BACK IN THE 1980S, TEARS FOR FEARS HAD A HIT SONG with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Thirty years later, a more appropriate title might be “Everybody Wants to Work from Home.”
Over the last decade, high-speed internet, a proliferation of devices and applications, and changing attitudes about the nature of work have made working at home a reality for millions of people around the world. One study, in fact, concluded that nearly half of all American employees work at home. And the trend isn’t limited to the United States; 79 percent of knowledge workers globally now do at least some work outside the office.
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That same study also revealed that more than 50 million Americans work independently as freelancers. With considerable overlap in the Venn diagram of home-based workers and entrepreneurs, the numbers show that starting a home-based business isn’t a just trend. It’s part of the new reality of the American workforce.
The dreams of working at home and being your own boss (or ruling your own world, perhaps) are very much alive and go hand-in-hand in the modern workforce. It is now possible to start almost any kind of business from home immediately, albeit with varying degrees of investment and experience.
Success Attainable—But Not Guaranteed
That’s not to say that it’ll be easy. With the rise in working from home comes more competition from other home-based businesses. And any new venture will require at a minimum some serious market research and possibly some fairly complex licensing and legal maneuvers.
But don’t let any of that hold you back. With the right guidance and some serious preparation, you can be part of the booming home-based economy. Here are some business ideas you can put into motion right now.
Selling on eBay
Believe it or not, eBay is now more than two decades old, but it’s still the most viable platform for setting up a home-based business online. Big success stories have been around for years now, but there is an enormous amount of competition on the site.
This is not an enterprise for the lazy. eBay sellers need to respond to customers quickly and politely, and ship items promptly. A seller’s success is in eBay users’ hands after all; a negative seller rating can sink an eBay business before it even gets started. Sellers also need to familiarize themselves with eBay’s return policies, which tend to focus on making the overall experience better for buyers but not necessarily for sellers.
Perhaps most importantly, though, would-be eBay moguls need to specialize. Just throwing junk online won’t work. Sellers need to know what they want to sell and how they’re going to market it to their audiences. Again, competition is fierce, so research, preparation and strategy are critical. (For reference, eBay itself provides an extensive guide to selling on the site.)
The popular myth these days is that anybody with a smartphone can be a photographer. The truth, however, is that professional photography can be a cutthroat business, with demanding clients and fierce competition. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing as a profession for those who have a passion for it.
Of course, photography can take many forms, from photojournalism to portrait photography to general-interest stock photography. You’ll most likely go for either setting up a studio in your home or taking pictures for use as stock photos, as true photojournalism requires years of experience and almost never involves actually working from home. Keep in mind that stock-photo sites work on a revenue-sharing model, so simply selling pictures to one is unusual.
Even the portrait and general-interest options, though, aren’t really for beginners. Photography businesses can be complex operations, with lots of equipment required and years of portfolio and relationship building necessary to really get steady income flowing. Still, if you’re a hobbyist already, starting a photography business as a side operation is a great way to make some extra money and possibly begin a career change.
The only thing better than the smell of grandma’s chocolate-chip cookie recipe baking in the oven is watching cash roll in as customers order those delectable treats. Home baking is an approachable business idea in that it involves doing what you’re probably doing a lot of, anyway, if you love to bake. You probably have all the equipment and expertise you need to get started.
But be wary. Food service—even a delivery service, which is the most likely scenario for home bakers, as opposed to setting up a storefront—comes with built-in risks. Prepare yourself, and read up on your local insurance requirements. And don’t be afraid to start out by making just one or two really great treats. Consistency is more important than variety in the baking business.
This is perhaps the cheapest business to start in terms of overhead. If you’re reading this on a computer, you’ve got what you need to become a freelance writer—at least in terms of equipment.
Expertise is another matter, but remember that writing can take many forms—from resumes to news articles to marketing materials and even thank-you notes. (You can even write for businesstown.com, although that gig doesn’t pay … yet.) There’s probably some form of writing you’re qualified to do. Plus, if you’re good enough with grammar and punctuation, companies will pay you to be a freelance editor. One friend made good money editing posts on a popular travel site.
The key to freelance writing is never to stop selling yourself. Don’t get complacent once a project comes in—always look for the next one. Network like crazy online and in person. Ask for press passes to events in the field of your choice. Attend writing workshops and writer meet-ups; they happen everywhere.
