Minimalist Online Business Money Tips (Or, How My Income Tanked)

Updated October 4, 2019

In February 2014, my husband created a spreadsheet to track the gross revenue in my online business. We aren’t one of those couples who works together. He enjoys his full-time job and I want to keep the business on the periphery of our lives, not in the middle, so his spreadsheet is a sweet and simple way for him to enter my world.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I’ll earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

He’s maintained the spreadsheet ever since, faithfully entering the numbers each month. It’s so much more colorful than a boring Profit & Loss statement.

Here’s how it looked in 2014:

2015:

2016:

2017:

2018:

And here’s how it looks so far in 2019. Note the nosediving light blue line.

As you can see, gross revenue increased year over year from 2014 to 2018, but after January of this year, it dropped to the level it was a few years ago and hasn’t recovered.

Womp womp.

So why am I sharing this? Well, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. Note July 2015’s (minor-in-hindsight) income slide, a reflection of lost traffic a few months prior:

I wrote the original version of this post at that point. Your comments then (see below) made me realize many of you find this sort of discussion helpful. My goal is to be helpful. Now that I’ve experienced another downturn, I hope it will be helpful again.

It can feel like everyone online is experiencing nothing but success all the time. It’s not true, but hearing the wins and rarely the losses has a way of piling up into discouragement.

So, welcome to my losing 2019. 🙂

My backstory

Before we dive in, I’d like to say 2 things.

First, I’m no stranger to unwise business decisions involving money. The example that immediately comes to mind happened in 2005. I convinced my husband we should “invest” $5000 (that’s a nice way of saying “debt by credit card”) to build a site where businesses could find VAs. It might as well have been $50,000 given our financial situation at the time. The site was built but the business never got off the ground. The debt stuck around though.

Interestingly enough, that $5000 in 2005 was part of what led us to Dave Ramsey in 2006, which helped us become debt free, which turned me into a money nerd, which turned me into a weirdo with my business finances, which leads us to 2019, which leads us to this post. 

Second, that -5K experience and others like it over the years are why I run my business the way I run it today. I’ve settled into a minimalist business model, meaning, I keep things lean and streamlined. That’s because I want freedom, not an empire. Not everyone wants the same. That’s what makes life interesting!

I’m pointing this out because I wish I had learned this lesson sooner — the importance of knowing my end goal. Maybe I can save you a few years of aimless money wandering?

At the time of the $5000 situation, all I knew was I wanted to start an online business and people told me paying someone $5000 was how to do it. I didn’t know there was another way. 

Moral of the story: don’t do what people tell you to do because they sound like they know what they’re talking about, or because everyone else is following them. Instead, follow the people who spend their days the way you want to spend yours.

Alright, let’s talk about this whole unpleasant downturn I currently find myself in, shall we?

What do I think of it?

Not a fan of course. It makes me blue. In the famous words of Dr. Seuss, “I do not like it Sam-I-am.”

Am I panicking?

No. I’m sad, but not panicking. 

Why am I not panicking?

Because I don’t feel the financial pinch. Yet anyway.

Why don’t I feel the financial pinch?

Because my operating expenses have never gone above this yellow line:

Most years my expenses have been well below. Without a lot of overhead, it’s relatively easy to squish that line down far and fast when needed.

This is a huge benefit of a minimalist online business. Despite the significant income drop this year, I’m still able to cover my expenses.

What’s included in that yellow line?

Everything from hosting fees to a PO Box to the occasional new laptop to paying others (accountant, attorney, designers, etc.).

What about reinvesting?

I’m not sure what the difference is between “reinvesting“ and just plain spending money except that it sounds more acceptable? Like me and my “invest $5000” instead of “go $5000 into debt”?

In any case, I have reinvested very little in the business over the years. I know. What kind of business owner am I?

I’m not after huge scale or hockey-stick growth. I’m content with slow and steady(ish) business growth, because what I’m really after is maximum time with my growing family.

How do I keep my expenses low?

I’m frugal by nature. I’m not afraid to spend money, but I don’t spend just to spend either. Generally, I find a tool or system that works and stick with it. Check my tools page for things I do spend money on.

