For less than $500, Quebec-born Nathalie Lussier started a consulting business from home that taught customers how to live on a raw-food diet. In the first year, Raw Foods Witch earned $60,000. In Whistler, B.C., Nev Lapwood invested $1,000 to start up Snowboard Addiction, which sells video tutorials. By the second year, he’d sold $100,000 worth to snowboarders in 10 languages.
Lussier and Lapwood are just two examples of successful “solopreneurs” in The $100 Startup, a bestselling book that shows you how to start a business without a bank loan or an M.B.A. or a 60-page business plan.
“Instead of borrowing money, you just start—right now—without a lot of money. Instead of hiring employees, you begin the project by yourself,” writes author Chris Guillebeau, who famously earned $100,000 in 24 hours selling a product of his own invention called “The Empire Building Kit.” A one-time offer packed with Guillebeau’s insider business tips, it was the prototype for the book.
The former juvenile delinquent and high school dropout is married to a knitting teacher in Portland, Ore. “No, I never had a career-type real job. Pretty much from the age of 20 I was paying the bills myself,” he says.
In the book, he cautions that times have changed. “The old choice was to work at a job or take a big risk going out on your own. The new reality is that working at a job may be the far riskier choice.”
He advises people to build a business based on a personal hobby or interest and make it about helping others. “Most people want more of some things (money, love, attention) and less of other things (stress, anxiety, debt). Always focus on what you can add or take away to improve someone’s life . . . and then prepare to get paid.”
Grammar Girl, a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty, capitalized on her passion for clear writing by offering to help customers learn grammar in a fun and stress-free way. Her podcasts have since spawned a series of successful books.
“You must focus continually on how your project can help other people,” Guillebeau stresses in the book.
Don’t get stalled writing a detailed business plan. Write a mission statement no longer than 140 characters, the maximum text for a tweet. “Focusing like this helps you avoid ‘corporate speak’ and drill down to the real purpose of the business as it relates to your customers,” he says. For instance, the mission statement for someone who sells patterns for knitted hats could be: “I help people be creative by making a hat for themselves or someone close to them.”
Offer an exceptional guarantee but don’t make the wording complicated, confusing or boring. Guillebeau gives the example of Lapwood, who offers a 120 per cent guarantee on his Snowboard Addiction videos. “If the program doesn’t rock your world, you’ll get 100 per cent of your money back, plus 20 per cent for your trouble,” he promises. He has yet to have a customer take him up on it.
Guillebeau, who wrapped up a book tour in Vancouver last week, suggests promoting your product in a “non-sleazy manner.” Send a personal note to 50 friends, former colleagues and classmates letting them know what you’re up to and inviting them to buy if they’d like to.
“Freely give, freely receive. It works,” writes Guillebeau. He cites the example of one unemployed architect who set up shop at a Seattle farmer’s market with a sign that read: “Five-cent architecture advice.” When news spread about his cheap advice, he got free advertising on CNN, NPR and the BBC. He’s now successfully self-employed.
On pricing, offer a choice. Instead of asking customers if they’d like to buy a widget, ask which one they’d like to buy. Example: “The Greatest Widget Ever, Budget Version—price, $87. The Greatest Widget Ever, Even Better Version—price, $129; Greatest Widget Ever, Exclusive Premium Version—price, $199.” He says most people opt for the mid-range, and there’s nothing unethical about selling a slightly different product at different price points. Big companies do it all the time; that’s how cellphone carriers, hotels and airlines make their money.