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Four Businesses You Can Start Today

By Christopher Schonberger

If you're a recent grad without a steady job, you may have heard people say, "Why don't you go tutor SATs?" or "I heard you can make tons of loot walking golden retrievers!" It all sounds so fun and easy, but rarely does anyone actually tell you how to do these things.

Whether you're a struggling artist or an aspiring CEO, a bad economy means that we've all got to be creative when it comes to making money. Here are four small businesses you can easily start today with little to no start-up costs. Maybe it'll hold you over while you decide to wait for the right job or apply to business school. Maybe it will grow into something that you can expand into something bigger and more profitable. Either way, why not give it the old post-college try?

Without further ado, let's dive right down into the nitty gritty of what it takes to capitalize on four great opportunities:



Computer Programming



From my mom's friend who gave up her job as a lawyer for a job walking dogs for almost as much money, to my girlfriend's boss' dog walker who allegedly makes over $100K a year, there's a lot of enticing evidence for the financial benefits of exercising pups. Dog-walking is especially popular in cities like New York and San Francisco where not everyone has immediate access to open space, but it's safe to say that anywhere there are dogs and owners who work full-time, a business opportunity awaits.

Is it for me? Clearly, you shouldn't do this unless you genuinely love dogs and enjoy being active. You may like a leisurely stroll with a pup from time to time, but are you ready to hit the streets for two to three hours a day, rain or shine? If that sounds appealing (which it very much is to some), then this might be the perfect gig for you.

How do I get started? You love dogs. They love you. You're fit. You're punctual and trustworthy. Awesome, you're ready to roll. But where are you going to find clients? This is the toughest part of starting a dog-walking trade, and many full-time walkers will tell you it took them a year or more to get a full slate of customers. Since people treat their pets like their children, nothing will ever beat a personal recommendation. Thus, you're first step should always be to tell everyone you know about your business—friends, family friends, dodgeball league acquaintances, old bosses and colleagues, et al. It's likely that at least some of them have dogs or know people with dogs.

You'll also need a website and business cards. For budget-friendly business cards, look no further than Vista Print. You can design your own cards using ready-made templates; the printing and paper quality is totally reasonable; and the price is basically free besides shipping. When it comes to a website, think practical. Clearly you're not going to be dominating the Google rankings when people search for dog-walkers in your city, but you still want to provide a place where referrals and others can find out who you are and what you offer. Don't want to front thousands of dollars on a designer and programmer? No worries, just start with a free or cheap website until you get a base of clients. You could just use a blog site like wordpress or blogger, but once again Vista Print comes to the rescue. You can get a ready-made, hosted site for as little as $4.99 a month (with forwarding email address). There are even pet-themed templates—a little "Web 1.0," but they'll do the trick.

On the website, be sure to put up good pictures, or even videos, of you with dogs. When people are looking for someone who's going to be responsible for their beloved pup, they want to see a face they can trust, not a lot of text.

What else can I do to find clients? If referrals from friends and family don't fill the schedule (they probably won't), it's time to some good old-fashioned local marketing. To be efficient, you want to find dogs in the same general area, or better yet, the same building. (If you walk one dog for half an hour, then travel all the way across town for another, you're wasting time.) You can try flyering (Vista Print, baby), offering finder's fee to apartment doormen, and taking out an ad in a free local paper. Of course, you should also post your services on Craigslist. All of these efforts may prove fruitless, but they're worth a shot. Go to places where people with dogs congregate, like parks and dog runs, and try to chat with people and hand out your business card. Obviously, it's easier and less creepy if you have a dog or can borrow one to bring with you. The same goes for "networking" with vets and pet store owners to ask for referrals.

Note: if you can find an edge over the competition, all the better. You can run dogs as well as walk them. You only take out three dogs at a time whereas other companies take five. You can get certified in dog massage. Whatever it takes to stand out.

