How to Make Money Online and Travel: Our First Failed Experiment

by Andrés Felipe Díaz · 23 comments

in Making Money, The Digital Nomad Life

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Zazzle - Our First Experiment

As promised in ‘The Experiment‘, we said we would share both our successes and failures in our attempt to make money online as part of our new location independent lifestyle. While we started out on this experiment and journey very naive and optimistic, back in January 2012, we have come a long way since and learned some valuable lessons about the world of online entrepreneurship. In this series of ‘How to Make Money Online and Travel’, we will share our experiences, thoughts and lessons learned from what is now a few different attempts at generating an online income to support our travels.

The First Experiment at Making Money Online:

We were randomly discussing possible ideas to generate an income online when I suddenly told Steph “I have a great idea! I know this website called Zazzle that is going to help us make money…let me explain”

For those of you that don’t know, Zazzle allows creative people all around the world to upload designs to their site for a huge variety of products like t-shirts, mugs, Iphone cases, decoration accessories and much more. Then, if one of your products gets sold, Zazzle will manufacture the product, add your design to it and distribute it to the client. Zazzle will be in charge of collecting the money and fulfilling the order. Nice right?

With my business cap on, I saw that Steph’s talents on taking pictures could go beyond a mere hobby. Her pictures could eventually become Zazzle products. Take a look at the following video as to why I saw Zazzle as a possible source of income.

Armed with naive inspiration and an enthusiasm to make money as soon as possible, we opened our Zazzle account. Then, Steph created our first Zazzle product: a Wrapped Canvas. (If you click on the link, I think you are one of the few people that has ever seen this product). Besides the canvas, Steph also went ahead and uploaded photos to use as designs on other types of products like iphone cases, ipad cases and my favorite one….a mouse pad!!!

We thought we had found the best method to make money online. Afterall, it could be automated, would pour the cash into our bank accounts while we traveled and we would be recognized designers with worldwide fame…

Zazzle DiscoveringIce

Our terribly ugly and unbranded Zazzle store...don't laugh!

Lessons Learned From Our First Experiment:

Naturally, the reality was the opposite. We failed at our first attempt to generate an income online while traveling and here is why:

  1. The products in Zazzle are overwhelmingly expensive. (Our commission was only 20% by the way)
  2. We had not done any marketing to drive traffic to our products.
  3. We are not designers and our products left a lot to be desired compared to the competition.
  4. We spent about 2 hours in total on this ‘project’, from setting up our account to uploading products.
  5. We received about 2 visits…in total…in 8 months.
  6. Without paid advertising, Zazzle’s SEO is not strong enough to drive traffic to your Zazzle store.

From this experience we learned some important lessons:

  1. Focus on our strengths.
  2. Marketing is a key driver of sales.
  3. Spend more than 2 hours on a project that you expect to make money from…
  4. Promotion and branding are very important.

What a breakthrough! (DUH)

Trust me, when you explore the door of making money online, sometimes common sense runs through the back door.

twitter discovering ice @discoveringiceClick to Tweet this quote

Fear Not…There’s Still Hope For Travelers To Make Money Online!

Anyways, we wanted to share with all of you our first attempt at making money online while travelling. If you are a talented designer, then by all means take a look at the many multiple websites, like Zazzle, where you can definitely create some products and possibly make some money. If not, I hope our experience saves you some time and you may skip this option.

Bare with me though, as it wasn’t all failure for us. In my next posts in this series of ‘How to Make Money Online and Travel’, we recap on how we have experimented with various forms of generating an automated online income while traveling.

In fact, my next story will tell you how Steph and I became the partners of a Hotel within our first 20 days on the road!

Safe travels,

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ayngelina August 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I have been travel blogging nearly 3 years now and while I make most of my money through advertising I wondered if I should add Zazzle to the mix. Thanks for saving me time, I can focus elsewhere 🙂
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2 Stephanie Walsh September 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Hey Ayngelina, thanks for commenting. It’s not for everyone alright but if you have the time to invest in Zazzle, I am sure you could see some nice results. I am even thinking of giving it another chance since we did such a poor job on it last time! 😛
Stephanie Walsh recently posted..Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, MexicoMy Profile


3 Andrés Felipe Díaz September 21, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Angelina, you should try if you have the skills to develop a competent product on Zazzle. If you don’t and your talents are in another area there are many other activities you could do.

