50 Low-Priced Businesses
If you think it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital, a sizeable bank loan, and decades of experience to launch your own business, think again. In this month's cover story, we feature 50 businesses that require minimal start-up investment-in most cases, less than $12,000. There is a catch, however: As most of the entrepreneurs we've profiled can attest, starting a business takes a significant personal investment. That is, you need commitment, persistence, high quality standards and strong networking skills. With these skills under your belt, you stand a better chance of surviving those often formidable-and at times thrilling-first few months of start-up. And with further perseverance and careful investment in your growing venture, you stand a good chance of turning that little, low-investment enterprise into a booming, revenue-generating business. Good luck!
It takes more than an ear for music to keep a mobile disc jockey business groovin'. Take it from Dan Nichols, who operates a mobile DJ service in Royal Oak, Michigan. "While congeniality and knowing your music are important, you've got to have personality," explains the 28-year-old. Indeed, Nichols feel so strongly about this point, the motto printed on his business card reads: "A DJ must appeal to the party in people."
Mobile DJs need relatively little equipment to get started. Nichols, for example, started out from home with a couple compact disc players, an amplifier, a mixer and a van to transport them in. "It's a low investment for the hardware," explains Nichols. He says a good mix of music on CDs can be compiled for around $400.
Like most successful DJs, Nichols got his start in the business by playing music at a friend's party. "One thing led to another, and soon I was playing banquet halls," explains Nichols, who relies on networking, in addition to personally contacting banquet coordinators to drum up business.
"It's a good business to be in, because you work short hours and get paid good money for the time you spend in it," says Nichols. Also known to clients as "Dan the DJ," Nichols says his enterprise has grown "twofold" every year since he started the business in 1990. That's music to this entrepreneur's ears.
D.J. Times, 25 Willowdale Ave., Port Washington, NY 11050, (516) 767-2500.
Used Car Inspection
Strangely-colored exhaust . . . paint dust inside the door . . . a broken odometer . . . these are just some of the telltale signs of a used car gone bad. Help your clients avoid getting suckered into buying a lemon with your basic automotive expertise. Using a diagnostic kit can also help set the wheels turning on your own used-car inspection business.
Used Car Dealer, 2521 Brown Blvd., Arlington, TX 76006-5203, (817) 640-3838.
It doesn't take a lot of know-how to build a colorful career in the painting industry; just put on your painter's pants and brush up your entrepreneurial skills.
Take Jeff Lamont and Bereket Selassie, for example. When the duo started painting houses as a "little summertime business" to help pay for college in 1991, Lamont admits, "We knew how to hold a brush, and that was about all." They started with less than $1,000. With a used truck, two ladders, persistent door-to-door residential sales visits and conscientious work, however, the pair have built Lisle, Illinois-based Drumtight Painting & Staining Inc. into a high-profit business; last summer's sales approached $250,000.
"It's a good business to be in because, if you do a good job, it's easy to get referrals, regardless of how small your business is," explains Lamont, who today employs a summertime staff of about 25.
Though painting service entrepreneurs needn't be limited to summertime work, Lamont, 23, and Selassie, 24, have found this season works best for them, even now that they've graduated from college. The pair hire college students, whom they've found to be "high-quality workers," to do the painting, while they focus on managing the business from their office in Lamont's basement. During the off-season, the new business owners keep busy drumming up ideas for other ventures. With one success under their belts, nothing's stopping them from painting the town red.
Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, 3913 Old Lee Hwy., #33B, Fairfax, VA 22030, (703) 359-0826.
Home in on attractive earnings as a decorator. Get started by making your own home showcase perfect, then establish relationships with local furniture stores, paint shops and carpet and drapery outlets. With some word-of-mouth, clients will come calling for help with their domestic decor.
American Society of Interior Designers, 608 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, (202) 546-3480.
Computer Training Service
There's no doubt about it: Just about everything's computerized these days. That's why entrepreneurs with a little technical savvy can tally big profits by giving the less computer-minded a lesson in computerese.
Former corporate MIS manager Barbara Williams is doing just that. The 39-year-old provides clients in east Houston and the surrounding area with training in DOS-based programs, ranging from Windows and Lotus to WordPerfect. Business clients seeking to improve their employees' computer skills aren't the only ones who benefit from Williams' Candlelight Computer Services, however. Many of her clients are individuals seeking to better their chances at landing a job, the entrepreneur explains. "A lot of people are frustrated, because even to get a job at a temporary placement firm, they're required to take a test on a computer," Williams says.
Williams booted up her business from a homebased office with little more than a 286 computer in January 1994. Though it didn't require much of a capital investment-approximately $500 for a telephone line, business cards and advertising-her business did require a professional approach, she claims. "I made sure I had a separate business phone line and a beeper, and that I dressed professionally," she says. To land her first clients, Williams contacted former business associates, advertised in local free newspapers, networked and "worked at reduced rates just to get my name out there."
Williams' professional persistence has paid off: Today, the entrepreneur runs her business from an office building with the help of a couple of interns and 10 computers, and boasts clients ranging from the local Fire Department to an international tanking company. Not bad for a business you can start with one computer-and perhaps a little candlelight.
Independent Computer Consultants Association, 11131 S. Towne Sq., #F, St. Louis, MO 63123, (800) 774-4222.
Wanna work in the glorious outdoors? With little more than a lawn mower and some pushing power, you could be seeing green (literally), maintaining lawns for businesses and homeowners. Sprinkle in additional services such as garden pest control and expert edging, and watch your business grow.
Professional Lawn Care Association of America, 1000 Johnson Ferry Rd. N.E., #C-135, Marietta, GA 30068, (770) 977-5222.
