It’s not just you. It’s harder now to make a living as a creator.

March 10, 2024

Listen to most anyone on the Internet, and they will tell you it’s easier than ever before to make a living as a creator.

Elements of this are true; the tech is easier now, for example.

But on the whole, the sea has shifted when it comes to building an online business.

I believe it’s now HARDER than ever before to fund your lifestyle as a creator.

Let me tell you why.


While there are lots of factors contributing to this – and I’ll dive into some of them in this essay – the biggest one is that the Internet is now full of noise. It’s harder than before to get anyone to listen to or read what you have to say.

But that’s not really the problem. The problem is that it’s harder than ever before to get them to BUY what you have to offer.

Back in 2010 when I caught the bug for online entrepreneurship, ebooks sold like hot cakes. In fact, the ease of selling information online was the reason I left my job as a reporter in 2010.

Before that I’d freelanced in the online space, but it was a personal turning point when I published my first ebook, about how to build a part-time social media business, and easily sold dozens, then hundreds, of $24 copies. All I did was share it with the (relatively small) audience of my blog, write a couple of guest posts (this was an effective tactic back in the day), and high-intent buyers found – and purchased – it through search.

I discovered I could make something without anyone else’s permission and sell it on the internet at crazy-high margins, literally making money while I slept. Over the next few years, I made $33,000 just from that ebook.

This was 15 years ago. Things have changed – drastically. Yet the idea that it’s so easy to make money online prevails.

For most people in 2024, it simply isn’t the case.


Now, of course there are exceptions to this rule. Of course you and I could list off a few dozen creators that are “killing it” right now, including some impressive new names that have entered the online scene in the last five years or so.

But if you look closely, you’ll notice almost all of them have one thing in common:

They’re marketers.

And to dig a level deeper, they’re marketers selling information about how to succeed with an online business.

Most of the fast-growing new-ish newsletters or course creators I can think of fall into this bucket. Lots of creators I admire, whose work I enjoy: Justin Welsh, Chenell Basilio, Amanda Goetz, Jay Clouse. They all teach you about marketing, or how to run an online business to support the life you want.

There’s nothing wrong with teaching how to grow an online business. I myself made money teaching this very topic back in the day, and even today, I help founders with a related pursuit, selling their business. In the early 2010s, I sold ebooks, including one on how to create a social media strategy, and a course on how to use Twitter to make your own luck.

I experimented with lots of online products – I sold one about how to take a career break to travel after leaving my job to backpack through Africa – and one of my biggest takeaways was that products that help people make money sold well, and most other products didn’t.

So I’m not suggesting this isn’t a noble pursuit, or that these creators aren’t changing the lives of the people they teach. Each of those creators offers great content in an authentic voice, and I suspect they all worked very hard to get where they are.

But don’t look at them as proof that it’s easier than ever before to make a living online. They’re proof that it’s easier than ever before to make a living by teaching how to make money online.

But, you might say, what about all the tools we have now for creating an online business? Those certainly make things easier, right?

Oh, they absolutely make the technical part of running an online business easier. More than a decade ago, we were all hacking it together, selling PDFs with e-junkie and Zapier and TinyLetter. The fact that ConvertKit integrates e-commerce into its email marketing platform is a god-send. I still get excited every time I set up a new product there because it’s so quick and easy.

But the hardest part of building an online business isn’t the tech. And it’s not putting together a great product, either.

The hardest part of building an online business is marketing and selling.

Which is why, as things get harder, the creators who are succeeding are the ones who are good at marketing.


This was always the case to some extent. You can’t just “do what you love” and hope good things will come your way. It has never worked to simply create; you have to put yourself out there and sell if you want to make any real money from your trade.

But there is so much noise now, and so many people who have both the tools they need and the desire for a remote lifestyle.

So it’s far harder to grow an audience and get that audience to pull out their wallets.

I helped Simon Owens of the Business of Content answer questions from his audience recently, and someone asked, with the decline of organic SEO and social reach, and the increased cost for paid social, what’s the best way to grow an audience now?

I looked at that question, as someone who has grown online media companies for the last 15 years (we didn’t even use the title “creator” back then!) and thought, I don’t know.

Some creators are riding the wave of referral programs like SparkLoop, but I see that as a solid tactic only if you’re looking to grow a large audience around a general topic (like marketing); it’s not as effective if you value niche over scale (like what we’re going for at They Got Acquired).

A few of the old tactics still work to some degree; Will Smith of Acquiring Minds told me recently webinars have been great for building his list, and our free reports were a significant driver of new subscribers to They Got Acquiredlast year.

But I see a lot of fatigue around webinars and free opt-ins. I personally am not interested in either one. You have to be creative in offering a carrot that’s high value, and even then, the sign-up and show-up numbers just aren’t what they were years ago.

Social media is changing, too: Twitter, which used to be great for reaching certain demographics, is a complete bust at this point, unless you’re one of the few big names that has crazy reach. Facebook hit that turning point of pretty-much-useless years ago. TikTok seems to be a growth opportunity, if you’re young enough to want to use it. LinkedIn is a welcome outlier in that it offers big opportunities for reach, even if you’re new to the platform, though not without significant effort.

Plus, creator-led businesses are a special breed of online business in that they’re primed to suffer from the challenges that have hit the media industry over the last few years: the decline of SEO and organic social, the rise of unlimited free content, the impacts of AI, the increased cost of using social media for demand generation (even though, again, the tools available make it easier to execute). And this year will bring another hit: the deprecation of third-party cookies, which will make affiliate partnerships challenging or maybe even obsolete.


