How Matt Nelson of We Rate Dogs turned a college side-hustle into a six-figure business

If you think pretending to rate dogs on the Internet while actually declaring that they all deserve an A+ is a funny way to earn money, well, creator Matt Nelson is right there with you.

The "good dogs" whose pictures appear on Nelson's gentle, crowd-pleasing Twitter account We Rate Dogs usually get a ranking of 12 or 13 out of 10, as well as tens of thousands of "likes" from the feed's nearly three million followers. The account overall is an Internet favorite: Kotaku calls We Rate Dogs "the most wholesome and best thing on Twitter" and he makes in the low five-figures each month, he estimates, selling related merchandise through his online store. That comes to six figures a year.

The bestselling items, like a T-shirt featuring Nelson's most iconic in-joke, "They're good dogs, Brent," go for $19-$40 each.

Nelson is a college student at Campbell University in North Carolina who intended to become a golf instructor. He stumbled into this business in 2015, during his freshman year. He hadn't even been looking to get a campus job, since he had some money saved from a stint as a swim instructor: "I planned to use that first semester to just get a grip on college," he tells CNBC.

But then, as he puts it, "a few months into the semester, WeRateDogs happened."

Nine months later, he was making money off of what began as a good-natured joke born in an Applebee's. His empire now includes an LLC, a blog, a game, the equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, an Instagram feed (184,000 followers) and, of course, the online store.

"Initially, the way I thought of it was like a pathway to a job in writing or a job in comedy," Nelson told Esquire. "Now the goal is to make this the job. I thought this was going to lead to opportunities, which it has, but now this is the opportunity."

Matt Nelson of We Rate Dogs.

He employs two independent contractors and his father, the executive director of a law firm in Charleston, helps him manage the money. But "it's still very hard for me to think of the account as a business," Nelson tells CNBC.

He's also proud of helping lots of other people make money for important causes: "We've helped raise well over $100,000 for individual Gofundme campaigns."

The changeover from amusing hobby to something more serious happened gradually. "It wasn't a specific moment, but a gradual addition of goals," he says. "That primary goal of making people happy will never change; it's just that other business-related goals have been added."

And the real world experience has been priceless. "I've learned more from running this business in the last two years than I could've ever learned in a classroom," Nelson says.

Though he jokes that he feels rich "only in dog pictures," he's also committed to continuing what he has begun.

If you're looking to launch your own venture, perhaps from a dorm room, Nelson's is advice is to start with what you have and build on it. "Ideas don't come about fully-formed," he says, "so if you think you have one, throw what you have into it and see where it could take you."

He also believes in the power of good company. "I've surrounded myself with unbelievable individuals so that I'm always the dumbest in the room," he says.

Experts agree that, as a strategy, that gets a 13/10.

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