Bulletin Board Service (BBS)
Though the Internet and its web of dependent commercial online services seems to have slipped into the daily lives of computer users 'round the globe, that doesn't mean there isn't room for the "small guys" in the market, namely independent bulletin-board services (BBSs). With little more than a dedicated phone line, a fast modem and a high-powered computer, system operators (a.k.a. sysops) cater to callers seeking a more specialized, personal venue. Entrepreneur Mark Murphy likens his BBS Macintosh-user group, The Desktop, to a local pub.
"It's a lot easier than getting on the Internet; you don't get lost so easily," Murphy explains. Modem-equipped callers simply dial the BBS directly to share opinions, ask questions, swap files or send messages, all within the comfortable confines of a familiar locale.
For many sysops, running a BBS provides a direct line to profits by requiring membership fees. Others, such as Murphy, see BBSs as a venue to indirect profits. "I don't make money directly," explains the 31-year-old. "I do use the BBS, however, as a server for my other company." Thanks in part to "virtual" friends and contacts he's made via his 10-year-old Westminster, California-based BBS, Murphy has been able to turn the part-time software development firm he started shortly after launching the BBS into a full-time venture.
Murphy relies on the Macintosh version of Hermes, one of several widely available software programs, to manage his homebased service, and he's expanded The Desktop to include two dedicated phone lines. The entire system takes up two square feet, says the former computer hardware repair shop employee. "Running a BBS is like running a local store," he concludes. "There's still a different flavor to it than you'll find in the major chains."
Association of Online Professionals, 7578 B, Telegraph Rd., #635, Alexandria, VA 22315, (703) 924-9692.
It may take two to tango, but it often takes three just to find the perfect dance-or life-partner. Matchmakers who have a knack for bringing two like minds together are thus in great demand by the lovelorn seeking amorous bliss. But beware: The competition for Cupid's arrow is great, say industry insiders. "You need to like working with people, and be interested in psychology to be successful in this business," says Noel McLane, who founded Matchmaker in the Market in a downtown Seattle office 10 years ago. A former real estate broker who spent years matching people with their dream homes, McLane today relies on the same "good people skills" she honed in that industry to keep her people-matching business thriving.
From day one, McLane has provided clients with carefully developed questionnaires, videos and lots of one-on-one attention, to ensure she finds the best match possible. And she's been careful to nurture her higher-than-standard initial investment of $30,000 (including video equipment, a computer and a rented office) as her business has grown by reinvesting in items such as a custom-designed business management software program.
"The key is finding a niche, then doing a superb job," advises McLane, who is apparently doing just that. Though she won't disclose sales figures, the seasoned matchmaking entrepreneur says business is going "very well"; at least half her educated, professional clientele is based on referrals from satisfied, not-so-single-anymore customers.
International Society of Introduction Services, P.O. Box 4876, West Hills, CA 91308, (818) 222-1367.
Home Health Care
As the old adage goes, "Health is wealth." For entrepreneurs in the home health-care field, the adage is especially significant, since providing service to house-bound patients is where the business is.
Peter Amico, a 47-year-old entrepreneur, got his start in the business in 1982 for less than $10,000 by contacting physicians he had worked with in hospitals and placing an ad in the Yellow Pages. The registered respiratory therapist stored an inventory of equipment in his Flushing, New York, garage and had his office in his basement. Amico delivered oxygen equipment and provided setup assistance to patients himself until, after a year in business, he was able to hire some part-time drivers and eventually move the business out of his home.
While having a clinical background such as his isn't absolutely essential, Amico says, "It does help to know medical terminology and how equipment is used." As his company, Prime Care Medical Supplies, has grown, Amico has come to rely on his hospital administration background, as well.
"Since you need to manage people, it helps to have a management background," advises the entrepreneur, who currently employs a staff of 35. With healthy annual revenues of about $5 million, this is one entrepreneur who's certainly feeling wealthy and wise.
National Association for Home Care, 519 C St., N.E., Stanton Park, Washington, DC 20002-5809, (202) 547-7424.
"Try it, you'll like it," is the credo of the in-store demonstration entrepreneur. As independent agents, these promoters find the bulk of their business in grocery stores where, backed by manufacturers and/or store owners, they make tasty profits offering sample foods to shoppers.
Field Marketing Services Association, 790 Farmington Ave., Bldg. 3, Farmington, CT 06032, (800) 338-NADC.
Equipped with a smile and greetings from local businesses, welcome service entrepreneurs in neighborhoods across the country are saying "Hello" to friendly profits. The key to opening doors of opportunity-and earning commissions for promoting local enterprises-however, is having a neighborly and professional approach.
"You have to dispel people's image of the 'little Welcome Wagon lady' by being as professional as possible," explains Cheryl Fischer-Beaudreault, who operates New Neighbors Services & Welcome Center in Atlanta.
Having a fax machine, computer and laser printer helps business owners do the job right, says Fischer-Beaudreault, by enabling them to produce high-quality business cards and other communication pieces. The laser printer can also be used to print fliers promoting local businesses to new residents. "It's important to be out there giving quality presentations to new people," says the 46-year-old.
Good organization skills are essential, too. "As the owner of a welcoming service, you're pulled in lots of directions," explains Fischer-Beaudreault, who started pounding the pavement to greet new residents with coupons and other business promotions in 1984. "You've got to be professional with business clients, warm and fuzzy with residential customers, and a good negotiator when it comes to putting together your office."
In addition to the Atlanta center, Fischer-Beaudreault, who started her business from home, has expanded her hospitable efforts to include a team of town greeters in 16 cities across the country. How's that for being a good neighbor?
Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1350: Welcoming Services. To order, call (800) 421-2300.
