Buy stock, store it, pick it, pack it, ship it. Managing inventory is a big commitment when you’re running an online business.
But there are actually many business ideas you can start that let you focus less on the logistics associated with inventory and more on your business.
These low-investment, no-inventory online businesses make a great entry point for beginners or anyone with a busy schedule, giving you a hands-on education in entrepreneurship at a fraction of the cost.
You still need to come up with a solid idea, build a brand, do marketing, and provide customer service. But you won’t have to keep a stack of products in your living room or ship every order yourself, making them excellent home businesses to start.
Here are some low-investment business ideas that let you make money without investing a lot upfront while freeing you from the demands of inventory management.
Low-investment, no-inventory business ideas
- Build a dropshipping store
- Design and sell print-on-demand t-shirts
- Launch your own book
- Create digital products or courses
- Sell print-on-demand posters, prints, etc.
- Start a charitable business
- Sell a service
1. Build a dropshipping store
Dropshipping is a business model where a third party supplier stores and ships inventory to customers on your behalf. You just need to make the sales; you don’t need to handle the products yourself.
Simply put, dropshipping is a modern take on the oldest form of business: Buy an item for a low price and sell it for a profit. Except, in this case, the supplier you’re buying it from is also the one responsible for getting it to the customer.
You can curate products from different suppliers into your own online store under a theme that focuses on a specific niche, like mats for yoga enthusiasts or water bowls for dog owners. When a customer buys a product from you, the order is sent to your supplier who fulfills it on your behalf. However, you are still responsible for your own customer service.
There are both local and overseas suppliers you can work with, as long as you can establish a relationship with them built on trust—an unreliable supplier will reflect poorly on your brand.
Since many of the products you can dropship are commodities and will be unbranded, your business will be competing with others through marketing and quality customer service. In other words, it often boils down to whether you can sell a product better than the competition.
That said, dropshipping is a low-investment way to test product-market fit and launch a business before you invest in your own original products. Just be sure to always order a sample for yourself to make sure that your supplier is reliable and that the quality of the products is fit for selling to your customers.
- The Definitive Guide to Dropshipping with Aliexpress
- How to Use Dropshipping as a Low-Cost Way to Test Product Ideas
- Oberlo (free app for importing products into your store)
2. Design and sell print-on-demand t-shirts
Another dropshipping model, print-on-demand puts inventory, shipping, and fulfillment in the hands of a third-party supplier. But unlike the dropshipping idea above, the focus here is on customizing these products with your own designs to create something original.
T-shirts, hats, phone cases, hoodies, skirts, tote bags, and more become canvases for your creativity. You can think up witty slogans for developers or references that resonate with cat owners—if there’s passion and pride within a community, there’s a potential t-shirt business you can start.
With many print-on-demand services, you’re paying per-product, so the base price per unit will be more expensive than if you were to order in bulk. But the advantage is that if a certain t-shirt design doesn’t sell, you haven’t actually paid for the item yet (only the design if you outsourced it).
You can even use t-shirt mockup templates so you don’t actually need to spend money on a full photoshoot for every new design.
There are a variety of print-on-demand platforms you can work with, many of which can be integrated with your Shopify store for seamless order fulfillment. However, be sure to always order a sample of your product (often offered at a discount) to make sure your custom products look good.
- How to Start a T-shirt Business
- Think Pup T-Shirt Store [Case Study]
- Printful (print on demand)
- Kite (print on demand)
3. Launch your own book
A book is just another product when you think about it. And as such, you can create one to serve a particular demand in the market.
Cookbooks, picture books, comic books, photo books, coffee table books, and novels—if you’ve got the knowledge or the creativity, there are a variety of original books you can bring to the market.
Print-on-demand publishing is a relatively safe way to test the waters and get started with self-publishing, while giving you control over the quality and look of your book.
While you can order one book at a time, costs naturally go down when you buy in bulk. You can consider pre-selling your book idea through Kickstarter to ensure that there’s demand and guarantee a certain number of customers for a bulk order.
Launching your own book can be a great way to monetize a blog if you have one or are looking to start one.
4. Create digital products or courses
Digital products like music, courses, and templates are unique on this list of ideas. Unlike the others, they’re not tangible products. There aren’t recurring manufacturing or shipping costs to worry about so your margins can remain high.
The trick is figuring out what makes for a good digital product. What is useful enough that people are willing to pay to download it?
The answers range from original instrumental beats to stock photos that can be licensed to other creators, to information products and templates that help people level up their skills in a particular field.
If you’ve got a talent that can be turned into a digital product, you can think about packaging it into a new stream of income.
Shopify offers a free digital downloads app that lets you offer digital products in your store as easily as physical products.
- How to Sell Digital Products with Shopify
- How an Entrepreneur from Alaska Built the Biggest Hip-Hop Drum Sample Business in the World
- How to Sell Photos Online
5. Sell print-on-demand posters, greeting cards, and prints
If you’re artistically inclined or know your way around a camera, you can dropship using a print-on-demand business model to let others physically own a piece of your work. Just be sure you have the rights to the content you want to print, unless you’re using public domain assets that you can freely monetize.
If you’ve already got an engaged online following, say you’re a cartoonist or an urban photographer, you’re in an especially good position to give this business idea a try.
