Companies of all sizes have one thing in common: They all began as small businesses. Starting small is the corner for those just getting off the ground. Learn about how to make that first hire, deal with all things administrative, and set yourself up for success.
Launching a business allows you to find autonomy and increase flexibility in the length of your workday and the people you choose to work with. But not every entrepreneurial endeavor needs to be the “next big disruptor” in your space; some self-starters are looking for ownership with less risk, minimal investment, and manageable commitment. Thankfully, on this more modest scale, there’s a small business idea that caters to every skill level and ambition.
According to Industry and Occupation census data, self-employment is thriving across a range of industries. Consulting, scientific research, creative endeavors, and management and administrative contracting are common areas of self-employment. The services sector also includes a large proportion of self-employed workers, particularly in fields like personal care and building and maintenance.
Whether you’re founding a consulting business or opening a shop front, starting your own business can provide emotional fulfillment and financial success, at whatever level meets your needs. This article explores some tried-and-true small business ideas that are easy to get started and require low initial investment.
1. Expert consultant
If you’re an expert in your field—whether that’s marketing, finance, branding, or business management—consulting is an effective way to bolster your income and diversify your client book. There are minimal overheads to starting a consultancy, and you can grow and scale down operations at any pace you wish.
(Find out about different types of consultants and the steps to take in starting your own consulting business.)
2. Tour guide
If you have a special interest in the history of your city, or if you’re particularly skilled in activities like outdoor hiking, kayaking, or cycling, you might consider opening a tour company.
This venture would see you sharing your knowledge with locals and tourists alike, as you explore desirable destinations or places that require specialized guidance. Beyond word of mouth, a website and social media presence are helpful in promoting your experiences and sharing testimonials from those who’ve enjoyed your trips.
3. Personal trainer
If health and fitness is your forte, starting a business as a personal trainer is a good way to make money doing what you love. Some trainers begin by working in a gym, finding individual clients as they staff the gym floor or host group fitness sessions. You can also promote your business elsewhere, pitching corporate clients for group sessions or advertising on local billboards or job sites.
Social media is helpful in building a brand around fitness: Exercise videos are instructional and can help bring in prospective clients, while sharing progress pictures and healthy recipes is a good way to drive engagement. If you’re not yet trained as a personal trainer, it typically takes between two to four months to become certified, depending on the educational organization.
4. Event planner
Event planning requires logistics, organization, time, and people skills—and not everyone has the time (or the mental fortitude) to plan events accordingly. Whether it’s weddings, baby showers, personal events, or corporate conferences and parties, organizing vendors and budgets requires special handling. Plus, hosts who are under pressure to deliver an enjoyable, memorable experience for their guests are often looking for assistance.
For Lauren Grech, founder and CEO of LLG Events—a company that Grech launched out of WeWork 315 W 36th St in New York—starting her event planning business came after the success of her own wedding in 2014. It also signified a huge career change.
“When I saw the way a wedding came together, I realized that I would be the perfect leader for that,” Grech says. “I was scared… everybody was looking at me like, Is this girl going to fail? I was supposed to be a doctor!”
If you perform well under pressure and possess supreme organizational skills, event planning might be a viable small business idea. Clients will pay a lot to hire an experienced event planner, someone who has strong, lucrative connections with vendors and a track record of delivering on time and under budget.
5. Virtual assistant
Employed by companies or executives in lieu of salary workers, virtual assistants are hired remotely to handle a range of tasks that include personal assistant duties, administrative tasks, customer support, and publishing support.
Starting out as a virtual assistant typically involves listing your services and contact details on a job site like Upwork or Fiverr, and then establishing hours of operation and an hourly rate with potential employers.
6. Beauty specialist
Personal care professions, including manicurists, hairstylists, and beauty physicians, are easily geared toward self-employment. It’s an area in which word-of-mouth referrals carry weight, and if you’ve built a client book at a salon, it’s common practice to take these same clients out of house. Alternatively, if you’re looking to enter a fresh field, you can typically train as a makeup artist, nail technician, or a skin-care specialist in under 12 months.
In starting your own beauty business, it’s important to understand the necessary licenses required to operate a salon in your state. In most cases, cosmetology certificates are granted at the completion of your training and these are enough to begin work. However, specific requirements vary between states.
If you’re not looking to open a salon or become a physician, there are other ways to enter the beauty world. Rebecca Lima, founder of workplace beauty provider The Lieu, for example, started her business because she wanted to help people.
Lima, who is a WeWork Labs member at WeWork 142 W 57th St in New York City, creates kits for corporate bathrooms that include luxury items like hair products, moisturizing lotion, and spray deodorant. “I got a lot of validation that women wanted this,” Lima says. “[The service] integrates so beautifully into the life of a corporate woman.
If you’re particularly talented in a certain subject—English, math, or music, for example—offering tutoring services to school and university students is a viable business idea. Whether you run a private business or contract through a tutoring school, you’re typically afforded great flexibility in the hours you work and the money you make as a tutor.
