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

Jennifer Dziura writes career advice for The Grindstone on Fridays and life coaching advice for our sister site, TheGloss, on Tuesdays.

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 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 fired her.

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 Bullish columns on The Grindstone was 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.

If you’re an employee, well… I’ve often spoken about the need to quantify everything (see Bullish: How Talking About Money Can Make You More Of It). Get numbers on everything you do. If you can’t track clicks or sales or 67% improvement in widget speed, then at least count something: you weren’t “in charge of the email newsletter,” but rather curated and edited precisely 52 of those fuckers over a period of one year.

Similarly, as an employee, do your best to calculate or estimate your Return-on-Employee. If you help make sales – even if it’s not technically your job – then it makes no sense to get rid of you, and you can even make the case for a raise, since you’ve been generating the cash your raise will come out of.

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. No worries: 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?

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