20 Online Business Ideas With Little or No Startup Cost
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If there is one good thing that our most recent pandemic side hustle study showed, it’s that it accelerated the mass adoption of remote work all over the world (for many industries). As someone whose been running an online business from home since well before the pandemic, I can tell you that the number of weird looks I get from people when I say “I work from home” has gone down exponentially. People just get it now.
And now I see two other trends starting to emerge:
- People whose jobs became remote in 2020 and 2021 have tasted freedom, but now they want to take it a step further and ditch having a boss. Location freedom is only part of the puzzle. Freedom over time is the other. Starting an online business is a way to have both.
- People with in-person jobs see how much happier their remote-working friends are now, and they want a piece of that. They are dying to find a way out of the get up, drive to work, work, drive home grind.
In either case, people are desperate for ideas. And now we as a society know that having a successful online business isn’t just a pipe dream anymore — millions of regular people are finding ways to make it happen.
Main Categories of Online Businesses
- Content business: The lifeblood of any content creator’s business is their audience. With an engaged audience that is big enough, there are many ways to capture value from the content you create for them.
- Service-based online business: This is all about working with clients one-on-one, completing projects, and using word-of-mouth as a main growth tool.
- E-commerce: Selling products online, usually via a virtual storefront.
- Software as a Service (SaaS) & other tech: Creating tools and products that people pay to use. Usually requires some background in tech development.
Content Business Ideas
1. Launch a blog
Startup costs: Less than $100
Maybe you have a passion for cooking, fashion, or personal finance. Or maybe you just have tons of great ideas that you know will help others. Starting a blog allows you to share your passion with the world and make money in the process
How blogs can make money:
- Display ads (also called banner ads)
- Affiliate marketing; selling someone else’s product for a commission
- Selling an online course or ebook
- DollarSprout.com – Side hustles and entrepreneurship
- ApartmentTherapy.com – Interior Design
- ThoughtfulParent.com – Parenting
- Kotaku.com – Gaming
What you need to get started:
- Domain name and hosting (we recommend HostGator)
- A topic area you like and can devote yourself to
- Strong writing skills
It may sound daunting, but the learning curve isn’t as steep as you might imagine. Take it from these five millennials who started their blogs in the last 12 months and are all making over $1,000 per month. Their advice is pretty straightforward: do some pre-planning, be authentic, and don’t be afraid to fail.
It’s not rocket science, and with a little persistence, you could be less than a year away from a significant online income.
2. Start a YouTube channel
Startup costs: $0
You don’t need to be the next Logan Paul in order to find success as a YouTuber. Nowadays, you can find a YouTube channel on just about any topic, no matter how obscure. If you like the idea of creating content for a specific audience but hate the thought of writing, starting your own YouTube channel could be the ticket.
Most popular ways YouTubers make money:
- Ads (before, during, and/or after video)
- Affiliate marketing
- The Lawn Care Nut (462k subscribers)
- Oscar Ramos (Cryptocurrency, 15.5k subscribers)
- Boho Beautiful Yoga (2.26M subscribers)
What you need to get started:
- Your smartphone camera
3. Sell online knowledge courses
Between Google and YouTube, you can learn pretty much anything online. The firehose of information we all have at our fingertips is amazing but also overwhelming. That’s where course creators come in.
Instead of someone piecing together fragmented information from dozens of sources and trying to teach themselves a topic, it’s often easier (and smarter) to just buy a single course from a trusted instructor. It cuts down on time wasted and makes learning much more efficient.
As a course creator, you have the opportunity to build a course once and sell it hundreds or even thousands of times. There is no income limit.
You can make a course on anything. Examples of popular courses:
- Get Your Ex Back ($57.99) by Lee Wilson
- Watercolor Painting ($197) by Nicki Traikos
- Pest Control Training for Professionals ($324) by Pest Posse
In order to sell your course, you’ll need an audience. Most popular methods:
- Grow an audience via free content on social media
- Grow an audience via search engine traffic
- Running ads on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Google, etc.
4. Become an influencer
Influencers sometimes get a bad rap, but there’s no denying that tens of thousands of people are earning a full-time income. Turning a social media following into a reliable source of income is easier said than done, but it’s a viable business model. Like most other online businesses, the more specialized and narrow your area of focus is, the better.
No matter how strange and obscure the topic is, there is almost certainly an influencer in that space that is crushing it.
- @ImagineItDone, cleaning and organization influencer on TikTok
- @ClubProGuy, golf satire account on Instagram
- @EdLatimore, sobriety and addiction influencer on Twitter
5. Flip digital real estate
You’ve probably heard of flipping houses, where people buy a house that has potential but needs some work. They do the repairs or upgrades and then sell the house for a profit. Think of blog flipping as the digital version of real estate flipping.