What else do I need? First and foremost, get insurance. Pet Sitters Associates offers membership and dog-walking insurance for only $164 a year. This will cover you if your dog hurts another dog or person, breaks someone's property, etc. And, if nothing else, it will also give your potential clients peace of mind. (Let them know on your website that you're insured.)

The final question is how "official" to make your little operation. Obviously we would never suggest evading the IRS and sticking to a strictly "cash in hand" policy, but let's just say it's not uncommon. To pay taxes like a good citizen, you can establish a number of business structures. One would be a "sole proprietor," or a "partnership" if you do it with a friend. You could also establish an LLC, which comes with yearly fees (about $250) but means that if anyone sues you they'll be suing the company and not you as an individual. To learn more about these structures and their pros and cons, check out FAQ.

How much money do I need to front? If you go the bare bones route (which makes sense if you're just testing the waters), expect to throw in about $250 at the beginning. This will cover your insurance, business cards, website, flyers, etc. Once you have just one client, you'll make that up in a couple weeks. And when the money really starts rolling in, you can think about getting a logo and finding someone to put together a more professional website.

So, how much can I make? There are indeed plenty of stories of people making over $100k a year, but these tend to have a mythical quality about them, involving phrases such as "celebrity dog-walker" and "dog whisperer." However, I know lots of more "average" walkers who rake in about $40,000-50,000, which is not too shabby. Just think: $20 for a 30 minute walk x 9 dogs (3 groups of 3) x 5 days a week = $900 a week, or $3,600 a month! (Remember that in addition to walking, you can also provide other services like pet-sitting (a more comforting alternative to the heartless kennels where they just toss dogs in a metal box for the weekend).


After four years of literature classes and beer bongs, you may not feel qualified for too many jobs. But there's one thing you have accomplished that a lot of others want to do: you got into college. SAT tutoring—as well as LSAT/GRE/GMAT tutoring and subject tutoring—is big business. As a recent college grad, you're primed to grab a piece of the pie. Let's just hope that you're patient, empathetic, and good at explaining things.

A lot of people work for big tutoring companies like Kaplan, which is probably the easiest route if you're just trying to make some money in the meantime. But in the long run, why be content with $20/hour when each student is shelling out thousands for tutelage? A company like Kaplan takes two-thirds of the money. So if you can charge similar rates yourself, you can either work one-third the hours or make three times the money. It's a lot harder to get started, but if you succeed, the juice is definitely worth the squeeze.

We caught up with Tim Urban, Apprentice contestant and founder of Launched Education, to learn how to get started as an independent tutor.

How long will it take? As with dog-walking, the process of finding clients is not easy. Assume that you're going to have to hustle for at least four months before you start bringing in money, and make sure you have a little financial padding to get the wheels in motion.

Ask yourself why you would make a good tutor. This is the first question you need to ask yourself if you want to sell yourself to others. As Tim explains, "Kids will smell lack of confidence," and if the student isn't buying what you're selling, then you're not doing yourself (or the student) any favors. A degree from a "good" school will make your life a lot easier, as will perfect test scores. And if you don't have a great score on the standardized test you want to teach, you better go take it again. (When you start tutoring, you have to get over the taboo of bragging about your test scores.)

If you have prior teaching or tutoring experience, that's ideal. Maybe you had younger siblings and are confident that kids will like you. Maybe you were always the one explaining concepts to your classmates in calculus. Ultimately, though, confidence will come from preparation. Whatever test or subject you're going to teach, make sure you know it cold. Because as Tim puts it, the question you need to be prepared for is: "I did all this homework except for this really hard one. Can you show me how?" In other words, if you're not ready for the heat, stay out of the kitchen!

Teaching certifications and memberships to tutoring organizations may give you a little bit of cred, but confidence and experience will go a lot further. Instead of spending your time and money on classes and certificates, spend time hitting the streets and perfecting your pitch.