Depending on the printer you work with, you can turn your work into products such as posters or framed wall art, even greeting cards. There are plenty of digital templates and mockup generators like Place.it that you can use to showcase your products without having to print out each item and conduct your own photo shoots.
Source: Zen Pencils
- How to Sell Art Online: The Ultimate Guide
- How to Sell Photos Online: For Beginner and Professional Photographers
6. Start a charitable business
Starting a non-profit organization isn’t the only path you can take to help fund a better world.
Having a mission to go along with a business, and setting aside some profit for a cause, gives social entrepreneurs a unique way to position their company in the market while addressing the issues they care about most.
In fact, 89% of consumers surveyed said they were likely to switch to a new brand with similar products and prices if it was associated with a good cause.
While many social enterprises offer their own original products, you can also take any of the business ideas above and partner with a non-profit, or execute that social good with your own hands, as long as you’re transparent about how it works.
As part of your marketing, you can share the impact that your customers are having by supporting your business, such as a blog post covering your work in the community or a real-time impact calculator on your website.
The Give & Grow Shopify app makes it easy to partner with charitable organizations and incorporate your mission into your business. You can set it up to donate a specific amount or a percentage of sales, or ask your customers to add a donation at checkout.
- Social entrepreneurship: Harnessing Business to Make the World a Better Place
- How This Social Entrepreneur Is Building a Better Detroit By Empowering Its Students
7. Sell a service
With services-based businesses, “time” is your inventory and your biggest investment. You’ve only got a limited supply of hours in your day. However, that makes it easier to get up and running if you’ve got skills that are in demand.
Writers, designers, developers, photographers, house cleaners, fitness trainers, and more can build a business around their skill set.
They can also expand their business with any of the other ideas above to create additional revenue streams.
A photographer, for example, can service a local event while selling prints online through their Instagram account. Coupling your service-based business with physical products can give you another source of income that isn’t directly tied to your time.
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Three tips for choosing a business idea
The business ideas we’ve covered might be easier to run when it comes to logistics, but that doesn’t make them easy. There are at least three things you should keep in mind as you consider your options, no matter what you decide to start.
1. Focusing on a niche makes marketing easier
As with any business, marketing is what unlocks your success. It’s not enough to know that there’s demand for your products—you need to figure out ways to reach the people that are most likely to buy them. You need to get the right visitors to discover your products.
Luckily, marketing is a lot easier when you're catering to a specific audience or identity (e.g. vegans, board game lovers, photographers in your city). You can produce social media content that resonates with these people or run ads that target their interests. Taking this approach also helps you project a consistent brand because you’ll have a more specific idea of who exactly you’re talking to.
Think about how you can zero in on a specific audience for your products and how the business you build can serve them. If you already have a sizeable audience (a blog, a YouTube channel, or an Instagram account), maybe you can even find a way to base your business off of that existing audience.
- How to Find a Product to Sell Online
- How to Use Niche marketing
- How to Evaluate Market Demand For Your New Product Idea
2. Pricing is about more than profit
Price your products too low and shoppers might assume they’re low quality. Price them too high, and you might scare some customers off. In any case, you’ll need to find a sweet spot that also lets you factor in the cost to acquire customers and offer discounts, especially if you plan on paying for ads.
With many of the business ideas we’ll explore in this post, you may not be shipping your products, but you still need to cover the cost of shipping. Consider your shipping costs and how they will vary in the different countries you want to serve.
Many online sellers try to bake their shipping costs into their retail price so that they can offer free shipping, or at least a reasonable flat rate. Others focus on encouraging shoppers to add more items to their cart with conditional free shipping (e.g. free shipping on orders over $50) to maximize their profit.
At the end of the day, your prices can be tweaked and you can experiment with a variety of pricing strategies until you find one that works for you.
- 6 Tips to Develop an Ecommerce Pricing Strategy
- How to Do a Break-Even Analysis
- 5 Ways to Increase the Average Order Value of your Online Store
3. Test, learn, and grow as you go
The pursuit of perfection can be one of the biggest hurdles in getting a business up and running. Keep in mind that nothing is set in stone.
Products can be swapped in and out fairly easily (especially when you're not stuck with stock). Your store can be redesigned. Your prices can be adjusted. You can switch to a better supplier. And you can validate all of these decisions based on the dozens of signals you have at your disposal (traffic, how much time people are spending on your site, reviews, abandoned carts, etc.).
If your idea just isn’t working out the way you planned, think about how you can pivot before you quit.
There are aspects of your business that you can always salvage if you try a different product or approach. The brand you invest time into creating and the followers you amass on social media or in your email list can be assets you repurpose for your next business idea.
Supply without all the demands
Thanks to a combination of technology and third-party suppliers, it’s easier than ever to build a business and start making sales without getting caught up in sourcing products and managing inventory.
With this approach, you can test ideas before you invest in them, or make some money on the side without the inventory-related responsibilities that often come with running a business.
The online business ideas above covered can be combined in a variety of ways to start a business that’s uniquely yours. If the idea of sourcing, storing and shipping inventory kept you from starting a business before, begin with an inventory-free, low-investment business model and grow from there.Photos by Matthew Henry from Burst