A note on tutoring: You must prove expertise in your dedicated area by showing your own school results or professional successes. Plus, students and their parents will be monitoring the effectiveness of your tutoring by looking at the student’s exam and assessment results.
8. Dog walking
If you’re an animal lover, walking dogs is an effective (and enjoyable) way to start a business. Particularly in cities that afford limited access to nature parks, dog owners often employ dog walkers to exercise their dogs while they’re at work. This might be as simple as walking the dog around the neighborhood or to the park in the middle of the day. It could also involve traveling with the dog to remote hiking trails or wider spaces.
Depending on your capacity and affinity for dogs, you can choose the number and size/breed of dogs you walk at one time. Typically, dog owners will require a meet-and-greet before giving you access to their pet and their home.
(Find out more about different jobs, like dog walking, that constitute the gig economy.)
9. Website flipping
In much the same way that flipping houses involves taking something that’s aged and rundown and turning it into something that’s functional and desirable, flipping websites encompasses a similar transition. If you’re skilled in tech and experienced in website design and management, building a business dedicated to improving websites could be for you.
You will likely need access to design software and content management systems. However, you can work with clients to cover those costs for the duration of each project. You will also need your own website and a portfolio of “before and afters” to show prospective clients.
10. Social media management
Although many companies recognize the need for a well-curated and strategic social media presence, not all marketing teams have the capacity (or the know-how) to handle this execution themselves. For this reason, there’s growing demand for social media agencies: teams of people who run social campaigns, respond to comments and messages, and connect brands with social media influencers.
Things to consider when starting a social media agency: Between likes, comments, and shares, it’s very clear when a social media strategy is working—or not. It’s best to have specialized experience in delivering effective campaigns. Plus, unlike a website revamp, social media management requires ongoing and ever-growing activity; consider hiring assistants as operations grow so you can focus more on strategy than day-to-day execution.
11. Online store
If you make your own clothing, jewelry, or homewares, starting an online store is a cost-effective solution to opening a storefront. While some investment is required to build an e-commerce site—and promotional strategies like advertising and affiliate marketing also cost money—shipping products to remote customers is a much lighter financial lift than paying rent for a single, inflexible retail space.
For WeWork members, selling your product through WeMrkt—a marketplace of products made by WeWork members—is another way to expand your reach and grow your profits with minimal upfront investment.
12. Food trucks
If you’ve got a knack for foodstuff—whether it’s baked goods, a specialty cuisine, artisan coffee, or other drinks—selling these goods at a market or as a catering service can be a good way to turn a profit. There will be some initial investment involved, as you’ll need adequate supplies and equipment to produce food at scale.
In serving food or alcohol, you will also need specific licenses: for example, a food service license, liquor license, food handler’s permit, and health department permit. You will need additional certificates if you’re operating out of a food truck, or if you’re using outdoor signage to promote your business. Note: These requirements vary between states.
13. Travel planning
If you’re well traveled or you enjoy the logistics, planning, and foresight required to put together a successful trip, travel planning could be an accessible and achievable way to start a business.
It could involve organizing large groups of people for corporate getaways, planning trips in remote, difficult-to-access areas, or taking the grunt work out of luxury travel for clients. Whatever the case, people are willing to pay to have their trip itineraries planned and all the visa, airfare, insurance, and accommodation considerations sorted.
14. Bed & breakfast
With the rise of home sharing sites like Airbnb, it’s easier than ever to make money from a space you’re not using. Whether it’s a separate room or suite, or your entire place for weekends when you’re away, people are willing to spend money to live like a local and stay in people’s homes.
If you live in a highly desirable urban area, it’s a good idea to call out the sights and attractions that visitors can easily access from your location. If you’re living in a remote area, consider marketing your home as a “getaway spot” that’s ideal for disconnecting and relaxing.
Get your business off the ground with the right support
No matter your industry or the size to which your business grows, having a support network is a major driver of success. The people you know will help in referring clients, brainstorming ideas, and keeping you grounded.
“You can’t get rid of all of the risk and insecurity that comes with being an entrepreneur, but you can introduce as many people, activities, situations, and environments into your life as possible that create feelings of stability and security,” says Jessica Carson, founder of online mental-health resource Wired This Way.
WeWork’s coworking spaces offer this milieu of people and activities. A global network of members and frequent community events make it easy to find fresh collaborators and pitch potential clients. Plus, programming such as yoga classes, meditation, seasonal markets, and occasional meals also provide that activity-based distraction that Carson says is so important.
If you’re looking for financial success and independence in starting a business of your own, these ideas are a launchpad to the future. Whether you’re following your passion (from wedding planning to dog walking) or if you’re looking to make money off your expertise (like website building or social media management), these small business ideas offer an easy and inexpensive path to getting started.
Caitlin Bishop is a writer for WeWork’s Ideas by We, based in New York City. Previously, she was a journalist and editor at Mamamia in Sydney, Australia, and a contributing reporter at Gotham Gazette.