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Wilson unexpectedly joined a new Alexa economy, a small but fast-growing network of independent developers, marketing companies and Alexa tools makers. Theyre working to bring you voice-activatedflash briefings, games and recipes through Amazons Echo speaker, Alexas primary home. By doing so, they hope to define the 3-year-old Alexa platform and make money from voice computings surging popularity.

Beyond a $100 monthly credit that Amazon provides to cover his server costs, Johnson doesnt make money from his skills, and thats just fine with him. Hes happy to get back to his developer roots — something he doesnt get to do much at work — and hes enjoyed recognition at Accenture for building up his Alexa expertise.

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For there to be quality skills on Alexa, quality developers are going to need to spend quality time, Jaquinta said. If you cant make money off it, no ones going to seriously engage.

Its been a great hobby to do. I love it, Johnson said, but added about payouts: I think you have to go into it knowing the deal youre making.

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Joel Wilson has created skills such as Three Questions and Question of the Day.

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Joseph Jo Jaquinta has created skills such as Starlanes and 6 Swords.

They are doing a tremendous amount to foster the ecosystem, said VoiceLabs CEO Adam Marchick. Theyre doing a lot, and theyre paying people.

Responding to those concerns, Amazons Pulciani said the company is relentlessly exploring ways for customers to get an enjoyable experience while helping developers build a voice-first business. He added that the rewards payments weigh a number of factors, including minutes of usage, new customers, recurring customers, customer ratings and more.

Hoping to squeeze some money out of these skills, hes self-published two books, put up for sale Starlanes T-shirts, bought ads through Google AdWords to draw in users and tested ads through his skills, though ads are now strictly forbidden on Alexa.

Two years ago, there wasnt nearly as much to do on Alexa and the market for making Alexa skills was worth a mere $500,000. Now, with more than 25,000 skills available, the market is expected to hit $50 million in 2018, according to analytics firm VoiceLabs. Thats dwarfed by the mobile app economy, withglobal sales of over $50 billion, but Alexa is growing at a far faster rate.

Alexa is an increasingly important business for Amazon, which is expanding the assistant into millions of internet-connected gadgets and moving itinto the workplace. Drawing in more developers will help the company sell more Alexa-powered devices and strengthen its top-dog status in voice. Its sold more than 20 million Echo speakers in the US, taking up70 percentof the market and helping Alexa become the most active voice market for developers today.

After a few weeks of coding, he launched two skills — Amazons term for voice-controlled apps — calledQuestion of the DayandThree Questions. Both quiz people on science, literature and pop culture trivia.

Other companies offer more complex, customized skills, but that costs more money. Few major brands shell out that kind of cash, but marketers see the situation changing soon as more companies learn about voice platforms.

Amazon also said its already paid millions of dollars to developers through its rewards program, which its expanding to more countries in 2018.

Other developers also take issue with the lack of transparency and unpredictable payouts from the Alexa rewards program. After all, its hard to build a business model when you dont know whether youre making $1,000 or $9,000 any given month.

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Possible Mobile, a Denver company owned by ad giant WPP, makes skills for $30,000 to $100,000 each, including the cost of design, engineering and quality assurance teams, said Danielle Reubenstein, the executive creative director. Alexa skills, though, are only about 5 percent of Possible Mobiles total business, and those projects are usually part of larger marketing campaigns for clients.

On a lark, Joel Wilson started developing skills for Alexa, Amazons voice assistant, this past January.

He received $5,000 through Amazons rewards program one month, but that amount has shrunk by half in recent months despite customer use rising, he said. Hes now planning to scale back his Alexa work.

In February, he launched Witlingo in Washington, DC, and now has about 10 employees. His company designs and hosts voice apps for Cortana, Google Assistant and Alexa, with clients including AARP and Motley Fool. His companychargessetup fees of $300 to $1,000 for simple skills built off templates, making money by charging $100 to $500 a month to operate the skills.

The Alexa economy is just beginning to take shape, according to interviews with a dozen indie Alexa coders, marketing executives, industry watchers and Amazon itself.

Mobiquity, a Boston agency that built skills for Purina and Nestle, also brings in just 5 percent to 10 percent of its revenue from voice apps — amounting to a few million dollars — but sees voice as a growth opportunity, said Andy Norman, the chief operating officer.

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As the Amazon checks came in, Wilson in October focused most of his energy into building a new startup, called VoicePress.AI, which designs and hosts skills for companies, similar to what Witlingo or Possible Mobile do. He also spoke to some venture capitalists about potentially funding voice startups.

Meanwhile, most of the serious money is flowing tomarketing companies, which make anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 to create skills for major brands and groups like Purina, Nestle and AARP. While that higher end may sound like a lot, it pales in comparison to what companies typically spend in the more mature mobile-apps market. Plus, these big-money jobs dont come around often.

