It’s amazing what you can and can’t do for $150. You can’t buy a large flat-screen television. You can’t buy a new pair of Chanel sunglasses. You can’t drive from New York to Los Angeles, not even in a hybrid. But, wonder of wonders, some women have started businesses for $150—or less.
With advances in technology, it’s easier than you might think to launch a new venture on the cheap. “Women can start Internet-based businesses that wouldn’t have been possible in the past,” says Jayne Huston, director of Seton Hill University’s E-Magnify women’s business center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. “Marketing costs can be kept to a minimum by using Facebook and Twitter to reach customers.”
And the asset you need most is free: your own skills. If you’re already dazzling clients as somebody else’s employee, it might be a simple transition to take your one-woman show on the road. “The entrepreneur herself is the core business when the company is service based,” says Susan Duffy, PhD, an assistant professor at Simmons School of Management in Boston. “She puts her experience and intellectual capital into the marketplace.”
Of course, once business starts to roll in, you’ll have to invest some of your earnings in a better website, promotional travel or a larger inventory. But the following women definitely made the first $150 count. Here are their success stories.
Jennifer Campbell, Heritage Memoirs: Recording life stories
Start-up costs: $52
Three years ago, Jennifer Campbell was laid off from her position as a writer and editor for an Ontario television station. She considered applying for other corporate jobs, but a close friend’s recent death caused her to reprioritize. “There’s nothing like getting fired and going to a funeral to make you think about what you really want to do in life,” she says. “I pictured my little gray cubicle and said, ‘I just cannot go back to that world.’ ”
She was intrigued by the idea of writing people’s personal histories. When her father, a British soldier, died in 1998, she suddenly realized she knew almost nothing about his younger years. Then her mother developed dementia, and Campbell felt she’d lost her parents’ stories forever. “I thought, Maybe I can use my journalism skills to help other families avoid that loss,” she says. Now she transforms hours of client interviews into polished memoirs for $6,000 to $15,000, or into a typed transcript or basic set of CDs for $1,500. Once she’s finished writing a manuscript, which typically runs about 275 pages, Campbell publishes the book with photographs and other memorabilia, working with either a traditional printer or a print-on-demand service such as Blurb.com.
She started small, spending $25 on a domain name (heritagememoirs.ca) and $20 on batteries for her tape recorder. Using a ready-made template from Microsoft FrontPage, Campbell launched a simple website that she could maintain for about $7 a month. Shortly afterward, she ran into a former colleague. “I grandly told him that I was writing people’s personal histories,” she says, “even though I hadn’t yet had my first client.” Her bravado paid off: He later called with a lead to her first customer, a man who wanted to document his life for his children and grandchildren. So Campbell jumped in. “It was nerve racking,” she says. “I used a beat-up old tape recorder held together with duct tape.” Over five months she interviewed the man, who was happy that he could give his family a bound manuscript of his story before he passed away.
Meanwhile, she joined the Association of Personal Historians for $90. When Campbell couldn’t afford to go to the organization’s annual conference in Denver, she applied for—and won—a scholarship it sponsored. Then she contacted her local paper, which ran a piece about her that reeled in two more customers. Whenever clients e-mailed to say she’d done a good job, she asked for permission to post their comments on her website as free advertising. She also gave talks at her town’s genealogy society. “I just put my name out there,” she says.
Now in her third year, she makes more than the $60,000 she earned annually at her old job. She’s written her own how-to guide, Start & Run a Personal History Business, forthcoming from Self-Counsel Press. And she never tires of hearing people’s personal tales. “This doesn’t feel like work to me,” Campbell says. “It’s just so rewarding.”
Rochelle Peachey, ILoveYourAccent.com: Transatlantic dating website
Start-up costs: $124
When Rochelle Peachey, then a full-time mom, moved from London to Windermere, Florida, she found that acquaintances on both sides of the pond were pestering her to matchmake—internationally. “I thought, There have to be a lot of singles in the U.K. and America who want to be set up with one another,” she says. So in February 2010 she started a transatlantic dating site: ILoveYourAccent.com.
Peachey registered her domain name for $25 and found a designer via Craigslist to build the initial website for $99. She promoted it herself (“I blogged as much as I could,” she says) and joined other dating services to see how they did things. At first, she checked ILoveYourAccent.com every half hour, but when few people signed up, she feared she was wasting her time. Two months in, however, she logged on to show the site to a friend—and couldn’t believe what she saw. “I had about 120 users,” she says.
Membership was free in the beginning, but Peachey soon found that this business model attracted spammers. “Several customers told me, ‘I’m quitting, because my inbox is bombarded by fake people,’ ” she says. So after three months, when she had about 1,000 members, she started to charge—$20 a month or $30 for three months. “People don’t mind spending $10 a month to meet someone,” she says. “That’s the price of a glass of wine.”
Peachey now works full time on the venture. Instead of paying a publicist, she issues her own press releases every time there’s a big success story (amazingly, the site is already responsible for five weddings and a pregnancy). When she decided to celebrate the launch by giving away a flight to London, she saved by using her husband’s frequent-flier miles.