There are loads of job listings for freelancers on major job boards, and you can always advertise your services (and look for work) on craigslist or LinkedIn. Once the jobs start rolling in, don’t be afraid to go to previous clients and ask for more work. Steady work is the best work for freelancers. If all else fails at first, just write. Start a blog. Build clips. Get writing!
Everybody’s on social media, which is both a blessing and a curse for the would-be social-media specialist. On one hand, every organization that sells anything needs a presence on social media, so the market for experts is huge. However, there is also no shortage of social-media experts—or people who think they’re experts, anyway.
How can you make a living as a real social-media expert? Practice. Build an audience for yourself before offering your services to others. Determine your target sector, build your own online presence in that community and start making contact with the social-media elite. Twitter is a great place to start. Keep cranking out content and getting it to the right users, and you’ll find a way to get yourself hired even in an ever-expanding universe.
Sure, there are a lot of graphic designers out there, but there are far more Websites, companies and organizations in need of design work than there are designers. That’s the good news. The more difficult news is that graphic design does require a certain level of expertise and possibly some pricey software, although designers can often get by without necessarily having the most expensive applications on the market.
But for those in position to do it, starting a graphic-design business offers an enormous opportunity—just remember to be creative with your business model and do something nobody else is doing.
Personal Computer Training
Believe it or not, a lot of people still don’t know how to use Microsoft Office (especially PowerPoint). You might already know enough about basic software applications to teach other people how to use them and set up your own computer-training operation.
Even so, you’ll need to develop a curriculum and a marketing plan for your new business, and you’ll need to decide whether students should come to you or you should go to them. But the opportunity exists to take what you might think of as fairly rudimentary knowledge and turn it into a profitable operation.
Competition to get into top universities is as tough as it has ever been, so nervous parents are willing to pay handsomely for tutoring for their kids. You need an area of expertise—math, and specifically SAT math preparation, is always a favorite—but almost any subject will work. If you know how to market yourself locally, you can take advantage of parental paranoia and make money by tutoring right in your own home, or at a local library or coffee shop. Just make sure to do your homework on your local market in order to set prices and know which areas of expertise are most desired by parents in your area.
Doggie Bed and Breakfast
You love dogs? You’re good at taking care of them? You want to open a dog-boarding business? Just make sure you’re prepared. Sure, it’s a great opportunity, and it’s totally doable—with some planning. Make sure you know your local zoning laws and, perhaps more importantly, make sure your neighbors would be OK with some extra noise and activity around your place.
Then, let the veterinarians, pet-shop owners, groomers and other providers of pet services that you’re in business. Try to hook up with a large local employer—a hospital, perhaps, or a university—and see if you can pick up multiple clients there at once. A friend in Oregon followed those steps and now runs a successful dog-boarding operation.
For lots more information on starting a doggie bed and breakfast, owners of dog-boarding businesses recommend Pet Sitters International.
Like graphic design, Web design requires skills that can take years to acquire and perfect. But if you have them, the market is there for creating attractive, useful Web sites for all sorts of organizations. Starting a Web-design business does require some up-front investment, particularly in software, although candidates to start Web-design firms might have those applications already.
The key with Web design is to carefully define a target market and, as is the case with graphic design, offer a service nobody else offers. Remember, too, that Web designers not only compete against each other but also against packaged software that assists with Web design, so a unique selling proposition is especially important.
This one is a real wild card, but a friend in Dallas did it successfully for years. He was a self-taught art expert who advised clients on which pieces of fine art would make the best long-term investments. If you’re an art lover and educated—even self-educated—in art history, you can set up a business like this, too.
There’s no need to be an artist, just an expert in some form of art. Visit galleries. Get on their email lists, and go to their parties. Get to know their clients. Gallery owners will love you, even recommend your services, because you’ll be telling people to buy art from them. You don’t have to own any inventory. It’s pure consulting. There is almost no overhead cost for a business like this. It’s really about having a passion for art and a knack for earning people’s trust. And it’s fun!
Being a publicist essentially involves getting clients mentioned in the press in as positive a light as possible. Publicity, a subset of public relations, works because it lends a sense of credibility that paid advertising can’t.
As you might imagine, publicists need to network heavily, both in reaching out to potential clients and in getting to know members of the media. You’ll need a Website, a good pricing structure and a thick skin—reporters can be famously surly—but publicity is a generally low-overhead business that can produce quick and impressive returns.
If you have a knack for making floral, food or gift arrangements look pretty, consider setting up shop as a gift-basket designer in your home. You won’t need much more than a few craft supplies—ribbons, bows and the like, plus the baskets themselves—so the overhead for starting this business is low.
