Shoestring Startups

24 businesses you can start for $3,000 or less.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the April 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

Ready to be your own boss? There are hundreds of businesses you can start in your spare time with an initial investment of less than $3,000. Once your business gets going, you can keep it small and part time, or you can expand and go full time. Here are some of today's hottest low-cost opportunities.

Because so many people have computers at home, our estimated start-up costs do not include the cost of a computer. If you need to purchase one, your initial costs will be higher. (Check out last month's "Wise Buys" column for six computers you can buy for less than $1,000.)

Marcire Geffner is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who reports on real estate and small-business issues.

Personal Computer Consultant

Despite the pervasiveness of computers, there are still thousands of people who are intimidated by computer technology. If you're computer savvy and a patient teacher, you can sell individual computer training and consulting services to seniors, students and others who need personal computing power.

Start-Up Cost: $2,000

Business Computer Consultant

Businesses of all sizes rely on outside computer experts for advice about hardware purchases and upgrades, computer networking and Internet access. To sell your services to corporations, you'll need a professional image, including good-quality business cards, a separate phone line and a fax machine.

Start-Up Cost: $3,000

Web-Site Designer

When the Internet was in its infancy, no one paid much attention to how attractively information was presented online. Today, a cool Web site is the hottest way for a company to market its products and services. That's why companies hire professionals to conceptualize their sites' messages; design the backgrounds, buttons and graphics; and publish the sites on the Web. With so much off-the-shelf Web-site design software available, your creativity and graphic skills are more important than technical ability.

Start-Up Cost: $2,000

Web-Site Marketing Consultant

Many companies create fancy Internet sites, then fail to promote them to potential customers. As a promotional consultant, you register the company's site with multiple search engines to increase traffic, arrange reciprocal links with related sites and help the company make purchasing decisions about banner advertising.

Start-Up Cost: $2,000

Personal Massage

Massage used to be restricted to professional athletes, but today health magazines are touting the lifelong benefits of massage for just about everyone. To give body massages in homes or offices, you'll need to take some training courses, buy a portable massage table and obtain a license, in some states. One profitable niche: Target corporate clients by offering to give their employees 10-minute massages for, say, $10.

Start-Up Cost: $2,600

Image Consultant

In today's society, looks matter. Image consultants help people make good first impressions by advising them how to improve their images. This includes everything from clothing and hairstyles to speaking voices, posture and manners. Whether you target individual customers with color-consulting services or aim at executives trying to climb the corporate ladder, your image is key in this business. Invest in professional-looking marketing materials, and remember, you're your own best advertisement.

Start-Up Cost: $700

Nutritional Supplement Distributor

Health-conscious consumers are creating a demand for nutritional supplements, diet aids and the like. You can get into the business as a distributor with almost no money if you choose a reputable multilevel marketing company. With marketing savvy and an understanding of health and fitness, you'll soon see healthy profits.

Start-Up Cost: $100

Gift Baskets

Each month offers occasions tailor-made for giving gift baskets, and designing and delivering them is a year-round business opportunity. If you've got an eye for the gifts people love to get, this could be the business for you. (For more on gift baskets, see "Perfect Presents" on page 60.)

Start-Up Cost: $3,000

Tax Preparer

The demand for professional help completing income tax forms is as strong as ever. An increasingly complex tax code and the growth of small and homebased businesses are contributing to the demand. With a head for numbers and specialized computer software, you can help people file tax forms as a tax preparer.

Start-Up Cost: $3,000

Judgment Recovery Service

Often, winning a case in small claims court is much easier than collecting on the judgment. Much like collections agents, judgment recovery specialists go after unpaid claims, charging a percentage of the claim as a fee. Judgments for property damage and uninsured auto accidents make up most of the business for Christina Smiley, a former collections agent who started Sierra Judgment Recovery in South Lake Tahoe, California, three years ago. Smiley earns 40 percent to 50 percent of each judgment she recovers, which added up to $80,000 last year.

Start-Up Cost: $200

Paralegal Service

Getting help from an attorney can be expensive, even for a routine will, bankruptcy or divorce. As an independent paralegal, you can't offer legal advice, but you can use special software to help people complete simple legal forms, then take the hassles off their hands by filing forms for them. Laws regulating paralegals vary from state to state; a paralegal certificate or liability insurance may be required. Check your local business licensing agency or department of corporations to find out.

Start-Up Cost: $2,000

Office Plant Service

Most businesses have plants in their reception areas, executive offices and employee lunch rooms. As a plant service owner, you recommend sturdy species, properly water and fertilize the plants, and otherwise keep the greenery healthy.

Start-Up Cost: $150

Apartment Prepper

Moving is a fact of life-and every time a tenant vacates an apartment, someone needs to clean, repair and paint it before it can be shown to prospective new tenants. That's where you come in. You'll need a heavy-duty vacuum, industrial-strength cleaning supplies, a well-stocked toolbox, and a professional paint sprayer and compressor to get started. A carpet cleaning machine can be rented as necessary.

Start-Up Cost: $1,500

In-Store Demonstrator

Grocery shoppers are more likely to purchase the newest juice drink, hot salsa or other item if they try a free sample at the supermarket. In-store demonstration services provide supermarkets with trained demonstrators who set up tables and hand out samples or coupons. Start-ups market their services to the grocery stores and recruit independent contractors to do the demonstrations.

