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Starting a side business doesn't have to break the bank

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Chrsitian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) A community bulletin board at Stop and Shop in Hingham, Massachusetts displays advertisements for local businesses and services in this January 2011 file photo. According to Hamm, starting up a side business doesn't have to be expensive, but it will take up a lot of time.

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When I started my computer consulting business, I spent about $150 in startup costs. I printed some flyers, had some business cards made, and had a lawyer check over a few documents. That’s it.

When I started The Simple Dollar, I spent even less. I spent somewhere around $40 launching the site, all told.

In both of these cases, it was not a big initial investment that led to success. The ingredients for success were found elsewhere.

This isn’t just my experience, either. Recently, I was reading Chris Guillebeau’s book The $100 Startup and it was loaded with stories very similar to mine. People launch side businesses all the time with very little money.

Chris draws a lot of conclusions about starting such side businesses, but from my perspective, success with a side business comes down to a handful of things.

Wanted
 With each side business I’ve found success with, I’ve started with one simple question: what do I want?

If you look at any business out there that works, large or small, they’re all doing the same thing. They’re taking care of something that someone wants.

If I find myself looking for something and not finding it, that means I want this thing but, for some reason, it’s not easily available to me. If there’s something I want enough that I’d be willing to pay for it – even a little bit – but it’s not something I can get right now, there’s a side business waiting to happen.

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For example, if you love reading fantasy novels but you wish you could find a good one with a truly independent female protagonist, you’re probably not alone. Why not try writing one?

If you’d love for someone to come to your door, pick up a bag of laundry, wash and fold it, then return it to you, you’re probably not alone. Why not start this business?

Think about items and services you would like to have but don’t. That’s the start of any business.

Time
 More than money, the biggest investment that a person can make in their side business is time. If you want to succeed, expect to put in a lot of hours early on with very little return on your money. Think pennies per hour for a very long time.

Many people simply aren’t willing to commit a lot of time and effort without much return. For some people, they have to be passionate about what they’re doing beyond merely running a business. Others will get by purely on patience. Many others simply won’t make it.

Assume you’ll be spending a lot of hours at this without making a lot of money. You’ll be doing things like creating content, networking with others, promoting your business, learning a new skill, learning about a particular supply chain, managing a Kickstarter project, or something like that. These things won’t earn you much money at all (assuming they earn you anything, which is a big “if”).

If you’re not about to spend time without an immediate financial return on that time, then starting a side business probably isn’t for you.

Reevaluation
 No matter how good your idea or how much effort you put in, sometimes things just don’t launch. You don’t have customers. You don’t have readers. You have a giant creative block.

Can you step back and look critically at what’s going on? What’s wrong with the situation? Can those things that are wrong be fixed? Can they be incorporated into the plans for what comes next?

Sometimes, the best solution is to try again. Sometimes, the best solution is to walk away and try something new. Sometimes, the best solution is to keep plugging away.

In each of those cases, re-evaluating the situation for problems and solutions is key. You have to step back regularly and ask yourself what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and whether the wrongs can be fixed.

Many (if not most) modern side businesses do not need money. They need an idea, they need time, and they need the willingness to re-evaluate. If you bring those things to the table over and over again, you can start something of your very own, whether it’s just a small side business to bring in a few bucks or the birth of a big enterprise.


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