How I Went from Making Zero to $5,000 Per Month, In Two Years, On the Side

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How I Went from Making Zero to $5,000 Per Month, In Two Years, On the Side
This is my journey as a side-blogger and online business owner.

Your baby will never look like my baby. Just as well, your online business journey will differ from mine. Yet, I believe sharing this story is important because you never know who may benefit from what bits of your journey. And if your online business model involves teaching others how you do what you do, just as mine does, then you’re better off spilling your guts than keeping it all bottled up.

So, here’s my story.

I started this blog a little over two years ago at the time of writing this post. I had freelanced before as a web developer and designer, so I can’t say I was a total beginner to online business. But I had never monetized my writing before. That was new. I have always entertained the idea of being able to make money from writing, but by trade, I am an engineer, so the thought of being a writer was at once exciting, exhilarating, and a little scary. Regardless, my primary motivation for starting a blog wasn’t writing. It was the promise of being able to create a passive income stream.

In any case, I made up my mind and started this blog in June 2018.

It took close to two years to be a consistent $5K+ monthly earner from my online side-business.

In this post:

The beginning

I never went all in. As the name suggests, I’m a side-blogger. The idea was always to work on the blog after taking care of my other priorities first. To keep things simple and manageable, I decided to publish one blog post a week, and see where things go from there.

A few things to note:

  • Before starting my blog, I did some research on blogging mostly to help some of my web-development clients who happened to be bloggers. I studied up so I could help my clients, but in the process, I ended up intrigued by the trade myself.
  • While researching other bloggers, I was reading about folks like Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, Jon Morrow, Melyssa Gryffin, Pat Flynn–all of whom had built multi-million-dollar businesses with their blogs. I realized that a considerable part of their income comes from this thing called affiliate marketing — promoting other people’s products and making a cut from the sales.
  • I liked the idea of affiliate marketing because a) it is different from putting generic ads on sites which I hate b) it is different from MLM which I also dislike quite a bit 3) affiliate marketing tactics aren’t “in-your-face,” and it doesn’t involve being annoying 4) it is up to me to choose the products I want to promote, which in turn gives me the freedom to promote only the products I believe in.
  • I also liked that with affiliate marketing, I wouldn’t have to create my own products. This was a big deal because I didn’t think I’d have time to make a product of my own (this changed soon enough, but that’s how I felt in the beginning.) The idea was to monetize my blog on the side, which meant that I’d have very little time — ideally no more than 15 hours a week — to commit to growing my blog.

How I chose my niche

Many people start a blog because they have something to say. In my case, my motivation was the potential to create a passive income stream. While so many other bloggers decide on a topic and then a way to monetize their blog, I went about it the other way.

I decided how I wanted to monetize my blog first and then chose a niche that would allow me to apply the monetization model.

As you may have guessed already, I wanted to create an affiliate marketing machine with my blog. From my prior experience as a web developer, I was familiar with affiliate marketing for website related technologies such as hosting companies, website templates, software to speed up sites, SEO tools, etc.

And so, I decided I was going to blog about starting a blog because that would allow me to promote and sell the tools I mentioned above.

Now, you may be wondering why I chose to blog about blogging and not about web design and development. Good because I thought about the same thing.

You see, I freelanced as a web developer in college and beyond to make some extra bucks, but in all honesty, I never enjoyed it much. Blogging, while the topic was new to me, was still something I was super curious about. While I didn’t yet possess the skills to teach others how to run a successful blog, I decided I would instead write about my blogging journey and how I was growing my blog. I decided to share my wins as well as my failures and hoped that my journey would help fellow newbie bloggers in the same boat — trying to grow their blogs and make money from it.

The platform

I started my blog in the traditional way. You know… WordPress, custom domain, a hosting company… the whole nine yards. For what I had in mind, it was perfect. Since affiliate marketing was going to be my primary method of income, I needed an open-source platform where I could promote third-party products. And that is better done on my own platform without external restrictions and interventions.

So, I bought a domain on NameCheap, set up a WordPress site on my SiteGround hosting, designed my blog, and called it a day.

(Need some help with setting up your own WordPress blog? This should help!)

Growing my audience

From what I already knew about blogging, I understood that I’d need to do two things to make money from my blog:

  1. Drive blog traffic
  2. Build an email list

The first one made sense to me. As for an email list, I was still unsure why I’d need one or how I’d use one. None the less, I decided to trust other successful bloggers and prioritized growing an email list from day-1.