However, you will need to get exposure for your business by selling to stores and letting them sell your products or by selling directly on Websites such as Etsy or eBay. Setting up a Website is probably a good idea, too. Then, let your delightful creations speak for themselves.
Like gift-basket design, floral arrangement requires a lot more creativity than it does overhead, so it’s an approachable business idea. You don’t have to be a florist per se; you can make money arranging flowers for delivery or on-site display rather than necessarily growing or sourcing them, or selling them at retail.
Still, knowing something about how the flower business works is a good idea, and your online presence and photos of your work will be critical to your success. Remember, the business is all about visuals, so make yours as compelling as you can. Get started networking by contacting local wedding planners and funeral homes and letting them know you’re in business. From there, let your business bloom. A friend in Maine turned a flower-arranging business into a successful flower shop she later sold at a profit.
Sports Coaching and Training
There’s more to being a coach or personal trainer than just being fit and loving to exercise. Finding a specialization is important, and licenses might be required for certain types of coaching roles. For instance, a friend in Boston obtained US and European soccer-coaching licenses before opening a successful one-on-one soccer-instruction business.
Still, the cost of licenses tends to be relatively low, and if you have space in your home to accommodate students, becoming a physical trainer or coach can be a low-overhead option for entrepreneurs who really understand fitness and nutrition. The key is to specialize—on a sport, a category of clientele or both—and to look the part.
While it demands creativity, patience and expertise, makeup consulting is a business idea that requires relatively little formal training. There’s a market for customers who just want to spice up their personal looks as well as an opportunity to work with theatrical productions and other organizations that use stage makeup.
Weddings, house parties, kids’ parties and funerals present opportunities to makeup consultants, too. Networking is critical, as are a keen sense of organization and, of course, an eye for beauty. It’s also important to keep up with—or stay ahead of—fashion trends.
Not everything is just a Google search away. Media organizations hire fact checkers to make sure that items in stories are accurate and that sources quoted really exist. Other organizations need people to find statistics and other data for presentations and reports. There are plenty of opportunities online to get started researching at home. Just be prepared to get into some really esoteric topics that will take you way beyond Wikipedia.
Many of the same concepts that apply to making gift baskets or arranging flowers also apply here, but this time you’ll be putting people’s names on the things you send them. Personalization is especially hot for any sort of kids’ item, so don’t be afraid to be creative with the products you offer to personalize. Good photography, a good Website and some crafty skills will come in handy here.
Pet sitting usually involves going to someone else’s house to take care of furry loved ones. Pet sitting could even involve living in someone’s house while the client is away. You have to think about the types of services you’ll provide and the types of animals you’ll take care of, but generally pet sitting is a low-cost, high-pleasure business idea.
Speaking and Presentation Coaching
Never underestimate the terror some people feel getting up to speak in front of a live audience. High school and college students, as well as businesspeople, are excellent target markets for entrepreneurs who have some training and expertise in public speaking and presentations.
Starting a business in this field will require some experience, but as long as there is anxiety, there will be a market for coaching people to create and deliver presentations. Invest in video equipment or use a smartphone to record students as part of the coaching process. If you have a background in radio or TV or specific experience in high-profile public speaking, all the better.
In any case, advertise your business on bulletin boards in libraries and schools, particularly high schools and universities. Also consider email marketing. Pharmaceutical companies in particular tend to be in the market for presentation coaches.
Having the knack to put on a good fete is only the beginning of building a party-planning business. You need excellent organizational and client-management skills as well as a willingness to market yourself and your services to everyone you know.
One way to get started might be to focus on children’s parities, which can be a bit simpler and less stressful to plan than adult get-togethers. Go further into specialization by following kid trends and offering superhero or Frozen parties. Remember that you’ll be competing not just with other party planners but with local restaurants and facilities, so excellent networking skills and a personal touch to your services will be important.
Like starting a home bakery, developing a catering service comes with a unique set of food-oriented challenges. Right off the bat, you need to make sure that it’s legal in your state or municipality to use your home kitchen for commercial food production. If it is, you’ll still need to make sure that you’re following food-safety regulations and other relevant laws.
But if you get the green light to do it, starting a catering service is a relatively low-overhead way to create a new business. It’s a lot of work, but if you enjoy cooking, it could turn into a lucrative and fulfilling career. To get started with minimal investment, you could first cook in your customers’ homes and use their dishes. Also, a narrow specialization on a particular type of cuisine or event may help you attract clientele as you work develop a strong customer base.
