I’ll spare you the sales pitch about being your own boss.
You’re likely bombarded with enough “life-changing business opportunities” as it is. Some may promise you can work from the beach while taking care of your kids — and maybe you’ll learn Japanese while you’re at it.
What you need is something concrete. A real business idea you can build on that will gradually generate enough income to sustain you. That quick list article you just read, which rattled off about 100 random job titles, probably didn’t help you much.
So here you are, still searching for that perfect business idea.
What Makes a Good Business Idea?
Solid business ideas should be able to withstand some scrutiny. Often, we hold a romanticized view of what it takes to come up with a business idea. Does it need to be a genius invention? A scientific breakthrough? A Shark-Tank-worthy smartphone app?
At their core, good business ideas identify existing problems and offer a solution. Could you solve problems with a scientific breakthrough, a smartphone app or a genius invention? Sure, but you could also take a more workaday approach.
Business ideas don’t have to be glamorous, but they do need to be realistic.
Kathyrn Gratton is the president of the Hagerstown, Maryland, chapter of Score, a free small-business resource network and partner of the federal Small Business Administration. In addition to practicality, she says that your business ideas should revolve around you.
“Where’s your interest? Where’s your passion?” she says, noting that your ideas need to be more than potential moneymaking ventures: You should also enjoy the work to some degree.
Once you think you’ve settled on a good idea, Gratton says, recruit a brutally honest friend to see if it holds any water.
“We all have that friend that will tell you you’ve gotten fat,” she says. “They are the best to run things by. You know they will tell you the truth.”
With that in mind, here are a few well-tested business ideas to get you brainstorming.
Turn Your Current Skills Into Business Ideas
Take a moment to think about what you’re good at.
It could be something you create, niche knowledge about an interesting topic, an artistic ability — anything. Chances are, you’re a master of something, and someone else out there is looking for what you offer. Before you can teach them, entertain them or sell to them, you have to reach them.
Thankfully, the internet has made that part much easier.
Start a Blog
Successful blogging is all about building a dedicated readership. Rarely do people stumble upon that by accident. It takes work to earn the trust and time of readers before you can start raking in profits from a blog. (More on that below).
But what’s good about blogging is that it’s not only for professional writers. If you have an interesting skillset or knowledge about a niche topic, you can use blogs to teach others and launch an online business. For example, if you have a background in arts and crafts — bingo, that’s what your blog should be about.
The most popular blog platform is WordPress, where you can start a blog for free to get your bearings. Once you’re ready to make it more official, you can pay as little as $3 a year to lock-in your domain name and unlock additional features like email addresses and traffic analytics.
In our guide about making money blogging, senior editor Dana Sitar lays out exactly how to build a following for your blog by creating an email list, networking and guest blogging for other well-established publications.
Another way to draw readers to your blog is through search engine optimization (SEO). This is basically writing quality content that ranks high in Google searchers. Coursera offers free online courses in SEO to get a better understanding of the writing techniques you can use in your blog.
Once you have eyes on your blog, how do you monetize it?
Sitar is a proponent of affiliate marketing.
In short, affiliate marketing works by paying you a commission on a product or service that you write about by using a trackable link that leads readers to make a purchase.
Again, this really only works if you’re honing in on a specific topic. Returning to our arts and crafts idea, through Amazon’s affiliate program, you could link over to a specific sewing machine listing on Amazon.
The whole article probably shouldn’t be about the sewing machine because that’s too salesy, but the link would fit perfectly in a useful story about how to make your own clothes.
When someone makes a purchase through your blog, you make money.
Where’s your interest? Where’s your passion?
AdSense, which is free to set up, is a popular way to run ads on your site once you have a steady stream of readers. Based on your reader demographic and the topic of your blog, Google will automatically pair you with relevant ads, which you can tailor in size or decline altogether.
How much you earn depends on the type of ad and how your viewers interact with it. (Did they merely see the ad and scroll past it? Or did they click through to the advertiser’s website and make a purchase?)