I actually think this sea change started a couple of years ago, but it was masked by the aftermath of the pandemic. Demand increased as everything moved to the web, and online businesses got a boost as a result.

Now that boost has dissipated, creating a new normal, and even people who have spent years building online businesses are feeling the strain.

Long-time blogger Jenny Blake, who spent years as a keynote speaker and has written several books about career reinvention, writes a newsletter called Rolling in D🤦🏻♀️h that’s dedicated to her own struggle to reinvent herself. YouTubers like Tom Scott are talking about how exhausting it is that it’s harder than everto get views, which directly correlate to revenue for those who earn through display ads on the video platform.

And as someone who’s been building a new brand in the last two years, I’m feeling it, too. Just recently I launched a paid newsletter through They Got Acquired for buyers looking to buy an online business. We got enough sales to make it worth doing, and it will continue to grow over time.

But the lack of a launch avalanche made me miss the days of running The Write Life, a website for writers I sold in 2021. Back in 2014, we ran a three-day flash sale on the 9-month-old website and sold $34,000 worth of digital products. I keep reminding myself that was a mass-appeal website, and what I’m growing now is far more niche, which ironically, can make it more valuable. My bar for success has also shifted significantly. Still, those were the good old days, when it was possible to grow a website to hundreds of thousands of pageviews a month simply by publishing helpful content. Back then, consistency alone was enough.

Because of all this, you hear more creators talking about burnout. Those of us who’ve been in this world for a decade are having to work harder and differently to achieve our targets, and creators who are newer on the scene are frustrated that it’s not as easy as it seems to be for everyone they look up to (mainly marketers selling courses about marketing).

I believe this treadmill will cause the creator bubble to burst. The rush of new creators who joined this wave in the last few years are just now getting to the burnout stage.

One of the crazy parts about being a creator that’s not talked about enough is how much this type of business revolves around the creator themselves. The model itself is designed around one person. What happens when you get sick of creating, or more likely, sick of marketing and selling?

Even creators who choose to build a team around their brand will likely find themselves backed into a corner that’s directly at odds with the promise of optionality: it’s difficult or even impossible to sell a business based on a personal brand. To this, most creators shrug, saying, I never intend to sell. Which works until you’re ready for a change, and that happens to all of us at some point.

Founders who spend years building a company that doesn’t revolve around them can sell that business, tuck away some money, take a break, and then switch gears into a new challenge that’s aligned with the next phase of their life. Creators who haven’t been intentional about building a brand outside themselves simply don’t have this option, and might not realize they want it until it’s too late.


At the risk of writing a whiney ode to what once was, we all need to look forward and innovate. I’m practicing this myself, and it’s one of the reasons running an online business is fun. We get to keep learning and iterating.

So what about bright spots?

One I see is in-person events. While many of us are sick of interacting online and can’t stand the idea of joining another virtual community, recovering from a nasty pandemic has us craving in-person connections.

Big old-school conferences don’t satisfy this hunger, but more innovative, small, niche events have a lot of space to grow. We’ve seen a few pop up in the last year in the media industry, like AMO, CEX, and The Newsletter Conference.

If you’ve grown a brand around your name, it’s possible to parlay that into an event that does not revolve around you. But running an in-person event, even a small one, is a big undertaking, and typically requires the creator to hire a team, or an outsourced one at the very least, to execute it. And of course, adding another revenue line increases the complexity of the business, which goes against the essence of what many creators want: simplicity and flexibility.

Another bright spot: I grin every time I see creators succeed in a niche that’s not marketing.

To me, these are the most interesting case studies. One I love to watch is Helena Bottemiller Evich of food policy publication Food Fix. My husband Ben Collins also falls into this camp; he teaches coding and how to use Google Sheets. Parts of this column are inspired by my conversations with him, after watching him leave a corporate job, figure out how to make a living online, and then hit burnout like everyone does at some point or another.


So does this mean you shouldn’t try your hand at building an online business?

Not at all. This is an enjoyable path, and when it all comes together, it’s a fantastic way to build the life you want.

But if you choose to go this road, keep these caveats in mind:

1. Expect this to take time.

It might be quicker to spin up a landing page than it was a decade ago, but it takes longer than you might think to build a high-quality audience that converts on your offers.

Don’t expect to mimic the success of the people you’re learning from, unless you truly want to teach others how to build an online business.

It will probably be harder to build and monetize an audience around a non-marketing topic. So take their advice and apply it to what you’re building, but with a whole lot of patience.

2. Become a marketer yourself.

I could almost hear you groan! I know, I know, you didn’t become a creator so you could spend most of your time marketing and selling.

But that’s what it takes. You’ve got to spend just as much time and energy marketing the business as you do creating.

In this new world, the “build it and they will come” mentality simply doesn’t work. You have to put in the work.

3. Choose an audience that can and is willing to pay big bucks for value you can deliver.

Most creators take years to figure this out, and often it requires going against your creator instincts of making what you want and hoping the money will follow.

Alternatively, it’s possible to go for scale rather than a high-dollar audience; each brings its own pros and cons.

Whatever you do, don’t land halfway between those two options. Go for scale, or go for high-dollar niche. Being in between is a hard nut to crack, and not a fun place to be.

And remember: Building an online business that funds your lifestyle is absolutely possible, but it’s harder than ever to achieve. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.

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