This online business is best suited for someone that already has some blogging experience. If you have never operated a successful blog before, it’s a better idea to just start from scratch and get some experience under your belt. That will help you spot investment opportunities later on when you want to buy a blog with the intent of flipping it shortly thereafter for a profit.
Some popular marketplaces for buying and selling blogs:
- Flippa, lots of listings, usually on the smaller side (<$50,000)
- Empire Flippers, typically for more established sites
- How I Made $16,800 Flipping a Blog with No Traffic (HerPaperRoute.com)
- Flipping an Affiliate Website for $136,000 in 16 months (EmpireFlippers.com)
6. Create an online newsletter
Paid newsletters have been surging in popularity over the past couple of years as readers are putting more value on trusted sources of information. Chris Best, the guy who started Substack — a platform for hosting paid newsletters — noticed a problem unfolding in online media: publishers who operate under an advertising revenue business model are being driven to take extreme measures to garner attention (and clicks).
The result is often clickbait stories, lame listicles, and generally underwhelming – or deliberately polarizing, content. Substack offers an alternative business model for writers. In their own words, they are “building a future where writers can flourish by being paid directly by readers.”
There are over 500,000 paying subscribers on Substack, and it is reported that the top ten authors on the platform make over $20M per year combined. Clearly there is something here. There is a demand for non-ad-based media models. If you love to write, this is an opportunity worth checking out.
Resources for getting started:
- How to Create a Substack Newsletter
- a16z Podcast: Tips from Writers on Launching a Newsletter on Substack
Service-Based Online Businesses
7. Freelance writer
Busy online business owners need help with creating content. Instead of spending hours writing a blog post themselves, smart businesses will pay freelance writers to create that content for them. Learning how to become a freelance writer and land gigs like these is a great way to get income coming in ASAP.
Starting a freelance writing business online involves choosing a niche (or two), becoming an expert in that topic, and creating an online portfolio for future clients to see. Freelancers have to prove their worth before landing reliable and high-paying clients. One way to jump-start your freelance writing career without any clients is by establishing your own blog.
Once your online business website is complete with a well-rounded portfolio and you’re confident writing in your niche, you’re ready for your first writing client. It may take months of working for free or little money, but once you have trustworthy testimonials under your belt, landing new writing clients gets easier.
Resources for getting started:
- Holly Johnson’s Earn More Writing course
- 5 Best Freelance Writing Courses (According to Experts)
- 12 Ways to Make More as a Freelance Writer
8. Facebook ads agency for local businesses
Think of the local businesses in your area like coffee shops, gyms, bookstores, law firms, etc. Chances are, most of them would love to get more clients or customers but don’t know how.
That’s where you can come in. You can work with them on Facebook ad campaigns to help increase their business.
Many local businesses know they need to advertise on Facebook but don’t know how and don’t have the time to learn. If you can learn how to effectively run Facebook ads, small business owners would gladly pay for your expertise.
You don’t need a fancy website or any professional marketing experience to do this. You can run your Facebook ads business in as few as 2 to 3 hours a week. The barrier to entry is low; you only need to have a Facebook profile, email address, and PayPal account.
Bobby Hoyt, an avid digital marketer and blogger, started offering a Facebook ads management service to local businesses in his area and eventually turned that operation into a sizable income for himself. He and Mike Yanda launched their own FB Side Hustle Course that teaches others how to do the same.
9. Graphic design
No matter how amazing a product or service is that a business is selling, without great design around the brand, it will never reach its full potential. Business owners know this, but for most of them, design is not a strength. If you have an eye for design and can turn someone else’s vision into a reality, you’ve got a very lucrative skill.
Resources for getting started:
- How to Become a Graphic Designer
- How to Get Graphic Design Clients
- Best Free and Paid Software Tools for Graphic Designers
10. Virtual assistant
One of the most popular home business ideas right now is becoming a virtual assistant. A virtual assistant supports business owners in a variety of ways. As a virtual assistant, you get to choose which services you offer based on your unique skillset and what you enjoy doing.
If you have a good eye and a knack for grammar, you may become a proofreader. If you know your way around social media, you could offer social media management for your favorite platforms. You could also support business owners with email management, writing blog posts, customer service, and much more. There are dozens of possibilities. It’s easy to get started as a virtual assistant, but if you want to fast-track your business, Gina Horkey’s Fully Booked VA course can help.
