Start a Business for Under $500


Do you like organizing cluttered garages? Do you make mouth-watering cakes? Do you love to make jewelry? Are you good at planning special events? If you've been thinking about starting a business as your next career, now could be a great time to turn one of these hobbies into a thriving small business -- even on a bare-bones budget.

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Starting a business on the side is a smart way to get your feet wet as an entrepreneur. Look first at the services and goods you already provide for free to friends and family. "The best way to start a business for less than $500 is to figure out how to get paid for what you love to do," says Clyde Anderson, a financial lifestyle coach and CNN contributor in Atlanta. "It's crucial for anyone who's looking to start a business to determine what gifts and talents they already have and to convert them into an actual business."

Here are 7 cool businesses to start on a shoestring.

1. Baker

Cakes and cupcakes are the highlight of any party, and reality foodie shows such as Cupcake Wars have made baking a popular new business idea. Brooklyn blogger and cupcake expert Nichelle Stephens says you can start a cupcake business for $500 or less, as long as you aren't trying to open a storefront. "You spend more time than money when starting a baking business," says Stephens, who shares baking and business tips on her blog. "You need to find a neighborhood where there is a limited number of baked goods available and identify your niche." Once you get your mixer, the next expense is quality baking pans and cooling racks. Use your co-workers as your test market and promote your business in the groups you belong to, especially if you have children. Other parents are a great potential customer base. Keep in mind it's illegal in most jurisdictions to bake and sell food from your home. Here's a website where you can research commercial kitchens in your area.

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2. Mobile Notary Public

Despite technological advances, documents such as property deeds, wills and loan papers still require an official signature and stamp by a notary. Some banks and real estate agents have a notary license, but the current trend is using notaries who come to your home or business on call. Setting up this kind of business has strict rules: Most states require you to take a course to learn the notary business and pass an exam, and all require a state license. Check with your state for regulations and costs, and visit the National Notary Association for materials and more information. It's important to put out the word to friends, family and co-workers about your new notary business. Set up a professional website with search engine optimization so that your business can be found locally. "Pick a niche," says Dany Victory, owner of in Southern California. "I specialize in loan documents, and it's helped me earn referral customers such as realtors and title companies." As a mobile notary, your costs are low and there are fringe benefits: You can drive around, meet interesting people and charge a premium for providing door-to-door service. "My income is higher because I charge travel fees on top of the standard notary charge of $10 per signature," says Victory.

3. Personal Trainer

Many people's New Year's resolution is to lose weight, and many of these same individuals are looking for professional help to shed those unwanted pounds. If you are a fitness buff or avid runner, you may be able to make a living by teaching others what you've learned. You can be a general fitness instructor or specialize in marathon prep, yoga or Zumba. The first step in launching a fitness business is to become certified as a personal trainer. You also may need some basic equipment such as a portable CD player, exercise ball, stair step and mats. To launch your training business, start by telling your own weight loss story. Don't be afraid to share your before and after pictures on your website and Facebook page. To find clients, try to build relationships at the gym you already attend. Inquire about becoming a trainer on staff to learn the business. Reach out to friends and colleagues who either don't have time to go to a gym or feel embarrassed in a room full of people running on treadmills. Fitness enthusiast John Leber of Paramus, N.J., became a trainer in retirement. Leber studied, took a workshop and an exam, and within months got his personal trainer certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). "I worked for a large fitness chain gym for 18 months, and it was like your first job out of college, but after I left that company, my old clients started calling me for services," says Leber, who is 63." He specializes in working with clients 50+ and with people recovering from injuries. Here's more on how to become a personal trainer.