Once your AdSense account earns $100, you can request a payout.
Patreon works a little differently than other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. The underlying idea of all crowdfunding is to connect with strangers all over the world and have them make a donation to your cause, or in this case, your blog.
The difference with Patreon is that it incentivizes recurring donations from fans. This means, in order to monetize your blog with Patreon, you should create some kind of exclusive content for donors — a members-only newsletter, personalized articles, stickers and tees — anything that encourages their ongoing support.
While making a Patreon account is free, the company takes 5% of all donations.
Sell Your Creations in an E-Commerce Store
As brick-and-mortar stores have been closing, e-commerce websites offer entrepreneurs a less risky way of selling their new products. You’re already familiar with Amazon, but there are tons of other ways to sell stuff online.
Once you’re established, you can integrate an online store on your own company’s website, but for starters, try Amazon, eBay or Etsy depending on what you’re selling. These websites are great options for those who make products but don’t want the overhead of a storefront.
It’s free to create a basic account on each of these websites, but they do charge fees once you make a sale:
- Amazon: Charges a 99-cent fee for vendors who sell up to 40 items per month. Above that, you’ll need to make a Professional Seller Account for $39.99 a month. Paid accounts aren’t charged the 99-cent fee, but both accounts incur additional selling fees that range between 3% and 45% of the item’s selling price.
- eBay: eBay Stores are free if you make under 50 sales per month. After that, a membership is required, which runs between $4.95 and $29,999.95 a month. For each sale, a final-value fee between 2% and 12% is deducted from the selling price.
- Etsy: There’s no limit to how many sales can be made on a free Etsy account, but each sale is subject to a flat fee of 20 cents plus 5% of the listing price. Etsy stores in good standing are eligible for an Etsy Plus account that costs $10 a month. This membership includes website customization features, ways to promote your listings, discounts and other perks.
Screenprinting duo Adam and Coryn Enfinger used to design and manually print T-shirts for fun. Then Coryn made an Etsy account to sell their shirts, and their hobby spiraled into a $350,000-a-year business called Dark Cycle Clothing.
Take high-quality photos of your product, write a thorough item description and take the time to flesh out your seller profile to give customers an authentic sense of who you are.
Coryn chose Etsy because the website caters to more handmade and artistic products. In addition to its online sales, Dark Cycle keeps a presence at several local and regional indie flea markets to make sales in person — an excellent, low-cost way to diversify income for businesses without a centralized location.
Become a Freelancer
When you think of the word freelancer, images of journalists or photographers might flood your mind. But in today’s economy, just about every professional skill can be freelanced ― clerical work, graphic designs, marketing advice. You name it. You just have to know where to find clients.
“Lots of freelancers know how to do their task but not how to run their business,” says veteran freelance business owner Laura Poole. She has more than 20 years of experience running a freelance editing business. In her free time, she travels the nation to speak at conferences and teach freelancers how to better market themselves.
First-time freelancers gravitate toward platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer and Guru. They can help you get a taste of the freelance life, but they shouldn’t be the basis of your freelance business in the long term.
Poole says the sites are extremely helpful in pairing you with clients, but “overall, I think they’re a mixed bag,” she says.
That’s because they charge fees upwards of 20% on each gig. That’s not sustainable. To skirt these fees, it’s going to take more work to gain your independence as a freelancer.
Joining a professional networking organization is a great way to meet people in your field and find clients. Some popular examples include:
- ACES Society for Editing, for editors in media and publishing.
- AIGA, the professional association for design, for graphic designers and illustrators.
- American Advertising Federation, for public relations, advertising, marketing and social media.
- Office and Professional Employees International Union, for clerical and administrative fields.
- Society of Professional Journalists, for journalism, media and public relations.
- Freelancers Union, for all industries.
Whatever your field, search for a professional organization in your state. Join it and use your membership wisely. These organizations typically offer discounts on products, services and software and maintain curated job boards that can help you find clients.