Decide what you want to teach. Or, perhaps more to the point, decide what you're capable of teaching. If you already have a great score on the SAT or another standardized test, you can roll with that. If not, study up until you're an expert. Kaplan tutors can handle classes because they've gone over so much material that there's not a "type" of question they don't know how to tackle. You want to be at that level. If you're tutoring high school or college subjects (e.g., US History, AP Biology), make sure you review the material and know what you're talking about. And remember: you don't have to "tutor" academics. Teach anything you're an expert at, whether that's guitar, piano, Spanish, or cooking. If you work with high school students, see if you can help them with all aspects of the college admission process, including writing their essays.

For simplicity's sake, we'll assume you want to be an SAT tutor from hereon in. No matter what you do, though, the same general principles apply.

Finding clients (and keeping them). Ready to hustle? This is the tough part, and the one where a lot of people give up and go wait tables instead. If you're going to peddle a low-budget service (e.g., less than $25), definitely try posting on Craigslist and flyering, but don't expect a huge response. For a more proactive approach, try these tactics that worked for Tim:

  • Develop your pitch. As mentioned before, build a story about why people should refer and hire you. This includes where you went to school, your scores, and any relevant experience, but also an ability to connect with students. You might also prepare some materials to show, like a nicely designed and printed handout with all of the key math concepts on the SAT. This will help create a sense of professionalism. Come up with a philosophy for your approach (e.g., "all students are different so they need a customized experience; Kaplan doesn't work for everyone").
  • Go to high schools. Marketing directly to students and parents its tough. Instead, try finding sources who can refer you. The best option? High school counselors, psychologists, principals, educational specialists, etc. Target local schools (the more ritzy, the better your chances of finding parents who will pay a lot) and show up well dressed, well prepared, and ready to be rejected! "Meeting someone in person is five times better than making a phone call, and you'll rarely get a response over email," Tim says. "Only one out of six schools will even let you through the door, and maybe only one in ten of those will become a referral source. But once you hit it off with someone and they start referring you, the ball will really start rolling." This part is not easy because it is a big deal for a school professional to recommend you to prepare a student for the SAT. Parents can be crazy, and it's not worth incurring their wrath to take a chance on you if they don't trust your ability 100%. Be patient; maybe you'll have nothing in the first four months, but by month seven you might have 10 clients and you'll wonder how you ever considered quitting.
  • Knock your first appointment out the park. Once you actually get a client, the worst thing you can do is ruin all your hard work by doing a bad job. Prepare fastidiously. Tim suggests buying the College Board book with 8 practice tests that are actual tests and not those concocted by other companies. Go over Test 1 with a student after you have gone through every question on your own. If you feel you need to write down some notes and concepts to make sure you remember everything, turn it into a handout. That way the student won't think you're looking at a cheat sheet, and you'll also get points for preparing something.
  • Seriously, prepare. Even if you are a genius who's confident you can answer any question, that doesn't mean you're a good tutor. Teaching material requires preparation. You need to structure a plan and anticipate the needs of yours students. If you're teaching standardized tests, make sure you know everything about it. How many sections are there, how long do you get for each, and so on and so forth.

  • Develop rapport...and pass the parent test. Remember: parents are the ones paying you money and the ones who you are going to have to answer to. Make sure you are confident with them, but also don't set unrealistic expectations. Also, don't forget that it's ultimately about the student: if you hit it off with the kids and they tell their parents you're great, that's what's going to make you an in-demand tutor. "At the first session, kids are usually a bit shy and judgmental. They may not want to be there," Tim explains. Your first goal should be to make the student feel comfortable. Make a joke. Make fun of yourself. Point out something in the room that reminds you of a funny story. If you can relate to them and loosen them up, your job of teaching will be a whole lot easier.
  • Get this money. Tutoring rates range from about $20 to over $100 an hour. If you market yourself right, you can hopefully pull in higher tier rates. In fact, lowering rates is not necessarily going to help your cause, so don't be shy about being expensive (assuming you think you are a really good tutor). Also, why charge $30/hour if you can get that from a company without putting in all the legwork to get clients? Instead, your goal should be to have counselors and parents saying, "He/she isn't cheap...but it's worth it."