Besides, if you are earning good money through advertising that means that your website has good traffic per day. I would instead focus and try to put more effort in getting money from that traffic =)



PS: Sorry for the late reply…I should have posted earlier.
Andrés Felipe Díaz recently posted..Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, MexicoMy Profile


4 Hannah August 30, 2012 at 2:54 am

Good to know guys – thanks for sharing 🙂
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5 RenDuring August 30, 2012 at 5:00 am

Sorry you guys weren’t successful but I can give you a ton of other simple reasons you didn’t make money at Zazzle.

1. The products at Zazzle are not overwhelmingly expensive ~ just the prints and cases you chose to put up were ~ try putting up some other items ~ stickers, keychains, stamps (huge seller), mugs, buttons, bumper stickers, playing cards, etc.

2. You need more than 4 or 5 products.

3. You need a basic profile with a picture and a few words. No one likes to buy from a blank shell profile. Would you? That wouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. A header using one of the photos wouldn’t take more than another minute.

4. Zazzle’s SEO is more than strong enough to drive you traffic because most of mine comes from it (I don’t sell a ton, but I do sell) but you have a built in traffic builder ~ you’re blog…why don’t you use it?

Don’t give up. I’ve had my store for years and it’s something I don’t have to do a lot of work on or I can if I want to and it builds as it goes. Reputation builds over time. But you are right, you get more out of it as you put more into it, like with anything.


6 Stephanie Walsh September 21, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Great advice Ren!! Thank you for taking the time to write it all out! I agree with you also…we definitely didn’t put enough time or effort into it. I am sure Zazzle rewards those who try the hardest…perhaps its time to give Zazzle another try with your great tips in mind! 🙂
Stephanie Walsh recently posted..Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, MexicoMy Profile


7 Andrés Felipe Díaz September 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Hello Ren,

Thank you very much for your advice. It has actually encouraged us to re-think on Zazzle and maybe give it another try.

Definitely this is something you have to dedicate time into. The nice thing is to know that people like you are getting money online from this since this can definitely become an automate source of income.

Is the profit from Zazzle enough to sustain you? I would really like to know since you have dedicated good time, effort and work to it.



PS: Sorry for the late reply…I should have posted earlier.
Andrés Felipe Díaz recently posted..Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, MexicoMy Profile


8 RenDuring September 21, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Stephanie and Andres,

Definitely don’t give up. Like other people, I have found that items I had up for a couple of years suddenly sell (just about when I was going to remove them and am glad I didn’t). Another huge factor is how you tag your items. The first 8 tags are the most important and can play a huge part in your ranking not only within Zazzle but with Google too. Unfortunately Google has cracked down with SEO and it’s tricky for companies like Zazzle, Red Bubble, Squidoo and the like that have duplicate content.

I do think that quality vs. quantity can be a factor but you need to have a fair amount of quantity as well. Mine is low compared to many and I would sell a lot more if I dedicated more time to it. I spent years in marketing though and I get burned out quickly so I do Zazzle in spurts and then take breaks so I don’t become ill. It’s really a hobby for me so the income doesn’t sustain me. I do know others that make more than a substantial income but it’s a fulltime job for them. On top of that, many people make money just as affiliates by promoting products of others (and getting 15% of the sales price) ~ not just through Zazzle but through many companies. As an artist I don’t do that but I know people that make a lot of dough from it.

The nice thing with Zazzle is they don’t charge you for a store (or multiple stores) like other similar companies (such as CafePress) so you can have your store up and work on it when you have time and if you don’t then it’s no harm no foul. And Stephanie, Zazzle is like all companies ~ they reward those that make them the most money, too. Don’t be fooled, they are in the business of making money just like everyone else. lol
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9 TammyOnTheMove August 30, 2012 at 7:10 am

Thanks for sharing your experience. I think it will be really helpful to other bloggers, including me, who are attempting to make money online. Looking forward to reading your future posts on this!
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10 Victoria August 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Thanks for the tip! I would definitely have been sucked in by that!
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11 Betsy September 4, 2012 at 3:06 pm

RenDuring’s comments and advice above are spot on. We’ve been successful with Zazzle, and as Pro-Sellers our growth trajectory continues to climb. However, we’ve been at it for four years and have over 40,000 products in multiple stores.

While it is possible to have immediate and impressive success, the vast majority of Zazzlers will affirm you need a longer-term, strategic commitment. For example, we’re noticing older products that we first made four years ago are now selling. Go figure. It’s probable, although Zazzle won’t confirm either way, that its internal metrics reward certain sellers with categorical prominence, etc.

