You can’t just make a wish, blow on a seeded dandelion, and expect your business to grow.
That’s what I usually tell entrepreneurs launching their first business, and the advice typically follows a protest about my fees for personal and corporate branding.
My advice is sound—businesses don’t prosper on dreams alone—and most companies flounder if their budget doesn’t include a significant first-year marketing budget. But some small business owners prosper despite minimal cash investment.
And I’m delighted to introduce you to a few of them:
Gaming the Networking System
Rhonda Green’s jewelry business started with a basic desire (put food on the table for her children) and a basic stumbling block (no working capital).
Desire and a plucky attitude won out. With less than $25 invested in beads, Green turned a hobby into a career. She sold nine bracelets in her first month as an online seller, an accomplishment she owes more to her networking skill than the beauty of her early designs. She played games on a social website and showed off her jewelry to her playmates who encouraged her to launch a business. She had a ready audience when she opened her first online store in 2007.
Both Green’s art and business have evolved. She stopped making stretchy beaded bracelets and started making more interesting—and profitable—steampunk jewelry, which she sells on The CraftStar, an online store committed to selling genuinely handmade items. Her artwork will also appear on an album cover for Grand Reserva, a Swedish rock band.
Green studied digital marketing experts to learn about SEO and social media, and she puts both into practice daily. She parlayed her knowledge and enthusiasm for helping others succeed into a staff position at The CraftStar, where she promotes the site and also teaches members how to market themselves.
“The CraftStar is committed to two things: selling handmade items that we make with our own hands (ha ha) and fostering a Cheers-like community where everyone is welcomed,” Bethan Davies, founder and CEO of The CraftStar, says. “From the day she joined as a seller, Rhonda jumped into the community vibe we stressed and became such a vibrant member of the community that I hired her for the first available opening.”
Green’s advice to creative people entering the world of e-commerce?
- Be excited about what you sell. If you’re not excited, no one else will be. When you care about what you do so much that you just can’t stop talking about, people will respond.
- Find experts and learn from them.
- Give back. Share your knowledge with others. Your generosity will be rewarded.
- Don’t undervalue your work. When you make something handmade, your only competition is yourself. Charge what YOU want and believe you deserve and ignore the price tags on other people’s work.
Playing With “Free” Money
In 2013, Phil Demas bought a used laptop because it contained the screen bezel he needed to repair his Dell Inspiron. He’d only spent $20, but he thought he might be able to recover his expense and make a little money by selling the rest of the laptop for parts. He stripped it down, posted the items on eBay and quickly turned his $20 investment into $200 profit.
This seemed like a pretty easy way to make what Demas calls “free money.”
He reinvested $100 of his profits on three used laptops and sold them for parts as well. When one charger sold and a customer asked if he had any more, Demas said “I’ll check.”
He checked with some people who sold used computer parts. None had the charger he was looking for, but someone suggested he try Goodwill. He did and found four of the chargers the customer wanted, plus some knickknacks that caught his eye. His purchases totaled $50, but he got a 50 percent discount when he became a Goodwill member.
Demas told the eBay customer that he found some chargers. The guy bought 2 for $60, returning a profit of $55 on chargers that had cost him $2.50 each.
The small profits have added up. Demas’s sales on eBay (and Craigslist for large items) have supported him for two years and made it possible for him to keep his dog in steak dinners and his teenage daughter in iPhones.
And he has more than $60,000 worth of inventory. The only out-of-pocket expense was the initial $20. All other business expenses—listing fees, shipping costs, fuel and truck repairs, for example—were paid from revenue.
His advice for anyone wanting to replicate his success?
- Sell at a competitive price. Rebuy with 50 percent of your profits to build up inventory.
- Be nice to people you buy from and be honest about what you’re doing. If they like you, they will call you up when they have cheap—or free—items available.
- Study prices and sales on eBay. Find out what sells, and for how much, before you invest in new merchandise.
- Don’t make excuses. Anyone can do this. If you don’t have $20 to invest, find free items on Craigslist and sell them. Don’t have a truck? Find a friend who has one.
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“It took me the time to strip down a laptop and open an account on eBay to recover my investment. Since then I’ve been taking in FREE MONEY.” Demas sells an eclectic array of electronics, collectibles, clothing, and other items on his eBay store, KingDonk for Kids Foundation.
Rocking Custom-Made Work
Jennifer Cox invested about $50 in supplies when she launched Rock Hound Soap in May 2014. She reinvested early profits into her collection of handmade soaps shaped like natural gemstones, including rose quartz and sapphire, but hasn’t spent a dime of “family funds” to build her business.
In 15 months, Cox has netted 4,800 sales, including 1,500 offline sales. Most of the latter stemmed from wholesale orders to stores.
She says she has kept costs down by keeping a small inventory. Customers choose the shape and scent of their handmade soaps so they don’t expect two-day delivery service.
Her advice to artisans:
“Remember you are offering something handcrafted just for the buyer so don’t worry about speed. If possible, allow customers to specify aspects of the design. The more they are engaged, the more excited they are about your products and will share on social media (which leads to more sales).“
Like most entrepreneurs on a micro-budget, Cox sells her work on an established e-commerce website, which provides a store, traffic, and marketing with little or no upfront cost.
Catering a New Career
And then there’s me. I left a career at a New York magazine—and my life—when I went into hiding to escape from an abusive ex-husband. I gave up my credentials and identity so couldn’t get a regular job. My early attempts at entrepreneurship—dog-walking, catering and furniture refinishing—kept my daughters fed but we sometimes ate in the dark because the electricity was turned off.
I spent $50 to join a freelance writing network and gave myself a month to double my investment and a year to become the top earner on the website. I met both goals and saved enough money to write a proposal for my first book. Selling the book and landing a movie deal without an agent convinced me I knew something about marketing. I helped other people write and sell New York Times-acclaimed books, including one that sold more than 1 million copies. Then I used my advertising and journalism background to take on branding and public relations clients. I kept learning, expanding my services, and reinvesting as much as I could and in 2013 opened a Los Angeles-based content marketing agency.
- If you’re willing to start small and can afford to stay small for a while, grow your business with as little overhead as possible.
- If you need help, get the best possible. Negotiate fees or barter services if necessary, but don’t waste your limited startup capital on mediocre help.
- Dream big and work smart. There’s a seeded dandelion—a wishing willow—in my logo. Because I do believe in dreams and dreamers. But blowing on a dandelion is easy. It’s what you do next, on your own or with help, that turns visions into reality.
About Katherine Kotaw
Katherine Kotaw is CEO of KOTAW Content Marketing, an international marketing strategy company headquartered in Los Angeles. KOTAW tells – and sells – stories across multi-channel marketing platforms for SMBs and Fortune 500 companies as large as HBO, Disney and Mattel. Katherine teaches storytelling for the Content Marketing Institute. Connect with Katherine on social media or her website to learn more about personal and corporate branding.