If you want to earn money blogging, be willing to do it for free

Illustration by Chris Piascik

I still remember this one spring evening when I was working on my (then) new blog—Kyle, my husband, was tinkering with the media cabinet, the kids were in bed, and we were listening to the cacophony of big city noise outside our open windows. My blog was a few months old, and I still wasn’t quite sure what I was doing with it… But I knew I wanted to do something.

This was 2008, and Twitter was just becoming a household name. I had joined Facebook just a few months prior, and in many ways, I was firing first, aiming later with my writing. I can’t remember what my blog’s tagline was at this moment, but I remember not loving it. In other words—I really wasn’t sure what my blog was about or why I was writing it. But I knew I loved it, and I wanted to keep at it.

That evening, I was doing more behind-the-scenes site stuff: updating plugins, adding stuff to my sidebar, and the like. I also bought a new WordPress theme; the first time I actually paid money for a theme. The first time I invested more than just paltry monthly hosting fees, really. Kyle was ticked.

Looking back, he had every right to be. I wasn’t really making money on my blog (it was just a few months old), we were on a VERY tight income, and we always discussed purchases larger than a few dollars. And really, the theme wasn’t necessary; I just liked it a lot.

We laugh about it now, but that evening served as a sort of mild turning point for me as a blogger—I had invested in my blog and took a risk. I decided subconsciously that this blog was important to me, and that I was going to do stuff with it. I just spent more than 50 bucks on a theme—I better be serious about developing quality content.

Here’s the thing about those early days, though. I bought that theme, worked and tweaked my blog’s layout, and I wrote content that I then edited until my eyes were crossed… for FREE. It wasn’t a profitable business at all. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted it to be. I just did it because I loved it.

A few months later, I sold my first sidebar ad for something like $30, and since then, every month I’ve always earned some amount of money from my blog. But for these first two years, the amount of labor I invested was grossly askew to the amount of money I made. Hourly, I made far, far below minimum wage. Mere pennies.

Now, I make more. Quite a bit more (though we still have to budget and live frugally). Our family lives off my blog network, and it’s a full-fledged business, complete with paying lots of freelancers, an ad manager, an assistant, an accountant, regular babysitting, and hosting fees that make me want to throw a tantrum. Kyle is even part of the working team. It’s a far cry from my early years of blogging.

People don’t always love this piece of advice on starting a blog, but however you slice it, it’s true: you’ve gotta love it so much that you’re willing to do it for free.

I think it’s great when someone wants to become a professional blogger, earning income from their online pursuits. But it’s crucial to understand that it takes a lot of work and a lot of long hours—it’s not passive income. And people can see right through a thinly veiled approach to slapping up content full of Google-friendly keywords. You can’t blog solely for the purpose of earning money. Or, you can’t do it without burning out eventually.

So if you’re just starting a blog, please love what you’re writing. Enjoy the process and do it just for the love of the game. That’s how I did it, for a long time. And if you’re good at what you do, your audience will come and stay.

Learn from the more experienced bloggers, but don’t compare where you are to where they are. Your chapter 1 looks different than their chapter 20—but it’s probably pretty similar to their chapter 1, if you could go back and read it.

And be willing to work, work, work for free if you hope to one day earn income from blogging. It can be done, yes. But it’s not instant. A solid foundation is essential for building a quality blog that lasts, and that is poured in the beginning.

Hey, if you’d like to learn a bit more, Darren Rowse of ProBlogger and I will be chatting in a free webinar this Thursday, July 26 at 10 pm EST. We’ll be talking about your blogging questions—advertising, going from one blog to a blog network, juggling all this with kids, whatever you want. There’s no selling; it’s just a conversation, but you’ve got to register to get access. Head here—I’d love to have you join us!