Utility Bill Auditing
For entrepreneurs in the utility bill auditing field, making money is a numbers game. That is, by checking utility and phone bills for numerical and other errors, auditors reveal how clients can save on their bills. The result: happy customers. And a happy pocketbook, since you get paid for finding any discrepancies.
It takes more than knowing your arithmetic to succeed in this industry, though, claim industry insiders. In addition to keeping on top of the going rates and tariffs, it's important to understand how these factors relate to costs, explains commercial utility consultant Alan Foley. Combined with his strong background in computers, plus a good understanding of bulk power systems, Foley writes utility-use management software and consumption analysis reports for clients ranging from small doctors' offices to large industrial plants. Using these skills, and initially working from a shared office space with a single computer and printer, Foley founded Houston-based RateCheckers in 1984.
"Most utility companies are typically too busy to help clients," says the 42-year-old. "That's where we come in, and look at their usage patterns to help lower their costs." In some cases, Foley even helps clients figure out why a purported "energy-saving" device they've purchased and installed isn't working as they'd hoped. "There are a range of ways to help clients lower their costs," explains Foley.
Just as utility companies' products tend to surge and ebb, so do Foley's sales: "We've had good years and bad," the entrepreneur admits. But if you do your addition right, you'll probably find the good outnumbers the bad in this industry.
Auditel International Inc., 233 Springfield Ave., Joliet, IL 60435, (800) 551-9282.
Everyone knows good child care is hard to come by. Thanks to nanny placement entrepreneurs' careful interviewing, screening and reference-checking skills, however, finding a modern-day Mary Poppins just got easier for parents. Often too busy to make their own search, parents rely on these scrupulous entrepreneurs to find the perfect solution for their child-care needs.
International Nanny Association, 125 S. Fourth St., #214, Norfolk, NE 68701, (800) 297-1477.
Though it might sound silly at first, it takes just a peek inside the average American's cluttered closet to realize there's a decided need for closet organizers-those service-oriented entrepreneurs with a knack for neatness.
"You'd be surprised at what people keep in their closets," says Mary Tresh, founder of Detroit-based Re/Vamp, a closet (and cabinet, basement and garage) cleaning and organizing business. Give her a chance, and the 41-year-old neatnik will even give your bathroom cabinet a good going over. In fact, that's how Tresh got started.
"I'm an obsessive-compulsive person," she explains. "I've been known to open a friend's bathroom cabinet and say, 'Hmmm, this needs straightening,' or to clean under their sink when I get bored."
In fact, Tresh prefers straightening to actual cleaning. That's why she closed up her housecleaning business to focus on organizing in 1993. Business cards were her main expense; Tresh marketed her services to her friends and former cleaning clients. The result: "Business took off like gangbusters," says Tresh, who charges clients by the hour, with a four-hour minimum. Her clients aren't the only ones to get such a clean break, though: Local charities benefit, too, when Tresh brings them bags full of donated, secondhand items.
National Association of Professional Organizers, 1033 La Pasada Dr., #220, Austin, TX 78752-3880, (512) 206-0151.
Contemporary urbanites' desires to get "back to nature" through adventure tours and excursions are no mystery, claims Canadian adventure-preneur Joe Kowalski. "I think it's genetic. People thrive on things that get their adrenaline going," explains the founder of Beachburg, Ontario-based Wilderness Tours. "With the exception of crime and traffic, however, modern living no longer satisfies that need."
By offering his clients a chance to experience the thrill of white-water rafting in one of numerous adventure vacation packages, Kowalski appeals to that age-old human urge. "People feel more alive when they're outside with nature in a challenging environment," the 47-year-old explains. "Rafting provides them a legitimate risk-not a great risk, but nonetheless a risk."
Building a successful adventure tours business can demand a bit of risk, too. "When I started, I had just $50, a desk, a sleeping bag and a phone," recalls Kowalski of the early days of his business. "Without any money, you're forced to become very creative." Because he couldn't afford paid advertising when he started his business in 1975, for example, Kowalski says he "got good at getting free publicity" by contacting the media personally for press coverage. The former rafting "hobbyist" also got good at operating on a shoestring.
"Because in this industry you deal with advanced reservations and payments, I was able to take my first payments to purchase secondhand equipment, then lead the tours myself," Kowalski recalls. And though today Wilderness Tours is one of North America's 10 largest rafting companies with a staff of about 200, Kowalski still stands by his original business philosophy: "You've got to be creative, or you just won't make it."
The Adventure Travel Society Inc., 6551 S. Revere Pkwy., #160, Engelwood, CO 80111-6410, (303) 649-9016.
Imagine this: A business where you do nothing but spend other people's money-and earn money while you're at it. For shopaholics, being a personal shopper is, indeed, a dream come true. Moreover, the price is right: To get started, you don't need to dig too deeply into your pocketbook. Take Francine Finucan, for example. The spend-happy entrepreneur started her Troy, Michigan-based personal shopping business with little more than some home office equipment and a penchant for talking shop.
"In the beginning, all I had was a filing cabinet, a word processor, a phone and an answering machine," recalls Finucan, who started her business for about $500. She had spent several years working in various segments of the service industry before founding Executive Concierge Services Inc. six years ago. "It helps, too, to be a 'people person.'"
Catering to busy executives, Finucan started out by doing miscellaneous errands, including everything from personal airport and dry cleaning pick-up/drop-off to pet feeding and gift buying. "Services in general are in demand today because people are so busy, especially with both husbands and wives working," explains Finucan. "Hiring a personal shopper is cost-effective because clients don't need to take time off work to do their errands."