How I grew blog traffic

From prior experience working with bloggers in my freelancing days, I knew that I could use two different ways to grow my blog traffic — SEO and social media.

I don’t like social media, and I knew SEO would be a long game. While I paid attention to basic on-page SEO from the beginning, I knew I needed something extra to give my audience-building a little boost.

Pinterest seemed to be the way to do it.

Pinterest is a somewhat unique platform because it is a search engine, but with social media-like features. Unlike your regular search engines such as Google or Bing, Pinterest’s search platform is smaller as it only searches its own database of registered user-provided content. Also, unlike other social media platforms, Pinterest doesn’t care about unique content specific to the platform, nor does it care for user engagement when sharing and ranking its content.

And so, I doubled down on growing my Pinterest account’s reach, which paid off because within just a few months, my Pinterest impressions grew to over 500K per month, and I was getting over a hundred unique visitors daily to my blog, just from this one platform.

How I grew an email list

Understanding how to grow an email list was a bit confounding at first. What motivates people to sign up for an email list? Great content and a free lead magnet that people would be interested in — is what I gathered from my readings about the topic.

So, I signed up for an email marketing platform and set up some email signup forms. From previous experience, I knew I disliked MailChimp or MailerLite–I found both platforms quite clunky. But I had some experience with ConvertKit before when working with clients and found it intuitive and easy to navigate. So, I signed up for a ConevrtKit account.

In the beginning, I only had a checklist for my lead magnet that I figured was essential for all new bloggers. I would get one or two signups on good days, nothing on other days. But the blog was still new, and I was still learning.

The freebie that changed the game

A few months into my blogging journey, I created my second lead magnet — a media kit template for fellow bloggers, made with the online graphic design tool — Canva.

Now, that had a huge impact!

Practically overnight, my email list doubled. People loved the media kit template, and they were signing up like crazy!

Well, not that crazy, but compared to a few email signups every week, now I was getting a few signups every day, so it felt like things were a bit crazier than usual.

A second earning stream

I few months into blogging, I had started to sell some affiliate products. Not a whole lot, just a couple here and there. My earnings from my blog never quite grew beyond a couple of hundred bucks per month by this point, but I was still hopeful because my initial goal was to be able to make $500 per month by the end of the first year.

And I still had over half a year to go to reach my income goal.

But at this time, an idea for a second income stream came to me.

Remember how I suddenly started getting more email list signups after I started giving away a free media kit template made with Canva? Well, that made me wonder if I could sell Canva templates. So, I set up an online shop on my blog with WooCommerce, designed a few templates with Canva — media kits, social media graphics, lead magnets, etc. — and started selling.

Soon after I set up my shop, I crossed the $500 per month mark, way ahead of schedule!

It was around the 9th or 10th month of my blogging journey when I earned my first $1,000 in a single month from Canva template sales and affiliate product sales combined.

And then, by the end of the first year, I sold over $1,000 worth of affiliate products in just one month. Made much more in total when you include Canva template sales.

It was then that I realized I needed to reposition my blog and my message. So, the blog now became a place for new bloggers to learn how to start and grow their own, successful blogs, and not just read my stories about how I was learning to blog myself.

Enter phase two: online courses

With the repositioning, I decided that it was time to create my very first online course.

Whether it was a good idea or not is still up for debate, but I decided to go for it anyway. My Pinterest account was getting hundreds of thousands of impressions per month, my blog traffic was growing, my email list had grown to over a thousand subscribers, and my earning was consistently around $1K-ish per month, give or take a little. I felt confident to teach, but the question was, what to teach?

I wanted to launch a course on either how to use Pinterest or how to grow an email list. But since I didn’t know which to create first, I sent an email to my list of subscribers asking for their opinion, and the majority of the votes went for a course on email list building.

But the overachiever that I am, I ended up creating three back to back courses within a couple of months— one on Pinterest, another on email list-building, and the third one on affiliate marketing. I packaged the three courses under one bundle — the Blogging Blueprint.

Honestly? It was too much!

When too much content is a bad thing

Because I have always been a side-blogger, creating three back to back courses meant that I had to take time off from actually writing any new blog posts. As a new-ish blogger still, that wasn’t the brightest idea. I didn’t write and publish a new post in over two months, and when the time came to launch the course(s), I failed.