Used-car salesmen unfortunately have some nasty stereotypes to live down, but you don’t need a tacky blazer or a fast-talking sales pitch to make money buying and reselling cars. People throw away perfectly good (or certainly good enough) cars all the time for all sorts of trivial issues. If you know a little something about servicing a car and can make one shine for a Craigslist ad, you could take advantage of massive opportunities to buy used cars and resell them for major profit.
The key to success in this business is being very disciplined in buying. Limit your car buying to popular models that you can turn over quickly, models that you have a strong understanding of current local pricing on, cars that you can buy at a significant discount to the price you believe you can fairly sell them for, and cars that are highly unlikely to need major work.
Also, you can get a permit or certificate to attend local car auctions and purchase cars. A friend in Georgia has been doing this successfully for more than 20 years.
Hiring a personal shopping isn’t just for fashion victims anymore. Clients hire people now to do everything from grocery shopping to buying appliances.
But if you do go the fashion route, be prepared to do quite a bit of networking before you get your business off the ground. Don’t be afraid to do free consultations for contests and giveaways. The more word gets around about your fabulous fashion sense, the larger a clientele you’ll build. If you’re really good, you can start this business with little to no training.
It’s one of the first ideas people have when they think of starting a business: making and selling crafts. That means there’s lots of competition. The good news, though, is that people just love crafts. But be careful. Don’t just sell anything and everything. Define a product lineand choose a distribution channel (online, craft fairs, etc.), and stick with your plan. And, of course, be creative.
Let’s get one thing straight up front: Making money Podcasting is not necessarily easy. There are lots of Podcasts online, and if you think you can sell a few ads and bring in enough income to live off of, you’re very likely mistaken. But there are lots of options for driving revenue through Podcasting that go way beyond simple sponsorship.
The key to successful Podcasting isn’t just racking up listeners in big numbers. It’s getting listeners to engage. A small group of engaged listeners is more valuable than a large but passive audience. Specialize in an area of your expertise and constantly remind listeners to participate in your Podcast via social media or your Website. Making money Podcasting isn’t easy, but it is possible.
There is free software online for Podcasting. You can use your home computer or laptop and the built-in microphone to start your Podcast.
Home Day Care
If you love kids—really, really love kids—starting a home-based day-care center could be a viable option. Just make sure you do your homeworkregarding zoning laws, background checks and other regulations.
Also, make sure you’re up-to-date on CPR, first aid and other emergency procedures. Then make sure your own kids are OK with sharing their home every day. Once all of that is wrapped up, go to your friends and neighbors, your kids’ teachers, your place of worship and anywhere else busy parents are looking for day-care services, and get your word out.
The human equivalent of a doggie bed and breakfast is Airbnb, the home-sharing Web site that has put a dent in the traditional hotel business. This is the ultimate home-based business, as you literally rent all or part of your home to guests.
Succeeding on Airbnb is all about selling an experience, not just providing a room. The first key to Airbnb is making your property look great online, with high-quality pictures that make your offering stand out. Combine that with reasonable pricing and friendly customer service, and Airbnb can become a goldmine.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t really an at-home business, as most of the work takes place outside the home. But for dog lovers who don’t want other people’s pets staying overnight, dog walking is a viable business idea with a low barrier to entry. Still, there are considerations including researching the state of your local dog-walking market and addressing licensing and insurance concerns.
The old saying about one person’s trash being another person’s treasure is the mantra of the antiques refurbishing business. This is a great opportunity to turn a hobby into a business. But don’t confuse your hobby interest and your business interest.
There could be some investment necessary in equipment, and the biggest challenge might be getting your hands on the antiques you plan to refurbish. (Hint: Get to know some auctioneers.) Once you’ve turned a few pieces around, take some high-quality photographs for promotional purposes and go from there.
Make sure you are buying items that are highly sellable, meaning that you there is a large market so you won’t have to wait years to find a buyer. And be disciplined enough only to buy items that allow you plenty of markup for resale. Specialization, or at least having most of your products fit your specialization, is highly likely to increase your chances of success.
We don’t manufacture as much in America as we used to, but the phrase “American made” still means a lot to some people. Artisanal items are also popular, making now a great time to start a furniture-making business. This might not be the easiest idea to start from scratch, but if you already own the equipment you need, you can start producing pieces to sell at fairs and online on sites such as Etsy.
A furniture maker’s advice? Don’t be afraid to be a businessperson as well as a craftsperson. Charge more than you think your furniture is worth, and remember that craftsmanship and business savvy are not at all mutually exclusive.
