Over the past several years, I’ve been on a quest to study micro-businesses—small operations (typically one person) that make $50,000 a year or more (often a lot more). The quest took me all over the world, at first to a large group of 1,500 “unexpected entrepreneurs” who volunteered to share their stories in detail.
I wanted to hear from all kinds of businesses–both offline and online–to decipher what made them so successful. How did they get started? What helped them grow into significant, reliable sources of income? How can you increase odds of success?
After much effort, a small team and I narrowed down the case studies to a subset of 70 that I focused on for final analysis. All 70 people had created freedom for themselves: new income and a completely new way of life. There are formulas.
Here is a highly-condensed list of 17 lessons learned…
The 17 Lessons of $100 Start-ups
Note: Links show the businesses in action.
A gap in the marketplace reveals a business opportunity.
Gary Leff used his Frequent Flyer Miles to travel all over the world in First Class, and his friends kept asking for advice. Almost on a whim, he decided to launch a basic website offering the service of booking travel awards for a fee.
His service is something that people could do on their own for free—but plenty of people don’t know how it works or just don’t want the hassle of dealing with airline call centers. This “side business” now brings in more than $100,000 a year.
Lesson: Provide results (photos, testimonials, details of your own experiences) and offer to do something for people that they don’t know how to do or don’t want to worry about.
Latch on to a popular service, then simplify it for others.
Self-described “professional nerd” Brett Kelly wrote Evernote Essentials, the first English-language manual for the popular Evernote software. Brett was hoping for a $10,000 payday over the course of a few months—enough to pay off some bills. Instead, he received $10,000 in two days… and then the sales kept coming.
Originally conceived as a hobby that Brett worked on during nights and weekends, Evernote Essentials now earns more than $160,000 a year in net income. Here’s what Brett says about the results: “The unreal success of this project has not only freed our family from a decade of debt and financial instability, but has also given us the freedom to pursue the kind of life we want.”
Lesson: Simplify things and cash in. Brett developed a comprehensive resource with lots of screenshots and detailed, highly actionable tips. More than 10,000 customers later, it’s still going strong.
Don’t beg your friends for money!
You probably don’t need any outside investment to begin. The vast majority of respondents in the study started their business for less than $1,000, and nearly half for $100 or less. In Vancouver, Canada, Nicolas Luff started with only $56.33, the cost of a business license. Others started only with a domain name and a free WordPress account.
It wasn’t just online businesses that started on the cheap. Michael Hanna started an unconventional mattress store after being laid off from his job in media sales. A friend of his who owned a furniture store offered him an unwanted truckload of mattresses, figuring that Michael could sell them one at a time on Craigslist. Instead of Craigslist, though, Michael found a car dealership that had recently gone out of business. He was able to rent the space at a huge discount, and he opened his first store while learning on the job.
Even though Michael originally knew nothing about the mattress business, three years later Mattress Lot produces more than $1 million in revenue.
The chart below illustrates the average startup cost from the businesses we examined.
Image Credit: Mike Rohde.
Note: I sometimes hear from people who say that not all businesses can be started on the cheap. This is true. If you want to open a factory, you might need more than $100. If you want to found a VC-backed tech start-up, you might need to woo investors. But the point remains: you can start many different kinds of businesses without going into debt. All things are equal, why not take that route if the costs are low?
Lesson: Whenever possible, start quickly and start cheap. (And most of the time, it is possible.)
If you do need money, you can find a way.
Emma Reynolds had an idea for a consultancy that would work with big companies to improve their staffing and resourcing. She calculated that she would need at least $17,000 to start the new firm. There was just one problem: Emma was 23 and unlikely to get a business loan.
Emma and her business partner Bruce realized that despite this, they could probably get a car loan. Bruce proceeded to do just that, borrowing $17,000 for a car and then investing the funds in the business with Emma instead. They paid back the car loan within ten months, and the bank never found out that there was no actual car. Now the profitable firm employs twenty people and has multiple offices in four countries.
Another example: Shannon Oakey was turned down for a small bank loan despite excellent financials and a strong business plan. Shannon took her business elsewhere: to Kickstarter, where her project was fully funded. Shannon printed out a copy of the final results and mailed it to the loan officer who had rejected her—with a lollipop inside the printout.
Lesson: If you really need a loan, don’t take “no” as the final answer. Consider alternatives. Bootstrap. Hustle. Figure it out. (Note: Borrowing money for a non-existent car is at your own risk!)