One potentially lucrative route — advertising — isnt yet happening. VoiceLabsin Mayintroduced an ad program that included spots from ESPN, Progressive and Wendys. But itstopped the programafter Amazon tightened its ads policies. Marchick said he had one customer on track to make $20,000 a month but added that Amazon was right to be cautious, so it could avoid annoying customers.

Nearly all skills available today are free to consumers because Amazon doesnt let most developers charge consumers or serve ads. That means most indie developers many of them hobbyists with day jobs in a variety of fields — see hardly any payouts even though theyve produced the large majority of skills. Like Wilson, a lucky few get paid through AmazonsAlexa Developer Rewardsprogram. But Amazon is creating more ways for developers to profit.

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Beyond those payment options, Amazon has cultivated developers by hosting hackathons and webinars, teaming up with educational groups like Codecademy, and creating theAlexa Championsprogram, which highlights indie developers like Johnson. It also runs challenges like the Alexa Prize, a college competition that pays $500,000 to the winner.

All the signals were there that this was going to take off, he said, and the sooner one would launch a startup, the better.

The Echo Show was introduced in 2017 and includes a built-in touchscreen.

This industry, Im confident, is going to explode like web development exploded, said Pat Higbie, CEO ofXAPPmediain Washington, DC, which charges $50,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars for skills. Its going to happen next year.

The Alexa skills economy is still in its infancy.

I really, wholeheartedly believe voice is coming, Reubenstein said. Its coming for all of us — like winter.

Asked about bringing ads to the platform, Pulciani said: We dont comment on our future plans, but customers expect a delightful experience with Alexa, and it is our top priority to maintain that experience.

Wilsons story is a rare case. A more typical financial outcome is Darian Johnsons. Hes 40, lives in Dallas and works as a managing director at Accenture.

Every skill makes Alexa smarter or more useful, Rob Pulciani, director of Amazon Alexa, said in a statement to CNET. We cant do that by ourselves and we want to enable indie developers to innovate and extend Alexa capabilities at a rapid pace. If our developer community succeeds, we succeed.

I think were just getting started here, she added.

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But two months later, he has decided to split his time between his Alexa work and his existing marketing analytics company, with its more predictable paychecks. Amazon didnt give him access to its new money-making programs, and he doubts theyd work for his skills anyway. Hes hoping to be able to serve ads someday.

The challenge with the monetization program is theres no certainty. We dont know how it works, said one developer who requested anonymity.

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In May, he got an email from Amazon telling him to expect a check in the mail as part of a new program that pays cash to makers of popular skills. That first month, Amazon sent him $2,000. It got better from there. Hes received checks for $9,000 over each of the past three months, he said.

I wasnt thinking in terms of revenue. I was just doing it for fun, said Wilson, 47, CEO of a small marketing analytics company in Washington, DC.

For some developers interested in creating a business on Alexa, the situation isnt as positive.

Since late October, Amazon hasintroducedtwo new ways to make money. It offers in-skill purchasing, allowing some developers to sell premium content or digital subscriptions in their skills. That meansSony, which made the Jeopardy skill, can sell a subscription to Double Jeopardy, which offers more clues. Amazon also added its Amazon Pay service to skills so, for example, TGI Fridays customers can pay for their food orders through Alexa. Both features still have limited availability, but Amazon said more developers will get access to them in 2018.

Joseph Jo Jaquinta, 52, an IBM senior developer from Winchester, Massachusetts, said hes spent the past two years — usually working two hours every night — trying to turn his Alexa skills into moneymakers. Hes frustrated it hasnt worked out that way.

His hesitation to jump full force into Alexa work illustrates the risks of the young platform and perhaps the need for Amazon to do more to spread the wealth.

Its a tricky situation, he said about the rewards checks, because this Amazon program could go away at any time.

Whos creating Alexa skills? Indie developers and marketing companies looking to profit from voice-controlled computing. Some cash in, and some dont.

Customers rarely pay these developers and marketers directly, but they have a big stake in these workers efforts. Their success, or failure, will determine the number and the quality of skills, such as more complex games, better smart-home controls and more services from companies like Lyft or Dominos Pizza.

Last year, Ahmed Bouzid took the leap into the Alexa economy. He was working on Amazons Alexa team when he left to create a voice tech startup that partners with the e-commerce giant.

Johnson caught the Alexa bug by entering hackathon contests to create skills. If youve ever played chess through Alexa using theChess Masterskill or usedBlack History Facts, youve used one of his seven available skills.

Amazons success is far from assured. Developers can already decamp to rival voice helpers like Google Assistant or Microsofts Cortana, and may find more options when Apples Siri and Samsungs Bixby get in the mix. Plus, both Google and Apple might use their huge user bases and larger app stores to entice developers to work on their assistants instead, said Julie Ask, a Forrester analyst.

Jaquinta created over a dozen skills, including the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired game6 Swords, the space-fantasy gameStarlanesand sillier skills likeZombie News, where listeners can hear inspirational groans.

Darian Johnson has built skills such as Chess Master and Black History Facts.

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