But the events are perhaps the biggest perk. Take advantage of them by networking and presenting, when possible.
“If you can present something useful, [clients] will remember you,” Poole says. “Better than handing out business cards. Better than even placing an ad.”
Build and Teach Online Courses
The online education industry is booming. By 2022, Global Industries Analysts predict that the industry will exceed $241 billion, and you can cash in on that without having any formal teaching experience. As with blogs, you can use online courses as a means to teach what skills you already have.
People, especially working professionals, are looking outside traditional educational institutions to learn. Udemy is one such place. It’s an online education platform that boasts over 30 million registered students. While it’s possible to create a profitable business solely off your Udemy classes, it works best when used in conjunction with your blog or website.
Creating an online instructor profile is free. You’ll need to answer a few questions about your teaching and video-creating experience (neither is required but both will help). Then, you’ll be able to attract students, create videos and upload course materials when you’re ready.
Once you’ve prepared a video course, you can set the price based on Udemy’s scale. And depending on how your students register for the course, you’ll get paid various amounts of the listing price.
- 97% of the listing price for students you recruited through a trackable link. (The link is why Udemy is best used with a blog or website.)
- 50% for students who found your course through an organic search on Udemy’s website.
- 25% for students who registered because you promoted the course on the website.
Make YouTube Videos
Similar to teaching classes on Udemy, YouTube offers video creators a way to monetize their skillset, but the revenue model works a little differently.
According to a Pew Research study, 51% of YouTube viewers use the website to learn things they’ve never done before. And by some estimates, YouTube has about 1.3 billion viewers. The potential is endless here for teaching others your skill or trade, but it will take a bit of setup before you see any money coming in.
Again, plenty of people center their whole business on YouTube, but for the average creator, it is best used in addition to a blog or website, same as Udemy. I.e., embed Youtube videos in your blog post or upload the first few modules of your Udemy course onto YouTube since you already have well-produced videos. Get creative.
To make money on YouTube, you’ll first have to join its YouTube Partner Program (YPP). To qualify, you must already have an account with live videos. As of 2019, your account needs to rack up 1,000 subscribers and hit 4,000 watched hours over the last 12 months before you can earn money from advertisements. When you reach that threshold, you can link your YouTube channel with Google AdSense, where you can curate the types of ads your viewers will see.
After you’re in the YPP program, you’ll be able to add additional revenue streams such as merchandise partnerships, additional brand deals and paid subscriptions from your super fans.
Business Ideas Anyone Can Do
Perhaps you’re not a screenprinter or writer, and you’re having some trouble thinking of niche expertise to peddle. Fret not.
Try some of these more traditional, tried-and-true business ideas to get your enterprise off the ground.
Babysitting, Animal Sitting and other Care Businesses
These businesses stand the test of time. There will always be a need for care, whether it’s for babies, animals or houses. There’s no shortage of side-gig apps for these services, too. Rover, Care.com and Housesitter.com all come to mind.
But this article isn’t about side gigs. While those apps can help you get your start — similar to freelancing platforms — they’re not the end goal. Use them to sharpen your skills, establish a customer base, then launch a full-time business of your own.
To establish yourself and earn the trust of clients, try earning a relevant certification.
- For pet care, register with the Professional Animal Care Certification Council. Certifications require some hands-on animal care experience, and it will run you about $350 to take the exam. Certifications last for three years, and you will be logged in the PACCC database, where anyone can verify that you’re legit.
- For child care, the American Red Cross offers online and in-person babysitting and advanced-leadership certifications, as well as other credentials like first aid and CPR to set yourself apart.
- While there aren’t any legitimate house-sitting credentials on the market, it may put potential clients’ minds at ease if you had a related certification in a topic like fire safety.
These businesses require very little overhead and have the potential to grow quickly. Once you book a client nearby, ask for a referral to expand your services to the whole neighborhood. That will help establish trust from your community and give you an edge over random people from websites or apps.
