How To Create Your Own Business For $0, Part 1
I believe that everyone should consider starting a side business. All people have knowledge or skills they can use to help others. In a nutshell, starting a business means identifying a need and trying to solve it. Or learning a skill and reaching out to people who need that skill. Then you get money for your efforts, ideally with profit exceeding expenses. This is a win-win for everyone. Provide value to obtain value. For people who don’t think they have a talent, they probably do, or at least have the ability to acquire one.
It’s never been easier to start a side business from a computer or smartphone. More tools, more resources, and fewer expenses. Certain businesses still require a hefty initial investment, but many don’t. Here’s a list of some options, along with details on how to get going. Important note: there are no get-rich-quick schemes. People should have some passion for what they’re doing. They need to believe in their product/service for others to believe in it.
Caveat: a business isn’t for everyone. Most people (80-90%) will be fine with a 9-5 job, while having a college degree or technical certification. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of new businesses fail within 5 years. Still, it can be worth a try.
In all cases, a website is the first step. It publicly explains what you do, why people should be interested, how to contact you, and more. For a custom domain name and other details, I wrote about how to create a website for $1. Free websites also exist. For custom email addresses (a bonus step) then options include Google Workspace and Protonmail.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Freelance Designer
- Writer / Editor / Narrator
- Social Media Manager
- Drop shipper
- Print-On-Demand Artwork
- Promotional Products Distributor
- Musician / Record Label
“Design” is a broad category. This includes graphic design, web design, and more.
People who don’t already know design can learn the basics with online courses and videos. Free or low-cost software includes Affinity Photo, GIMP, and Canva. Some old versions of Adobe Photoshop can also be picked up for free (YMMV). The answers to many questions are a quick web search away, or there’s a video tutorial for it. Youtube, Udemy, Skillshare, FutureLearn, Pluralsight, and many other sites have countless options. Design doesn’t require a college degree.
Certificates can help, for example Front-End Web Development at edx. Not just for the knowledge, but also credibility; a marketing point for acquiring new clients. People who are just starting out are unlikely to have a portfolio or testimonials. Acquiring clients can be harder than figuring out how to design things. Many people start out on websites like Fiverr, Upwork, and 99Designs. Or helping friends, family, and local businesses.
Doing the actual work varies by what the clients need. Beginner designers might use tools to auto-generate logos or convert images into code (augmented with machine learning technology). The tools aren’t that good yet, but with a little knowledge of color psychology and design basics, it can be an okay starting point. Of course, a professional graphic designer with extensive experience will blow this out of the water. The point is, it’s never been easier to start, and doesn’t have to cost anything.
For a freelancer who does their work well, they’ll naturally bring in more clients. They build a portfolio on their website, get word-of-mouth referrals, and more, for the cycle to self-perpetuate. This is true for all businesses: a fantastic product or service markets itself via happy customers.
Freelance design scales well, in some cases. One of the problems is that it’s impossible to compete on price. It’s a global market. Someone on the planet is always willing to do more work for less money. This means competing on quality, intangibles, and specialty/niche areas. A freelancer who gets “too many” clients can hire other designers or outsource. This turns “freelance designer” into “design agency” and thus a full-scale business. Acquire more clients and hire other freelancers to help with the workload. Repeat as desired.
WRITING / EDITING / AUDIOBOOKS
Like in the previous example, Fiverr and Upwork can be a starting point. Some news organizations, blogs, and magazines will pay for contributions. Look around and see what the options are. Content creation is important, so there’s high demand for writers and editors/proofreaders.
It’s possible to write books (fiction or nonfiction) and publish on a budget of $0. See above for how to create a book cover. Writing is often unprofitable at first, because one has to build an audience. It’s a delicate field which requires a heavy time investment, so this wouldn’t be my first suggestion if someone is looking for easy money. There’s a lot to learn. Sites like Creativindie and groups like 20BooksTo50k are good resources. “20Booksto50k® is a simple concept of how much money it takes to retire comfortably in Cabo San Lucas. If you have twenty books earning $7.50 each per day, you can make $50k per year.” YMMV but prolific authors tend to make more money, because fans will follow them from book to book. Cross-sells and up-sells become easier as the backlist expands. A new reader may buy several books instead of just one, which increases profitability from advertising.