As soon as she started to make money, Peachey hired an experienced designer to give the website more sophistication. The company is doing far better than she ever imagined: Ten months in, it had 5,800 members and counting. Peachey is aiming for a gross revenue of $150,000 in 2011. “I’m so pleased,” she says. “If you believe in your concept, just persevere, and you can make it happen.”
Jackie Kaufman, Rock My World: Sterling-silver jewelry
Start-up costs: $102
Jackie Kaufman and her husband owned three mall kiosks selling women’s accessories in South Florida, and three years ago, she decided to take a class that she thought might help with the business: wax casting. For $100 at a local high school, Kaufman learned how to use casts to form jewelry out of sterling silver. “In the second week, I melted down my old pieces of silver jewelry and made new ones,” she says. She posted 12 of her creations on Etsy?.com (which had a much broader clientele than her kiosks) and paid the 20-cent fee for each item. Within days she attracted her first customers, who spent more than $300. “I was surprised,” she says. “The pieces sold immediately.”
Kaufman decided to put a little more money into the endeavor, buying scrap silver from pawnshops, posting more jewelry on her Etsy page (rockmyworldinc.etsy.com) and paying her teacher $40 a week to cast her items after class ended. Soon she realized she needed more merchandise than the teacher could produce. After some research, she found a factory on Craigslist that was selling its casting equipment. “They used to do Disney and Lenox silver products,” she says. “I bought $10,000 worth of equipment for $2,000.” Kaufman moved the machinery to her garage. It turned out that the factory also had an inventory of imperfect sterling items it was selling at a major discount, so Kaufman bought those to melt down. “I was the right person in the right situation,” she says.
The silver business might have stayed part time if Kaufman hadn’t had a lightning-bolt idea: She would cast people’s fingerprints and turn them into jewelry. “I was working with the wax one evening, and I noticed my fingerprints in it,” she says. “I asked my kids to touch the wax to see what their prints would look like if I cast them.” After she made the initial pieces for herself, she listed them on Etsy to see if other people were interested in ordering their own. They were, so Kaufman worked out a system. She sends customers a mold, they mail it back with their fingerprints embedded, and she casts it to make a necklace or other accessory. “I’ve gotten a lot of publicity because it’s so unusual,” she says. Etsy even highlighted her creations on the site’s main page. “I just made a pendant from a newborn baby’s palm print for a client,” she says.
Kaufman found ways to bring in money and help others at the same time. After a New York hospital received a grant and contacted her, she used the funds to make free fingerprint jewelry for the parents of terminally ill children. “That work is very emotional,” she says. She also recently launched a line of dog-nose-print pieces, scoring her a mention in a recent issue of Dog Fancy: “I just contacted the editors myself.”
Kaufman now grosses about $6,000 a month in sales. “There’s not much competition when it comes to fingerprint jewelry,” she says. “This has turned out to be my dream job.”
Becky Harper and Karen Whorton, Reusies: Reusable snack and sandwich bags
Start-up costs: $100 each
Two years ago, Karen Whorton was using about a dozen plastic sandwich bags a day. “I was packing lunches for my two kids and husband,” says Whorton, at the time a stay-at-home mom in Seattle. “It bothered me that the bags weren’t recyclable.” So she talked to her friend Becky Harper, a nurse’s assistant who knew how to sew. The two headed to a fabric store, where they each spent $100 on clearance remnants (“Some of them were really ugly!” Whorton says). The result: ReUsies, cloth bags lined with leak-resistant nylon. Not only are they reusable, but you can even toss them in the washing machine when they get soiled.
Whorton and Harper sold their first ReUsies to friends who agreed to give feedback. With those comments in mind, they experimented until they produced the ideal bags: With Velcro on the front and back, ReUsies could be tightened to the size of the snack inside. As word spread, parents at their children’s school started placing orders. To manage costs, the partners kept their operation small. Whorton cut material; Harper—and eventually her mother—sewed. “We sat in my basement,” Harper says. “It was a little production line.”
The two women used creative barter to finance other company needs. They swapped babysitting for professional photos of the bags, and a friend built the website (reusies.com) in exchange for a $50 restaurant gift certificate. “Another friend traded her PR services for some ReUsies, and a lawyer helped us set up our partnership agreement for just a thank-you,” Whorton says. “Who knew you could find so many extremely talented people who simply want to see you succeed?”
After the website launched in March 2009, they received their first big order, for 1,500 bags. “We had to scramble to find a manufacturer,” Whorton says.
Demand increased, and ReUsies grossed $120,000 in its first full year. Whorton and Harper expect that number to grow exponentially. “Less than two years ago, we were trying to sell ReUsies at an awful Christmas bazaar, and our only sale was to a lady who wanted to swap us a microwavable baked-potato holder for one,” Whorton says, laughing. “Now, just a few months ago we met with Amazon.com, which placed a trial order for more than a thousand bags.” They calculate that their business has kept almost seven million plastic bags out of landfills.
The two women did such a good job of bartering that they now have to insist their friends allow them to pay. “We have to be adamant: ‘Yes, please charge us!’ ” Harper says. “We’ve been so fortunate. We’re still in awe that we are where we are.”
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of More.
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