C’mon Amy, you can’t not care

Oh I care. I care a lot. Obviously my goal is to get my income level back to where it was. Higher preferably.

But here’s what I’ve learned: I can’t make that happen. No amount of hustle, grit or not quitting will automagically make it be. There is no formula. Ultimate control is an illusion. There are no guarantees, even if you follow someone else’s successful path exactly. There are simply too many factors and variables outside of our control, especially online.

I’ve been at this a long time. There are cycles in blogging and online business. Downturns aren’t surprising. Nor are new things. There’s no use fretting over the ups and downs.

So do I melt into a puddle and throw in the towel?

No. Although if I want to quit because I’ve had a good run and I’m done, I will. I’m not a fan of the advice that says winners never quit. Sometimes winners quit to do better things.

I may not be able to guarantee repeated success, but I can certainly work toward it. Let me explain how I push through. 

What to do in a downturn

Are you in a downturn too? I hope not, but if you are, here’s my advice.

Check the basics then move on. If you notice a nosedive, check the usual things for obvious problems or glitches, like Google Analytics, the mechanics of your site, SEOSearch Console, etc. If you don’t see anything obvious, move on. Don’t obsess. (I list this first because I’m generally bad at it.)

Coach yourself. A lot of the battle is in your mind. Most things in life are fixable and can be repaired, replaced, revamped or redone. This is especially true online. Despite how it feels, this is not the end of the world.

Cut your losses. If you have to reduce expenses, downsize, or let people go, do it as soon as you know you should. Be honest, with yourself and others too. In Profit First, Mike Michalowicz says this:

Most business owners try to grow their way out of their problems, hinging salvation on the next big sale or customer or investor, but the result is simply a bigger monster.

Mike Michalowicz

Don’t panic. Feeling out of control is overwhelming. Overwhelm can lead to panic. Panic can make you frantic. Frantic people often do things that are rash, reactionary, not in line with their values or even destructive. I read a Facebook Group post from someone recently who was “desperate for sales” now that she had a team to pay. My heart ached for her. To avoid panic and desperation, prepare for the downturn (see the next section).

Use your brain. You’re scared and that makes sense. Take a step back. Now look for a way forward. You are smart.

Pivot. Don’t waste valuable time wishing for what was. In online business, whatever worked before is unlikely to work the same again. Guess what? You no longer have to hold your breath, fearing you will jinx what’s working because…it’s no longer working! So ask new questions. Reframe. Get rid of what you don’t love. Be creative. Imagine a blank slate. Try new things. Pivot!

You may have noticed I recently retired my main product, dropped out of a significant affiliate program and took extra breaks from the Useletter. That’s me pivoting.

Sidenote: Does cutting off sources of income in a downturn (i.e. retiring my product and dropping a lucrative affiliate program) seem like opposite world? I get that. But that’s another advantage of keeping things lean. Without huge overhead, I can pivot into what I want to do, not pivot into what I have to do to stay afloat.

How to prepare for an unexpected downturn

Maybe you’re not in a slump currently. Maybe you’re having a great year like my 2018. (Oh I hope so!) Here are some things to do to prepare for that unexpected downturn. 

Expect it. Your downturn is coming. I knew it was coming for me, I just didn’t know when. You’ll have one too. No one is immune — not you, not me, not that guru who looks unstoppable. The only thing to know for sure is that things will change. Normal businesses do not experience growth year after year indefinitely. That’s not how it works.

Consistent incoming cash flow is hard to sustain. A great quarter can trick you into believing your business is on a permanent upswing, and you start spending like this is the new normal. But drought periods come quickly and unexpectedly, causing a major gap in cash flow. And cutting back on expenses is nearly impossible because our business (and personal) lifestyle is locked in at our new level.

Mike Michalowicz

Run a nimble business. What do I mean? Be thoughtful about the things you start. Consider the costs. Keep things streamlined. Here are 7 questions I ask myself before adding to my business plate.

