Starting a business and employing yourself for the first time can be scary — but what you're doing isn't complicated.
And what are you doing? Trying to replace your income, we'd expect.
If you could make your current salary during your first year in business — yet also employ yourself and learn a ton about your craft — wouldn't you want to?
Seems like a pretty good deal, in theory.
Lots of people have just one problem: they don't know what they'd sell. Or they might have an idea, but no inkling of how to get from A to Z. Add the realization that they have to spend money to experiment (sometimes quite a bit), and it's enough to make someone give up.
Not chasing this possibility is a major loss. Because, y'all, it is way cheaper and easier to test an idea than you might think. After all, the foundations of this company were made with $500!
In this article, we're going to share a few examples of products and services you could start selling—and with the same $500 or less. The saleables featured here can be starting points for you—whether for WHAT you might sell or HOW you can begin selling it!
Products or Services?
As we mentioned in our article about basics for starting your business, selling products and selling services can be vastly different experiences — even if the underlying principles are mostly the same.
We've split our examples here to try and cover both scenarios. All 5 examples might be helpful to you, but pay closer attention to the ones selling the same kind of thing (product or service) as you!
Selling Your Skills Remotely
This covers a HUGE spectrum of professions. Anyone whose work can be transmitted through the Internet can (theoretically) sell that work on the Internet as well. So if you're a designer, coder, editor, or similar kind of specialist, you're included here!
The first question: what precisely do you want to sell? What are your specialties? What do you do really, really well that others can use (and hopefully love)?
The second question: do you want to turn it into a business or just work as a freelancer? No right or wrong answer here — they just have different advantages. As a freelancer, there's usually less paperwork and headache, but also less opportunity for business growth and developing a permanent reputation.
If you want to turn it into a free-standing enterprise, great! Take a look at our checklist of things you need to start your own business.
If you just want to freelance, that's cool too. If you don't have leads or projects of your own, you can start working on places like Upwork. (BTW: Upwork isn't like Fiverr, where customers expect cheap work likely to come from overseas. You can earn a surprising yield on Upwork, especially if you earn a good rep and raise your prices smartly over time.)
Selling Your Skills Directly
Some of you might be specialists, but in services that require you to be physically present. For example, a skilled masseuse or hairstylist can expect to make good money per hour — BUT their entire business model has to reflect the fact that they're doing tangible, in-person work (unlike the folks described above).
In many such cases, there aren't many opportunities for truly "wherever" freelance work. For example, hairstylists are often (technically) freelancers, since many salons either (A) rent out their booths by the month or (B) collect a percentage of sales from stylists. BUT such people don't have full freedom to come and go. In their clients' minds, the stylist still "belongs" to the salon — and most times, stylists won't even offer services away from the salon because it's not worth the hassle.
Here's our point. Most of the time, with gotta-be-there specialties, it's way easier to manage work with a permanent workplace. That means a choice between (1) getting comfortable arrangements under someone else's roof, OR (2) building a roof of your own.
The first option is definitely easier. The second option requires extra red tape, just because you're now worrying about literal overhead — PLUS legal compliance in some cases. (This depends very much upon what you're doing, but here's the nutshell version: if you're putting your hands on or near people, you're probably going to have to get paperwork from the government.)
Product Example #1: T-Shirts
Before getting into ANY of these product examples, let's be clear about something: starting with $500 does NOT mean that you'll develop a full business with that money. Yes, Code&Quill really did start with $500 — but that only bought us our first steps, in the form of our first prototypes.
Here's why it still counts: we used those prototypes to run our first Kickstarter. There, we earned about $46,000 more from that initial $500 investment. In turn, we needed most of that $46K to finish product development, deliver all of our Kickstarter orders, launch a website, and set up shop. In one way or another, every penny of that $46K went back into Code&Quill — no direct personal profits — but suddenly we were a legitimate business, and with no outstanding debts.
Your first $500 might only buy you one or two steps. It's what you do NEXT that counts.
So let's examine a quick example: T-shirts. It's a commodity that people only need to like to buy — even if they already have too many others. Most T-shirts aren't going to be super-expensive, so the profit margins aren't amazing — but they can still generate some moolah. (Imagine selling $20 shirts that cost you $4-5 to make.)
Your challenge, in this case, would be differentiating yourself. Millions of people sell T-shirts, or apparel more broadly; why in the bleep would they buy yours?
Whatever niche or special connection you've got, play hard up that lane. Selling a product like this, you're doomed to failure if you try to sell to everyone all the time. Ask yourself: what T-shirt can you make that others will WANT to wear because it somehow represents them?
If you're starting with $500, you're probably best aiming for one spectacular launch product and one or two surefire places to sell it. If you profit from the first shirt, it'll be easier to make your second and third. Not just because of the money, either — but because you'll have a better idea of what to make next.
Product Example #2: Candles
Go check out the scented candle aisle in Target. (Maybe you do already, but go back again. It's so nice there.)
Now look at the price tags. Most of them sell for $20, give or take — and you'll notice that branding has an influence on price, as fancier-looking candles have the higher price tags.
Y'all, let us tell you what's in a scented candle, and we mean EVERYTHING: jar, wick, wax, dye, essential oils, label. Do you think ANY of those ingredients cost a lot per candle? Hell no! Everything there is cheap as hell to buy, especially in bulk.
But scented candles are perceived as a luxury product — meaning that potential buyers are less likely to be penny-pinching DIY types. Which is their loss, because... do you think it's difficult to make scented candles yourself? (It's not.)
Perhaps you see where we're going. Spend the first $100 getting your equipment and "test supplies," so you can teach yourself and experiment some. From there, $400 will buy you PLENTY of materials.
If your close-at-hand network likes some of the candles from your first batch, consider using some of your initial $500 budget to help market the product. It works to your advantage that, in this case, you can use generic supplies to make ANY kind of candle, and potentially even after you've assessed demand for what people like most in your test selection.
Product Example #3: Specialty Food
This one can be tricky, insofar as you're very likely to need extra paperwork to sell a food product. But if that doesn't intimidate you, there's a bonus to selling food: virtually nothing is as consumable and, if good, liable to earn repeat business.
We're assuming that you're some kind of expert in the food you sell — or, at least, that you're really really passionate about that food group. The usual advice applies: it's best to serve a particular group particularly well and, ideally, to make a new experience from familiar ingredients.
Different food products have vastly different business requirements. For example, honey and beef jerky can be widely distributed because they can be sealed and they take forever to spoil — so you're encouraged to spread the word wide. But if you're selling ice cream, which is WAY harder to distribute, you'd best start with a super-loyal fanbase wherever you can make it fresh, then expand smartly.
Fortunately, this is a great era for "local food" to make its resurgence. So even if you're not trying to start the next Nabisco, know that there's still a ton of potential in remaining local and serving smaller markets well.
Product Example #4: Photography
This one may sound a lot harder to pull off than it actually is.
Since the internet is a growing vortex of money-making opportunities, it shouldn't surprise you that people are now actually willing to buy your photographs (and yes, that includes selfies, cat photos, amateur shots, and super-pretty pro photos).
You can sell your photos as stock photos, backgrounds to niche sites, brand endorsements… the list goes on. Thinking you might be interested? Check out these two resources to get started here and here.
As for the $500 part? Well, you might have your own nice camera already—but if you want the ready-to-pro version, enter our Photoshoot Giveaway for your chance to win a Canon Rebel T6 and a stack of our notebooks!
If you're in the market for a notebook, head on over to our store!
If you want more than one, check out our discounted notebook bundles!
If you just wanna say hi or look at pictures, come see us on Facebook or Instagram.