Virtual assistant success stories:
- How Betsy Skinner Makes $3,000 Per Month as a Virtual Assistant
- How Megan Baker Got Booked Out 6 Months After Launching her VA Biz
11. Online business coach
Hopefully, this goes without saying, but if you haven’t already built a successful online business yourself, you probably shouldn’t be coaching people on how to do it.
That being said, there are a lot of online business owners who pivoted at some point in their journey from “doing” to “teaching”. For example, if you are an expert at running Shopify stores, you might pivot into working one-on-one with new store owners that are just getting started.
As long as you know your stuff and you have a genuine interest in teaching others, anything is possible.
Examples of practitioners-turned-coaches:
- Marie Wold – Fitness coach that is now teaching new coaches
- Claus Lauter – Shopify expert coaching others on how to use Shopify
12. Online health coach
Personal trainers and health coaches aren’t confined to just gyms anymore. Instagram and other social media platforms have given rise to a boon of online health coaches.
These are people who still work with clients one-on-one, but will likely never meet them in person (and yes, there is a serious demand for this). If you are qualified and enjoy writing workouts for people and helping them make better food choices, this is a great business idea worth diving into.
Examples of online health and fitness coaches:
13. SEO consultant
For any business, whether they are 100% online or they are a brick and mortar business, they need to be able to be found online.
For example, let’s say someone owns a landscaping company in Virginia Beach. Whenever someone searches on Google for “lawn care in Virginia Beach” or “landscaping contractor near me”, the companies that are listed at the top of the search results are the ones that are most likely to land clients. SEO (search engine optimization) professionals are experts at getting websites listed near the top of search results for their targeted keywords — it doesn’t just happen by accident.
SEO is a grind, and many business owners would be happy to outsource it to someone they trust. The work can be tedious, but if you can land a few clients a month for ongoing SEO work, you can have a stable business up and running fairly quickly. As with any other consulting business, your long-term success comes down to what kind of results you can achieve for your clients.
These are the things you will need to know to get started:
- The Ultimate Guide to On-Page SEO
- The Definitive Guide to Off-Page SEO
- The Definitive Guide to Local SEO
- How to Start Your Own SEO Agency
E-commerce Business Ideas
Dropshipping is the same as selling goods or products at a store but instead, you have an online storefront and manage no inventory. You simply create the product, which can be anything from mugs and T-shirts to coloring books, and offer it for sale on a platform like Amazon, BigCommerce, or Shopify.
When a customer purchases your item, rather than you having to ship or mail it to them from your home, a wholesaler will send it to them instead.
Although you’re not managing inventory, you still need to put in the effort to drive customers to your store. It’s not the simplest task, particularly if you’re opening a store in a competitive niche, but it’s possible. Paid advertising and finding products that actually sell well are going to be essential to your success with dropshipping.
If you’re willing to spend the time to learn about paid marketing and can manage to find physical or digital products to sell with great margins, you can make good money with this online business.
Dropshipping success stories:
- How I Scaled My Dropshipping Business from $0 to $1,000 per Day
- How I Built a Dropshipping Store That Made $6,667 in Under 8 Weeks
Popular dropshipping niches:
- Health and beauty
- Office products
- Car accessories
- Phone accessories
15. Stock photography
If you enjoy photography, you might try selling online stock photos. Stock photos are used by companies for ads and websites.
Shutterstock and Adobe Stock are two of the most popular stock image sites. Both sites allow anyone to submit their photos and you get paid each time your photo is downloaded.
To really make money selling stock photos, make sure you’re posting the kinds of photos people actually need. Companies are usually looking for fairly generic images – pictures of nature scenes, food, people at work, or doing everyday tasks like cooking or watching TV. Pictures like this sell well and can make you good money.
16. Subscription box service
Subscription-based businesses have blown up in popularity recently. From a business standpoint, having sustainable, recurring revenue each month is extremely attractive. Consistent revenue makes forecasting and planning much easier, but the real allure of having repeat customers on autopilot is that the lifetime customer value is typically much higher than with other business models.
Examples of successful niche subscription box businesses:
Resources for getting started:
- How to Start a Subscription Box Business in 8 Steps
- Shopify Guide to Starting a Subscription Company
17. Sell digital art as NFTs
If you aren’t familiar with NFTs (non-fungible-tokens), you aren’t alone. Here’s an explainer. In short, NFTs are unique digital assets that exist on a blockchain. Sounds boring, but right now there is a lot of hype around selling digital art with the technology.
Just like any other art, beauty (and value) is in the eye of the beholder. If you are an artist and want to experiment with the wild world of crypto and NFTs, there’s no shortage of speculative investing happening right now in that space — it could be your chance to cash in.
