Morning Tea #10: schoolboy schemes I did in a vain attempt to get rich
I found myself reminiscing about my schoolboy wheeling and dealing. The aim of the game was to get rich when that meant having £1k in the bank (an unfathomable amount of money). It didn’t really work, but I’m pretty sure I accidentally learned some things. Here are a few of the schemes I can recall, in roughly chronological order. We start at approximately age 12 in 2006.
My friend (a little older than me) started a small web hosting business and convinced me to start some kind of website because he needed customers. I couldn’t code back then so I bought a games website script (still available!) because I thought I could start the next Miniclip. Gaming2d3d.com was born.
My target market was other 12-year-olds who should have been doing work in IT class. Unfortunately, after figuring out how to use FTP and MySQL, I found out that our school internet filter blocked my website (duh). So, I built a web proxy. To this day I have no idea how or why it worked, especially given that my hosting package cost around £5/mo, but it did.
A masterstroke! Things started to pick up and I was getting thousands of visits a day. I’d be in class, and I’d spot people who I didn’t really know playing games on my site — I was going to make it!
I did not make it. My friend forgot to pay his server bills and the whole thing got shut down. I didn’t back anything up (because I was 12) and lost everything. I let the domain go and someone put some ads on it for a while.
Several years later I saw that gaming2d3d.com was available again. For old times sake, I span it back up from scratch (same arcade script). People had iphones by then — it was never quite the same.
Outcome: a few pounds for running Google ads.
Another friend helped his dad sell an old door on eBay and got a cut — about £30. We were always scheming together and decided to use this capital to try buying a few domains to flip for a profit.
We spent several hours searching and bought a handful of awful domains. I only remember lucky8ball.net but the rest cannot have been much better. We listed them on Sedo and nobody bought them.
We did not renew our domains.
Guerilla marketing for bad ebooks
Around the time that the Kindle first launched, I was big on ebooks. I thought it was amazing that you could copy and paste something and sell it for actual money (I did not understand copyright). I bought an ebook on eBay (for my sins, I think it was a ‘how to get rich’ thing), put up a landing page, and added a PayPal button. Now I just needed some traffic.
I found eBay power sellers of trashy ebooks and sent them a message. As an anonymous eBay user since 2006 with a bit of decent feedback, they had no way of knowing I was a child. I asked them to email all their past customers (usually in the thousands) with a short sales pitch and a link to my landing page. In return, they’d get 50% of any sales.
I messaged about 10 power sellers before one agreed. They sent the email and we waited… and waited. After several hours, I sold one copy for £5. Shortly afterwards, another power seller replied saying that what I was doing was illegal, that he had a degree (!), and that he was going to send me to prison. I stopped after that.
Outcome: £2.50 for selling one ebook.
Undeterred by my first ebook venture I still believed they were the future. However, I decided that I had to go legit. I was going to set up an online ebook store, keeping up the trend of registering awful domain names.
I still couldn’t really code (only HTML and a little PHP) so I paid somebody £150 to put together a simple site. At the time, £150 was kind of a lot of money and I paid him upfront — I don’t really know what I was thinking. The result was awful — a disgusting mess of a website that didn’t really work. I tried to get in touch with the guy but he’d gone dark (over £150?!).
In the end, it didn’t actually matter — I didn’t think about how I’d market this thing or how I’d source high-quality ebooks. Nobody bought anything and I decided to cut my losses. It still kind of hurts, losing £150 at age 13 or so.
Outcome: -£150 and I still think about it.
I soon discovered the world of affiliate marketing and drop shipping. I went with affiliate marketing because it seemed easier and cheaper to set up. I started an affiliate site that sold mobile phone contracts.
Despite some weak attempts at marketing, nobody visited so nobody bought any phones.
Outcome: Nothing in particular.
Throughout much of 2007, you got at least $2 for every £1. I remember (for some reason) browsing Chinese products on Alibaba and iOffer (both extremely sketchy, at the time) where everything was priced in dollars. In my head, I’d halve the price to convert to pounds, and it became obvious that everything was pretty cheap.
I started buying stuff. My first item was iPod socks — the weird little knitted things to put iPods in. Apple was selling 5 for £20 or so. I bought a couple of boxes (genuine… probably) and sold them individually at school for around £2 each, about double what I paid. I sold them not only as iPod socks but as phone socks or as unbranded mp3 player socks. They were popular. I ended up getting another batch and sold them all immediately.
For a brief spell, I became more philanthropic. I spotted designer clothes (A&F, Ralph Lauren etc) that, ordinarily, me and my friends couldn’t afford. On Alibaba however, if you were willing to wait 3 weeks for shipping and cross your fingers for customs, you could get very close replicas for H&M money. I ordered some stuff for us (at cost), we split the shipping, and we all got a taste for the finer things in life.
A year or two later, I was back. I ordered a bunch of phone cases for the HTC Hero (chosen because I had one and quality control was awful so had to test every single case for defects). I listed them on eBay and the orders came trickling in, quickly covering my costs. However, it wasn’t long before a new model came out and nobody wanted an HTC Hero, let alone a case for it.
Outcome: £30ish, some clothes and some leftover phone cases.
Hardware is hard
Young enterprise helps school children set up and run a company. Ours was called Flare, set up towards the end of our time at school. We made quite a lot of money from the usual bread and butter products in various captive markets — school trip hoodies, glow sticks at the disco. In the end, all of our shareholders made a profit. However, I wanted to do something more. I wanted to make hardware.
I had an old iPod dock, no iPod, and a phone with a headphone jack. I wanted to put my phone in the dock, rather than fiddling around with an aux cable, so I came up with an idea for a device that sat on top of the old 30-pin iPod connector, turning it into a 3.5mm plug. I put this to the rest of the company and they told me not to bother.
I did it anyway. I bought a 3.5mm plug, a cheap extension cable for its 30-pin connector, and a soldering iron. I found a pinout diagram for the 30-pin connector and soldered wires to the corresponding contacts on the 3.5mm plug as if that would work (it did). During my conveniently timed work experience, I convinced a cool machinist to help me make a beautiful housing out of a single piece of aluminium, exactly the same shape as the bottom inch of an iPod, so it fit perfectly in the dock.
It’s probably the best physical thing I will ever make. Belkin was going to license it, and I’d be a squillionaire. I went to the Young Enterprise exhibition with great anticipation, excited for widespread recognition and untold riches.
The local bank manager said it was good.
If you enjoyed reading, I send out similar weekly posts to my substack subscribers for free.