The old adage “It takes money to make money” isn’t always on the money! You can start a successful business without a lot of start-up capital.

I identified 1,500 people who earn $50,000 or more each year from businesses they founded with an initial investment of $100 or less. Their secrets…


Most successful $100 start-ups sell information. Unlike most businesses, information providers typically don’t require expensive inventory, equipment, employees or leases.

What information should you sell? If you’re an expert in some aspect of your profession, that’s likely your best bet. If not, ask yourself…

What’s a task that many people consider inscrutable and aggravating that I understand and enjoy? People are happy to pay those who can alleviate their major annoyances.

Example: Most people consider redeeming airline frequent-flier miles extremely frustrating. Gary Leff, CFO of a Virginia University research center, enjoyed the challenge of mastering his frequent-flier miles. He began charging other travelers $150 per trip to help them get the most from their miles. Last year, this second job earned him $75,000 in his spare time.

What knowledge have I obtained by pursuing my interests that others might pay for? The knowledge you’ve acquired might be salable.

Example: Ireland native Benny Lewis became adept at learning foreign languages while traveling. He created a successful Web site and guidebook sharing his strategy for achieving fluency quickly.

When do I feel I lack the information that I need to make wise decisions? If others feel the same way, they might be willing to pay you to provide the facts they lack.

Example: Those who use travel-bidding Web sites such as typically must blindly guess at what bids might be accepted. The Web sites and were created to help people gather the information they need to place more informed bids.

What do people ask for my help with? If friends and family solicit your guidance on a topic, people you don’t know might be willing to pay for it.

Example: A California man named Brett Kelly realized that people were asking for his help with Evernote (a note-taking software program that he used) in part because there was no English-language guide to the program. He wrote Evernote Essentials, an eBook that has generated more than $100,000 in sales so far.

What information could I provide that would be useful to those participating in a new fad? If something is new and popular, there might not yet be many resources available for those interested in it.

Example: The trendy Paleo diet (which mimics the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors) can be challenging to follow. Jason Glaspey of Portland, Oregon, launched, a Web site that offers meal plans, grocery lists and other helpful resources.


Decide how you will make money from the information you provide. Low-cost options include…

  • Serving as a consultant or instructor.
  • Writing and selling an eBook—’s Kindle Direct Publishing charges no up-front costs to publish eBooks (
  • Launching a Web site or blog, then selling ads on it or providing links to Internet retailer Web sites that pay commissions—’s Associates program pays up to 15% (

Test the market for your idea before devoting much time to it. Two low-cost ways to make sure that there’s as much demand for your idea as you think…

Contact people you consider potential customers. Ask if they would be interested in what you intend to provide…if there’s any other related information or service that they would consider even more valuable…and what their biggest challenges and questions are in regard to this area. To locate these potential customers, brainstorm about where such people would be likely to gather, either in your region or online. If your intended customers are other businesses, simply call some of them.

Do a Google search of the keywords someone might enter if he/she were looking for a business such as the one you intend to create. The results might give you a sense of how many people would be interested in your idea and whether there already are businesses that adequately serve their needs.

Example: If the Google search leads to a lot of questions related to the topic but few Web sites are providing adequate answers, you might be on the right track for a new business.


If there does seem to be a market for your business, don’t waste time with endless planning and don’t try to achieve perfection before you start to sell. Get your idea into development and then onto the market as quickly as possible. The sooner you start making sales, the sooner you’ll start receiving useful feedback from customers about how to refine and improve your offerings.

Example: Map designers Jen Adrion and Omar Noory responded to feedback from their early customers by expanding the range of maps they sold.

If you go above and beyond for your initial customers, they might even become evangelists for your brand, spreading the word to their acquaintances about how great you are. That word of mouth is one of the most cost-effective ways to grow a young business.


Many effective marketing options involve providing things for free…

Give freebies to tastemakers. Send samples of your work to those who have the power to influence others.

Example: Megan Hunt, an Omaha-based dress designer, custom makes dresses for two or three fashion bloggers each year. Those bloggers inevitably are grateful for the freebies and write complimentary posts about her dresses.

Write free guest posts on popular Web sites visited by your prospective customers. Many Web sites are happy to run well-thought-out content from people willing to provide it for free. Those who read your articles are likely to consider you an expert on the topic.

Offer free consulting. Charge nothing (or very little) for information or services that usually come at a price, and you will attract prospective customers who later might hire you for paying jobs.

Example: An unemployed Seattle architect named John Morefield set up a booth in a farmers’ market offering “Architecture 5¢.” His advice impressed so many prospective clients that he soon had a flourishing freelance practice.

Use contests to provide free stuff on your blog. It’s amazing how attracted Internet users are to the possibility of free merchandise. Hold a drawing for something as simple as a free T-shirt with your company logo and dozens or hundreds of people might submit their e-mail addresses in hopes of winning. Those e-mails are prospective future customers.

Example: I recently received more than 1,000 entries in a drawing for a free copy of my book.

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