Interesting NFT resources and inspiration:
- 10 Most Expensive NFTs Ever Sold (be ready to question your own life choices after seeing these)
- Teen Artists are Making Millions on NFTs. How Are They Doing It?
- How to Make and Sell NFTs
18. Create email newsletter templates
Every online entrepreneur needs a way to reach their audience. Many use regular email newsletters to keep customers or readers engaged. You can make good money designing and selling email or other media templates for business owners to use.
You need some knowledge of web design and some digital marketing skills. But once you create a few pre-designed templates, you can sell them to business and blog owners. Your designs can be compatible with a variety of newsletter services, or you can specialize in templates for just one provider.
SaaS and Tech Business Ideas
Business ideas in this area typically require a lot more technical knowledge than the other ideas in this article. While the barrier to entry is higher, the potential returns can be very worthwhile.
19. Buy an existing SaaS business
MicroAcquire is a marketplace that connects buyers and sellers of small online businesses. Starting a business from zero is a tough battle, which is why many people prefer to buy something that already has a little bit of a head start.
If the product is mostly built (or already built), a new owner can easily come in and work on growing the marketing efforts or add new features. This happens all the time in the SaaS (software-as-a-service) space — someone will create a neat tool but they don’t have the knowledge or energy to bring it to a large audience, so they sell the business to an investor who sees the potential.
20. Design and sell website themes
Maybe you’re less business-savvy and more of a tech expert. With a little knowledge of web design, you can start an online business selling website themes. If you know how to code and have experience designing websites, it’s easy to come up with a few premade website themes you can sell to blog and business owners.
You can also branch out and make more money building custom websites. Businesses looking to establish an online presence need a professional-looking website and are willing to pay for one. Almost everyone these days needs a website, so you’re sure to have a steady stream of clients.
If your strengths land more on the side of graphic design than coding, you can start an online business as a graphic designer. From logos and Pinterest images to brochures and other marketing tools, businesses need someone to create visually appealing graphics. You can get started selling your services and designs on sites like Fiverr or 99designs.
How to get started:
How to Start Your Online Business
Once you have a general idea of what kind of business you want to start, it’s time to get to work. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the beginning, though, and feel like you are being pulled in a million different directions. Here’s a general roadmap to keep you on track in the early days of launching your online business, along with curated resources for each step.
Step 1: Validate your idea
You may think your idea is amazing, but how will the market respond to what you put out there? This is such an important question to answer before you start putting in hundreds of hours of work. Make sure you are creating something that the people will want!
- 10 Ways to Rapidly Validate Your Startup Idea
- 5 Steps to Validate Your Business Idea in the Real World
Step 2: Develop your product or service
With the feedback from Step 1 in mind, it’s time to start creating. Depending on which idea you settled on, this step is going to look a little bit different for everyone.
Step 3: Set up your LLC and business banking
New entrepreneurs always seem to put this one off, but the earlier you can separate business finances from personal finances, the better. Beyond getting all the administrative stuff set up, this is also the time to lay out a financial plan for the business: how much money will you invest? What sales goals do you have?
Step 4: Get your website and tech set up
Regardless of what type of online business you are creating, you are going to need a great website. If you aren’t tech-savvy, that’s okay — there are lots of clean and modern design themes that you can buy for relatively cheap. Your website should reflect everything that your brand stands for.
Step 5: Market
There are a million and one ways to market your startup in the early days, so we can’t cover them all here. And the good news is, you only need to find one way that works for you in the beginning.
- 10 Digital Marketing Skills You Won’t Effectively Learn in School
- Marketing Plan for Your Product Launch: 10 Strategies
The Internet is Overflowing with Ways to Make Money
Whether you want to sell your crafts on Etsy, use your technical skills to create website themes, or write social media posts, there are plenty of online business ideas to try.
The best online business for you will depend on your background, interests, and expertise. If you’ve spent the past decade working in marketing, you might consider social media management or becoming a brand strategist. If you’ve worked as an administrative assistant, you might want to branch out and start a virtual assistant business.
Use what you’ve learned in your career to build your new business.
On the other hand, maybe you have a hobby you want to pursue as a full- or part-time job. Maybe you love food, travel, or fashion. These kinds of interests make great content for a blog or YouTube channel.
Of course, it’s important to consider more than just what you know and like. You’ll also have to think about what can make you enough money to supplement or quit your day job. If you try to build a business in a niche that’s too small or specific, you might find that you can’t make any money.
Keep in mind that starting your online business is a lengthy process. You won’t start out making thousands of dollars each month. But if you put in the work to build a quality and reliable business and market yourself appropriately, you can make money online running your own business from home.