    To see how lucrative this enterprise can be, just do the math. With just a 10 hour work week (3-5 clients) and an hourly rate of $60, you'd be raking in $2,400 a month and still have time for other passions and projects. Not too shabby!

    For the right personality, tutoring can be very lucrative and rewarding, particularly when someone achieves their goals due to your help.

    Computer Programming

    If you always wanted to work for yourself, but when you've finally accomplished that you find yourself in front of your computer in boxers all day, than you've probably become a freelance programmer. But is that really that bad?

    For the right personality, programming is a very rewarding experience. It's one giant logic game. You're provided with a set of tools, and without any answer key, you have to figure out how to leverage them to accomplish your goal. The good thing is that while you don't have an answer key, you do have a GIANT community of people willing to help you out for free. And they all live on the Internet.

    Piqued your interest? Let's dive into how to become a freelance programmer, and more importantly, how to earn some cash in the process.

    First Step: Learn How to Problem Solve

    The most important step in learning how to program is getting in the mindset of a programmer. They think about problems logically, and you will have to as well if you're going to be successful. Let's take a quick example: you have to figure out how to create a form (e.g., a contact form) on a webpage. Instead of taking an extremely high level approach and trying to figure out "how to program a contact form," take a very micro one. Break a contact form into its smallest elements. What are the basic building blocks of a form? There's a box in this form where someone has to enter text. So, how do you get a box to display on a webpage as part of a form? How do you then make it so that the box can accept text? Next: there needs to be a submit button. How do you display a submit button on a page? How do you make it so that when clicked, your data is processed and sent somewhere? You might also want to figure out how to make the form look a certain way. Another question might be: how do you make the lines on the box blue versus black? So on and so forth. You get the idea.

    If you can break down problems into small problems, that challenge of programming is behind you. Why? Because of Google. It's pretty amazing. At this point, all you have to do is search for a how-to for each of these individual elements and most likely you'll find solutions. Sure, you may have to tweak them. But at the very least, they’ll send you in the right direction.

    Second Step: Pick a Language

    Your next biggest decision will be to pick a programming language. If you just start Googling them you'll be sure to find "flame wars" (“flame wars” just scratches the iceberg of the awesome lingo you'll learn) about which language is better. But as someone starting out, learning PHP is a good start, as it's probably one of the easiest languages to learn. The Ruby language (on the Rails platform, hence "Ruby-on-Rails") is another favorite, but many question if it’s a scalable language. If you really want to be a programming ninja, then Java is your moneybag (not to be confused with Javascript).

    Another approach is to determine what type of programming you'll want to do. This decision might pick your language for you. Web apps are probably better suited for Ruby on Rails and Java, but if you're looking to develop content management systems (including online magazines/portals, but also ecommerce and sites where the main feature is a piece of content), then PHP might be better. PHP is the best option because there are a ton of open source content management systems built on top of them. One great thing about learning a language and applying it to an open-source platform or content management system is that you'll be forced to interact with other more experienced programmers’ codes which will provide you with design patterns.

    The open source platform is definitely the route we recommend, not only because of the community but also the potential to learn design patterns. (More on that later.)

    Lastly, no matter which language you decide to learn, you'll also need to learn some basic database querying. Most people will opt for MySQL.

    Third Step: Marshall Your Resources

    If you're able to learn by reading and then doing, the programming world is your oyster. There's an unlimited amount of info available. There's the oldie but goodie Web Monkey. There's w3schools online tutorials. And for the mother of all listings of tutorial sites, check out agencytool.com/dashboard.

    Clearly, another option is books. There are a ton of 500-700 page reference books for every language. Most people will tell you not to read them but they can actually go a long way if you do. Why? Not because it's a thrilling beach read, but because by reading through it (possibly quickly) you'll get a good idea of all of the available tools. But we'll be the first to admit that this isn't the route for everyone. Instead, you can get the shorter books along the lines of, "Getting Started with Php!" As with any book, Amazon.com reviews are helpful, but personal recommendations are always best.

