Bullish: Starting A Business When You’re Broke (Or Making Money During The Great Recession)

When I first moved to New York, I was campaigning for a Director of Marketing job at a small company. I was also down to my last $150, and then a suit bag containing my entire business wardrobe was stolen from my car (through a smashed window) my first night in town.

I lost the job. But I was close enough with the company, after three interviews, that they told me exactly what the deal was, and tried to string me along a bit longer: it had come down to me – 24, with entrepreneurial experience and a scary maverick streak – versus a woman in her forties who came directly from marketing at (let’s say) Procter and Gamble. Go big or go home!

After a nine-week trial period, they reversed their decision, firing her and hiring me to take over.

My first day on the job, I was given the product of her nine-week stint: some graphs, and a Powerpoint presentation about how to best allocate a marketing budget, when some money should magically appear. After decades in corporate America, she had literally no idea how to market something for any amount of money less than six figures. Give the woman an Internet connection, a copy machine, a graphic designer, and a hundred bucks, and her first move is to masturbate with Excel all week.

Times are tight! One of the most popular recent Bullish columns has been Bullish: You Can Start a Business by Tuesday. I specifically focused on women whose businesses did not require a lot of startup capital – for instance, these businesses don’t require office space, or can be run out of space rented by the hour. It’s totally possible to start a business for very near zero dollars.

A few ideas for starting up or generating cash on a shoestring.

Everybody loves barter

First off, there are professional barter networks that your business can join (just google “barter network”). You’ll typically pay a startup fee and some monthly commissions in cash in exchange for access to a large number of other companies that want to trade. This is a brilliant idea if you offer a product or service with an expiration date – theater tickets or spots in classes, for instance. (You do have to pay taxes on your barter income.)

Bartering informally is a lot easier than you might think, especially when what you want is, again, sitting unused or about to expire. In Bullish: How Business is Like Dating, I told the story of getting my first job in New York (at the company that hired and fired the Procter and Gamble lady) and how the CEO kept calling me in for “interviews” that were basically excuses to use me for free consulting (he took a lot of notes on my ideas, and once insisted we meet in a park, exactly like a guy who wants you to be really clear on the fact that This Date is Casual).

I finally got an offer by starting up my own marketing company in Union Square, making the CEO realize that I wouldn’t just wait around forever (Ooh! Ooh! Pick me! Pick me!) Since I was down to my last $150, my options for opening a company were limited. So I used barter: I posted an ad on Craigslist suggesting that someone offer me a desk and phone in their office (and use of their business address) in exchange for marketing help. I had several offers within the day. What small business wouldn’t want, well … basically anything in exchange for the use of a desk that’s sitting empty?

By bartering an intangible (my services), I was able to set up a super-legit business presence within days.

If you’re telling the right people, you probably don’t have to pay much to reach them

In Bullish: How to Sell Without Selling, I wrote that if your product actually provides benefits to people at a cost they judge to be less than the value of those benefits, you shouldn’t have to hard-sell them. If you’re a salesperson, you might be stuck selling something that fails to meet this criterion; if it’s your own business, you have no excuse.

If you’re starting your own company, make sure you know who, exactly, your potential buyers are, and that they actually have the money and want to spend it. (If in doubt, sell expensive things to rich people!)

Direct email sales is not necessarily annoying if the people you’re contacting are hand-picked and your offer is extremely on-point. For example: Why does everyone want to take headshots of actors? Actors are broke! The market is oversaturated! Why don’t you take headshots of businesspeople and make them look really competent? If someone did that – please, free business idea, someone take it! – and sent me a well-written, non-desperate personal email (I like your work, yadda yadda, if you ever need business headshots, please think of me), I’d be amenable. If the person were just starting out, offering to take photos of business bigshots for free might be good way to build a portfolio.

I once handled the marketing for a whole foods co-op that had run out of cash and thus – amazingly – run out of food to sell. It was early November, Thanksgiving was approaching, and the co-op had never bothered to do anything about the fact that they were four blocks from PETA’s national headquarters. I designed some flyers (so retro!) with a picture of a happy turkey and some text about saving turkeys by ordering your vegan Tofurkey early. I spent $5 to print them, and sent an intern to go put them on all the cars in PETA’s parking lot. Can Google target like that? Pretty close, but not quite.

Monetize your “alumni”

Do you have friendly ex-clients who can’t really buy from you anymore? You’re a nanny and the kids grew up? You make custom furniture and the person’s house is pretty much now full of awesome furniture? You edit dissertations and the person has a PhD? You’ve already photographed their wedding – even if they do get divorced and need another photographer eight years later, dear god, they’re not going to hire the same one.

Plenty of businesses have an “alumni base” of happy customers. If the business relationship has come to an end anyway, you have almost nothing to lose by contacting these people. If you annoy the living shit out of them, what’s the worst they’re going to do? Tell people they really liked buying things from you, but now you email them too much? You can live with that Yelp review.

If you’re sitting on a list of happy ex-customers, either 1) find something new to sell them, or 2) hit them up hardcore for referrals. It is possible to do this in a non-annoying way. For instance, offer them something free that they can give to a friend. (“It was so great being your doula/your son’s math tutor/your headhunter. I am doing a free seminar / giving away free intro sessions next week and wondered if you knew anyone who would want one.”)

This idea of monetizing “alumni” is actually how I met my best friend. We were both doing low-rent modeling jobs (some photographer who’s building his portfolio pays you a few bucks for your time, and the photos are generally only published on his website), and many photographers only want to work with the same model once, no matter how much they like you. So, I posted an ad on Craigslist, suggesting that there must be other low-rent models who have lists of satisfied clients they can’t work with again, and that these models could meet up and trade lists. Molly Crabapple said, “This girl is taking this way too seriously,” but then we met at Barnes and Noble, made a few bucks from each other’s clients, and she has since become the proprietor of an international arts organization and my “business muse,” quoted in numerous Bullish columns (see Bullish: Dealing With Sexual Harassment When You Work for Yourself and Bullish: How to Intelligently Do Many Things At Once).

In sum, it’s a terrible freaking recession and everything sucks, and yet people are still buying things every day, and the rich have only gotten richer. If there’s money circulating out there, why shouldn’t it circulate through your glittery-manicured hands?

Furthermore, like the Procter and Gamble lady who couldn’t function without a massive marketing budget, many of the more privileged members of our society have similar inabilities to adapt to hard times. Using a recession as an excuse to “wait it out” is the response of an effete, useless, cosseted person. Instead, hard times can be an opportunity to outsmart those people.

originally published The Grindstone