The Risk-Free Business Launch

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When I was in college, I started a ticket resale (read: scalping) business for the cost of two concert tickets. That took about 20 minutes to get started and when I saw it would work, I spent about an hour a week between classes selling tickets on eBay. That business paid for my groceries for 2 terms while I didn't have a job.

When I started my first blog in early 2009, I had a 50-hour/week job that left me exhausted at the end of every day. I was too tired to put a lot of work into it, so I spent just 1 hour every day on it. After a year, there was a small, but extremely loyal following there.

When I was laid off, I had no idea how long it would be before I'd have a stable income again. When I launched shortly afterword, I was scared to death to spend money on a business, so I cut out all but the essential and did it for less than $100 (and then hired the lovely Reese to design the header image you see today).

Business Does Not Equal Risk

Business and risk are unfairly correlated in my opinion. The days where starting one meant mortgaging your house, neglecting your family, and praying that someone would show up and buy something from you so you could pay the water bill are over. In fact, I don't really know that they ever existed.

Even before the Internet when the world was a less efficient place, there were plenty of entrepreneurs who started their businesses without putting everything on the line.

Sure, you could empty your retirement account, sell your house, and feed your kids ramen while you pump every dollar you have into the pet hair vacuum idea you got one night while petting the cat. It would qualify you as a bold risk-taker, but I don't know that it would necessarily qualify as smart.

There's an element of risk in any venture - you have to be willing to give up something less important in pursuit of a dream - but truth be told, starting your own little business doesn't have to take much money and it doesn't have to take much time. Not if you don't want it to.

Money for Nothing

When did we decide that it takes a lot of resources to start a business? It really doesn't. When you're just getting started, there are only 2 things you need to figure out:

  1. Your offer (What you're going to sell)
  2. Your audience (Who's going to buy it)

If you want to really take the money concern out of it, find your audience first, then come up with your offer. That's a much better way to make sure that there's someone to buy what you sell.

You don't need an office. You don't need fancy equipment. You don't need business cards, fax machines, special software, or a dedicated telephone number. You don't even need a name. The only thing you need is something to sell and someone to sell it to.

Of course, the easiest and cheapest way to manage your business is to run it entirely online. If that's a foreign concept for you, my friend, Erica, wrote an excellent article about 20 ways people legitimately make money online. operates completely online. That means that if everything else in my life falls apart, I can move under a bridge and still run this site from a computer at the library (which is what I'll actually do when I attempt to live homeless for a month).

This doesn't mean you have to sell only digital products like I do; you can sell anything you want, even your own creations. You don't even need big start-up funds to create a product if you pre-sell it. That means you find your audience, offer something to them, and don't make it until they pay for it.

You're 100% guaranteed to not lose money.

Are you a whiz at something? Offer consulting or coaching. You don't have to be the best in the world at something; you just have to be better than the people that you want to help.

Start as small as you possibly can. Find one person and sell them one thing. Find out if they liked what you sold them. If they did, go find more people like them to buy more things. You can do this slowly but surely over time and never spend more than you bring in. As Jason Fried from 37 Signals likes to say, "Where there's some, there's more."

There's a free version of nearly every piece of software you might need to run your business with. Use them until you can afford to buy the premium versions, or don't ever buy them and keep using the free stuff. I manage everything on this site using:

  • WordPress - free blogging platform (but you can build any kind of website with it)
  • Flickr ­- to manage all my photos
  • Viddler - to manage all of my videos
  • Open Office or Google Docs - to hand all of my word proccessing and other office tasks
  • Mint - to keep track of my personal finances
  • Outright - to manage my minimal bookkeeping needs
Every single one of those programs are free and you can run a very big business with them.

You don't need investors, you don't need partners, you don't need start-up cash. Start small, start free, and work your way up.

Time for Free

Of course, no matter how little money you start your business with, time is just as scarce a resource when you're trying to do it on the side.

Luckily, everything you've heard about how much extra time it takes and how hard it will be is an exaggeration. Don't be surprised if you end up working 8 hours every day on your side business because you love it, but don't think that you have to start out that way. You don't.

Of course, if you were looking for a reason to ignore your friends and family, there's your excuse.

If you can clear one hour from your day, every day, to work on your side business, you can be successful. Yes, it's going to take longer than if you just quit your job and go for it 18 hours a day, but we're not going for speed here, remember? This is the risk free business launch. This is how you do it if you want to get started while you still have a job and you also want to play with your kids after work.

Okay, so here's how you find that one hour every day and actually make it productive:

Spend a week recording exactly what you do with your time. Keep track to the minute. If you need some help, check out RescueTime. One week using that free program and you'll feel really guilty about what you've been doing with yourself.

The point isn't to feel guilty though, it's to see each and every thing you do in a typical day. It'll be awkward, but very revealing. If you prioritize all those things, I promise that you will find at least 1 hour of time, maybe in bits and pieces, that you can completely cut out of your life. These are things that are taking up your time but not giving you much in return.

Doing this kind of purge on a regular basis is an excellent way to slowly optimize your life.

Reorganizing the Hours

Now the goal is to take those little bits of time you've captured and cram them together into one uninterrupted session. This is important because you'll need at least one continuous hour each day to get your most important business tasks done.

If you enjoy what you're doing, you'll naturally find other little 20 and 30 minute sessions throughout the day to do even more, like staying in for lunch or using breaks to do something more productive than drink coffee.

Here's another tip: Take that hour that you've created for yourself and put it at the very beginning of your day.

Make your side business the most important thing you do every single day by putting it first. If you can't function in the morning, find a way to put that hour wherever you have your most energy. If you need solitude to function, put it at the end of your workday and stay an hour late. You'll have no one at the office to bother you and when you get home you can give your full attention to your family.

Optimizing and Chunking

When you're working with a limited amount of time each day, there are two things you need to do to make sure you're actually getting somewhere with your business.

  1. Optimize. Spend as much time as you need to evaluate the work you're doing and don't be afraid to get rid of everything that isn't working. It's very normal to find that 80% or more of everything you work on does little for you while a small fraction, 20% or less, will make your business explode. Constantly looking at what works and what doesn't will ensure you get to your jumping point much faster. Again, my guest article on optimizing your life is a great resource to get started with.
  • Chunk. When you only have an hour to do your most important work and everything else fits into 20 minute sessions between the rest of your life, you need to get really good at taking a time-consuming task and chunking it down into smaller bits that you can do one piece at a time.
  • For example, if you have 5 hours worth of product development to do, then you need to find a way to break it down so that you can stop and pick it back up in one-hour increments. This will help you with goal setting, too. It's hard to go after a big, audacious goal, but it's much easier if it's broken down into smaller, more concrete steps.


    A business can be started on the side, and it doesn't have to consume you. You can get what you want without sacrificing your job or your family. Not everything in life has to be a big risk.

    I love taking risks in both life and business, but I didn't start out that way. Decide for yourself what things you want out of life, and if your own business is one of those things, then start taking the baby steps to create it and launch it risk-free.

    Tyler Tervooren founded, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.

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