We will soon be releasing our second e-book (the first was how to quickly get started on Zazzle) which outlines organized tactics you can use to better scale your Zazzle efforts. We also have a Facebook page “How to Make Money Online with Zazzle” where we share ongoing tips and insider news, as well.

Wishing you the best of luck in your endeavors!
Betsy recently posted..Tuesday Photo: ChrysanthemumsMy Profile


12 Andrés Felipe Díaz September 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Hello Bestsy,

It is great to know you had a successful case. It is also very interesting what you say about products designed 4 years ago being sold now. I see that as a huge opportunity because it really means that every minute of work you are dedicating to put up those products is going to eventually give its fruits. Also, this means the work you did 4 years ago is giving its profit without you having to put extra work on it.

I have a question for you. How did you manage to upload 40,000 products. Do you have a company who designs and puts products on Zazzle or has this been the effort of you during the past years?



PS: Sorry for the late reply…I should have posted earlier.
Andrés Felipe Díaz recently posted..Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, MexicoMy Profile


13 Betsy October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am

Hi Andrés – Sorry for the late response myself! I must not have registered for follow-up comments. You are absolutely right that the benefit of Zazzle or CafePress or any other produce-on-demand arrangement is the fact that it’s available to sell whenever.

Our effort is entirely my husband’s – he just reached 50,000 a little while ago, and last week won six “Today’s Best” design awards. It must’ve been a slow week for other designs. 😉 We write about this aspect of our passive income efforts quite a bit on our site, and the inexpensive e-books he’s written (How to Get Started and More Products, Less Time) are available for purchase there.

I think the main thing is to decide that you’re going to treat this (or anything you decide to do to generate passive income) as a business – with processes and deliberation, not a hobby. Sometimes this is difficult for creative folks to understand, but it’s critical for success.
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14 Vi September 13, 2012 at 3:17 am

I think it is good you tried it and learned what you did wrong and what should you do.
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15 Stu September 16, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Its a tricky game trying to make money. There is so much competition. I too have dabbled with Zazzle and Spreadshirt. The commisions don’t make it worth it, however they do take out the pain or order handling so whilst you are on the road it kind of sorts itslef out for you. I look forward to reading your follow up post!
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16 Andrés Felipe Díaz September 21, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Hey Stu,

Yes, I definitely think it removes a lot of the efforts on trying to sell online.

In fact, if you are a very good designer and you are able to put a competent product on Zazzle you should go for it. At the end of the day, this work is done once but may produce a revenue during the next months and even years as some Zazzlers have expressed.

Besides, if you have a nice design you can place it in multiple websites.

Thanks for your comment.


Andrés Felipe Díaz recently posted..Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, MexicoMy Profile


17 Michael September 21, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Hello Andres
Great article and tips here. As this becomes more and more popular digital nomads need more solutions and this is a great start. Here is another article with some more avenues for success. I hope it helps you and your readers and let us know what you think. At the end is a valuable list of resources as well.
Warm regards,


18 Andrés Felipe Díaz September 21, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Hello Michael,

Thanks for the comment. It is always great to meet people that have the same goal of a lifestyle in which our financial needs are solved for live allowing us to live wherever we want.

I have subscribed to your blog and will also look forward to see your experiments on making money online while traveling. It will keep me very busy reading the blogs you have followed but I will do since I am also keen in educating myself on the topic and I know many other people have tried before.

Best and keep posting your experiences,

Andrés Felipe Díaz recently posted..Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, MexicoMy Profile


19 Michael September 22, 2012 at 11:20 am

Thank you so much Andres and I am glad we are connected. Lets continue to share ideas and tips and if you ever come to Bali, please let us know.
Warm regards,


20 Eric Tutor Cabalda October 26, 2012 at 9:03 pm

I heard about this from a friend who is a travel blogger and he is earning from this , though not that much.

Now, I think I’m gonna explore on this. Any other ways to earn online?
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21 Stephanie Walsh October 30, 2012 at 12:24 am

Hey Eric! Yes, if you have design skills I think it is a good option and worth a try…as you’ll see from the comments, plenty of people have made it work for them! Let us know how you get on! We’ll be posting a new post on making money online soon, hopefully this week! 🙂


22 Simone February 11, 2013 at 6:57 pm

I make a living on my Zazzle stores alone and don’t do any advertising at all. In total I have probably put 400-500 hours into it over 2 years.


23 Stephanie Walsh February 12, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Wow, that’s great Simone! Congratulations! It’s been great hearing of the many Zazzle success stories here since we posted the article! What has been your most successful product?