Have you ever dreamed of starting a business that practically runs itself? One that generates income with little ongoing effort on your part? If so, you're not alone. Many entrepreneurs and investors are drawn to the idea of passive or semi-passive income streams.
While most businesses require significant time and effort, especially in the beginning stages, the right online business model can be structured to run with minimal day-to-day involvement.
In this post, we'll explore the best online businesses that run themselves with the right systems in place. Whether you want to replace your 9-5 job or simply make some extra cash on the side, these entrepreneurial ventures can help turn your dreams of financial freedom into reality.
Let's take a closer look!
1. Affiliate Marketing
Affiliate marketing is one of the most common online businesses, allowing you to earn commissions by promoting other companies' products or services.
As an affiliate marketer, you join affiliate programs and receive a unique link that tracks any sales generated when you refer customers through your platform.
The best part about affiliate marketing is that once your links are set up, any resulting sales convert to passive income. You don't have to create, market, or sell your own product – simply drive traffic to your links through content creation, SEO optimization, social media, and other marketing tactics.
Affiliate marketing does require an initial investment of time and effort to build your platform and audience. But done right, it can run itself after that, with commissions rolling in from your network of links.
Focus on choosing profitable affiliate programs in evergreen niches, creating engaging content, and expanding your reach.
Some examples of successful affiliate marketers include:
- Michelle Schroeder-Gardner of Making Sense of Cents – She earns $760,000 annually through her blog's affiliate partnerships.
- Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income – He generates over $150K monthly through affiliate marketing.
Ready to turn your influence into income? Check out my beginner's guide to starting an affiliate marketing blog.
2. Selling Online Courses
Online courses are another excellent semi-passive income stream. The idea is simple – create a learning course focused on your particular skills or knowledge and sell access to it. Platforms like Udemy, Teachable and Thinkific make hosting and selling your course easy.
It does require significant upfront effort to design course curriculum, record lessons, and market your course. But once your course is up and running, each new enrollment represents passive income.
With an automated checkout process, strong sales funnel, and email marketing strategy, your online course can run itself.
Popular course creators on platforms like Udemy include:
- Phil Ebiner – His video editing courses have yielded millions.
- Angela Yu – She earns over $2 million per year teaching web development.
Dropshipping allows you to sell products to customers without ever actually stocking inventory. As a dropshipper, you set up an online storefront and list products. When an order comes in, you purchase the item from a third-party supplier and have it shipped directly to the customer.
This fulfillment model means you can run an online store without handling warehousing or logistics. After the initial setup, you never have to touch the products you sell physically.
Focus your efforts on marketing your store and providing excellent customer service. Your suppliers handle the rest. Just be sure to choose reliable suppliers that integrate with your e-commerce platform.
Successful dropshipping stores include:
- Allbirds – This popular footwear brand relies heavily on dropshipping.
- Ecom Elites – The store sells supplements through dropshipping, earning 8-figures yearly.
Ready to try hands-off e-commerce? Check out my step-by-step guide to starting a dropshipping business.
4. Selling Digital Products
Creating digital products is another excellent low-maintenance business idea. Digital products, like ebooks, photography, printables, graphics, apps, website templates, and more, can be sold repeatedly with no added effort per sale.
For example, create a digital cookbook of your best recipes just once. After the initial creation, each new buyer represents pure profit since you don't have reproduction or distribution costs. With an automated checkout process, digital products run on autopilot.
Some top digital product sellers are:
- Jenna Kutcher – She sells Lightroom presets, courses etc. earning over $4 million annually.
- Marie Forleo - She has built a multi-million dollar business selling online business courses and digital downloads through her B-School training program.
5. Selling Stock Photography
Stock photography represents another way for creatives to earn semi-passive income online. You simply take high-quality photographs and license them to sites like Shutterstock, Getty Images, Adobe Stock, or iStock.
These platforms make it easy to upload and sell your work. You earn royalties each time someone purchases a license to use your images. The more photos you have in your portfolio, the more potential for passive earnings over time.
Top stock photographers include:
- Andresr – This travel photographer earns over $60K per month through stock images.
- Sean Locke – He makes over $100K yearly, selling stock photos through platforms like Adobe Stock.
6. Display Advertising
Display advertising is a hands-off monetization method if you can consistently drive web traffic through content creation, SEO optimization, or social media. You place ads on your site or blog and receive payments when visitors view, click, or interact with them.
Top ad networks for publishers include Google AdSense, Mediavine, and Ezoic. You can implement their ad code across your site and let the networks do the rest. Focus on driving traffic and keeping your audience engaged. Each view and click translates to effortless earnings over time.
The more traffic, the more income. So it's obvious that big sites are earning significantly with this method.
7. YouTube Channel Monetization
YouTube offers multiple income stream opportunities. By consistently creating engaging video content, you can monetize your channel through YouTube's Partner Program, sponsorships, affiliate links, and selling your own products.
While you'll need to remain actively involved in creating videos, the platform makes it easy to implement passive income streams once you are qualified.
You can sign up for the YouTube Partner Program to earn a cut of the ad revenue from your videos. Also, create a merchandise shelf to earn from YouTube-facilitated merch sales.
Top YouTube earners include:
- Like Nastya – This children's channel earns over $18 million yearly.
- Unspeakable – His gaming content nets him over $16 million a year.
8. Podcast Monetization
Podcasting represents another way to generate multiple streams of semi-passive income. By producing regular audio content, you can leverage the power of platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts to reach a broad audience.
