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(Chris Silas Neal)
(Chris Silas Neal)

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How to start a business on the cheap Add to ...

Do you have fresh ideas? No cash? No job? You can't remember life before the Internet? As you read this, you may figure out that your best job prospects are on the computer screen you now use mostly to download movies from BitTorrent while you worry about your future (that is, not having one).

What if someone told you that you can start a business or get a job simply by marketing what you know, and squeezing every dime out of your personal expenses to help devote more money to your business? Would you try? What have you got to lose?

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Young people and curious seasoned types with fresh, open minds have a solid foundation on which to build a business. Your best asset is that you don't think like an old man set in his ways. Lots of older people who run businesses need your ability to see something not being done as efficiently as it could be. So, to start a business, think of a result and then backward-engineer a process to achieve it.

You have no money? I know you can start a business without any money. I'm talking about working capital to build an infrastructure. I now have money, and like other people with it, I will pay for information that I don't have. Here's how you can start:

1) Think about how to save somebody money

What do I pay for that you can teach me to do for less or for free? Here's a good example. I thought that my cellphone was too expensive and a friend told me that she could renegotiate my bill. After an hour on the phone with my cell and cable provider, I had the same service for $1,600 less per year. She did that as a favour, but I encouraged her to start a business and charge 25% of the first-year savings. If you sign up 20 new people a month and save them all that much, that's a decent business.

2) Don't waste time

I don't watch TV or surf the Net until I've exhausted all the work I need to do. Time wasted is money wasted. Keep a detailed log of what you do every hour of the day. Cut out wasted time and replace it with activities that will make you richer or smarter. Do you get up early? Do somebody's shopping for them at an all-night grocery store and charge them.

3) Trade skills

If you cut hair for a living and need a website designed, find a web designer who needs haircuts. If you can take photographs and need a laptop, find a computer store that sells used computers and needs better photos for its site. Catch my drift?

4) Use online information aggregators to identify opportunities and customers

Online word of mouth is a great thing. You can be in Nelson, B.C., Yellowknife or in your underwear in your basement in Corner Brook and start a page on a social network or place a classified ad on Kijiji to explain what you can do. Find me a place to get cheap business cards, cheap winter tires or a flight to Marrakesh for my next holiday, or do some other research for me. You can be an information slave to one person or many. And get a PayPal account so you can get paid.

I didn't come up with this idea. Users of cheap labour congregate on sites like Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Check out what people are asking others to do, and see how they are paying for it.

Or identify something they aren't doing yet but might want to do as they expand their own businesses. Barbara Edwards was an assistant in a Toronto fine art gallery who began approaching respected local artists to represent them in a new gallery that she hadn't actually opened. After she got a small space, she wrote to the estate managers of several big-name deceased U.S. artists, asking if she could represent them in Canada. After meeting her, a couple of them agreed.

I spoke to Edwards about her lack-of-cash experience at an artist opening recently. Everything in her gallery looked expensive. I asked her how far her apartment was from her work. She sheepishly pulled a heavy curtain back. There was her bed and clothes closet. She had renovated what was a rough-and-ready space by herself. The gallery kitchen doubled as her personal kitchen. Nice. The art she shows comes on consignment. She hustles. She can afford her own place now, but she still lives there.

I did it, too. Ten years ago, I had lots of ideas and knew some stuff about business. I wrote several articles online for free and then sent them to editors at this paper. They gave me a try. Now I get paid to give advice.

Write me at dsteiner@globeandmail.com and tell me your no-money-to-success story. I'll convince my editor to let me write about you. He'll pay me and you'll get free publicity. You get it now? Once you start hustling using your brain, and see the fruits of your labour, you'll never stop.

Doug Steiner has a real job in the financial services business in Toronto.

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