    Of course you can buy books used, or find them through a Bittorrent tracker. But we never told you that.

    Finally, you'll need a computer. And preferably, a local development environment appropriate for the language you're learning, such as MAMP/XAMP/etc. for PHP.

    Fourth Step: Choose a Project. Any Project.

    There's no better way to learn how to program than to actually try to build something. If you don't have any ideas, maybe you can help a friend or their parents. Efficient programming is all about design patterns. So no matter how good the books/websites are, there's no better way of learning than doing.

    Fifth Step: Hire a Tutor

    Yes, it costs money. But sometimes it takes money to make money. And in this case, it takes a little money to make a lot of money.

    Don't look at this as hiring a tutor, but instead, think of it as paying for a cheap education. Tutors should run between $25 and $50 per hour, and they can serve as your programming sherpa. Compare that to a continuing education course that would charge a minimum of $500 to $1000. Seems like a good deal to us.

    If you do go the tutor route, make sure that they are comfortable with taking you through your project from start to finish. They should also provide and review homework, explain basic concepts, and help you get over humps you run into while trying to code your project.

    To find a tutor, just throw up a posting on Craigslist, Elance, Guru, RentACoder, or any of the other online classified boards (particularly the ones that are free).

    If you don't want to go the tutor route but want something a bit more illustrative than a book, consider Lynda.com. For $20 a month, you'll get access to a video library of computer programming classes. Unlike tutors, however, you won't have anyone to ask questions.

    Sixth Step: Join the Community

    Joining the community is possibly the most important step. It can unlocks tons of doors. It can find you jobs. It can introduce you to other coders. But more importantly, it's there to help you when you run into an issue. For example, Drupal, an open source content management system, has a burgeoning community. There are online chat rooms on IRC, there's a whole social network (http://groups.drupal.org), and there are monthly and sometimes weekly meetups in most major US cities.

    Joining the community doesn't happen overnight. It takes months. But if you stick with it (i.e., attend monthly meetups, participate in the chat rooms) you'll find yourself with some new friends who are always willing to lend a hand. Of course this has to be a two-way road, but isn't that what friendships are based on? And when programming, there's nothing better than having some friends who totally grok what you do, and can help you when you're down.

    Seventh Step: Get Paid

    Ok, ok. This is all about attaining a skill so that you can make some extra scratch (between $50 and $150 per hour, depending upon your skill level). So how do you do that? If you followed the steps above, spending lets say between three and six months [devoted to it] really sticking to it, you might be surprised to find out that you have the tools and network to start getting some gigs. Did you join the community? If so, start asking around if anyone needs a subcontractor for any of their gigs. Be honest about your skill level and that you'll need some pushes here and there, but most people will understand. (To boot, you'll even learn WHILE you're getting paid.) Another option is to start browsing the same classified boards that you used to find a tutor. Check out help wanted ads on Craigslist, Elance, RentACoder, etc. I'm sure you also might know some friends looking for a gig. And last but not least, if you can't find a gig right away, try to start a website on your own. Maybe an ecommerce site built on an affiliate sales model. Maybe a souped-up blog. Just do something. Because the more you learn, the better equipped you’ll be to take on your next pay-for gig.

    The Bottom Line

    If you've read this write-up and are still interested in becoming a programmer, then what are you waiting for? Jump right in. It's going to take you about three to six months to get to a point where you can take on basic projects, and six to twelve for medium jobs. Books will probably run you $150 (assuming 5 books at $30/book) and the tutor could easily reach $500 (10 hours at $50 per hour). After you put in the time and the cash, however, you'll be making it all back and more. You should be able to bill at $50 to $150 per hour. Get coding!