If you know how to make jewelry, there’s really no reason not to sell it. Handmade jewelry has long held appeal for collectors and admirers alike. The biggest challenge to setting up a jewelry business might be running the business itself—just making beautiful things won’t be enough to sustain the operation. Study up on what it takes to run a jewelry business and then make it happen. A great place to start is online with sites like Etsy and eBay
This is another hobby that can easily become a vocation. While it’s true that we’re storing more and more memories in the cloud, lots of people prefer a book to a screen when looking back on their lives. Scrapbooking isn’t actually as easy as it sounds, which is why people who are good at it can make money doing it.
A scrapbooking business can take many forms, from planning scrapbook events to scrapbook instruction to making the books themselves. There’s a digital element, too, for those who know how to make beautiful physical books out of digital photos.
Soap and Lotion Making
Mild spoiler alert: Viewers of the TV drama Orange Is the New Black might remember that the show’s main character made amends with one of her fellow prison inmates by making her a soothing lotion. Hopefully you won’t find yourself in prison, but if you find yourself wanting to start a home-based business, consider hand-making soaps and lotions yourself.
Just remember that efficiency is as much the key to a successful soap-making business as artistry is—maybe more so. Get your processes down pat and stay focused on a defined target market, and you can run a soothing and successful home-based business.
Cataloging Art Collections
Here’s another wildcard from the friend in Dallas who had the art-consulting business. The premise is simple. Go into clients’ homes, photograph their art collections and produce a book (or even a Website) with a photo and a brief history of each piece in the collection.
Art collectors love to have catalogs of their work both to show off to their friends and to use as potential sales tools. It’s surprising how little some people know about the art they have. If you have photography and research skills, put them to work in this business. It can be surprisingly lucrative.
Most school kids enter a music program at some point, whether it involves singing or playing an instrument. Aside from that, plenty of adults decide at some point that they’d like to be more musical.
The market for music teaching is there, and your instrument is your specialty. The key is to develop reasonable but firm policies on pricing and cancellations and to, if possible, make your home the venue for providing lessons, rather than traveling to visit students.
Just as there are people who don’t know how to use email, there are also those who don’t want to use it. Virtual assistants run clients’ email and voicemail accounts, aside from performing other digital duties.
You’ll need a Website, a strong brand, a service niche of some sort and a willingness to network, but opportunities to become a virtual assistant do exist for those who are organized and willing to help organize others.
There’s a counter on Main St. in Cambridge, Mass., that keeps track of the number of bicycles that have passed in a day. By 8:30am, the tally is usually at more than 200. Some of those bikes are going to have mechanical problems or get bent up somehow. Somebody will need to repair them.
For the mechanically inclined who are willing to market themselves, bicycle repair is a relatively low-overhead business option that is likely to produce a steady stream of customers.
Consultant on Foreign Cultures
A friend in Boston made a living doing this. He had lived in the Netherlands and was fluent in Dutch. He contacted companies who sent people to the Netherlands to work and live, and offered to provide not just his language expertise but important information on Dutch culture and living in the country. It worked. If you’re from or have lived in another country, consider channeling not just your language but your cultural expertise into a new career.
The only word in the English language with three consecutive pairs of letters is also a great idea for a home-based business. You probably already have the equipment and software you need to start a bookkeeping business, and plenty of business owners would love to get the tedious task of keeping records off their hands.
Be their helper and make some money of your own. Networking at local business events is a key to getting started, as is advertising in local media.
Jumpy YouTube videos of cats might be charming, but they don’t do much for business owners or parents of the bride who want quality video production. Video-editing and production services can tap into several markets—business presentation, wedding, parties, even documentary and feature films.
The key to succeeding is deciding which market you want to serve and designing your offerings specifically for that space. Also, as is the case with graphic design and Web design, being able to do something nobody else is doing is also a huge plus.
One of the more obvious ideas for starting a new business is still one of the best. Cleaning houses is hard work, but people who do it well can pick up desperate new clients at a rapid pace.
Of course, strictly speaking, this isn’t an at-home business, as the work takes place in someone else’s home. But it can be lucrative. You just need to make sure that your cleaning skills are up to snuff, which means some cleaning practice at friends’ houses might not be a bad thing to do before launching the business.
Another option is cleaning offices. One friend in Boston built a highly successful cleaning business focusing on small businesses. They trusted him with access to their businesses at night and were willing to pay him a hefty premium. He worked just 4 or 5 hours a night and made a very healthy living.