Thanks to word-of-mouth, Finucan's business has expanded into an office and doubled every year since its inception. The entrepreneur has even put her point-of-purchase skills to work shopping for other executive services: "I'm like a travel agent," explains Finucan. "I help my clients do everything from finding a caterer and sending flowers to gift-wrapping a present." Though her shopping list keeps getting longer, Finucan is clearly determined to keep shopping 'til she drops.
Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1310: Personal Shopping Service. To order, see page 93, or call (800) 421-2300.
With wedding vows and a lifetime of togetherness ahead of them, the bride and groom have more important things to think about than whether the flowers will arrive on time. Here's where a professional wedding consultant saves the big day for pre-nuptial couples. Exceptional organizational and people skills help you coordinate everything from caterers to photographers, and let those wedding bells ring.
Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants, 7791 Prestwick Cr., San Jose, CA 95135, (408) 223-5686.
Collectibles entrepreneurs live and succeed by an old motto: "One person's junk, another person's treasure." Indeed, rummaging through other people's attics and closets, and scouring flea markets and thrift stores is many a collectibles dealer's raison d'être. Larry Aikins' happens to be lunch boxes.
That's right, those old metal and soft vinyl containers that used to carry PB&J. To the 56-year-old former construction worker and custom cabinet maker, however, they're much more. "They're the history of television," Aikins explains. "I'm possessed by them."
Aikins isn't the only one. Dealers and other collectors call him daily offering top dollar for a particular "kit" (box and thermos). Like most collectibles entrepreneurs, he spends much of his time traveling to find new items for his collection of about 3,000 boxes. Since he started his collection about 10 years ago, he has also run ads in toy and antique magazines, attended flea markets, and generally "put the word out to dealers" to expand his Athens, Texas-based business. Now, claims Aikins, "Dealers come to me."
No matter what item you decide to collect, the key is to have it in your heart, says Aikins, who started his venture for $1,200. "Getting into the business for the investment alone isn't the way to succeed." On the other hand, Aikins must admit that collecting some cash along the way isn't such a bad way to go.
Antique & Collectables, 1000 Pioneer Wy., P.O. Box 1565, El Cajon, CA 92022, (619) 593-2925.
The "Three Rs"-reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic-don't come so easy for everyone. If they do for you, however, you could earn high marks helping others as a tutor. In fact, whatever you're an expert at, be it computers, the piano or speaking a foreign language, there's bound to be someone who could benefit from your expertise. Teach them what you know at your house or theirs.
How To Talk So Kids Can Learn, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish (Rawson Associates, $22.00, 800-223-2336). Improving Your Child's Schoolwork, by Lawrence J. Greene. (Prima Publishing, $16.95, 800-632-8676).
Make way for a special screening: With some basic screen-printing equipment, you can turn political statements and other logos into wearable works of art. Businesses, organizations, schools and private individuals make up your clientele. And advertising is cheap, since your work gets seen by people everywhere.
Screenprinting and Graphic Imaging Association International, 10015 Main St., Fairfax, VA 22031, (703) 385-1335.
Got a nose for mystery? Sniff up the trail of missing persons, unfaithful spouses, unidentified witnesses, competitive businesses and more with your private investigation firm.
Contrary to popular lore, a trench coat and magnifying glass aren't required to make your mark as a private eye. "It takes persistence, common sense, and the ability to think through information until you find what you're looking for," says Jan Barefoot, owner of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Barefoot Private Investigations.
Barefoot has paid her dues in the industry; before starting her business from home 10 years ago, the former legal secretary spent some time working for another investigation firm. "It helps to be familiar with the legal process, since that's where most of the business is," explains the 32-year-old, whose first clients included attorneys she knew from her days in that industry.
Good photography skills are a plus, too, says Barefoot, for capturing surreptitious activities and more. Having started out on her own, with just $2,000 and no computer, the entrepreneur attributes her business' success to good client relations: "If a client likes you, they'll stay with you for future cases," explains the seasoned sleuth, who today takes on some 500 cases per year and employs four full-time investigators.
National Association of Investigative Specialists, P.O. Box 33244, Austin, TX 78764, (512) 719-3595.
Put yourself where the lights and action are-behind the camera-with your own videotaping service. With some persistence, you could soon be saying "roll 'em" to a field full of star opportunities.
Take Greg Coon, for example. With no video camera of his own, Coon started out for about $10,000 by renting equipment and videotaping for family and friends on a part-time basis. In between jobs, the entrepreneur recalls, "I was persistent, and constantly sent out letters with my resume to potential clients." Today, Coon's Dallas-based Eyecon Video Productions, which he started from a home office in 1993, produces everything from television commercials to sales and promotional videos for corporate clients.
Though Coon studied radio, television and film in college, the 30-year-old cameraman says getting some real-life experience is invaluable to getting your foot in the door of this industry. "I spent six years working for nothing and interning just to get experience and to meet as many people as I could," Coon explains. One of these jobs, helping record legal depositions, soon paid off for the ambitious entrepreneur. "When I started my own business, I was able to draw from the knowledge I gained from this experience," he says. Joining various trade associations, too, has proved a valuable source of new clients.
To build his business, Coon explains, "I buy more equipment as jobs become available." Today, the entrepreneur employs a full-time video duplications editor and several freelancers out of his Dallas office. With annual sales of roughly $120,000, and projected sales of $150,000 in 1996, Coon insists his business is still rolling along.
International Teleproduction Society, 350 Fifth Ave., Suite 2400, New York, NY 10118, (212) 629-3266.
It's been said one has to kiss a lot of frogs before finding a prince (or princess). The same can be said about finding a reliable service. By creating a database of tried-and-true companies that can be recommended to clients, however, referral service entrepreneurs help wary consumers screen out the "frogs." Businesses pay to be listed with you, while consumers receive referrals for a nominal fee, or none at all.
Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, P.O. Box 3546, Joliet, IL 60434, (815) 744-6922.
What could be better than doing business to the tune of falling coins? Those coins could be yours, when you provide the machines that dispense drinks, snacks and other convenience items to businesses, schools and other organizations. When you purchase or lease the machines from a vendor, your only other investment is in marketing and maintaining them. Viva, vending business!
National Automatic Merchandising Association, 20 N. Wacker Dr., #3500, Chicago, IL 60606, (312) 346-0370.
The reason medical billing services are so popular, says medical billing services entrepreneur Joanne Mitchell, is simple: "Just as you hire someone to clean your house when you don't have time to do it yourself, doctors hire people to do their billing." It's apparently all part of the outsourcing phenomenon, whereby businesses hire outside vendors to do extra tasks so they can focus on the business at hand.
Although the term "medical biller" sounds technical, entrepreneurs in the field needn't be especially skilled in either medicine or banking. "You just need to be detail-oriented," says Mitchell, who invested $2,000 in starting San Diego-based Pacific Medical from a corner of her bedroom almost six years ago. "You also need a healthy appreciation for the fact that you're dealing with other people's money."
Mitchell, who started out with a computer and a modem, lands new accounts by sending brochures and making personal visits to offer help with electronic claims and insurance billing. "There's lots of software out there that enables you to offer these services," says the 36-year-old, who's had such luck with the business that she's even developed a self-study package to help aspiring entrepreneurs follow in her footsteps. "It's a great homebased business." Within 10 months of starting her full-time business, she reached her initial goal of replacing her former corporate salary of $49,000. With such a healthy prognosis, Mitchell continues to grow her business from home with the help of her husband and two full-time assistants.
For more information about Pacific Medical's training packages, call (800) 815-6334.
Put your training in TLC to the test by taking care of a couple-or a roomful-of toddlers and tykes. Whether you set up shop in an office complex or provide care in your own home, you'll need a state license, plenty of babysitting experience and references, and a lot of patience.
Child Care Action Campaign, 330 Seventh Ave., 17th Floor, New York, NY 10001, (212) 239-0138.
Online Information Broker
Thanks to today's age of online services and electronic libraries, information has never been closer to consumers' fingertips. Knowing how to retrieve specific pieces of information, however, is still a mystery to many. "Gaining access to various information systems, such as Dialog is easy," says Robert Aaron, president of Atlanta-based Aaron/Smith Associates Inc. "The hard part is knowing how to find what a client wants, knowing 'where the bodies are buried.'"
A master's degree in library research, plus experience working as a local newspaper researcher, helped Aaron get his business off the ground in 1981. "Experience is important, since clients don't want you to experiment on their time," explains Aaron, who started out in a spare bedroom in his home. His $10,000 start-up included an early-model personal computer and connections to commercial online services.
"When we started, our clients didn't even understand what a database was, nor did they realize they had a need for information or that the need could be met," recalls Aaron, 43. "Now, they're glad to have someone help them through the information highway maze."
Thanks to consumers' growing awareness and requests for "information, please" from primarily corporate clients across the country, Aaron has expanded his business to include five employees in a downtown office-which happens to be located not far from a large university. Says Aaron, "Yes, there are still things we need to do in a library!"
The Information Broker's Handbook, by Sue Rugge & Alfred Glossbrenner (Windcrest/McGraw Hill, $34.95, 800-822-8158).
Want a clear view of success? It could be as simple as making cracked windshields shiny and new. Equipped with one of a number of crack repair kits available on the market today, windshield repair entrepreneurs are getting a new perspective on business by targeting used car lots, individual car owners and rental car agencies.
Because it costs a fraction of the cost of replacement, windshield repair is a popular choice among consumers and insurance companies, alike. "Our customers are thrilled to pay $45 to $100 for a repaired windshield, versus $250 to more than $1,000 for a new one," says Dee Bergé-Morse, who started Westminster, California-based Dee's Windshield Repair part-time in 1990 for about $5,000.
"At first, I just answered the phones and set up appointments from my home office," recalls the 44-year-old, a former staff trainer for a company that sells a windshield repair kit business opportunity. "I hired technicians to do the work for the first 18 months, until I began doing it myself."
Equipped with a truck and a ding, chip and crack windshield repair kit, Bergé-Morse advertised in local print media to garner her first clients. From there, windows of opportunity have literally opened up for the entrepreneur. "The small, mobile company I started has really grown," Bergé-Morse attests. "Now we're in a four-car garage." Working out of a storefront location, says the entrepreneur, has helped her achieve a more professional image and perform higher-quality repairs.
Marketing is also an important element of a successful windshield repair business, says Bergé-Morse. "It helps to be heavily involved in your community, too," she says, "and to focus on providing quality, professional work."
National Glass Association, 8200 Greensboro Dr., #302, McLean, VA 22102, (703) 442-4890.
If you're handy at repairing leaky pipes, stopped-up toilets, jammed drawers, broken windows and more, you could be making handy profits offering your services to clients with less time or muscle. Advertise in local papers or on bulletin boards: If it's broken, you can fix it!
Home Improvement Research Institute, 400 Knightsbridge Pkwy., Lincolnshire, IL 60069, (708) 634-4368.
If you've got an ear for the vernacular, language translation might be for you. But beware: A few years of high school language studies won't do the trick. You've got to be thoroughly fluent in at least one language-and adequate in another-to avoid getting tongue-tied, say industry experts.
"The government and universities offer training, but you've got to be completely fluent and know all the correct grammar and structures," explains Brenda Arbeláez, a native of Columbia who taught adult education with Berlitz for five years before founding PALS International in 1983. "What's more, the vocabularies in different countries can be different, so you need to make a big investment in dictionaries: $500 to $600 for specialized technical dictionaries and $60 to $70 for regular dictionaries."
