You’ve decided you want to start a business. You've heard the good news — there are 582 million entrepreneurs worldwide and 78 percent are turning a profit. But you don’t have the startup cash to invest thousands of dollars to make it happen.
What do you do?
Fortunately, starting a business doesn’t always require a lot of money. Here are seven small business ideas that take under $500 to start.
1. Become a Mobile Notary Public
It's easy and affordable to become a notary public. Some of the most well-known responsibilities of a notary public include serving as a witness to signed documents and certifying official documents. While the specifics differ from state to state, you will need to pass an exam and then apply to become a notary. This is usually done through the Secretary of State’s office, where your notary commission will be issued.
The total cost of becoming a notary public is generally under $100. Once officially a notary, you will be required to purchase either a notary stamp or a notary seal, as well as a surety bond and possibly insurance coverage. The stamps and seals vary in price but are likely to cost under $100. All in, you should be well under $500 to get started as a notary public. Marketing yourself as a mobile notary will allow you to access a wider audience of customers since you will be coming to your customers either at their home a decided upon location. This is a popular convenience these days.
Most states have maximum-allowable charges for notarizing documents but allow for travel fees to be charged separately from the notary public fee. Consider costs like time, fuel and car maintenance when setting your mobile notary pricing, and be sure to research your state’s specific fee requirements before setting them.
2. Start a Print-on-Demand Business
If you have some artistic skills and know your way around design platforms like Photoshop or Canva, a print-on-demand business could be a great choice. Print-on-demand is just what it seems — a customer places an order for a T-shirt, coffee mug, poster, etc., and the item is printed on demand by a supplier. As the business owner, you are only creating the designs and choosing which products your designs will go on. You do not hold any inventory. Pretty ideal for easily running a low-cost business.
You will partner with a supplier/printer that will print your design on a product when the item is ordered and ship it directly to your customer. Printify is a popular choice. You only pay for what is ordered by your customers, making your cost to start quite low. Canva has a free option, and a pro version is $12.99/month. Costs for your supplier will vary, but Printify has a free subscription or a $24.99/month premium subscription. You'll also pay your supplier for their services, which may be charged to you separately or deducted from the amount you charge customers. Researching trends and pricing competitively will be key to creating a profitable print-on-demand business.
3. Become a Social Media Manager
In this day and age, businesses need to have a social media presence and be able to interact with customers online. Not every business can afford to have a full-time social media manager, so many companies choose to hire independent contractors to help run their social media accounts. If you are social media savvy, this cheap business venture will allow you to take your expertise and help businesses build content, drive interactions and increase followers and “@’s” to drive up profits. The platforms you can specialize in are numerous, although most businesses will expect you to be well-versed with the social media heavy hitters like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
Being a social media manager is more time and knowledge-heavy than cost-intensive. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get started as a social media consultant or social media manager, but you do need to set up a website for your business and introduce yourself to customers. Figure out the right way to describe your services, and show potential clients how you can help support their business by creating content, posting on social media channels, making an overall plan for social media strategy, keeping up with customer interactions and measuring results and ROI. This low-cost small business idea can help you make good money as a professional consultant to other businesses, and it can all start by turning the time you spend scrolling through Instagram and Facebook into something more valuable.
4. Become a Professional Organizer
In recent years, especially during the pandemic lockdowns, there has been a big trend toward simple living, de-cluttering and thinking fresh about how to get the most out of your home. If you love organizing, and you’re particularly good at it, then you can turn your passion into a small business that doesn’t require much in the way of startup costs. Start by organizing your friends’ homes and share the before and after photos on your website or social media accounts — this can be your “professional portfolio.” Buy some professional liability insurance and you’re on your way. Professional home organizers have become more mainstream in recent years thanks to the Konmari method and reality shows about hoarding. You will get to decide what you want to charge as an hourly rate, but it’s not uncommon to see hourly rates vary from $50 to over $100/hour, depending on experience.
5. Transcribe Audio for YouTube Channels or Podcasts
YouTube creators and podcasters often want to take their audio and video content and turn it into blog posts, ebooks, downloadable guides and more. If you have a fast typing speed and can accurately transcribe audio to text, this could be a low-cost business to start. Some YouTubers and podcasters may want you to also do some original writing as needed and be able to edit and structure the content you are creating. Your startup costs will be minimal, with only a computer and perhaps some transcription software needed.
6. Become a Freelance Writer/Editor
If you are a great writer or a detail-oriented editor, freelancing could be a great small business option for you. If you already have a laptop and an Internet connection, the investment in this business is minimal. Most of your up-front cost for getting started in freelancing will come from marketing yourself to find new clients. The options are endless here from writing articles and blog posts to technical writing and training manuals. Determine where your strengths lie and start there.
7. Start a Small Rental Business
Consider this idea a way to dip your toes into property management and real estate without needing to purchase anything. If your driveway, parking space or storage space in your house goes unused, you can rent them out to others. Apps like JustPark and SpotHero help connect those who want to rent their space with users looking for parking spots. Typically, you won't pay a fee to use these apps, but a service fee will likely be deducted from the amount you charge for renting your space.
Similarly, if you have a bedroom, a shed or a basement with storage space, you could rent it out to people looking for places to store their items. Sites like Neighbor help facilitate users who need RV parking, personal item storage and more. Just like with renting your parking space, you'll pay a service fee when your space is rented. But with little to no startup costs, this could be a great small business idea that could grow. Keep thinking outside the box and consider renting out your lawn equipment or car. And once you get some experience under your belt, maybe you'll expand to buying property to rent on Airbnb, renting out tiny houses or renting out multiple storage units in a facility.
These are just a few of the great small business ideas that take under $500 to start. Ultimately, the best business to start with little money is the one that aligns with your strengths – whatever you’re passionate about, whatever professional expertise you have, whatever connections you can draw upon from your current or former career. These can all be the building blocks for your new life as a business owner. Use this list and start doing your own research to determine which business you will start for under $500.
Ben Gran is a freelance writer from Des Moines, Iowa. Ben has written for Fortune 500 companies, the Governor of Iowa (who now serves as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture), the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, and many corporate clients. He writes about entrepreneurship, technology, food and other areas of great personal interest.