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Selling Online – Is It a Hobby or a Business?

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Selling Online – Is It a Hobby or a Business?

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: March 7, 2012 Updated: September 15, 2016

Are you doing business on the Internet? Selling on eBay? Promoting or advertising someone else’s products on your website or blog?

Online money-making opportunities are plentiful – from selling your old books via online auction to promoting products and services for online merchants, or becoming an online merchant yourself. But at what point does this mean you are in business yourself and, since you are making money online, what are your tax and regulatory obligations?

Here’s some guidance about ways you can make money online, along with the tax and regulatory obligations tied to each:

When Is Selling on eBay a Business?

Many of us sell items on eBay or dabble in online money-making activities, but at what point does this become a business and how does this affect your taxes?

If you’re selling on eBay, for example, you can claim this activity as a hobby and deductions against it as long as you’re not buying and selling goods with the intention of making a profit.  Read more about determining whether an activity is a business or hobby from the IRS here.

If you make a profit from an eBay sale, you are required to report it to the IRS – income is income, after all. Now, neither eBay nor PayPal reports transactions to the IRS, so it’s up to you to report your profits.

If you are serious about your eBay venture, consider setting up a business to reduce your tax liability and the threat of penalties for failing to report income (you can then claim business deductions).

What about Affiliate Marketing?

Another popular way to make money online is through affiliate marketing. This is an arrangement by which individual website owners receive a sales commission by promoting products and services of other companies. Most affiliate marketers are individuals looking to make some extra money on their blogs, for example, or website owners who want to generate revenue from their site without selling products directly.

In the eyes of the IRS, affiliate marketing is comparable to being a commissioned salesperson; as a result, the money paid to you must be reported on your taxes as income. Make sure your affiliate companies send you an IRS 1099-MISC form showing your earnings for the previous tax year by February 1; then report these earnings as income on 1040 Schedule C.

Starting an Online Store or e-Commerce Site

If you’re starting a business online, you must follow the same basic steps any business owner needs to take. This involves registering for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), registering your business with the appropriate agencies, getting a license or permit, paying sales taxes, and complying with online regulations such as privacy laws, advertising laws, and intellectual property laws.

SBA offers two guides to walk you through the process of starting a business and understanding the specific obligations of online business owners:

Other useful guides include:

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About the Author:

Caron Beesley


Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley


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I have a question about hobby vs. business. I opened a page on fb 3 years ago. I usually do maybe 3-4 orders sometimes more per month, then I have a month or 2 where I don't get any orders. Last year I made $1K after expenses. I don't do this as a full time job, and it isn't my main income. So, in the eyes of the IRS is that considered a hobby? I just need advise on this, because when I filed I filed jointly with my husband, and put profit in other income which decreased how much we would get. I want to make sure I am filing correctly. Thanks!
When it comes to making money online (aside from the irs requirements) there is a psychological barrier that many people have to transcend. Many people remain in the hobby mindset even when they are earning good money but it creates a psychological barrier. Moving to full time can often help people move past this and start to treat it like a business, at which point they often start making much more money.
Call it a hobby or not, but if you aren't earning an income it doesn't matter. Unfortunately, for most of us the first year of the "learning curve" is a painful "hobby". I cannot tell you how many hours I have writing articles at the various sites (many more hours than the pay will likely ever justify), managing my own blogs and it seemed like forever until I got my first sell. Mostly because I had no clue about getting ranked or attracting (and keeping) readers, nor did I fully grasp the importance of a niche. Amazon can get by with selling everything, online marketers cannot. In order to stand out and be noticed you have to find tightly grouped niches (as many as you like, of course) and work those niches and that market. I have articles out there about every topic imaginable at all of the top sites. Until I started drilling in to specific niches and then combining those resources, I had no traffic or sales. That learning curve is what kills it for most newcomers. The good thing about writing for article directories like Hubpages or Squidoo is that they make keeping track of earnings (and reporting) very simple.
I definitely started selling online as a hobby, but once I got my first affiliate sale, I was hooked! I quickly decided to turn this passion into a business. Frequently, I still experience many hurdles and setbacks as the internet is always changing, but once you get through the initial growing pains, it's well worth it.
Actually, i won't call it a business. Some people might perform it as their business but most of people love to involve in it as their personal interest.
Most small businesses have virtually not yet used the internet as a vessel for growth. Revenues from online sales are consistently going up and could grow faster if brands are marketed effectively... As Wallace D. Wattles repeated in "The Science of Getting Rich", it is not what you do but how you do it!
I would like to start my online web store. This resource was indeed very helpful and gives a great insight for new starters and entrepreneurs like me. Thank you for sharing this information. I am going to work out a checklist of do's and donts now.
This information is very helpful. I know the tax issues mentioned above are often overlooked, and I'm glad that the IRS appears to be cracking down on enforcement by making PayPal and other sites report this income. Tax evasion and noncompliance cost the United States billions of dollars per year according to separate analyses done by ThinkProgress and the tax justice network. Nobody likes paying taxes, but especially in these times of high deficits, it's good that the IRS tries to recoup some of this lost revenue.
Affiliate marketing is really hard now that google panda came out. A friend of mine went from making 100k to like 20k just because of panda


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