Audiobook narration is a similar category, although there IS an upfront cost for quality recording equipment and editing software. It’s also considered a form of acting, so like most things, there’s a learning curve. Unionized narrators typically charge $200 per finished hour of audio. One should note that “finished hour” includes editing time, which varies wildly. Narrators can spend up to 6-7 hours creating a “finished” hour. Removing unwanted noises, re-recording sections that don’t sound right, tweaking audio levels, and more. A seven-hour audiobook might take 40 hours to complete. Narrators can find work at sites like Amazon ACX or Findaway Voices. Or narrate for free with LibriVox or other public domain sites.
Most audiobook narrators and writers don’t make a lot of money or do this full-time, but it can certainly be another form of income. Nonfiction is sometimes easier: doing talks at conferences, selling courses, consulting, etc. It’s more straightforward to branch out and have other options for monetization. With audiobooks, one option is to simply connect authors and narrators/publishers for a small fee. Lead generation is actually quite important (more on this later) and having experience in a related industry is an advantage. If you’ve done a couple audiobooks yourself, you know what to look for and how to structure deals.
This is a tough category to scale up when doing fiction, unless you move into a sales-related angle. Writers and narrators have to constantly produce new content, and it’s hard to outsource that. Some people use ghostwriters to help with content creation, but that has high costs. Editors and proofreaders have a similarly tough time scaling, beyond hiring others to help with the workload.
SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER
Many companies can use help with their social media pages, whether it’s 1-2 profiles or several. Create a few posts in a few hours, and schedule them with an app to go out at optimal times throughout the week. Then repeat. You just have to know the ins and outs of whichever site(s) you’ll be managing. Certain sites are better channels for certain types of businesses. Every social media website has its own algorithms to understand. Plus, updates can make previous strategies obsolete. Being flexible is important.
Instagram for example. There are ideal mixes of hashtags (high-competition to low-competition) and posts can have 20-30 tags. Reusing the same hashtags every time might get the account downgraded in Instagram’s algorithm (potential spam) so you need to know how to discover and blend hashtags. Posting 3-5 times per week is considered the minimum, and Instagram is fine with 1-3 posts per day. Networking/interaction is also more valuable than simply posting without doing anything else. There are a lot of small details to “optimize” engagement and growth.
Some services even generate Instagram posts and hashtags for you, like Social Studio. Doing custom graphics, or cropping/resizing photos, can be done with Canva or free programs (see above). Social Studio is probably the fastest and most profitable option. You subscribe to their service and charge clients more than Social Studio’s costs. Easy. For free images to use as standalone posts, search sites like Unsplash or Wikimedia.
As another example, Twitter: the goal is to provide value for your target audience, position the brand as an expert in a certain area, and network/interact with people. Quote-tweet larger accounts, write threads, share useful information, etc. The Twitter algorithm rewards being prolific, like Instagram does. Scheduling apps include Hypefury, Buffer, and Hootsuite.
Every site is a little different. For most small businesses, social media usually requires 3-5 hours of weekly work. It’s easy to get started, especially for the younger crowd who grows up with social media. Use that experience to the benefit of others and get paid for it.
Scaling this business is the same as a design agency. When you have too many clients, hire VAs or a social media manager for yourself. This lightens your workload so you can spend more time getting new clients. Repeat as desired, hiring help instead of turning away potential clients.
Drop shipping is a popular way to get started with a business. It teaches valuable information, is easy to learn, has low up-front costs, and doesn’t require building your own product. It can be done 100% online from anywhere in the world. It can be explained as “a type of retail fulfillment method, where instead of a store stocking products, it purchases the products from a third-party supplier. The products are then shipped directly to the consumer. This way, the seller doesn’t have to handle the product directly.”
In a nutshell, you’d create a website and market someone else’s product for them. It’s usually a win-win. Drop shippers make money, and manufacturers (suppliers) get extra sales they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, they may be uneasy about not having control over how someone presents their products. Some suppliers will only work through approved channels to mitigate this. Likewise, it’s difficult for a drop shipper to handle things like pricing, inventory, and customer service. They don’t have any of the items themselves. Their reputation will be partly dependent on their vendors.
