Updated on 05.31.12

You Don’t Need Money to Start a Side Business

Trent Hamm

When I started my computer consulting business, I spent about $150 in startup costs. I printed some flyers, had some business cards made, and had a lawyer check over a few documents. That’s it.

When I started The Simple Dollar, I spent even less. I spent somewhere around $40 launching the site, all told.

In both of these cases, it was not a big initial investment that led to success. The ingredients for success were found elsewhere.

This isn’t just my experience, either. Recently, I was reading Chris Guillebeau’s book The $100 Startup and it was loaded with stories very similar to mine. People launch side businesses all the time with very little money.

Chris draws a lot of conclusions about starting such side businesses, but from my perspective, success with a side business comes down to a handful of things.

With each side business I’ve found success with, I’ve started with one simple question: what do I want?

If you look at any business out there that works, large or small, they’re all doing the same thing. They’re taking care of something that someone wants.

If I find myself looking for something and not finding it, that means I want this thing but, for some reason, it’s not easily available to me. If there’s something I want enough that I’d be willing to pay for it – even a little bit – but it’s not something I can get right now, there’s a side business waiting to happen.

For example, if you love reading fantasy novels but you wish you could find a good one with a truly independent female protagonist, you’re probably not alone. Why not try writing one?

If you’d love for someone to come to your door, pick up a bag of laundry, wash and fold it, then return it to you, you’re probably not alone. Why not start this business?

Think about items and services you would like to have but don’t. That’s the start of any business.

More than money, the biggest investment that a person can make in their side business is time. If you want to succeed, expect to put in a lot of hours early on with very little return on your money. Think pennies per hour for a very long time.

Many people simply aren’t willing to commit a lot of time and effort without much return. For some people, they have to be passionate about what they’re doing beyond merely running a business. Others will get by purely on patience. Many others simply won’t make it.

Assume you’ll be spending a lot of hours at this without making a lot of money. You’ll be doing things like creating content, networking with others, promoting your business, learning a new skill, learning about a particular supply chain, managing a Kickstarter project, or something like that. These things won’t earn you much money at all (assuming they earn you anything, which is a big “if”).

If you’re not about to spend time without an immediate financial return on that time, then starting a side business probably isn’t for you.

No matter how good your idea or how much effort you put in, sometimes things just don’t launch. You don’t have customers. You don’t have readers. You have a giant creative block.

Can you step back and look critically at what’s going on? What’s wrong with the situation? Can those things that are wrong be fixed? Can they be incorporated into the plans for what comes next?

Sometimes, the best solution is to try again. Sometimes, the best solution is to walk away and try something new. Sometimes, the best solution is to keep plugging away.

In each of those cases, re-evaluating the situation for problems and solutions is key. You have to step back regularly and ask yourself what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and whether the wrongs can be fixed.

Many (if not most) modern side businesses do not need money. They need an idea, they need time, and they need the willingness to re-evaluate. If you bring those things to the table over and over again, you can start something of your very own, whether it’s just a small side business to bring in a few bucks or the birth of a big enterprise.

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  1. Johanna says:

    90% of the article has nothing to do with the title.

  2. Lilly says:

    I do not agree… most “side businesses” require a great deal more money than the average person expects, especially if you run them legally.

  3. Riki says:

    Also, $150 and $40 respectively are both amounts of money. You DID need money to start those businesses.

    And sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

    And other businesses aren’t like running a blog.

  4. Lilly says:

    Between self-employment taxes, licenses, supplies, advertising, etc, you may not even make a profit – add on to that the money you are losing by NOT working at the time (unless it’s leisure time that you don’t mind giving up) and you may end up losing money.

  5. Riki says:

    My comment is in moderation, probably because it doesn’t contain the word coupon.

  6. Lilly says:

    I’m going to give Trent the benefit of the doubt and interpret this article as “Find a side business that doesn’t take much money to start, or else don’t start one.” That I can kind of agree with… otherwise this is terrible terrible advice.

  7. Riki says:

    I have a side business and my startup costs, including fees to register the business name, legal fees, and basic (not fancy) supplies, were over $600. Mostly government fees and legal costs.

    Trent’s businesses all seem to be under the table.

    Terrible advice.

  8. Lilly says:

    Also, “If you’d love for someone to come to your door, pick up a bag of laundry, wash and fold it, then return it to you, you’re probably not alone. Why not start this business?”

    If you want somebody to do your laundry bad enough to be willing to PAY for it, you probably should NOT start a business doing other people’s laundry LOL

  9. Vanessa says:

    Lilly said what I was thinking.


  10. Kevin says:

    I agree that there are many businesses you can start with little money, but many more require a great deal of start-up capital.


  11. Sam says:

    @Lilly #8 – Your comment is hilarious! I can’t stop laughing!


  12. Kate says:

    Thanks from me, too Lilly#8

  13. DannyD says:

    I think you’d have to be pretty far out in the sticks to not have competition from a dry cleaner for the laundry idea. Plenty of places around that offer pickup/wash/fold/return of laundry & dry cleaning. And if you’re in an area that doesn’t already have it, there’s likely not enough business to sustain it.

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