While you'll need to stay involved in recording episodes, several income streams can run on autopilot:
- Paid sponsorships from relevant brands
- Affiliate marketing by promoting products
- Displaying host-read ads through a podcast ad network
- Inserting dynamically-served ads through programmatic ad platforms
Some top-earning podcasters include:
- Joe Rogan – His podcast earns up to $15 million annually.
- Dave Ramsey – He makes around $10 million per year from his podcast.
Ready to start a podcast for profit? Check out our guide to starting your podcast even without an audience.
9. Selling Stock Video Footage
Similar to stock photography, stock video content represents an evergreen source of licensing income for videographers.
Simply produce high-quality, reusable video content and license it through stock agencies like Shutterstock, Pond5, and Videoblocks. Then, earn royalties when customers purchase your clips.
Popular stock video creators include:
- VideoHive – They license over 140,000 video files through parent company Envato.
- Pond5 – Over 115,000 video creators sell through their platform.
10. Self-Publishing Ebooks
With consumer adoption of ebooks on the rise, self-publishing represents an opportunity to earn semi-passive royalty income. Platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing make publishing an ebook easy and available for sale.
The majority of the effort lies in initially writing and marketing your book. But once published, you can collect royalty income from each sale with minimal added effort. Expanding your catalog of self-published titles allows you to bring in more passive revenue down the road.
Successful self-published authors include:
- Mark Dawson – He earns over $500K per year from self-publishing thrillers.
- James Clear - He makes a 7-figure income from self-publishing personal development books.
11. Create and Sell Apps
Modern society's move toward mobile makes app development lucrative for passive income generation. After initially creating an app that solves a problem or provides entertainment value, ongoing earnings can come from:
- In-app ads and sponsorships
- Digital goods purchases and in-app transactions
- Paid app downloads
- Subscriptions for advanced app features
By leveraging app store optimization and marketing, you can gain an initial user base for your app. From there, integrated monetization features allow for semi-passive income with minimal maintenance needed.
Top app developers include:
- Garrett Moon – His app CoSchedule revenue is $5 million per year.
- Rovio Entertainment – Their catalog of mobile games generates over $300 million annually.
12. Shopify Development
Another profitable subset of software development is building apps and themes for e-commerce platforms like Shopify. Over 1 million businesses use Shopify for their online stores.
As a Shopify developer, you create helpful tools or services that integrate with Shopify stores to extend their functionality. For example, apps that help with marketing, automation, bookkeeping, analytics, and more.
Similar to standalone apps, you can monetize Shopify apps through:
- Recurring monthly/annual access fees
- One-time purchase fees
- Usage-based charges
- Commissions on referrals
Once your app is built and approved, it can earn passive income each time a merchant installs it in their store. Focus your marketing efforts on the large pool of potential Shopify users.
Successful Shopify app developers include:
- Pixel Union – Their themes generate over $4 million per year.
- Privy – Their email & SMS app earns over $10 million annually.
13. SaaS Product Development
Developing your own software-as-a-service (SaaS) product is a challenging but rewarding path toward scalable passive income. SaaS businesses provide access to software delivered over the Internet, usually through a subscription model.
With programming know-how, business savvy, and effective marketing, SaaS products can become self-sustaining income sources over time. Benefits include:
- Recurring subscription revenue.
- Ability to service thousands of users efficiently.
- Opportunities for growth through upgrades and expanded features.
Of course, creating a profitable SaaS product requires substantial initial effort. However, the potential for high value and eventual autonomy makes it a worthy pursuit.
Successful bootstrapped SaaS founders include:
- Alex Turnbull of Groove – He built a multimillion support software business.
- Hiten Shah of FYI – He created a $100k/month document management app.
14. Build a Niche Website
While taking a lot of effort upfront, a niche website can eventually run itself through various monetization strategies. By focusing your website around a specialized, targeted topic, you can use authority-building content to attract and engage readers.
Over time, opportunities arise to monetize your audience through mediums like affiliate marketing, digital products, advertising, and more. This diversified approach allows multiple income streams to operate passively.
Keep your niche website thriving through search engine optimization, social promotion, email newsletters, and consistently publishing new content. With the proper automation, your website can generate income for years.
Successful niche site owners include:
- Steve Chou of MyWifeQuitHerJob.com – His site earns over $300k per year.
- Jon Dykstra of Fatstacksblog.com - He earns over $100k per month from his niche sites.
Ready to build your long-term asset? Check out Authority Hacker to start building a profitable niche website.
15. Build your own GPT business
The newest opportunity to earn passive income is OpenAI's custom GPTs. The best part is that these GPTs are easy and quick to make, but they can potentially earn you passive income once you have them published in OpenAI's GPT store.
You can monetize GPTs by:
- Revenue share - you can earn income based on how many people are using your GPT.
- Selling GPTs - sell your GPT on platforms like Gumroad.
Start generating passive income with GPTs by checking out my beginner's guide on making your custom GPT.
Note: The GPT store is not open yet but is expected to launch by the end of 2023.
Turn Passive Income Dreams Into Reality
As you can see, the online world offers many opportunities to generate hands-off income once your business is set up. While reaching true autonomy takes hard work initially, the reward is an income stream that can run itself over time.
Now that you know the possibilities taking action is up to you. Choose a business model that fits your skills, interests, and schedule. Then, work diligently to build a framework that allows your business to operate semi-automatically. Patience and persistence are key.
Before you know it, you'll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor and newfound financial freedom. Gone will be the days of toiling for every dollar earned. With an online business that runs itself, you can take the reins back and live life on your terms.