Dictionaries aside, translators and interpreters can break through the language barrier with minimal start-up costs. Arbeláez, for example, got started from her kitchen table for a little less than $5,000. The key to success, she notes, is teaming up with a partner who can proofread your work and/or translate documents from those languages in which you are not completely fluent.
Some of the more common documents that need translating include birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce documents and citizenship papers, says Arbeláez, who started out by teaching, translating and interpreting English for Spanish speakers. Today, her Troy, Michigan-based business has grown to include an office staffed by 60 part-time teachers of 12 languages. And though she recently got out of translating to focus on teaching cross-cultural programs nationwide, she says the field is still open for quality translators. "Because it can be quite complicated, translators need to specialize in just translation," says Arbeláez. That's not to say it's a vanishing vocation, however: "With globalization, there's a big need for translating and interpretation services," explains Arbeláez. "English is simply not good enough any more."
American Translators Association, 1800 Diagonal Rd., #220, Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 683-6100.
Gastronomically speaking, it's a scrumptious idea: Just look at a menu, pick up the phone, and presto! Your favorite restaurant vittles arrive on your doorstep. Indeed, thanks to restaurant delivery entrepreneurs, instant dining gratification is finally possible. "People like anything that makes their lives easier," attests Bob Lapkin, who began catering to consumers' cravings for convenience with his Gourmet Express Inc. restaurant delivery service in 1992.
Busy executives are especially eager to order their meals on wheels. "We've seen phenomenal growth in the business market," says Lapkin, who distributes a "magazine" chock-full of local restaurant menus to homes and businesses in Minneapolis. Restaurants who offer no delivery services of their own are especially eager to sign on with Gourmet Express, since doing so helps expand their customer base. The restaurants pay a monthly fee to advertise in the delivery service's magazine, as well as a percentage of each sale to Gourmet Express. Customers pay a nominal delivery fee.
Though entree into the restaurant delivery business can be made on a shoestring, Lapkin poured $100,000 into his start-up. He recommends beefing up your business with important equipment such as two-way radios, computers and handheld credit card processors.
"You can get into this business fast, but you need to be sure to stay in touch with your customers to succeed," says the 42-year-old former corporate "marketing guy."
The right computer system, for example, can help entrepreneurs study their client base, process orders and create effective marketing programs. At Gourmet Express, such a system has helped cook up business to include between 200 and 400 new customers per month, as well as put substantial food on the table for Lapkin.
Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1348: Restaurant Delivery Service. To order, call (800) 421-2300.
Get a new lease on life as an apartment preparation specialist. Busy landlords and leasing offices with recently vacated units benefit from your basic painting, plumbing, caulking and scrubbing skills. Equip yourself with some fixer-upper tools, and you're set to make a house (or apartment) into a home, and make some handy profits while you're at it.
Building Service Contractors Association International, 10201 Lee Hwy., #225, Fairfax, VA 22030-2222, (703) 359- 7090.
Keep history all in the family by chronicling people's lives, including important events such as birthdays and graduations, in a family tree. Keep costs down by producing booklets yourself, using a computer, scanner (for scanning photos), and laser printer. Once you've compiled all the information, start collecting the profits from clients and their next of kin.
Writing Family Histories and Memoirs, by Kirk Polking (Betterway Books, $14.99, 513-531-2222). Becoming a Professional Geneologist, by Nancy Carlberg (Carlberg Press, $25.00, 714-772-2849).
Just because you sell secondhand goods doesn't mean you can't make firsthand profits, especially in an age where throwing things away is becoming taboo. "With everyone into recycling today, what could be better than consignment?" notes Dee Rubel, owner of Dee's Consignment Shop in Minneapolis. "In today's economy, it's difficult for working women and mothers to dress at a reasonable price. With consignment, they can dress for one-third of the price of retail."
Success in the consignment industry requires some experience in retail, claims 61-year-old Rubel, whose background includes years of buying, managing and retail sales experience. "To succeed, you need a good sense of what the customer wants." Industry insiders also recommend store owners use one of the many consignment-store management software packages available on the market today.
To build her initial inventory, Rubel sent out mailers and contacted friends. She has no inventory costs, because owners gladly place their items for sale in Rubel's store with the understanding that they will get 50 percent of the sale price. To get her store off the ground in 1993, Rubel's initial investment was primarily in renovation items, such as carpeting and fixtures, and a computer.
Today, Rubel continues to advertise regularly in local magazines, and to do direct mailings two times per year to keep up her inventory and draw new customers to her store. Her first-class approach to doing business in the thrift industry has paid off: Sales of Rubel's "gently worn" women's clothing and accessories are increasing every year, she says.
Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1229: Consignment Clothing Store. To order, call (800) 421-2300.
You could call it trickle-down economics: As a network marketer, you tell three friends, and they tell three friends, and so on. In fact, when you've got a product to sell through network marketing, the more people you know, the better. And with so many network marketing programs to choose from today, getting into this "Net" has never been more appealing.
Multi-level Marketing International Association, 1101 Dove St., #170, Newport Beach, CA 92660, (714) 622-0300.
Office Plant Maintenance
Plants do more than just add color to a workspace: According to studies, they also help clean the air. But with phone calls to answer and deadlines to meet, what office worker has time to have a green thumb, too? Here's where office plant maintenance specialists come in, cultivating profits by providing regular plant care and allowing clients to focus on their business at hand.
American Association of Nurserymen Inc., 1250 I St. N.W., #500, Washington, DC 20005, (202) 789-2900.
