Business ideas for the unemployed

LearningMyLessons made a great comment that deserves an in-depth discussion of its own. I really hope some of you reading will participate. Surprise me. It's hard to find a job, and it's hard to start a business. Which is more feasible for you, and -- more importantly -- which would you rather do?

Unemployed? Can't find a job? Starting a business seems logical. Maybe that's why most businesses start during bad economic times, or so I seem to remember from some Econ class or another.

I have actually enjoyed a tiny bit of entrepreneurial success with my walking tour venture. It's not an ideal business for such a bad economic time, but it's still a little bit of non-soul-obliterating money.

What follows is a start (just a start) on a list of business ideas that unemployed people might be able to launch successfully with little start-up capital. The tour guiding business will not be on this list because, like I said, it's not a good game in this economic environment and most people don't live in places like New York, where we have a steady supply of pilgrims seeking stimulation.

Before starting the list, I want to float some

general maxims germane to founding a viable business in this tough economy:

  • Value is the name of the game. Nobody wants to spend money even if they have it. Your business should position its products and services as filling your clients' need to save money.
  • Minimize your initial outlay. Start with the assumption that you are under-capitalized and operate accordingly.
  • Partner. You can't do it all. Look for partners who have skills that you lack.
  • Plan to fail. Edison failed 10,000 times before he found the thing that worked.

OK, so here are a few

cheap start-up business ideas for the unemployed:

  • Repair shops -- People are going to fix the things they have rather than buying new things. If you are handy, there is money to be made here.
  • Property rehabilitation -- In crisis there is opportunity. Foreclosed-upon properties need major clean-up and fix-up before they can be put on the market. You could offer these services to realtors and landlords.
  • Marketing services for small business -- So many mom-and-pop shops need this. You could design, print, and distribute materials or SEO their websites so that their clients find them. Take a small good-faith payment for the first campaign, then charge full fees after the value of your services becomes obvious (and it will if you're good -- I know a guy that will never lack for money because he does exactly what I've described.)
  • Showbiz -- One upshot of unemployment for me is that it has turned me into a professional actor. I've also written two teleplays and half a full-length screenplay. Haven't sold anything yet but haven't really tried. One person I know plays solo acoustic sets in coffee shops and offers CDs on a pay-what-you-want basis, and that person clears over $100 per gig, almost pure profit. In times like these, bringing a little beauty and joy into the world is as valuable as any service.
  • Foodscaping services -- Got a green thumb? Know what grows where in what kind of dirt? Turn yards into food. Heal the planet and get paid for it.
  • Jewelry design -- this seems counter-intuitive in tough times, but one person I know who has an incredible gift for designing beautiful pieces made from semi-precious stones claims that business is good. There will always be people willing to pay for pretty sparkly things.
  • Soup kitchen -- I have noticed that the street meat hot dog vendors seem busy these days. It's because what they have is cheap and quick. What if you made a couple big pots of soup every day and offered it for a couple bucks a bowl? Just an idea...
  • Guerrilla farming? Word on the street is that some people are selling surplus produce from their backyard gardens.

That's all I can think of right now. Feel free to add other ideas in the comments. Please don't be shy.

If you seriously want to deploy any of the ideas above, contact me. I have lots of ideas on the specifics and would be more than happy to share them, especially if you need a partner!

Finally, a warning about your unemployment benefits:

In many states, starting a business will render you ineligible for benefits, even before you see a dime in revenue. Check with your friendly neighborhood UI office and play this carefully.


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Being your own boss!! wowowow

I love this place. And I think what you're saying proves there are folks out there, like you, who have already positioned themselves over the years – with contacts or experience or avocations – that now just need a plan and the right guidance.

May I share a link to my web content article?

“Grand Rapids Nonprofit Helps Individuals Fulfill Dreams of Self-Employment” tells about my local economic development org, whose mission is to empower program participants to make their own entrepreneurial leaps. I share this to give a concrete example of a valuable org type some people may not know exists. I’m guessing there are similar orgs in other communities and their missions have never been more important.

