Start Your Biz for Under $150. Really.

Meet five shrewd women who launched new companies--and careers--for less than the cost of a pair of boots

By Kate Ashford
Photograph: Illustration by Guyco.

Kaufman decided to put a little more money into the endeavor, buying scrap silver from pawnshops, posting more jewelry on her Etsy page ( 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 ( 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?”

First Published February 10, 2011

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What's with all the spam on the comments boards??? You should remove it and block the users. It's very distracting!

GD BAILEY02.21.2011

Kudos to theses women. I have the internet, now for an idea...

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