Today’s post is from Alex Chamessian, who leveraged a study system he developed for his own use into online passive income. Alex has a vital message of both caution and encouragement for anyone pursuing passive income strategies while in grad school.
Name: Alex Chamessian
Graduate Institution: Duke University
Department/Program: Medical Scientist Training Program (MD-PhD)
1. What is your side income stream?
I sell digital medical spaced repetition flashcards on my personal blog DrWillBe and I just co-authored a book called Learning Medicine: An Evidence-Based Guide with my friend and colleague Dr. Peter Wei.
2. How much do you earn?
I make about $9.40 per sale on the flashcards after PayPal fees are taken out. I also pay taxes on the annual income when I do my federal taxes in April, so that’s a little more subtracted. I’ve been selling the flashcards since April 2013, with very little effort invested in marketing or promotion. Over this time, I’ve made about $5,000, with a slow drip of sales. The book is currently selling for $14.99. It’s early days so no earnings reports just yet…
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3. How did you get started with your side income stream?
As I said, I have a personal blog called DrWillBe, which is where I write about my experiences as a med student. It started out as just a sounding board for me, but over time, I realized that all my posts were about how to study effectively. So that kind of became the theme for that blog.
I wrote a lot about a powerful learning tool called Anki that I used in med school to memorize all the information that got thrown at me. Anki is a smart, digital flashcard program that employs a method called spaced repetition. During my preclinical year of medical school, I made thousands of Anki cards for my personal use. At first, I shared them for free on my blog, which generated a ton of traffic. Once I realized that those cards were bringing value to other people, it occurred to me that I could probably monetize those cards if I put some extra polish on them.
So that’s what I did. I spent some additional time cleaning up my personal cards, checking them for accuracy, and making sure there wasn’t anything copyrighted in them. Then I put them up on my blog and just left them there. I didn’t do any kind of marketing really. I picked a price that I thought was commensurate with the value of my cards ($9.99). I spent hundreds of hours making them, so that seemed like a reasonable price. Over the last two years, I’ve made about ~500 sales of those cards, with very little additional effort. I wanted this to be a passive income stream. I’d already done the heavy lifting in creating the cards. I didn’t want to sell something that needed constant tending from me.
4. How do you balance your side income stream with your graduate work?
Well, for the flashcards, I was killing two birds with one stone. I was making the cards for my own studies in medical school. It was only after I had made them for my own purposes that I decided to sell them to others. This experience highlights a key insight I’ve made about making ‘side hustle’ while in graduate school (and probably the rest of my life), which is the following: aim to take the things you’re already doing anyway and find ways to monetize those things. Usually that means adding a little extra ‘polish’ to make your stuff valuable to other people. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do something at a high level on top what you already need to do as a grad student. Find ways to repurpose the things you’re already doing in such a way that it brings value to other people. In my case, I knew other people were trying to learn the same medical knowledge that I was, so I put a little extra effort into cleaning up my deck for public consumption, but not much more. In contrast, had I tried to do something completely random and outside my daily sphere of activities to make money, like making crafts on Etsy, I would have failed, since I didn’t have the time or the skill.
A lot of grad students might feel that their daily work is so idiosyncratic that not many people would care about it. That might be true for highly technical work, but I’m pretty sure that most grad students do something or other that there is a market for. Maybe that market isn’t huge, but it’s probably not zero. Wherever there is a pain point, there is an opportunity, because other people are feeling that pain too, most likely. Successful e-learning sites like Udemy demonstrate that people are thirsty for knowledge and are willing to pay for it.
The book was different insofar as it wasn’t directly overlapping with my daily work. This was an add-on in terms of time, but definitely not a tangent. Writing about effective learning methods enhanced all the things I do on a daily basis, like absorbing information from all the scientific articles I need to read. As with the flashcards, I was doing something that I wanted (needed?) to do for myself anyway, but doing it with the purpose of then sharing my efforts with an audience.
Writing a book is definitely hard work. In order to accomplish this, I had to develop new habits. Taking cues from successful writers, I got in the habit of waking up early (~5–6 AM) and doing my writing in the morning consistently, when I’m at my peak energy levels, and before the buzzes and demands of the world can distract me. By putting writing first thing in the day, I made it a priority, ensuring that it actually got done. I think this is key. If you care about something, whether it be a side job or a passion project (or both), you need to prioritize it.
5. Does your side income stream complement your graduate work or advance your career?
Yes. Absolutely. As I said above, the things I make my side job either flow directly from the activities of my career, or they are things that are closely related and will enhance what I do in my career.
6. Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?
Don’t do a side job primarily for the money. Sure, more dollars in your pocket are a good thing. But your efforts might not always bring you a profit, especially if you do something risky. If you only do something for money, when and if you don’t make any, you will view your time as wasted. It’s a win-lose game. On the other hand, if you do things that you enjoy and that you would have done anyway, even if nobody ever paid you a cent, then there can’t be a bad outcome. It’s a win no matter what. If you have no customers, oh well, at least you learned or grew in some way. If you do succeed in selling your product or service to someone, great, you made some cash, but the main pay off is the learning and personal development you achieved, and the profit is a byproduct.