Are you all in NYC??

Oh – and speaking of web content… all the talented writers posting on your site can submit articles to paying web content sites like (I’ve read some people like, too). Set up a PayPal account and watch the bucks trickle in!

Well, I haven’t made much money, but it's clear I still have a lot to learn about web content writing. That's fine. Persistent people who nail the formula for quickly producing stuff that attracts tons of readers seem satisfied.

Funny you should list "marketing services" as a potential opportunity, because it seems that's what I love to do most - share info on the causes I believe in (and, as a happy freelancer, refuse to push anything I don't believe in - ahhh integrity).

Another way to freelance (which I learned about on AC) is oDesk - here's the link

I have not personally used it, just took a few certification tests to see what it was about. My impression is skills more technical than mine pay better, but pay still seems low. Maybe others know more about this.

chuck's picture


Those are great resources. Your AC article is solid. I hope it makes money for you for a long time. I hadn't even heard of so thanks for sharing that. It's a cool application.

As about half our members seem to be New Yorkers, here's a free small business development resource in New York. Don't quote me on this, but I also believe that in New York grant monies are available to unemployed people trying to start businesses. At least that's what they told me when they rejected my unemployment claim.

Seriously, LearningMyLessons, thanks again. These are exactly the kinds of supportive, positive discussions that need to be had.

When life hands you sh*t, make fertilizer.

Many people turn to the

Many people turn to the internet for help during unemployment. The fastest way to make some money is to write articles for other websites. They will pay from $5 to $35 per article depending on the subject. So if you are an expert in something share the knowledge and get paid for it.

Another popular option is to open an online store. This however is much harder and offers no guarantee for success. also it it does success your initial investment will be returned at least several month after you start working on the store. The hardest part used to be finding and implementing credit card processing so you can actually receive payments. This is now much easier for newbies since paypal offers ready-to-go solutions which work regardless of the website platform which you have chosen.


I'm about 2 hrs. outside of NYC in PA.

I've heard of oDesk but haven't used it. I've been doing some work writing on ( I made enough to buy the groceries for just about the entire summer, which is great because my husband's unemployment check is only 50% of what he made.

With Elance, you bid on jobs. I've discovered what I think are a few keys to winning bids. It is tough when you comete with workers from other countries who work much cheaper than we do. That could be why the pay is so incredibly low for some things.

I'm enjoying this site too!

chuck's picture

I've done that as well...

... but I have found that it's not worth the time. You spend time bidding for the job, then the rate of pay is insulting.

I'm glad you enjoy the site.

When life hands you sh*t, make fertilizer.

BustedFlatinBklyn's picture

Nice post, chuck!

Great ideas, as usual! It's funny you mention repair shops. I've been making a little cash lately by fixing bikes and computers.

A slightly related business idea would be re-selling stuff that you find in the trash and fix up. Yuppies still throw out perfectly good things.

When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose - B. Dylan

chuck's picture

You heard about my new stereo, didn't you?

Took it straight out of some yuppie's trash. Probably didn't want to haul it with them back to ma's house. That or they got a better one and took pity on the likes of me by leaving it in such good condition on such a sunny day.

When life hands you sh*t, make fertilizer.

Dog Walking Business

Before I made the decision to go from being unemployed in Phoenix, AZ to being unemployed in Seattle, WA I had started a dog walking business in my apartment complex. One lady was well off and offered me $50 a week to walk her dog twice a day while she was gone. I put up fliers and one more neighbor signed up for $7 per walk = $35 a week. I was making $340 CASH a month to walk my neighbors dogs, so that was all profit because I didn't even have to use gas to go anywhere.

chuck's picture

Nice one

Yup, there are all kinds of ways to make a dollar. Thanks for sharing this one.

When life hands you sh*t, make fertilizer.


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