4. Personal Organizer

Clutter is stressful for everyone, and you can make a living helping people get their homes, offices and lives in order. Professional organizing is a perfect business for people with a knack for neatness and developing systems. You can charge hourly or set half-day and full-day flat rates for your time. Not all clutter is the same, so it's a good idea to choose an area of specialization, such as cleaning out garages, helping people plan for moving or downsizing, or assisting professional women with busy lives. Devise a system for how you will approach new client projects. Some organizers interview prospects; others ask for a tour of the space that needs organizing; some just throw everything on the floor and start from there. Philadelphia-based professional organizer Debbie Lillard, author of Absolutely Organized, wanted to work part time after years as a stay-at-home mom. She launched her business by contacting old friends who were stressed by the disorganization in their lives. She created business cards and flyers and distributed them in grocery stores in affluent neighborhoods. "I wrote a sales letter explaining who might need an organizer and sent it to everyone I knew, which landed me my first clients; from there, it was all word-of-mouth referrals," Lillard says. Within a few months, she also launched a do-it-yourself website. Lillard went on to write two books about getting organized and shared organizational tips during media appearances, which helped her business grow. Collecting before and after pictures and client testimonials are good ways to promote a business as a professional organizer. For people interested in this business, consider joining the National Association of Professional Organizers, which provides education and training for new business owners in the field.

5. Social Media Marketing Assistant

The social media world is growing, and most business owners don't have time to keep up. You can create a business as a social media marketing assistant or strategist if you have strong writing skills and a working knowledge of the major social media networking sites. Copy editing skills also are in demand for customers with blogs. Prior experience in public relations and marketing can also set you apart from those who just know social media tools. This business involves helping clients develop a social media strategy, build blogs, and set up Facebook Fan Pages, Twitter accounts, LinkedIn profiles and Google+ accounts. lf you know how to set up and maintain WordPress websites (they're free), you can specialize in that service and charge a higher hourly rate. Cathy Larkin of Web Savvy PR in Aston, Pa., shows her small-business clients how to make social media marketing less intimidating. She provides strategies and shortcuts to keep her clients up to date online. "The first thing I did was learn the tools; then I picked a niche for the kind of customers I wanted," Larkin says, "Be willing to work for free at first, just to prove you know what you are doing and get some references." A low-cost way to quickly sharpen your social media skills is to attend a social media conference such as a PodCamp, which are held all over the country. The key to being successful as a social media marketing assistant is keeping your skills updated and making sure you stay on top of the constantly changing features on the social networking sites.

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6. Jewelry Designer

People like handmade, one-of-a-kind jewelry, and this hobby is a good choice for a home-based business. Settle on your signature style or specialty -- whether you'll create pieces with bead design or design molds for silver and goldsmithing or stainless-steel items. Then you need to name your business, create samples, produce high-quality photos and start developing marketing materials. Patricia Miller, owner of the Velvet Box in Flint, Mich., got hooked on the craft while helping a friend with her holiday jewelry orders. Miller launched her own business with small orders for bracelets, and then she began doing home shows. Later she created an online shop at, which makes it simple for crafters to display and sell handmade goods. "Ninety-eight percent of my business has come from repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals," says Miller. Jewelry sellers also should look into setting up booths at craft fairs, flea markets and community events. Try partnering with local art galleries, hospitals and boutiques to sell higher-end pieces in your catalog. Don't forget to wear your own jewelry everywhere you go -- you are your best advertisement.

7. Image Consultant

Are you the person everyone stops and says, "Wow, you look great! Can you go shopping with me?" You are not just a trendsetter; you also may have the skills to be an image consultant or visual branding specialist. "Both women and men need to present their very best to the world. I help people reinvent and update their look," says Tracey Reed, who runs a Philadelphia image consulting firm, Tracey Evelyn Beautiful You. "I do everything from color analysis to make-up lessons and personal shopping." If you want to start a business as an image consultant, you need to have an understanding of color basics, textiles and clothing silhouettes. Reed, who has a master's degree in theater make-up and costume design, suggests taking courses in color theory and retail merchandising to sharpen your skills. She started out in the beauty business as a licensed aesthetician and later expanded her services to include wardrobe and image consulting. Potential clients include professional women too busy to shop, brides-to-be who want makeovers, and men who want to sharpen their images to get ahead at work. Having a personal network is key to building your initial clientele. Set up a blog to share style tips, and then use Facebook and other social media to attract new customers. You also can use your website to post special packages, share testimonials and feature before and after photos of clients. It could be your best sales tool.

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All of these are great businesses to start, but keep in mind that you still need a marketing plan and business plan to get your fledgling enterprise on track. Start with a free version of business plan software at to get rolling and later invest in a business plan course at a small-business development center or local community college. Business plans help make sure your budget and costs are something you can measure as your new business grows.

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