This isn’t always “free” to start, but there are free trials, so it kinda counts. Getting sales during the tree trial allows people to use profits to cover costs. For example: Shopify has a 2-week free trial. BigCommerce has a 3-month free trial when signing up through Chase Bank. Amazon also has a free way to dropship, although their requirements can be prickly. A thread on Twitter mentioned that a guy once lost a seven-figure business overnight, after being banned from Amazon.
Finding products is easy. People can go with what they know, or look for what’s already popular (or soon to be popular). Some items/ideas are seasonal, or go in and out of fashion. Finding successful products is more difficult. Amazon and other large sites can be a good starting point. Amazon automatically shows bestselling items in each category. Reviews on those items explain what people are looking for. Amazon’s “also bought” section creates additional opportunities. Then some items aren’t bestsellers, but they could be with a little work. Amazon spoon-feeds ideas on what to sell and why. Or literally ask people what they're buying. Some categories are more difficult than others, but it’s always possible to do a bit of market research and check on the competition. Free plugins like Oberlo can handle products, or one contacts wholesalers/suppliers/factories directly for orders/information.
The downside of this being an easy business to start up: it’s competitive and can be done anywhere in the world. It’s nearly impossible to compete on price because someone will always be willing to work for less profit. Some people end up skating by on razor-thin margins. Competing on specialty/niche is a better idea. It’s also tough to get things “just right” on ads and other details. Many dropshippers fail with their first store(s) because they don’t really understand everything. But those who stick with the business model can find success as they learn what to do and why.
This business model can scale well. As the dropshipping company becomes busier, the founder can hire others. Like VAs and social managers, as mentioned above. Profits can be increased by purchasing items wholesale for a discount, and storing them in a warehouse. If things are going particularly well, it may be possible to rebrand the items with custom labels.
For example, a coffee company. Some companies will allow “private label” (or “white label”) runs of their coffee. Sometimes this coffee is a predetermined blend, while other companies will work with you to realize a vision. Then you buy wholesale using your own package designs, and sell as you wish (through Shopify, Amazon, Etsy, or another ecommerce platform). This concept works with basically any physical item. Copper pots, umbrellas, etc. It has high upfront costs and more risk, but potentially higher profits and better quality control. Not an option for beginners.
“Mystery boxes” are a good add-on idea for this, for personal or gifting use. Customers order a random assortment of whatever products you sell, in one discounted package. This can also be a recurring subscription or bundle.
PRINT ON DEMAND (POD) ARTWORK & NFTs
This uses some of the same sites/concepts as Drop shipping. Plus free options like Redbubble and Origin Dshop (this requires a cryptocurrency wallet). I have a storefront using Origin, for an example: https://lichy.ogn.app/
Artists/photographers format and upload their work to a site like Printify or Printful, then connect this to their customer-facing website (such as Shopify or BigCommerce). When someone makes a purchase, Printify/Printful handles everything from there. They print and ship each order automatically. The artist just has to advertise their website and do customer service as needed. Listing items on sites like Etsy or Facebook may help with visibility even if those sites add fees.
It’s easy to get started for any artist with high-resolution digital files of their art. Takes a while to upload and resize everything, but it’s simple. The hard part is the marketing, partly because art is subjective, and it can be difficult to find the right audience. Lots of variance. The upside is having something completely unique to offer people, unlike options like drop shipping or flipping.
And with digital files, there’s the (controversial) option of creating NFTs. However, this is not free, the main hype has passed, and as of early 2021 can have significant costs. In more than one way. It can also be difficult to market since it’s a niche topic, in addition to being controversial. But it does work for some people, like Beeple who received tens of millions for a single auction. Just remember the environmental costs.
Creating custom coloring books, workbooks, or puzzles might be possible, though it may have a startup cost (these items aren't always POD).
A thread on POD companies: https://twitter.com/mywifequit/status/1393205779277258754
PROMOTIONAL PRODUCTS DISTRIBUTOR
There can be costs associated with this, depending on how one goes about it. It’s similar to drop shipping and print-on-demand businesses. One source defines this as: “A distributor is a company (or company that maintains a division, department or affiliate)... whose primary business includes developing ideas for the use of promotional products, buying such products from suppliers and reselling them to end buyers.” Distributors combine sales and customer service as a B2B (business-to-business) middleman. This isn’t classified as print-on-demand due to the scale and personal connections. Promotional products are usually ordered in hundreds or thousands (often giveaways, trade shows, or gifts) and contacting the right people will heavily increase profits.