    Do you love children, even when they poop in their pants or spray you with a Super Soaker and then run away from you at the park? Are you interested in a job that involves watching copious amounts of cartoons? A gig that provides full room and board?

    All jokes aside, babysitting and nannying is serious business. Corporate CEOs lose millions of dollars all the time, but the wrath of their stockholders is no match for the wrath of a parent if you lose her child. Clearly, the pressures of the trade depend a whole lot on the ages and temperaments of the kids (as well as the personalities of the parents), but the fact remains that being incredibly responsible is a must. "Good nannies/babysitters obviously enjoy children, but they also need a lot of patience and energy," explains Laura G., who has worked for many years as a nanny in New York City while pursuing her musical goals.

    Think you've got what it takes? Here's how to snag some kids. (Lesson #1: Never tell a potential employer that you're looking to "snag their kids.")

    What are employers looking for? As discussed above, there are some basic personality traits that parents will invariably look for in a potential sitter/nanny: responsibility, patience, awareness, punctuality, etc. But as with any job interview, you need to back up your claims with evidence of these traits, or people who can vouch for you. If you don't have direct babysitting experience, hopefully you've been in other positions where you work closely with children -- for example, as a teacher or camp counselor. And since we're talking about precious little kiddies, nothing will put a parent's mind at ease more than a recommendation from someone they know.

    "I think it's always good to have CPR and 1st aid training when working with children," says Laura. "Some families require this, some don't. I believe you can also take online courses to get certain certifications and you can always take children development type classes at colleges which would always look good on a resume. As for being a necessity, this always depends on the family/agency."

    How do I find work? As mentioned above, direct references and word-of-mouth are golden in this field, but obviously that's not realistic for everyone. There are agencies that place sitters and au pairs, and like always you can try Craigslist. One good one to check out is Great Au Pair, where you can post a profile for free and search for families. You have to pay in order to get contact info, but many families purchase a membership, so as a nanny, it is not always needed (you can just post a profile and wait for families to contact you).

    What are the best parts of babysitting? While tighter domestic budgets and more live-at-home parents may reduce opportunities during a recession, babysitting is still the kind of a job that will never go away as long as there are children. It's also a job that offers enough flexibility to pursue other things. Finally, you can potentially use it as a way to travel abroad if you become an au pair. Check out the Transitions Abroad for listings in different countries.

    How much can I make? That's a tough one, as there are often non-monetary benefits to nannying or being an au pair, like room, board, and the opportunity to travel to another country. We've heard quotes ranging from about $12-20 an hour, depending on the number of children, their ages, and what tasks are expected of you.

    What are the worst parts? Take it from someone with experience: "It is a big responsibility to care for young ones—especially in the city. You have to wise and conscientious. Also, if you are a live-in nanny you lose many of the freedoms you normally have. Boundaries are very tricky with this position and it is tough to keep your job and outside life separate—or even have an outside life. I would not recommend being a live-in nanny unless rules and boundaries are clearly set and written out. Overall, it's very important you work with a family whom you get along with and understand their rules and what they want the role of their nanny to be. Communication is key."

    Where else can I look for information? Getting your first gig will be huge, because you'll suddenly find yourself in a community where your learning about childcare needs from parents and potentially meet other nannies and parents who can help you network. Check out Au-Pair.org and eHow.com's "How to Become a Nanny" guide (as well as the one on becoming a licensed babysitter).

    Pay it Forward

    All of the opportunities discussed in this article are tied together by an entrepreneurial spirit. You need to get your name out there and build networks that will lead to referrals. Thus, it's no surprise that when you're "working for yourself," it pays to be well-liked and well-respected. There's no better way to do this than to give back to the communities. If you’re a programmer, you can provide support to other neophytes once you gain a knowledge base. If you're a dog-walker, there's probably a local animal shelter or adoption center where you can lend your services. Just as creating a story is crucial for "regular" jobs, anything you can do to build your reputation and gain access to new networks will help you get off the ground and thrive.

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