Start-Up Cost: $150

Utility Service Marketer

The deregulation of phone companies created big opportunities for independent telemarketers and multilevel marketing companies to sell long-distance service to consumers. Now utility services are being deregulated, and utility companies are turning to independent contractors to market electricity to consumers. If you affiliate with a legitimate multilevel marketing company, you can typically get started for very little money.

Start-Up Cost: $100

Freelance photographer

Opportunities for freelance photographers are everywhere. Weddings, sports teams and special events are key sources of business; magazines, newspapers, advertising agencies and corporate marketing departments also rely on independent photographers for stock art, specialty photographs, brochures and Web-site images. If you have a good camera and an artistic eye, you can turn amateur picture-taking into a professional photography business.

Start-Up Cost: $1,000

Newsletter Publisher

Thanks to desktop publishing software, you don't need to own a print shop to publish your own newsletter. Specialty newsletters work best when they target a narrow field of interest. Edible insects, cookie-cutter collecting and stay-at-home fatherhood are themes of successful newsletters. Pick a topic you enjoy, research the trends and ask fellow enthusiasts to contribute articles. Send press releases and sample copies to the media to build your subscriber base. Distributing the newsletter by e-mail can lower your production costs.

Start-Up Cost: $1,000


When pet owners take vacations or business trips, pet-sitters step in to ease their worries. Love of animals is essential; you'll do everything from walking dogs and stroking cats to administering medicine, when necessary. Advertise with business cards or fliers at veterinary offices or pet stores.

Start-Up Cost: $1,000

Inventory Counting Service

Taking inventory can be a painful undertaking for pharmacies, grocery stores and other businesses. Professional inventory counters, who usually have retail experience, can make the process smoother and the results more accurate. You'll need a handheld counting device, plus knowledge of the basics of inventory control.

Start-Up Cost: $2,000

Children's Party Planner

Two-income parents rarely have the time or energy to plan memorable birthday parties for their children. That's why they hire you, the party planner, to bring decorations, cake and ice cream, clowns, games and entertainment. The key to party planning is knowing where to get everything at a discount.

Start-Up Cost: $400

Executive/Personal Organizer

Some people are just naturally organized. If you're one of them, help those who aren't by starting your own organizing service. You can help busy executives get their workspaces and schedules in order. Or cater to individuals by organizing closets and garages. Whichever market you choose, you'll need brochures and business cards to tout the benefits of your services. Joining organizer associations is a good way to get referred to your first clients.

Start-Up Cost: $1,000


If you have a knack for numbers, a way with words or just about any other type of talent, you can turn it into a thriving business as a tutor. Visit students in their homes or at school-or have them come to you. Advertise on school bulletin boards or send direct mailings to local parents. All you need to get started are some business cards and basic instruction manuals.

Start-Up Cost: $300

Baby-Proofing Service

For a toddler, home can be a dangerous place. That's why many new parents hire baby-proofing services to locate and correct potential hazards. You'll need some basic tools, including screwdrivers, wrenches and a small drill, plus a good selection of latches and safety devices. Personal networking, referrals, advertising and letters to pediatricians can alert parents to your services.

Start-Up Cost: $1,500

Selling Collectibles

Interest in antiques and collectibles is soaring. Whether you're selling '70s action figures or country-style

kitchen accessories, there's someone out there who wants it. Renting space in an antique mall or co-op can cost as little as $50 a month, and some malls even provide staff to work your booth so you don't have to. Visit garage sales and swap meets to stock up on inventory; then invest in some price guides to become familiar with values. Soon you'll look at everything old in a whole new way.

Start-Up Cost: $1,100

Succces Stories

Lynn Kerrigan

Newsletter Know-How/

The Culinary Sleuth

Annual sales: $25,000

Start-up cost: $1,000

Year started: 1995

Number of subscribers: 1,500

Success secrets: "Running a successful newsletter business takes patience (it usually takes two years to show a profit), constant creative marketing and, most of all, a darn good product."

Greg Eberly

Designer Greens

Annual sales: $200,000

Start-up cost: $100

Year started: 1980

Number of clients: 75

Success secrets: "To run an office plant service, you need a solid background in indoor horticulture; knowledge of product sources and your target market; an aggressive yet pleasant demeanor; a commitment to excellence; and business savvy."

Medical Transcriptionist

If you have a bit more start-up cash, here's another business you can launch.

Managed-care health plans have forced doctors, dentists, chiropractors and other medical service providers to outsource tasks once performed by office personnel. Transcription of medical records and reports is one such task. In addition to being a quick and accurate typist, an independent medical transcriptionist should have a few years' experience working in the field and must be familiar with medical terminology.

Start-Up Cost: $5,000

Steve Epner

BSW Consulting

Annual sales: $750,000

Start-up cost: $5,000

Number of clients: Several hundred

Year started: 1976

Success secrets: Says computer consultant Epner, "You need to have faith in yourself and what you're doing; a strong self-image; and, if you have a family, make sure they're behind you."

Contact Sources

BSW Consulting Inc., 1050 N.Lindenberg Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63132, (314)991-8505.

Designer Greens, P.O. Box 11949, Palm Desert, CA 92255,

Sierra Judgement Recovery, (530)577-0926,

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