How I made my first $1 on the internet. In 1999.

Yeah, you read that right. 1999.

Don’t have time to read? There’s a video version

It was the year that Moby released Play, the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Californication and Dr Dre released the massive 2001.

People were freaking out about the Y2K bug.

Napster was created.

If you searched the internet you probably used AltaVista or Yahoo or Lycos.

And the words blog, blogger and clickbait were used in print for the first time.

(So was “ass clown” which I should use more often)

I’d graduated from university in the spring and, after a few summer months hitting a beach on a Greek island, it was time to enter the real world.

With some reluctance, I returned to a gray, rainy, northern England to start a job.

There had been plenty of interviews for graduate programs and even a few decent offers. But I took a small step off the expected path and got a job with a newly started electronic component distributor.

It was a two person team in the UK and had a parent company in Brussels. Very small but with a lot of potential. And my role was a bit of everything — an experience I couldn’t get in any graduate job.

I’ll be honest the industry was incredibly boring and despite the products being technical, there wasn’t a lot happening online. It was all paper catalogs and phone calls and visiting trade fairs.

And there I saw an opportunity.

The idea

There was no easy place to find all these small manufacturers and distributors. Companies like the one I worked for.

What if I built a directory? And then tried to make some money by selling premium spots.

I’d already tried building a few money making ideas with no success. Mainly B2C.

But this seemed like a great B2B idea, and I’d built up some knowledge of the industry.

We also kept old copies of the main trade magazines at the office. I could grab their supplier lists to populate the data. And their classified ads were perfect for leads to sell the premium spots. They had ad budgets.

The build

It sounds like a simple project with today’s software but back in the dark ages there weren’t many no-code tools.

Apart from a bit of HTML I had no other coding skills to build a database.

Lucky for me, even in 1999 you could buy php scripts and I found the perfect one for a business directory.

I got a domain name plus hosting and built out my project in the evenings after work. It’s a long time ago but I don’t remember struggling too much with the php script — it came with instructions to customize the basic look.

I even created a terrible looking logo in some graphics software my friend had “borrowed” from the university.

Thankfully, the Wayback Machine never forgets and I was able to grab some screenshots from mid 2000.

Here’s the finished front page of the site.

My graphic design skills haven’t improved

Looks like I even had a newsletter, but can’t remember how I executed it. Probably sent from my email client and blind copying all the recipients 😀

Compelling sign up copy

The money

So how did I make that first $1…?

My offer was a premium spot on the front page or on category pages and I charged per month.

The challenge was, back then, there was no X/twitter or Linkedin. And only geeks were using forums. So I had no choice but to do outreach by email.

I even have a vague memory of making some cold calls on my lunch break.

The emails were something along the lines of:

“Hello, I built Electronics Guide to help businesses like yours get found. You’re listed [LINK to listing]. But if you want to be at the top of the page it costs £50 per month. If interested, reply to this email”

I don’t recall the exact email but I imagine something straightforward like that. I’m not recommending that’s the way to do outreach now or back then.

I got a few “thanks for listing us, but no to the ad” replies.

Until a few days later… I got home from work switched on my PC, waited an age for Windows 98 to load up and opened my email.

Boom. There it was… a small distributor wanted to try an ad and wanted to know how to pay me. Holy f*ck!!

Once I’d come back down to earth, I realized there was one small problem: Payment processing.

I hadn’t thought about that. It was the olden days so no Stripe. And although PayPal existed, it wasn’t available in the UK.

We agreed a good old physical cheque was the easiest way.

Three days later I received a cheque in the post for £50 (approx $80 at the time).

And that’s how I made my first $1 on the internet.

You’re probably wondering what happened to the site…?

I made a bit of money but I changed job in 2001 and moved to London. I had zero interest in electronics companies (I moved into recruitment) and I spent my life working and partying.

There was no time for internet money. Which was probably a mistake, but at the time a lot of fun.

I let the site go and that was that.

I didn’t get back into building online businesses until 2008.

Edit: I saw the domain name was available so bought it again. Maybe it’s time for v2?

How did you make your first internet money?


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