Get to the first sale as quickly as possible.
Nick Gatens put up a portfolio site for his photographs and sold a $50 print for the first time. What’s the big deal? When you’ve never sold something before–i.e. never had a stranger comes to your website and hands over their credit card–the first time is flooring. Here’s what Nick said:
“It took me a long time to add the order button on my site. For a while I kept blaming it on technical issues—a WordPress glitch, the need for design improvement, and so on. Finally I realized I was waiting for no good reason. I put the offer out there and made a sale. It felt great!”
Lesson: Does your site have a PayPal button on it? If not, add one today!
A trend or controversial idea can also reveal a business opportunity.
Jason Glaspey was a follower of Paleo, the controversial diet that is both loved and ridiculed. Jason noticed a common problem among fellow devotees: because of the requirement for regular shopping and planning, Paleo was hard to follow on a regular basis.
Jason created Paleo Plan, a membership site that offers shopping lists and ongoing guidance. The goal of Paleo Plan is to keep its customers on track, with detailed shopping lists and ongoing recommendations. The project now brings in more than $5,000 a month.
Lesson: When large groups of people love and hate something, it’s a good sign there’s a business model hiding in plain sight. Get paid by making things easy for the people who love it.
You can be one person… or maybe two.
Nathalie Lussier had lost weight and discovered a new way of life by following a raw foods diet. She then set up a successful business teaching people how they could do the same thing, using webinars, courses, and personal coaching. One of the tipping points came when Nathalie discovered that the initial name she had chosen, Raw Foods Switch, could also be rendered Raw Foods Witch. Nathalie jumped into character, dressing up with a broom and pointed black hat.
Within a year, the business grew to more than $60,000 a year in net income. What’s not to love? Just one thing: Nathalie liked raw foods, but that wasn’t all she liked. She was also a programmer who had set up the entire database and backend operation for Raw Foods Witch. She wanted to put those skills to greater use, and she felt like she could help aspirational entrepreneurs build their business.
Instead of shutting down the raw foods business, however, Nathalie put it on auto-pilot, using auto-responders and repeating webinars to essentially market the business on its own. Then she switched over to a new site, NathalieLussier.com, where she offers specific consulting services based on business-building and technology.
Nathalie now earns a good living from both businesses, with RawFoodsWitch.com essentially running on its own as she focuses her efforts on the new site.
Lesson: Clone yourself for fun and profit. It’s not necessarily about doing more, it’s about being smart.
Notice what frustrates you, then figure out a way to correct it. [TIM: This is my business model for almost everything]
In Portland, Oregon I met Sarah Young, who opened a yarn store at the height of the recession despite no business background. When I asked Sarah, “What made you think you would succeed?” her answer was astute.
“I wasn’t an entrepreneur,” Sarah said, “But I was a shopper. Other yarn stores were cramped and unfriendly. There wasn’t really a space you could go to hang out. I knew I wasn’t the only knitter who felt this way, so I decided to create an alternative.”
Sarah followed up, renting retail space and decorating for the grand opening of Happy Knits, a welcoming space for knitters and their families. The last part was important: most (though not all) knitters are women, so Sarah set up a play area for kids and a WiFi area for non-knitting partners. Customers are welcome to stay as long as they like.
You can see Sarah and hear more about Happy Knits in this video trailer.
[Note: in the trailer, Sarah tells the story of her first $1,000 day. We filmed this a few months ago, and when I recently caught up with her, she told me about the store's first $10,000 day. Business is great and Happy Knits now has six employees.]
Lesson: See something missing? Maybe you’re not the only one. Pay attention to inefficiencies, which may be opportunities to provide something better.
To make an extra $35,000 a year, be open to change.
One of the most insightful stories came from a source who preferred to be anonymous, a gent who tweaked a single variable in his sales page. Everything else was constant:
On one sales page I had $49, and on another $89. Nothing was different at all—same copywriting, same order process, same fulfillment. To be honest, I thought that $49 was a better price, but I had set that price somewhat arbitrarily. Guess what? Conversion went down [for $89]… slightly. But overall income actually increased! …
I then decided to test it at $99. Why not, right? But from $89 to $99 I saw a bit more of a drop-off, and I got worried. I’m now back at $89, and even with the lower conversion factored in, I worked out that I’ve given myself a $24 raise on every product that sells.
These days we are selling at least four copies a day. If everything else remains consistent, I’ll make $35,040 more this year . . . all from one test.