Make way for windows of opportunity with your own miniblind cleaning service. Business and residential clients alike require periodic miniblind cleaning to maintain their window coverings' original gloss. Start with some towels and cleaning spray, or for a truly dazzling effect, invest in an ultrasonic tank cleaning machine.
Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1343: Miniblind Cleaning. To order, call (800) 421-2300.
Can you keep a secret? Unbeknownst to many, "mystery" shoppers are putting retailers across the country to the test. Hired by employers to pose as customers and evaluate their employees in areas including first impression, product knowledge, customer service and sales savvy, these entrepreneurs keep customer service employees on their toes.
Being a secret shopper, however, isn't as easy as many people think. "Everyone who's ever bought something from a store thinks they can do it, but that's not true," attests Judith Rappold, a mystery shopper in Austin, Texas. "It helps to have a background in areas such as retail sales, personnel management, personnel training and writing." Such a background, says Rappold, can help secret shoppers evaluate employees, compose marketing letters and proposals, and keep records of employee performance.
In comparison, the "physical" things you need to get started as a mystery shopper are minimal. "This is a great business, because the investment is so low," says Rappold, who started Business Resources in 1984 from a home office. "With stationery, business cards, and a computer, you essentially have what you need to open doors and start making a profit."
One way to start building your clientele is by initially performing free analyses of local businesses' customer service. From there, networking can go a long way in helping grow your business.
"I sent out lots of letters, made personal phone calls and spoke directly with store managers," recalls Rappold of her business's early days. Indeed, the 53-year-old attributes much of Business Resources' success to these early efforts. "We're now the largest secret shopping service in the Southwest," she says.
Apparently, there's still room in the market for the secretive shopper, however. Rappold explains: "We've even started teaching other people how to establish their own secret shopping business."
For more information about starting a secret shopping business, send an SASE to Business Resources, 2222 Western Trails, #107, Austin, TX 78745, or call (512) 416-7702.
Personalized Children's Books
You don't need a whole lot of book smarts to see the opportunity in personalizing publications for kids: Children delight in reading stories about themselves, and friends and family delight in giving such a personalized gift. By producing the one-of-a-kind books with a home desktop publishing system, entrepreneurs open a new chapter in their lives-and promote literacy, too.
Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1368: Personalized Children's Books. To order, call (800) 421-2300.
A low start-up investment isn't the only appeal behind running a carpet cleaning business, maintains Connie Campbell, co-founder with her husband, Steve, of Connie's Carpet & Upholstery Cleaning. "When we started our homebased business, we were looking for something we could do independently," recalls Connie, 45. By purchasing a carpet and upholstery cleaning equipment package from the Von Schrader Company for less than $5,000 in 1989, the Altoona, Iowa-based entrepreneurs had just about everything they needed to begin achieving that goal.
By keeping their business "in the family"-Connie does all the bookkeeping and management, while Steve, 47, does most of the actual carpet and upholstery cleaning-the Campbells are able to maintain a good reputation among their roster of 1,800 customers across Polk County. Steve, a former railroad worker, makes the rounds to customers' homes in a minivan that touts the business's name on its side.
"We like to keep customer satisfaction high, so we grow only as big as we need to satisfy our financial needs," says Connie.
Maintaining a computer database of customers helps the pair provide good customer relations. "With the computer, we keep in contact with our old clients," explains Connie. "We also get new clients by advertising in the Yellow Pages." The pair occasionally enlist the help of their two grown children, as well as independent contractors, to get their primarily residential cleaning work done. "We focus on residential work because we don't like to work nights," says Connie, a former homemaker and school bus driver. "We like being able to set our own hours."
A competitive tip from the Campbells: Offer upholstery cleaning services in addition to carpet cleaning. "If you don't do both, a customer may move on to someone who does," explains Connie. "Typically, customers want both services done on the same day."
Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration, 10830 Annapolis Junction Rd., #312, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701, (301) 604-4411.
For importers and exporters, it really is a small world, after all. Improved global communication, an increasing demand for everyday necessities, and a growing international pool of skilled technical workers make doing business 'round the globe all the easier. As the "middlemen" who arrange for the transport of goods, import/exporters needn't stockpile any inventory to achieve out-of-this-world success.
Small Business Administration, Office of International Trade, 409 Third St., S.W., 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20416, (202) 205-6720.
Home Inspection Service
Put yourself on the home front by offering residential building inspection services. With some knowledge of construction and carpentry, plus a recommended license in home inspection, you're set to assess problems such as structural damage and decay, insect infestation and foundational abnormalities. Real estate agents and prospective buyers alike rely on you to pave the way for safer, sounder homes.
National Association of Home Inspectors, 4248 Park Glen Rd., Minneapolis, MN 55416, (800) 448-3942.
There's no under-the-counter activity involved, here. In fact, as a countertop repair specialist, the only thing you've got to worry about is what's above the counter. Fix chips, cracks and unsightly countertops with some basic cleaning and repair equipment, and give clients the working space they need.
National Association of the Remodeling Industry, 4301 N. Fairfax Dr., #310, Arlington, VA 22203, (703) 276-7600.
Today's easy-to-use computer software makes it possible for just about anyone to play graphic designer: Just point, click and drag a border here or insert a fancy font there. What most people aren't able to do, however, is turn their concepts or rough designs into finished, professional, camera-ready products. Here's where you, the experienced graphic designer, come in.
Take Cathy Carey, for example. The 35-year-old La Costa, California, graphic artist has applied her varied background in the industry to build a steady clientele. "You need more than just an artistic temperament," says Carey, who worked in the art department at an advertising company and at a local newspaper before founding her homebased business in 1991. "Having a good head for business and knowing how to market and place an ad, for example, are important, too."
