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How to Make Money From an Idea Without Starting a Business

You hear all the time that starting a business is one of the hardest things you can do, so why do it? Yeah, yeah–you get complete control, you build a brand, and you live your dreams—but you also get a host of sleepless nights and a ton of stress.

So don’t do it. Don’t start a business. (We can’t believe we just said that!)

Starting a business just isn’t for everyone. We’re here to tell you that you can make money from an idea without starting a company. Here’s how:

1. Find a Business That Is Already Living Your Idea

As much as you like to think you’re the first one who’s ever thought of your idea, chances are, someone else is already trying to bring it to life. So why not find a business that’s already making money (or trying to) off of a similar idea?

There are a lot of perks to joining an established group. It’s like joining a soccer team in a new city. You meet lots of people who share your interests while doing what you love. Not great with finances but excellent at writing? Awesome at writing code but clueless about marketing? This option could be good for you. You’ll give up some of that scary responsibility and contribute your skills.

2. Sell Your Services on Freelancing Sites

A lot of writers, designers, developers, and consultants get tempted to start their own businesses when they’re unhappy with full-time positions in cubicles. Totally understandable, but starting a brand new company isn’t the only way.

Before you get ready to launch your own company, do some freelancing first. You might find it’s just as lucrative as starting a business (it might be more lucrative). Freelancing will give you a taste for what it would be like to go off on your own. Plus, you won’t have so much stress.

Sites like Behance, Coworks, Elance, WriterAccess, and PeoplePerHour all offer opportunities for freelancers looking to get their feet wet.

3. Give Your Idea to Somebody Else  (for $$$)

You’ve got a great idea, you work on it a little, and then you sell the rights to someone else. Some creators don’t even ask for cash– they just give their ideas to trusted business-people with a “take it and run” attitude, knowing they aren’t cut out for creating a business.

These are good options if you love your full-time job and want to stick around.

Make sure to protect your idea with a patent though. Make a prototype to show off just how great your idea is. Show investors that you’ve already got a bunch of customers.

“It helps to bolster the case—and potentially increase the sale price—by preparing a prototype or presenting evidence that shows consumer demand,” writes Neil Parmar in The Wall Street Journal. “Survey data helps, though letters of intent from potential consumers are significantly better.”

If selling your idea is a bit too much for you, than just license it. “That means licensing the idea instead of selling it outright,” says Parmar. “Usually, the inventor will get a smaller initial payment than a straight-up sale and then 5% to 15% from each product sold.”

4. Make It a Side Project

Don’t quit your full-time job just yet. See how much you can handle if you let your idea be a side project. Think of your idea as a hobby—when you have a few minutes, you can tinker with the website or work on your prototype.

A lot of our customers have adopted this model. They work as dentists, lawyers, and teachers, then develop and grow a project on the side, all the while maintaining their full-time jobs!

A great idea doesn’t have to turn in to the next Facebook or Apple. As long as you’re reaping benefits from something on the side, it’s worth it.

5. Wait It Out

Ever hear that if you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it? That might be true for some, but those aren’t words to live by. Depending on your circumstances, waiting might be the best choice for you. Maybe you want more experience, need to make some more connections, or simply aren’t sure that starting a company is for you.

Despite what everyone says about grabbing the bull by the horns and going after success today, it’s perfectly fine to wait until you’re ready. You won’t be making extra money off of your idea, but you won’t be losing money, either. Just remember– there will never be a perfect time to start a business. Ever.

6. Go to Focus Groups

Think attending a focus group is a ridiculous idea? Well, psychologists and researchers will pay to hear your ideas, even if they don’t wind up getting used in business. If you’ve got a lot to say and want an audience, consider finding focus groups in your city. You can find opportunities on sites like FindFocusGroups.com.

A focus group won’t allow you to use that one great idea for generating revenue (unless you hold your own), but it will provide an outlet for conversation about certain topics. If you’ve got a ton of opinions about the world and just want to share, a focus group might satiate your desires.