Keep expenses low. I’ve been reading income reports from other bloggers and studying expense lists. A lot of bloggers spend a lot of money on a lot of tools, services and other things. I recommend 3-5 tools to start a blog and make money. Add things as you truly need them, not because someone somewhere said it works for them.

Stay ahead of the game. Anticipate where things might go next by observing what’s slowing down now. One of my biggest risks, although it’s obvious now, was replacing regular blog posts with the Useletter in 2013. At the time, people were producing multiple pieces of content every day. I was basically quitting altogether. I wondered if I was making a huge mistake. Thankfully, email marketing became a thing. I didn’t know it would become a thing, I just knew publishing a lot of blog posts wasn’t working for me anymore so I did what made sense next.

Plug money leaks. In personal finance, it’s often suggested to lower your expenses by asking your utility company for a lower rate or ditching cable. I don’t often hear similar suggestions in business. Every few months I look at where my money is going and decide if I can downscale or get rid of anything. Just this week I paused a service I don’t need at the moment.

Pull out will-needs and extras before anything else. I’m a money nerd. I track every penny for fun. My budgeting software is set up to apply a set of rules at the click of a button. Every time money comes in, whether it’s $1.43 or $529.71, it automatically gets split between envelopes (I love envelopes). For example, 30% goes into the taxes envelope, 20% to retirement, 5% becomes cushion, etc. The money gets distributed and I forget about it, unless or until I need it. 

Recently I read Profit First by Mike Michalowicz whom I’ve quoted multiple times above. I like his book. My application is simpler, but my basic approach is the same. Which leads me to…

Embrace constraint. Those percentages up there are real. You might be thinking, “Amy, are you saying you operate on less than 50% of what you bring in?” Yes. Doing so has forced me to be creative and frugal. It has also prevented me from getting in over my head, or being surprised by tax bills. Scratch that. I’m always surprised by tax bills. I’m just grateful for my tax envelope when I have to pay up!

Don’t quit your day job (or prematurely retire your spouse). Contrary to popular belief and according to at least one study, entrepreneurs are not generally risk takers. In the Momentum podcast, episode 461, minute 4:45, Alex Charfen says it well: 

The stories you hear from stages about legendary people who burned all the boats are legendary…because they rarely happen. Side hustles and steady income are good when you’re ideating and creating and building because it takes an enormous amount of pressure off.

Alex Charfen

I absolutely agree. Building and running a business without the stress of “how am I going to pay the bills” is about a million times better than the opposite.

Ask hard questions. What percentage of your income lost would financially sink you? How will you operate on the other side of that? Do you have enough room so you won’t be forced into less-than-ideal business decisions just to stay afloat? How are your relationships? Your health? It’s much better to get these things in order before the downturn hits.

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the start, all this reflects my personal experience. Regardless of how you choose to set up the money in your business, I hope this gives you at least a few things to consider.

Here are some other articles about getting started with minimalist online business:

56 thoughts on “Minimalist Online Business Money Tips (Or, How My Income Tanked)”

  1. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I read your posts. I don’t want to build an empire either! It good to be reminded it doesn’t have to be that way.

    I wanted to ask, do you notice any online trends that may also have contributed to the income nose dive this year? Is the online world shifting to something new?

    1. Thank you Lorraine.

      As for the reasons for the downturn, I’ve heard from many who have experienced something similar in 2019. I imagine there are various reasons. I do know algorithm changes played a big part for me. I think market saturation for some products is another factor for many of us too.

  2. Whew. I literally had just read an income report (of a HUGE monthly income) that was guilting me into “investing” in my biz or it would fail (not their exact words, lol, but what I got out of it). And of course there was an affiliate product they were selling. I’m sure you hear this often, but you are a breath of fresh air in this blogging world for us who don’t want to create an empire or make 100,000s a month (just thinking of the taxes and trying to minimize them on that amount makes me hyperventilate, ha!).

    Thank you – 2019 has been a downturn year for me, too, after 3 years of steady growth (google updates got me…), and it hasn’t been too bad because I only have small monthly expenses. Here’s to pivoting!