While it may require modest overhead costs, a cleaning business has the potential for long-term, steady work that is easily scalable as you find more customers.
To get started, you’ll obviously need all the staples of house-cleaning equipment — dusters, brooms, mops, a wringer bucket, chemicals, gloves, a vacuum and a solid face mask. For quality materials, that could run you up to $2,000. But you may have most of the equipment already, and much of it doesn’t need to be replaced on a regular basis.
For some, cleaning is a no brainer. But it can definitely get complicated.
What chemicals become toxic when mixed? How do you deal with black mold underneath wallpaper? If you don’t know the answers off the top of your head, it’s a good idea to invest in a membership with the International Janitorial Cleaning Services Association, which offers certifications, training, janitorial insurance, discounts on cleaning supplies and more.
As with many of these options, word-of-mouth advertising works wonders. Start with your neighbors, rack up a few referrals, and soon you’ll be plotting the takeover of your entire block.
Flea Market and Vintage Flipper
Got a good eye for what people want? You can build a business around buying low-cost garage-sale, flea-market or thrift-store items and reselling them online for a sizable profit.
Robert Stephenson, aka the Flea Market Flipper, does just that, and he makes upwards of $80,000 a year working part-time hours. On weekends, he peruses garage sales and thrift stores for a few hours to scout out and buy items that have resell potential. Throughout the week, he fixes them up and lists them on e-commerce sites, particularly eBay.
The only overhead in this business model is the price you pay for the used items and any materials needed to fix them up. To keep startup costs down, you could begin with thrifted clothes that don’t need any repairing and resell them on websites with a vintage aesthetic, such as Poshmark.
Ebay, Amazon and Etsy are all solid options as well.
In our guide to selling on Poshmark, Alison Gary, a successful fashion blogger and Poshmark seller, lays out her advice on making a successful listing:
- List multiple pictures.
- Haggle for the best price, but know when to say no.
- Give fashion advice along with your clothing. (Hello, upsell!)
To become a seller yourself, first download the Poshmark app. Then you can create your own listing using Gary’s advice.
For each sale, Poshmark charges a commission fee. For sales $15 and under, there’s a flat $2.95 fee. For everything over $15, the commission jumps to 20% of the sale price.
The good news is Poshmark handles shipping for free. It will send you a pre-labeled package for you to load your clothes into and send to the buyer.
If this model works for you, you can stick to it. Or your profits from reselling vintage clothes can fund the overhead to start buying and fixing up more items.
Apps such as Instacart highlight the demand for people to perform everyday errands, like grocery shopping, for those who don’t have the time.
What they shouldn’t do is discourage you from starting your own business as an in-person assistant. In fact, these apps can serve as templates for tailoring a more sensible, local business.
Study side-gig apps, and use their customers’ pain points as ways to strengthen your own business idea.
For example, Instacart only delivers groceries. Your business can run plenty of other related errands, and it doesn’t require your customers to download and use a different app for every task on their to-do list. Sure, you won’t be automatically matched with clients. But by this point in the guide, you should be a pro at landing recurring customers.
Another example to build upon is the service called Papa. It’s a budding app that pairs college students with seniors who need help around the house, transportation or even tech lessons. Great idea, right? Except there are plenty of seniors who need assistance but don’t have the technological skills to download the app or apply through the website.
That’s where you come in: the neighborhood assistant who doesn’t require tedious apps. As you collect client referrals, you can spread your services to other neighborhoods. Or, you could opt to be more niche and scout out retirement complexes where your services could be more centralized and in-demand.
Do you feel overloaded with examples of business ideas? Good. You’re ready to get started and get your brain flowing with all the potential opportunities out there. None of these recommendations are ready-made business plans, and they’ll require a little tweaking to make them your own. The important thing is that you narrow down the ideas that work best for you.
Once you’ve got a few great business ideas in mind, you’ll be ready to explore the next stages of starting a business.
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.