Make Money Off Your Ideas

Starting a business isn’t for everyone, but there are ways to make money off of ideas. Anyone out there make some cash off of an idea without starting a company? Please share!

  • Kim

    We have an awesome one of a kind pet product about to go into production in China. We know very little about operating our own business but have the passion to get this product out there. Our product solves a problem most dog owners have. So where can you go for help or even to a company who may buy our product and we take a royalty?

    • Emma Siemasko

      Hi Kim! Thanks for the comment. I think this is the sort of situation where you’d seek out investors, particularly those in the pet industry, and gauge their interest. You might try selling your product on Etsy and Amazon. A lot of our customers do that and have seen success.

  • http://www.visionetic.com John Nagle

    I’m sorry, but this article is pretty much useless, because practically nothing in it has any basis in reality.

    1. Find a Business That Is Already Living Your Idea

    First of all, if you can do that, then it’s not your idea. Second of all, what exactly are you contributing? You don’t have any experience with the idea. You haven’t taken any risk with the idea. You have nothing to contribute other than the idea itself, which as I pointed out, they already had before you.

    2. Sell Your Services on Freelancing Sites

    Fair enough, but there again you are starting a business. When you accept money from a paying customer, you are starting a business.

    3. Give Your Idea to Somebody Else (for $$$)

    Ideas are a dime a dozen. Even good ideas. Unless you’ve come up with something extraordinarily novel (and can develop it, or at least prototype it), your chances of making even a nickel going this route are slim to none, and Slim is on the bus headed out of town. Chances are that going this route you’ll need to find investors, and investors will usually only contribute if you have skin in the game. They most likely will not fund you outright. They’ll want you to fund it too, and they will absolutely balk if you want to set yourself up with a cushy salary while you develop your idea.

    4. Make It a Side Project

    That’s a fair approach, and I know there are people who make this work. But realize that a “side project” is still a business if you plan to make money from it.

    5. Wait It Out

    Of all the bad ideas in this column, I think this is perhaps the worst. People are natural procrastinators. You’ve just given them the ammunition they need to shelve their ideas until a “better” time comes along. Successful people do not generally do this…they get off the couch, turn off the TV, turn off Facebook, and get it done.

    6. Go to Focus Groups

    If you like talking about ideas and never doing anything with them, this one is definitely for you. I’ve known these people. (I’ve even BEEN these people.) But talking about your idea or concept doesn’t move the football, unless perhaps you’re talking directly to potential investors.

    So is there a way to make money from an idea without starting a business? In a way, yes. Kickstarter is an excellent way to vet an idea by showing it to the masses and soliciting funding in advance of actually developing a product. Ultimately, though, if you achieve your funding goals, you will be expected to produce the product that you pitched. But at least your first batch of customers will have already paid you for your product. That’s a nice way to go. Some projects get 10x or more their desired funding. I can’t think of a better way to validate your market than via Kickstarter.

    All in all, an unusually mediocre blog entry. Hoping for a better one next time. :-)

    -John

    • Emma Siemasko

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your insightful comment. I agree that Kickstarter is a good solution. I’m sorry we didn’t provide you with a more compelling post!

      The point of this blog post isn’t to help people make a killing off their idea– it’s more to help them find outlets besides starting a business.

      In the example of #1 (find a company already living your idea), the hope is that someone could be fulfilled working on a similar project if they don’t want to go for it on their own. I think the point behind “selling your idea” is about selling patents and prototypes, as I agree that ideas are a dime a dozen. As for waiting it out…well…I agree that natural procrastinators might wait it out instead of getting off the couch, but I also think it’s ok NOT to start a business if you’re not ready. It doesn’t hurt to wait a few years until student loans are paid off, for example.

      Anyway, I’d love to hear from you about things people could do with their ideas besides starting a business. If you’d like to share more, send me an email at esiemasko@grasshopper.com. I’d love to hear.