  3. This is just what I needed to hear! Not so much the downturn – I hope your pivoting brings you renewed success!
    But the frugal mindset and minimalism in business. That is what is in my heart and mind, but there is so much advice to reinvest, and all the paths to take, things to try, tools to use… well it’s overwhelming. And this post has reminded it doesn’t need to be, and that we should be very focused on what our end goal is. Like you, I definitely don’t want to build an empire, just personal freedom. Thanks and good luck!

  4. “But here’s what I’ve learned: I can’t make that happen. No amount of hustle, grit or not quitting will automagically make it be. There is no formula. Ultimate control is an illusion. There are no guarantees, even if you follow someone else’s successful path exactly. There are simply too many factors and variables outside of our control, especially online.”

    I’ve been at this as long as you. My situation is different in that my husband is also self-employed (web design and graphic design) and there is a lot of overlap in what I do and what he does which sometimes complicates things.

    That said, you are so right about the illusion of control and how things actually work, especially online.

    Our “$5,000 moment” was when we lost a client fairly early on who was a significant percentage of our business. Like, really huge. It came out of nowhere after a corporate shake-up when people were let go, reassigned, etc. After that experience, we said we would never ever ever again be highly dependent on one income stream.

    When I write about blogging and owning your own business or comment on discussions, I try to drive home the diversification point over and over again. People who have only seen steady growth in their business or have never experienced a major downturn in the economy have no idea how quickly it can all unravel if you aren’t prepared.

    Thanks for being honest. People need to hear the honest truth, not just rah rah posts and affiliate pushes from the tiny percentage of people who become wealthy through online work (mostly by telling other people they, too, can become wealthy through online work by selling them a dream).

    Sallie

  5. As always, Amy, thank you for your honesty and openness. Since the beginning, you’ve been one of my favorite bloggers to follow for this very reason. Plus, I appreciate your minimalistic approach because we really can’t do it all. Like you, I’ve been blogging for a long time and have seen my income increase slowly and steadily until this year when I have hit a major plateau. In looking at my stats, I’ve learned a lot and am disappointed by some of the traffic and yes, revenue, changes but I am not devasted. Keeping expenses low is huge! And yes, I’m trying new things and looking at different ways to increase my revenue again. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in these downturn times. Thank you so much for sharing this, and giving me the timely encouragement I needed!

  6. Are you willing to share why you’re retiring The Knowtbook? I love having it as a resource.

    “Follow the people who spend their days the way you want to spend yours.” When I came across the question of who I’d want to model my business after, I always think of you and Joanna Penn. I don’t know exactly what I want my business to look like, but I do know that I want to remain small, independent, and able to pivot as needed; not a big company, no employees.

    I really enjoy your blog and The Useletter 🙂

    1. Thank you Jennifer. 🙂

      Regarding the Knowtbook, one thing was the friction I was feeling using WorkFlowy, not as a tool (it’s lovely to use as intended), but as a distribution platform for a digital product. It wasn’t terrible, but I decided I didn’t need the little-but-increasing frustration it was causing.

      Second, as it got bigger, I wasn’t happy with the difficulty of keeping it updated as much as I’d hoped. Even though doing so was a breeze — I love that part of it! — staying on top of it was a bigger challenge.

      Without a clear alternative, it seemed best to keep it available to those who already enjoyed it but to stop selling it to new people.

  7. Well, I too came to your site through a Google search and it was ranked number one. I’m in Manchester, England – believe Google search is more location-based now? Have just dipped my toe in the water and created my first blog so I will be checking out all of your information and guidance and hopefully putting it in to practice. Hopefully I can work on getting it to look nice like yours too!

  8. I just googled: “best ways to start a blog,” and your site was on the first page! So your SEO is totally solid, haha! I really appreciated that this happened to be the first post on your blog once I started clicking around. Blogging can get so disheartening sometimes, but you’re so right that there’s so much more to it than just optimizing website and outreach. There’s a bit of weird magic in there too. Anyway, love the site!