This single, unexpected tweak resulted in more than $35,000 a year in net income. His last words to me were: “I’ve decided to try some more tests.”
Lesson: Test everything. If you’re not good at testing, however, at least test pricing. [TIM: Here's one helpful tool you might get obsessed with: Unbounce.com]
Give them an offer they can’t refuse.
What separates a decent offer from a compelling offer that you simply must purchase? I learned this lesson in Anchorage, Alaska, when I talked with Scott McMurren, co-founder of Alaska TourSaver, the leading coupon guide for visitors coming to Alaska.
Scott explained how it worked. Every year, more than a million visitors head to the frontier state, and many of them travel independently. Alaska is a beautiful place, but it’s also expensive. To keep costs down, Scott worked with hotels, restaurants, and tour providers all across the state. He put pressure on them to provide real savings instead of the usual minor discounts that other coupons offered. (In the TourSaver guide, most deals are Buy-1-Get-1-Free or 50% off.)
Then Scott make an important decision: instead of pricing his coupon book for twenty bucks or so, like some competitors did, Alaska TourSaver would sell on an annual basis for just under $100. Because the deals are so valuable, it’s a no-brainer for most travelers to pick up the package. Scott’s pitch is: “Get this coupon book, use it once, and it will pay for itself. Then you’ll have hundreds of additional coupons to use as well.”
Lesson: Make your offer so compelling that buyers have no reason to say no. Give them an offer they can’t refuse. (Bonus tip: every compelling offer includes an element of urgency, the reason why buyers should take action right now. “Supplies are limited! Don’t wait!”)
Give people what they want (not just what they say they want).
Kyle Hepp is a wedding photographer who travels the world from her home base in Santiago, Chile. Kyle’s clients tend to be young and hip, and they’re drawn to her work because it is non-traditional. Sometimes they even say they don’t want any traditional wedding shots. “We’re not into old-school,” was how one couple put it.
Kyle agrees with them and spends her time at the wedding getting fun, candid shots that she knows the couple will like. But that’s not all. Having done this for a while, Kyle knows that what her clients want and what they say they want may be different—and she also knows that the families of the bride and groom may have preferences of their own. Here’s how she handles these competing desires:
On the day of the wedding, I’ll grab them and say, “Let’s get your family and just do a couple of traditional shots.” I’ll make it quick and painless. I make sure everyone is laughing and having a good time and it’s not those awful, everybody-stare-at-the-camera-and-look-miserable kinds of shots. And then after the wedding, when I deliver those photos, either the bride and groom’s parents will be thrilled to have those pictures (which in turn makes the couple happy), or the bride and groom themselves will end up saying they’re so happy that we did those shots.
Kyle goes above and beyond by giving her photography clients what they really want… even if they hadn’t realized it themselves.
Lesson: Dig deeper to uncover real needs. Give people what they really want.
Put happiness in a box and sell it.
What do people really, really want? They want something positive added to their lives or something negative removed. The best microbusinesses do this in different ways—making it easier to travel the world, for example, or making customers feel special. But when you talk with business owners, many focus on the descriptions of their business instead of how their product or service will actually help people.
Consider these different approaches in explaining the mission of the V6 Ranch, an unconventional vacation destination in Parkfield, California:
Descriptive (Boring): Our business enables visitors to ride horses and sit around the campfire.
Benefits (Inspirational): Our business helps visitors be someone else for a day. The message we try to send is “Come stay with us and be a cowboy.”
Isn’t the second option so much better? Sell happiness (benefit) instead of merely describing your business (features).
Lesson: As much as possible, focus your business messaging on adding something positive or removing something negative from customers’ daily routines.
Forget traditional demographics. Focus on psychographics instead.
In Arcata, California, Charlie Jordan and Mark Ritz teamed up to start the Kinetic Koffee Kompany. They had great coffee, but that wasn’t enough—these days, there are plenty of small businesses making great coffee.
What set the Kinetic Koffee Kompany apart was their target market: they focused specifically on the outdoors community, pitching bike shops and “gear retailers” on carrying their stock. They showed up at races and made a name for themselves among groups interested in active hobbies. Instead of competing with Starbucks, Charlie and Mark made their own market.
Lesson: Figure out who “your people” are and serve them. Don’t group them according to traditional demographics unless you have a good reason to.
Offer a “no pain, all gain” refund option to build confidence.