People who purchased the courses seemed to love it. They sent me words of encouragement, and nobody asked for a refund. But I just didn’t know how to make more sales. And because I had created so much content in such a short period, I was also quite fatigued and didn’t have the energy to learn the ins and outs of online course launches or sales.

I fell into a slump, was quite depressed, and didn’t write or publish a new blog post for an additional month just to recover from my fatigue and depression due to all the stress.

My earnings took a hit during this time because of how inconsistent I was in publishing new content or promoting my existing content. And so, to make up for it, I doubled down on my Canva template shop.

Growing the Canva template business

As I was slowly getting back into the swings of things as far as my blog was concerned, I decided to take a closer look at my Canva template business. By this point, I was focused on growing my affiliate income, and treated the Canva template business as a side-hobby. If I made a hundred bucks from Canva template sales in a month, I was satisfied.

But I understood the potentials. And I also loved designing with Canva. The task was almost therapeutic. As I slowly recovered from my earlier blogging slump, I created more templates, and this time, I not only listed them on my blog’s shop but also on Creative Market — an online marketplace specifically for digital products.

And with new products, my template sales continued to rise. By January of 2020, I also listed my products on Etsy, and in February 2020, my revenue from template sales alone crossed the coveted $1,000-mark across all of my platforms.

A brand new online course

In March 2020, my revenue from Canva template sales was over two-grands. In April 2020, it was over three-grands. People were asking me about various aspects of selling Canva templates, and so, in late April, I decided to pre-sell a brand new online course — how to create a side income stream from selling Canva templates.

I was quite worried about creating this course because 1) it was in the middle of a pandemic, 2) my previous course launches had adverse effects on me 3) I wasn’t sure if people would buy a course on selling Canva templates from someone who branded herself as a person that teaches how to blog.

Despite the various mistakes I made, this course launch went much better than any of my previous course launches. It pushed my monthly earnings across all online income streams (affiliate product sales, Canva template sales, and online course sales) over the coveted $5,000+ per month milestone.

Regarding an email list

Just to remind you, when I started my blog, I didn’t know how an email list would benefit me.

But now, after two years as a blogger, content creator, and online business owner, I understand the appeal.

You see, I was able to launch my courses and successfully sell them thanks to my email list. My subscribers are always the firsts to trust me and invest in me. Back in April and then again in May, between pre-selling my Canva course and then launching the same course officially, I made over eight grands just from selling this course to my email list with less than 5K subscribers at the time.

So yes, even though back in the days I was clueless about an email list, I’m ever so grateful to other, more successful bloggers who said it over and over that  having an email list is monumental to blogging success .

But it’s not just the money. My subscribers help me in ways I never thought was possible. You see, I’m an introvert and an extremely private person, so in real life, the number of people I interact with regularly is limited to maybe two or three.

So, when I need clarity about my business or life, I don’t ask a business guru or a family member or friends. I email my subscribers. When my father passed away a couple of months ago, it wasn’t family or friends who reached out to me with comforting words — it was my subscribers. I’m forever grateful to my subscribers because, really, they’re the best!

In a nutshell…

Here’s what the last two years as an online business owner looked like:

  1. Decided to start a blog in early 2018
  2. Started the blog in June 2018
  3. Grew my blog traffic with Pinterest
  4. Built an email list with some free lead magnets
  5. Started selling Canva templates on my blog that I thought my readers would benefit from (around six months-ish into blogging)
  6. Sometime between month-10 and 12, I made over $1K from my blog between affiliate product sales and Canva template sales
  7. Launched three online courses between month-14 and month-16
  8. Around the same time, I started selling my Canva templates on Creative Market as well
  9. In January 2020 I started selling my templates on Etsy
  10. In April 2020 I pre-sold my new online course — Side Income with Canva Templates
  11. During the same month, I made my very first $5K from my online business within one month — from selling affiliate products, Canva templates, and online courses.
  12.  Creating multiple income streams has been critical to making more money online. 
  13. Throughout all this, I have continued to grow my traffic with Pinterest and my email list with my blog’s content and various lead magnets. I have recently started running some ads on Pinterest and Facebook to sell more of my templates and online courses, but that first $5K? That was all organic, without any paid ads whatsoever. I’m only now starting to utilize paid ads because I’m finally able to (financially), and I’m looking towards growing my blog and business by investing in my existing content and products, as opposed to creating new ones.

This has been my online business journey. It took close to two years to be a consistent $5K+ monthly earner from my online side-business. Your journey may look very different, but if you take away just one thing from my story, then consider this — patience and consistency have been crucial to my growth and success. It could be yours too! Do not expect to be rich overnight. That never happens to real people. But if you stick it out, then you have the chance of doing something big, growing something substantial.