  9. What a perspective , i can almost feel you trying to calm yourself down . 🙂 My site drastically went down from 5000 visitors to 2000 per day , well that was discouraging . Later i found out that i had a plugin installed that automatically showed some BAD links to the search engine.
    Took me a while to figure it out i will suggest you to take an expert scan right away .
    Best of luck!

  10. I am new to your blog, so hopefully that is good sign for you. I have found the information tremendously helpful. Thank you! I will say a little prayer for you tonight!

  11. This post is a godsend.I have tried optimising my site for mobile users.But still a horrible drop in traffic.Can you suggest somebody whom I can consult regarding site design, nothing fancy just simple stuff for mobile optimization

  12. I lost 2/3 of my traffic in one day when Google updated their algorithm in January 2014. I fretted and researched like crazy trying to figure out what happened and still never got an answer that gave me something I could fix. Updating my site map in Webmaster tools did help some, doubling my lowered traffic. I’m still about 1/2 of where I was before Googlegeddon hit my blog so increasing my traffic is a goal for this fall (summer is always a crap shoot for my topic :-P).

  13. Hi Amy – Letting you know that many bloggers in the survival and preparedness niche are also seeing a significant drop in traffic as well as a corresponding drop in revenue. It is baffling for sure, especially since it started in March and has been sliding since. We can’t blame Google for that!

    I know there is a lot of content theft these days. Sites are posting the work of others then loading up the pages with AdSense. The is often done without attribution. Basically, these sites are making money off the backs of hard-working, legitimate, authors. One site owner I know of even bragged to me about it.

    As someone else mentioned, Pinterest traffic is also on the decline. Perhaps they are going the way of Facebook and wanted us to pony up for “promoted pins”.

    In any event, it is discouraging, but like you, I will give it some time and keep on tweaking.

    Gaye

  14. Hi Amy! Polly and I are avid readers of your Useletter and learn so much week in and week out. We send people to you all.the.time. Thanks for your great work and godly perspective! Maybe someone else already mentioned this, but I also thought our traffic had dropped by 50% a few weeks ago. I was freaking out just a bit. Then, I found out (as we cross checked Google Analytics with our advertiser’s stats) that GA was completely messed up! It wasn’t reporting correctly all of a sudden. We never did find out exactly why. I just mention that so you can double check. Let’s hope it’s just some glitch like that!

  15. Hi Amy,

    I didn’t get an email that you had blogged either. I am a subscriber to the useletter which I LOVE and look forward to every Saturday. I only came on here because I’m a clueless dolt about affiliate marketing.

    Buttttttttt…. Guess what? My numbers tanked too recently. In my case, it’s related 100% to googlegeddon. I had to unplug jetpack’s version of mobile and that one act was like a house of cards apparently. It took me 10 depressing days to figure it out. Originally, I had thought that google was punishing me, because they are sadistic fiends. (okay, maybe that’s a little harsh, but………..)

    What really happened is… JP stopped recording them! omg! And my mobile traffic is at least 35%, so that was a hefty drop. After I found a code on GA for my blog, I got back the mobile stats on GA but they are still gone from JP. I like JP because it’s an easy interface with all of my stats like referrers and what they are clicking on, there at a glance. GA is like trying to explain to grandma how to make an atomic bomb!

    Now, I doubt that this is your problem because you’re a whiz at all of this. But maybe traffic isn’t REALLY down for some similar reason?

    Now, I need to check GOOGLE-mail to see if those geeks (not) put your lovely email in my spam folder. xo, Laurel

    ps: love the new website. I liked the old one too, but this one is even better!

  16. I really appreciate your site. Your Useletter and website are a regular part of my Saturday morning recovery after a week of teaching 1st & 2nd graders. You are my “go to” for blogging advice.
    I usually click through a link or two from your Useletter, but a few weeks ago I started using Feedly. I’m still getting used to using it, but I wonder if this tool might satisfy readers too much and not get them to actually visit the website.

  17. these are some great tips! I also err to the side of panic when things aren’t how I expected them to turn out so I’m happy to read I’m not the only one!

  18. Don’t leave comments much but had to say I have learned so much from you. So very sorry you are going through this stressful situation. Your self talk is so much like what we say to our kids. In a 100 years what is going to really matter? I know you will keep putting one foot in front of the other.
    Your new site is a joy to read.

