Slate Readers' 10 Best Ideas for Starting a Business or Reviving a Career

Collective wisdom.
Dec. 2 2011 10:20 AM

Work With Your Hands. Don't Get Married.

Slate readers' 10 best ideas for starting a business or reviving a career.

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6. High-Value Volunteering - Submitted by Alex Jane

It may not pay the bills immediately, but strategic volunteering can set you up for long-term success. Try volunteering anywhere from a local soup-kitchen to a school. This may be a bit Machiavellian, but see which places seem to have fellow volunteers who might be relevant to the career of your dreams. Focus on those places and then start networking. Same goes for joining nonprofit boards. They often have influential people on them and developing a relationship around a shared passion can help you when you're talking to those same people about jobs

Status is the enemy of contentment. Most smart people crave status and so enter status professions or start high-status businesses. The competition is far weaker in low-status businesses—for example, a small chain of soup carts (organic? low-sodium?) located in high-foot-traffic locations. Businesses like that also have the advantage of being offshore-proof and having high profit margin, low cost of start-up, and cloneability: Get the first cart working well and keep cloning it in other locations until you've made enough money. Don't be greedy: too many locations and the quality goes down. Such businesses also can yield enough profit that you can afford to pay the people who staff your cart well. Treat them well and with respect and not only will they not steal from you, you may be one of those rare people who becomes a beloved boss. Now, that’s status worth going after.

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8. The Basics of Business - Submitted by Kai Davis

I took an “Intro to Business” course as a freshman at the University of Oregon. It was a 10-week, $2,000, four-hour-per-week course. We spent the 10 weeks running Excel simulations for a “widget” factory. We were told that this would “Teach us the fundamentals of doing business.” In 10 weeks I learned absolutely nothing about doing business. If you want to learn to do business, you must do business. I dropped out of the University of Oregon’s business program a year later and switched my major to Economics. Now I own and operate two businesses and have a day job as the director of marketing for a Eugene company. I learned to do business by doing business. What are the basics of business? Negotiation—You’re a haggler. You aren’t afraid to ask for something. Sales—You can identify problems and pair a product and service as the solution for those problems. Communication—You can write. You can speak. You can persuade someone. You can present an argument. Marketing—You know how to present facts based on the audience and agenda. I think if you’re comfortable with these skills, you’re adept at the basics of business. Everything else is just specialization. If you want to learn the basics of business—the four skills I outlined above, here’s what I’d recommend: Take $200. Go buy an iPod Touch off of Craigslist. Take photos of the iPod. Sell it for $10 / $25 / $50 more than you paid for it. List it on Craigslist or flyer a campus. Repeat this 10 times for 10 weeks. Over the 10 weeks, test each part of this cycle: Test the photos you take. Test how you write about it. Test how much you’re selling it for. Test how you purchase the iPod—ask for a lower price. Keep a list of every question that comes to mind or change you can test. Ask yourself “How can I sell this for more?” or “How can I prove to the buyer what this is worth?” That’s a lot of work. Yeah. Sure. So is spending four hours a week sitting in a classroom and paying $2,000 for the privilege.

I started my business in early 2008. [After my divorce] I tried to get back in the traditional workforce and found it difficult. So I thought about what I am good at and what experience I've had throughout my working years. This is when I came up with the idea for Roundtuit. I've helped small businesses with their accounting, organizing, research, and any other tasks they don't have time to do but which are vital to maintaining and growing their business. I've also used my skills to design and oversee a kitchen renovation, research and resolve tax issues, and even replace faulty doorknobs. The point is, I took all of my previous experience and turned it into varied paying work. At this point, I don't make as much as I did when I went to an office job, but I make enough to live on and I feel a real sense of ownership and control over how I spend my day. More and more larger companies are going to be moving toward this kind of contract work in an effort to save money.

10. Two Paths, for Now - Submitted by joblue

I have been in architecture for 15 years, mostly working for HUGE corporations (SOM, HOK, NBBJ, etc). Sitting in front of a computer for all those years had me wondering if this was it. I rediscovered working with my hands by building bikes a few years ago. That passion turned into a shop, then a bigger shop (www.718c.com), and now the No. 1 custom bike shop in NYC. Bikes, to me, represented all that I love about architecture (design, technology), with the immediacy of building and the satisfaction of working with one’s hands. Bikes are great for the environment, reduce congestion, and elevate fitness levels. All things that got me into architecture to begin with. My architecture job could be outsourced (and it essentially is when I “work from home”); there is no replacement for the skill in my hands. “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” (Shop Class as Soulcraft) People who work with their hands ultimately have the most control over their destiny. So, I continue down this dual path … working in a nice office in Manhattan during the day, and repairing to my shop in Brooklyn to get dirty.

Lauren Hepler is a Slate intern.

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.