For example: let’s say a company wants to give away customized tote bags to its employees, each featuring the company’s logo. A Distributor would have to know who (a ‘Supplier’) can manufacture the bags, print the logo on them, and ship the final product to one or more locations. The Distributor gets the artwork and shipping information from the client company and gives it to the Supplier company. If there are art changes, questions, or issues after the order is fulfilled, the Distributor handles it all. Typically this is done at a 30-40% markup. If a distributor gets $10,000 from their client to obtain the tote bags, the distributor’s cut is $3,000-4,000 on average.
The promo industry is a bit convoluted in areas, and takes a while to fully understand. EQP pricing, buying groups, regional associations, etc. Large distributor-based groups include Halo Branded Solutions and Kaeser & Blair. Industry membership groups include ASI, SAGE, and PPAI. Industry certifications also exist.
MUSICIAN / RECORD LABEL
If you’re already able to create or record music, it’s easy to get started. (We won't cover costs for DAWs, recording studios, instruments, etc. They can be bypassed.) Convert files or record anew with the free program Audacity. There’s bonus crossover potential with the above idea for audiobook narration, if you have a decent microphone.
Create album covers with free software like GIMP (3000x3000 pixels minimum). Or use free trials of Affinity Photo and Adobe Photoshop. Old versions of Photoshop may be free on some websites, just be careful you don’t download a virus instead. Affinity is the lowest-cost best option, since they don’t have subscriptions like Adobe, and they have vector software for logo creation. Otherwise, free software like Inkscape can do the job. There are “free” ways to get paid software, but I won’t cover that here.
Then upload your music to Bandcamp and Routenote. Bandcamp is essential because they have so many great features, and sales trump streaming. Routenote is the only free way to get music onto Spotify, iTunes, and other streaming services. The most popular paid version is probably Distrokid.
If you’re able to do video content, upload to Youtube and/or Vimeo (even if you just have an mp3 combined with the album art). Free stock footage also exists on some sites. Just search for public domain video. Reasonable footage can be done with upper-end phones too, combined with a cheap tripod or gimbal.
T-shirts, posters, and other merchandise can be done with print-on-demand (POD) services, as mentioned above. The free method is to set up Origin Dshop with Metamask, and connect it to Printful. You’ll need the image editing software again. Always create images in the largest possible size to start. 36” x 36” (300 DPI) is good if your computer can handle it. This will cover most POD products.
Selling CDs is a little more difficult. This has to be crowdsourced, or you have to print CDs at home with a relatively expensive inkjet printer (usually $200-300). Or you have to spend time going to a local print shop every time you get an order. There are ways to do this inexpensively, but the start-up costs mean it’s best to start with digital-only releases. Vinyl and cassettes have higher upfront costs than CDs, unless you happen to have cassette equipment already on hand. Vinyl pressing costs at least $1200-1500 per run, and lathe-cut vinyl is more expensive per unit ($30-50 each) despite the lower minimums.
From there, network on social media to gain fans. Do split EPs with other artists and contribute to compilation albums. Reach out to music blogs and magazines for album reviews. See if you can license tracks to TV shows and video games. Everyone talks about streaming these days, but it’s the worst possible way to make money as a musician. The payouts are awful and reach is more limited than people think.
It’s difficult to scale up when it comes to music, but it’s easy enough to monetize. The hardest part is building an audience, since people have so many options for music. This has some of the same pros as cons mentioned in the above POD section.
CONCLUSION / DISCLAIMER
Almost any idea can make money. It’s just a matter of learning what can be done and why. I’ll create a follow-up post to this with even more ideas. This was initially going to be one post, but it’s becoming extremely long, so I’m splitting it into two parts. Maybe three (TBD).
Note that I haven’t covered taxes, corporate structures, licensing, LLCs, or other potential business topics. This post is for ideas only. For the legal and financial aspects of running a business, please see a lawyer and/or professional financial advisor.