Carey invested $5,000 into her start-up, and she has been careful to reinvest any profits into her business as it has grown. She began with a single computer and laser printer she purchased with a credit card. Today, she advises other aspiring graphic designers to equip their businesses with a high-memory computer (in order to run graphics software), a large-screen monitor, and a scanner. With this equipment and some industry know-how, you're set to point and click your way to a picture-perfect business.
Graphic Communications Association, 100 Daingerfield Rd., Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 519-8160.
Everyone loves to see their name in print; imagine the results when you spell it out on everyday items like pens, lighters and golf caps. By sourcing such products from an outside manufacturer, running your own specialty advertising enterprise is as easy as marketing and selling the promotional items to clients looking for an alternative way to advertise their name or their business.
Promotional Products Association, 3125 Skyway Cir., N., Irving, TX 75038-3526, (214) 252-0404.
Resume/Cover Letter Writing
Job applicants need every advantage they can get when it comes to finding new employment. Equipped with your computer, laser printer and editing and design skills, you're in a position to breathe new life into clients' curricula vitae. Put the odds in your favor by maintaining a supply of quality stationery to help boost clients' prospects.
Professional Association of Resume Writers, 3637 Fourth St., N., #330, St. Petersburg, FL 33704-1336, (813) 821-2274.
Donning a party hat and blowing a noisemaker is all fine and dandy when it comes to partying, but unless you want to be known as a party pooper, you've got to infuse a bit more creativity into your next bash, no matter its size.
Indeed, the art of event planning has taken on such a clever bent that no idea for a party seems too outrageous today. Take Bethesda, Maryland, entrepreneur Rita Bloom, for example. The founder of Creative Parties Ltd. has arranged everything from laser lightshows to extravagantly painted ballroom floors for her clients' festive occasions.
Though putting on such creative parties doesn't come cheap for clients, organizing them isn't necessarily costly for enterprising event planners. "Because organizers typically use a client's money to buy event supplies, start-up costs are low," says Bloom, who founded her business part-time from her home, with no out-of-pocket investment, in 1968 after a friend asked her to help plan a "Sweet 16" party. Attending a stationery trade show later that year hooked Bloom on the life of a "party girl." Thanks to word-of-mouth, Bloom's business has blossomed into a storefront location that sells invitations and includes an event-planning division that grosses $2 million per year.
"The industry is exploding," enthuses Bloom. "Today, George Washington University offers a master's degree in event management." And though event planners can still get started with little more than stationery, business cards and some calls to hotels, florists and others in the industry, Bloom recommends investing "as much as you can" into your business to keep it at the forefront of the social scene.
International Special Event Society, 9202 N. Meridian St., #200, Indianapolis, IN 46260, (317) 571-5601.
For Gayle Fitch, business is just another day at the office. At someone else's office, that is, providing administrative and clerical office support.
Though many office support entrepreneurs may start out actually providing office help for clients, themselves, other business owners simply serve as a sort of "middle man," finding other people to do the work for them. Such is the case with Fitch, who advises other aspiring entrepreneurs to have some kind of human resources recruiting background before getting started in this low-investment business.
"This is a customer-oriented business, so it's important to place an emphasis on customer service," she notes.
Fitch started her Ossining, New York-based Crickett Personnel Services in 1983, placing permanent employees in clients' offices. "I printed out a bunch of brochures, then personally handed them out at train stations and wherever there was heavy traffic," recalls Fitch. "I also made lots of phone calls."
By depositing $500 in a business checking account, Fitch was able to pay her initial overhead costs and, after six months of working from a small, rented office, expand her business. "With the commissions I earned for placing employees in clients' offices, I was eventually able to fund a temporary-employee payroll," Fitch explains.
Today, Fitch's client base covers a 10-mile radius from her Ossining office, which she no longer shares. With the help of an in-house staff of four and a roster full of temporary employees, Fitch's business has achieved million-dollar sales status.
National Association for Business Organizations, 10451 Millrun Cr., #400, Owen Mills, MD 21117, (410) 581-1373.
Say "Hello" to business in more ways than one in the burgeoning international market. As a freight broker, you negotiate arrangements between shippers and receivers and speed imported goods through customs. It helps to have some savoir faire of international land, sea, air and rail shipping rates, rules and regulations. A network of reliable transport carriers, too, puts you on the path to smooth shipping.
American International Freight Association, 1200 19th St., #300, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 857-1134.
Mobile Auto Detailing
Rev up your entrepreneurial wheels, keeping clients' cars looking shiny and new. A vacuum, a few brushes, spray bottles and rags put you in the driver's seat with your own mobile auto detailing business. Individual car owners aren't the only ones to benefit from your services: Used car lots and rental agencies, too, need their cars cleaned, waxed and polished.
Entrepreneur Magazine Group publishes Business Start-Up Guide #1146: Automobile Detailing. To order, call (800) 421-2300.
Start-Up Investment/Net Profit Table
|Business Type||Start-Up Investment||Average Net Profit Before Taxes|
|Bulletin Board Service||$12,000||$366,400|
|Event Planning Services||$5,000||$76,500|
|Home Health Care||$6,900||$300,000|
|Mobile Auto Detailing||$900||$100,000|
|Office Plant Maintenance||$80||$52,000|
|Office Support Service||$4,300||$30,000|
|Online Information Broker||$7,300||$72,200|
|Personalized Children's Books||$4,420||$54,000|
|Personal Shopping Service||$1,845||$46,000|
|Restaurant Delivery Service||$6,510||$70,000|
|Resume/Cover Letter Writing||$790||$27,000|
|Used Car Inspection||$9,584||$84,000|
|Utility Bill Auditing||$6,025||$55,000|