Randall Gibbons has worked many jobs. He's been a motorcycle and RV repairman, real estate agent, caretaker and book salesman.
One of his most lucrative roles has been answering strangers' questions on the internet. In 2009, Gibbons — then a RV repairman — signed up as an RV expert on JustAnswer, a virtual platform where users can submit questions to experts in fields like mechanical repair, international law and finance.
At first, he just posted answers during his lunch breaks. Today, it's his full-time job — earning him more than $115,000 last year, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. His best month, July 2021, netted him just under $25,000.
"If somebody had told me I was gonna make that kind of money on here, I'd say, 'You're nuts,'" Gibbons, 76, tells CNBC Make It.
Gibbons answers roughly 300 questions per week about repairing and operating RVs, and is paid $20 per question — but the job isn't as passive as it sounds. Gibbons brings 60 years of mechanical experience to the role, and his rate is a mark of his expertise: JustAnswer has a tiered system for its experts, with most starting at $5 per question and working their way up.
The gig is also time-consuming. Gibbons works from his home in Yreka, California, and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to answer questions for people living on the East Coast. At 10 minutes per question, he estimates he spends about 50 hours per week on the site.
"The upside is: You're not obligated to set hours or answer a certain number of questions," Gibbons says. "But if you're just doing this on your lunch hour, you're not going to make more than $5 per question."
Here's how Gibbons turned his question-answering side hustle into a full-fledged six-figure career:
Gibbons says he's always been "mechanically minded," but it took him years — and many mistakes — to build a sustainable career.
He started working on motorcycles at age 14 and made a modest living doing just that until age 27, when a mutual friend suggested that he try real estate. He went from making "little property deals to millions of dollars in four years," he says.
Then, he says, a bad investment in a bar cost him roughly $500,000, his marriage and a house he and his then-wife were building. Starting in 1985, he spent a couple years homeless, often sleeping on friends' couches. He worked odd jobs and eventually worked in elder care to slowly build back his savings.
In 1993, Gibbons saw an ad in the local Yreka paper for an RV repairman. He got the job, and says his experience with motorcycles helped. Still, he says, he had to learn plenty about air conditioning, refrigeration and hydraulic repair.
By 2009, he was a local RV expert — but found himself stumped by a customer who brought in a four-door Buick Riviera in need of repairs. One of Gibbons' coworkers mentioned JustAnswer: He'd recently paid $35 to submit a question about a Chevy, and "got an answer that fixed the car in 15 minutes," Gibbons says.
Gibbons tried it, and was pleased with the result. Then, he realized the website had a section specifically for RV experts.
"I figured, if I can do this on my lunch hour and maybe after dinner, I'll make $500 per month," he says. "Now, I'm really styling."
Gibbons worked on and off at the RV shop for decades, ultimately becoming its owner in 2012. He sold the shop in April 2020.
With the nearly $80,000 he earned from the sale — which Gibbons says is currently being paid over monthly installments — and answering 10,000 questions per year, he and his wife opened a local bookstore in December 2020. He says the bookstore is almost profitable.
And even though he works 50 hours per week, his flexible schedule allows him to volunteer his remaining time to help displaced native Americans overate their own RVs, he says.
Over the years, Gibbons says JustAnswer — whose customers can pay for individual answers, or spend $125 per month for unlimited access — has gotten easier to use. He says it's more user-friendly than it used to be, and the customer service team is quick to fix website bugs.
Gibbons also says the job doesn't have a lot of expenses, which has a surprising downside: The lack of business write-offs makes his taxes expensive. And most JustAnswer experts aren't nearly as successful as he is on the platform. The average expert makes between $2,000 and $7,000 per month, according to the company's website.
Still, Gibbons says the platform provides a good opportunity for anyone who's "semi-retired." He adds that he's already made $100,000 and counting in 2022.
"This job is great for people who have a skill or specific knowledge and want to pick up a good income stream," he says. "You're not obliged to keep hours, to answer every question and everything is completely voluntary."