Nev Lapwood was a snowboarding instructor who created a set of instructional DVDs that sold around the world. Nev had a good business model almost from the beginning, but he decided to kick it up a notch, offering to refund his customers 110% of their purchase price if they didn’t like the product. Sales increased, and Nev applied the same approach with foreign translations of his DVDs.
I asked Nev if this had become a problem with people requesting habitual refunds. His response: nope, not at all. The business now produces more than $240,000 a year in net income.
Lesson: Build trust by making it easy to trust you. Offer a strong guarantee, and don’t make people jump through hoops to get a refund.
[TIM: 110% sound familiar? Check out the below. Congrats again, Nev!]
“Marketing is like sex (only losers pay for it).”
This quote, originally from a 2010 Fast Company article, aptly describes how the roles of marketing and paid advertising have changed. The vast majority of business owners I surveyed had built their customer base without any paid advertising at all. Instead, they did so largely through word of mouth.
I tested this hypothesis through my [Chris] own $10,000, Ten-Hour “Marketing and Sex” experiment—placing a series of paid ads for a travel service I operate and comparing them to the efforts of “hustling,” or connecting with friends and readers in a free, organic manner. The results were clear: I made far more money through the hustling efforts than through the paid advertising methods.
Lesson: If paid advertising proves to work for your business, by all means, don’t quit. But before you go down that road, consider “hustling” instead—the gentle art of self-promotion, and making something interesting that others will be eager to share for free.
Plan your product launch long in advance, and make people line up to purchase.
Like a Hollywood movie, you want to build anticipation before launching anything. Use the “dark and stormy night” approach to tell stories and lead people into a great experience—not just a sale.
Adam Baker and Karol Gajda’s Only72.com project illustrates this concept well. Twice a year, they line up affiliates and partners to push through a megasale of discounted online products… for only 72 hours. Each sale produces a six-figure payday for Adam, Karol, and the affiliates—because they’ve learned to build anticipation.
Free bonus: wondering how to launch your first product? Here’s a 37-Step Product Launch checklist. Pay it forward by making a great product or service and launching well.
Lesson: Get people excited! Then give them what they want.
Turn disaster into recovery—then sell recovery.
Ridlon “Sharkman” Kiphard was on an island in Fiji, operating his first big tour for Live Adventurously, an alternative tour operator for those who like to play hard. The first half of the trip had been great, but then the call came: the chief of the neighboring island, which they were scheduled to visit the next day, had died. His death called for a mandatory 100 days (!) of mourning. Suddenly, Sharkman had nine high-paying guests… and nowhere to go.
In Sharkman’s words, here’s how the story unfolded:
“This was when doing our research earlier, and really knowing the area, paid off. We managed to extend our stay where we were by one night and spent the time feverishly cobbling together plans. We chartered an aircraft; contacted numerous hotels, resorts, and dive operators; got recommendations; did some more research; and booked the group into a newly opened property on a remote island. The transition went smoothly, the entire rest of the trip came off without a hitch, and it was as if it had been planned that way the entire time.”
Over and over, I heard stories like these—of how an impending disaster turned into a moment of strength. In Sharkman’s case, his guests were highly impressed with how the team managed the problem. Some of them offered to pay extra to cover the additional costs incurred with the change, and all went on to provide strong referrals for Live Adventurously.
Lesson: Stick it out! (Bonus: The value of failure is overrated. Everyone always wants to know about failure because of some convoluted theory that you must fail more often than you succeed. “You learn more from your mistakes…” etc. Why not succeed from the beginning? Some people do. [TIM: In other words, learn from other people’s mistakes instead, when possible.)
Wrap-up: Your Turn
The constant themes in our study were freedom and value: freedom is what we all want, and value is the way to achieve it. Over and over, I found business owners who had created their own freedom (and a great income) by making something useful and desirable for their customers.
It’s easy to think that these are isolated examples, or that you can’t achieve the same results, but the micro-business phenomenon is happening all over the world in different ways.
Follow the path of these stories and make actionable plans. Pick one thing, get it on the calendar, and do it in the next week. Just do something.
Lesson: Don’t kill the dream! Live the dream!
Odds and Ends:
- If you have enjoyed the muse example series in the past, you will love Chris’ new book, The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future.
- If you’re interested in product launches, check out this oddly named (cough, cough, scratch head, scratch head) piece in Forbes: The Tim Ferriss Effect.
- Are you a writer, or an aspiring writer? Read this: “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day.”