Now, it’s your turn. Let me know where you are with your blog and/or some other online business. Do you have one income stream, or are you implementing more than one? Do you or will you create an online shop to sell digital or tangible products? Do you plan on creating online courses? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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How I Went from Making Zero to $5,000 Per Month, In Two Years, On the Side

16 thoughts on “How I Went from Making Zero to $5,000 Per Month, In Two Years, On the Side”
  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! It gives me a lot of hope and encouragement. I am starting a blog in 2022.
    I have a question about building your email list, when I post a comment do you save my email to your list?

    1. No, your email doesn’t get added to my email list by commenting here. You’re only added to my email list if you sign up for it.

  2. This is inspiring. I have been blogging consistently since I started my blog in August 2015. Like you, my goal is to make a passive income from my blog, but I failed. Right now, my blog has about 700-1000 visits per day, a good number, but I’m not making much money. I also created my own course and ebook, but not making many sales. I believe this is because I’m not attracting the right target audience to my blog. I only get a few email subscribers every day, some affiliate sales here and there, but not much. Need to work on my writing and include a personality to attract the right people. Thanks for your post. You inspired me to keep going. 🙂

    1. Hi Shawn, if you’re not seeing much traction, assuming you’re creating amazing content that’s full of value to your readers, I’d check a few things:
      1. Are you using value-packed lead magnets to attract readers into converting to subscribers?
      2. How easy is it for your readers to subscribe to your newsletter?
      3. How many different lead magnets do you have to get the different types of readers into your email list?
      4. Does your content reflect the products you’re selling? (Relevancy and quality)
      5. Are you coming off as a real person to your audience?
      6. Do you have proper sales funnels for your existing products?
      7. Are you making sure you’re giving your visitors reason to convert (either a subscriber or a paying customer)?
      8. Are you promoting your content strategically? (Content that has a CTA as opposed to content that does not.)

      These are just a few things off the top of my head. Keep at it and be intentional about growing your audience and income instead of grinding at the same thing day after day. If you have been doing something for a while and not seeing any traction, that’s a good indication that something has to be different. Good luck!

  3. I’m setting up my kitchen blog with an anticipated fall launch. I plan to affiliate market and set up a shop on my website. I know I want to sell tangible goods, but I’m researching how to do online classes for cooking and baking. I think they are a great idea since my focus is to encourage and educate.

  4. Hi Maliha!
    I am so thankful for the timeliness of this post! I just launched my blog yesterday, and as I have watched the pageviews slowly climb, I’ve been wondering what it would be like, and how long it will take to get to where you are. Thank you for this motivating view of the future (I hope)!
    Best of luck, and keep growing!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing! I’m in the budding stages of my blog (working to write 20 posts before I launch while also figuring out branding, web design, etc) and this definitely helped give me a realistic expectation – I’m so sick of the “rich overnight” schemes. I’m unsure how I will monetize it as the topic is a bit out there – I will be blogging about holistic sexuality, geared towards women. (However, I also want men to read it as they will definitely benefit.) Odds are I will develop courses, affiliate marketing, and eventually do 1:1 mentoring (but that will definitely take a long time!) However, for now, my goal isn’t money, its building a community, enriching women’s souls, and building some more skills for my resume.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this journey! I have been following you since before I started my blog back in Feb. It’s refreshing to read about an experience that seems attainable, and successfully doing what I’m trying to do. Whenever I need the inspiration and motivation to move forward, your posts are always just the ticket. So far I have set up my email list but I have very few subscribers. I need to increase traffic and create a lead magnet for the list. I’m doing simple SEO and using Pinterest for traffic. I’m doing some affiliate marketing and would love to create a product of my own to sell at some point. This post was just the inspiration I needed to create an email list freebie and hopefully help me on my way to earning that first $100!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Lisa! Appreciate it very much 🙂

      The first year as a new blogger can be tough. But here’s what I learned from my own journey. As long as you keep learning and keep working and do not give up, your blog (or whatever it is you’re doing) is bound to go somewhere; and it won’t be where you started! It will improve. You will improve. Just keep going 🙂

  7. Maliha, I have wanted to start a blog for years and I was about to give up again. This post came at the exact moment I needed it. Thank you for showing your journey in detail and being transparent while still being professional.

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