available space on my side of the dorm room, to the point where I turned into the hoardiest hoarder in the entire dorm. While they provided me a ton of free entertainment over the years (some of those limited runs were quite good), I did not actually succeed in selling any of them on eBay. It turned out the comic book market had peaked in the early 90s, and it never quite recovered afterwards. In the end, I sold some of them at a garage sale for $1 each, and then sold the rest of the hoard to another collector for less than I’d initially paid.
Lessons learned: if you find an amazing arbitrage opportunity, there might be a reason why everyone else had avoided it. See also: all the Coca-Cola memorabilia collections that people resell to each other like a hot potato.
Selling questionable investment products. At one point, in 2012, I had somewhat of a crisis of faith with my job. I was still just a warehouse grunt, and despite my complete lack of marketable skills (and my utter disillusionment with my political science degree), I thought I could find something better. Something cooler. Something more dignified. Rather than quitting, I took a brief leave of absence and started looking around… I don’t quite recall what exactly that company sold, but it was some unusual investment product that promised better returns than your average index fund. It was not FDIC-insured, and the company’s motto seemed to be “well, it hasn’t failed yet, right?” The interview process consisted of them trying to impress me by showing charts and graphs on a shiny new iPad (they were brand new back then), followed by some 1-on-1 bonding with a charismatic older gentleman who took me out to lunch that first day.
It felt pretty great, wearing my business formal clothes at a diner, talking money with someone who wanted me on his team. I believe the term for that is “old-school cool.” It was too good to be true, though: on my second day as a trainee, they invited me to the monthly meeting of their sales agents. It was a diverse crew, from young immigrants such as myself to local folks in their 60s and 70s. During the introductions, they all bragged how many years they’d worked in sales, how many glorious successes they had had. All in all, there were several centuries of experience crammed in that single room. After that initial rah-rah round, the organizer asked how many of them managed to sell that investment product in the past month. There was some mighty awkward silence… It turned out that in that whole group of grinning, high-fiving, professionally dressed desperados, only two people made money: they had one sale each. There wasn’t much eye contact afterwards. I went home and never returned – I think they figured out why.
Lessons learned: beware the sales gigs that peddle questionable product using questionable tactics, no matter how cool they might make you feel. Some people might make a living off that, but it’s probably safe to say that’ll be one of your failed gigs too.
Being a door-to-door salesman. This was another gig I tried during that long dark tea-time of the soul in 2012. It actually lasted a whole week. I’d accompany my trainer as he walked door-to-door in suburban Vegas neighbourhoods, trying to sell a phone-and-cable package for a large company that will remain nameless. Almost all of their employees were young, and most had no formal education beyond high school. (Whenever multiple people tell me that I’m the smartest person they have ever met, I know something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.) It was pretty surreal to have the business-formal motivational team meetings in the morning, followed by a trip to the nearest Wendy’s where we’d change into our street clothes (and company polo shirts) in the restroom. Some guys had stripper-like suits held together with velcro straps. It felt a bit like the Superman phone booth transformation, but adjusted for hungry Millennials.
Of all the failed gigs that I’ve tried, that was probably the most educational one. It was a crash course into smooth talking and applied human psychology. We weren’t just selling plain old landlines – oh no, we were providing customers with foolproof, highly reliable technology that banks and police stations used to ensure communication in case of a terrorist attack. This wasn’t just any offer – we’d only be around for just one day, so you’d have to decide now, now, now! (In reality, of course, we’d cruise the same neighbourhoods for several days.) We would very carefully avoid mentioning all the fees until the prospective customer signed most of the paperwork…
After four days of this unpaid drudgery, they let me out to do some sales on my own, and I’m happy to say I’ve successfully blocked most of the memories of that awkward, awkward day. When I returned the polo, they said they understood – this line of work wasn’t for everyone. I ended up making no money (there was no minimum wage, only proceeds from your sales) but I learned quite a lot about pushy sales tactics, so that was one of my more productive failed gigs.
Lessons learned: you can make money as a smooth-talking salesperson, and the product itself might actually be useful (though ridiculously overpriced), but is this something you’d feel comfortable doing, and doing all year round?
There are probably some other failed gigs that I can’t recall right now (or that my subconscious is hiding out of pure, unadulterated shame) but these are among the main ones. With all of them, my major loss was time: I’m glad I never stumbled across any truly charismatic MLM pyramid sales-critters that made me lose money on top of time. (I did stumble across a few, but their charisma was even lower than mine. Heh.) Although it’s possible to make some money online (more on that in another post), you should always exercise extreme caution – I hope my list of failed gigs will keep you from making bad decisions of your own, eh.
What about you? What seemingly lucrative money-making gigs backfired in your face, and how? Share your story in the comments – I’d love to hear how that played out for you.