  19. Do you know if anyone else has had issues with your Useletter not showing up? My husband and I are both subscribed, but for some reason I stopped getting mine. At first I thought you missed a week, but then my husband said he got his. It happened several weeks in a row so I resubscribed with a different email address and now I’m getting it again… Just a thought!

  20. Amy,
    Will you include the article about your insight on why traffic tanked in your Useletter? If so, I’ll be sure and look for it. If not, I’ll click the link above!

  21. Hi Amy,
    I love your latest site redesign! It seems to me that it will make content easier to find & increase traffic as opposed to the prior design.
    I owe the existence of my site to your expertise. I thank you for that and encourage you to see past the slump.

  22. I rarely leave comments but I felt compelled to thank you for sharing your experiences with us. It really helps for all of us to know that it’s not just “me.” My blog is my only income and it scares me every single day that it will suddenly all go away. I lose sleep over it. I know nothing about analytics or SEO (and I don’t even know what “mechanics of my site” means) so I rely strictly on my workaholic nature and pure luck to make it work. I sometimes feel like the fact that I don’t know much about it helps me. I just work and I don’t look back at what I’m doing right or wrong. But there there are all those sleepless nights… lol Hey, Amy! Thank you for all you do!

    1. It can happen to any of us at any time, that’s for sure. Someone somewhere (Facebook, Google, Pinterest) chooses to make a small change, and it can be a game changer. I think the main thing is to remember not to keep all your eggs in one basket. Have multiple income streams and multiple ways to connect with readers (list, blog, social media).

  23. Amy, you have so much to offer and I’m sure you’ll figure out what to do about this drop in traffic. You’re innovative like that!

    I don’t know if you have a lot of folks coming from Pinterest, but I’ve noticed some strange things happening there in this last week. I was getting lots of repins every day and now that has suddenly dropped.

    I’m wondering if people are signing up for your Knowtbook and going there instead of your blog.

    Your new site looks great, by the way, and I especially like the contents page.

    Thanks for all you do!

    1. Thanks, Bonita. Interesting about Pinterest. I haven’t paid much attention there this week, so maybe I should do some digging. So many things to investigate…

  24. It may have something to do with the site re-design (looks great!) and I bet it will start to rebound. Was most of your traffic drop from losing organic search traffic or social sharing?

    Big changes and low-lows can set the stage for even higher-highs and new records!

    1. Hey Donnie,

      Yes, I think it has something to do with that as well as several other things, both on my site and off my site. Trying to determine how much to go back and find a fix and how much to just cut my losses and move on…

  25. I’m kinda glad to hear this happens to big time bloggers too. Not that I’m glad you are going through it, just glad to know I’m not alone. I LOVE your blog layout. The readability is so clear and relaxing. I don’t know how to describe it but I really like it.

    Found you through a tweet 🙂

    Bobi

    1. I hear ya, Bobi! Can happen to any of us at any time, right?

      Thank you for the encouragement about the design. It’s new so I’m still making changes but I’m enjoying it so far.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  26. Oh, yes. Me, too. I go from frantic>panic. And of course, most of the things causing me to panic aren’t panic-worthy at all. For me, it’s usually an addendum to overwhelm.

  27. Oh wow, Amy, that is hard and I know that when your blog is your business, it can feel HUGE!

    I love the pep talk you gave yourself (and us) here though. It was a good reminder to me too. Right now my blog is doing well, but just a couple of weeks ago I had some major blog hiccups and it felt panicky. And like you said, panic leads to frantic and frantic rarely leads to good actions.

    Hope you can figure out some tweaks to get things turned around and that in the meantime you can stay calm. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Lydia. So far I’m not losin’ it so that’s positive. 🙂

      I know it’ll be just fine. Just glad I have some other ways to connect with readers. It’s nice to have options.

  28. Your sure is one of the best. I have followed you and taken advice from you for years! I have even been known to send people to your site. You are knowledgeable and personable. This is just a hiccup!

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