Nano-Businesses: Bridging The Financial Gap For “Early Retirement”

Early retirement.  Escaping the soul-crushing 9 to 5.  Doing the work you love, when and only when you choose to do it.  When it comes to work, these statements were all central to the original theme of Brave New Life when I founded the site a few years ago, and they still are.

But let’s face it… Pulling off early retirement in your 30’s while living on the grid and living a semi-normal life isn’t an easy path.  Particularly, not everyone can make enough income in 10-15 years to save up several hundred thousand dollars of investment capital, ultimately creating passive income that can sustain a family’s living expenses.

In my case, after paying off my home mortgage, my family and I are spending about $2300/month.  This works out to $27,600 per year in required income. Using the 4% rule, an investor must save up $690,000 in taxable savings in order to retire from that.  If you’re making $100K/year and living a simple life, it won’t take long to save up sufficient funds.  But if you’re making $40K/year and spending the same $27,600, saving up $690K will take several decades.  I regularly receive emails from readers in this predicament, and so I have one thing to say:

Hope is not lost.

Nano-Businesses

According to the always-reliable definition on Wikipedia, a micro-business is a small business with 5 or less employees, and starting with capital of $35K or less.

I like running small businesses.  I enjoy the challenge of transforming nothing into something, the thrill of learning new skills, and the personal test to stretch beyond my comfort zone.  At the same time, I usually don’t want to commit to investing anything close to $35K for a business, nor do I have any desire to hire and manage so many employees.  This is why I’ve coined the term “nano-business” to describe the businesses I’ve started, and continue to run.

 

Nano-business (noun) – A business made up of 1-3 people, with less than $1,000 initial capital, that targets cash on cash returns, and does not necessarily target long-term capital growth.

 

Nano-businesses are great for so many reasons.  They can be started on a shoe-string budget, they require as much or as little time commitment as you want (ie. you can still work a full-time job, spend time with your kids, etc.), they can be scaled bigger or abandoned with ease, and the potential monetary loss is minimized because of the low investment required to start the business. And, best of all, a nano-business is a great tool that can bridge the financial gap for someone trying to retire early, but lacking the monetary savings to support their dream.

But before I get into all the benefits of a nano-business, I’ll share some history on how I got involved with my first nano-business…

A Little Backstory

About 5 years ago, my mom was making some insignificant side income selling wholesale jewelry on eBay.  She’d only bought about $1000 worth of jewelry, doubled the prices, and listed the products on eBay.  Seeing her moderate success, I got excited and offered to build her a website so that she could also sell directly to customers (avoiding eBay’s high commission charges and increasing her growth potential).  Being on a shoe-string budget and generally internet-illiterate, my mom was reluctant.  But I showed her how low the monthly payments were to host a site ($7/month at Bluehost), and how cheap it was to buy her very own domain name (first one is free with Bluehost for the first year).  I offered to set up the website, help her mass-import her inventory, set up Paypal, and even do a little search engine optimization.

Eventually she agreed to try it out, so I got the website set up and she immediately started contacting her eBay customers and letting them know about her new site.  A few orders came in.  I was off work for the Christmas holiday, so I spent about 2 weeks improving her site – and soon we started seeing some new customers coming in via Google searches.  I wasn’t making a dime, but we were we both excited at our initial success!

Fast forward a few years, and business was rolling.  My mom was selling about $5K/month at ~50% margins, and very low operational expenses.  Her inventory and customer base continued to grow.  I was doing almost no work (which was fair, since I also wasn’t being paid), but I did enjoy what minimal work I was doing.  Soon after this, my mom, my wife, and I got together and decided we’d start a new website, and this time we’d be partners offering a wider array of products.

So I got busy setting up a new website, a cleaner one that was better optimized for usability. My mom and my wife began looking at new products we could sell, and I’d do the keyword analysis on the products to see whether I thought I could sell the products successfully online.  It was an exciting time, and adrenaline was pumping through our collective veins.

A year later, we were up to about $4000/month in sales on the new site. After paying operating expenses, we were collecting a 40% profit.  Splitting it 3 ways, that meant that my wife and I were making an average of about $1070/month.  We were making good side-income with very little work, and we were having fun doing it.

Nano-businesses: A Breakdown of the Benefits

Here’s a breakdown of some of the benefits of a nano-business based on my own experiences over the past 5 years.

Minimal Investment

There’s an old saying, “You have to spend money to make money.”  That’s all well and good, but for many frugal people (like me), it’s a hard concept to digest.  I realize I could grow a business faster and increase profits by spending more money, but with a nano-business that’s simply not necessary.  A website, for example, can be purchased for just a few dollars per year – and can be hosted on a reliable server for just a few dollars a month.  There are tons of free open-source options to host a website, blog, or e-commerce store that are absolutely free – other than your time to learn the software.  From there, the only costs are inventory (if you’re selling something), advertising (if you can’t or won’t do it yourself), and outsourcing work (again, if you can’t or won’t do it yourself).

Flexible Time Commitment

The time commitment for a nano-business is up to the owner.  The owner can work relentlessly in the beginning to get it started, or he can take his time and grow slowly.  He can work hard during weeks where he’s motivated and has free time, or he can take time off to relax.  Are you running an international e-commerce store, but only want to answer your cell phone between 9-5?  Fine, then say that on your website and have them leave a message.  You might lose a sale, but that’s OK.  You work for yourself.  Running a small lawn-service business but only want to work on the weekends?  That’s fine too – you’ll limit your growth and profit, but it’s your business and your decision.

Easy Scalability

A nano-business can be scaled larger in two ways.  Of course, you can grow your business the old-fashioned way through hard work over time, advertising, networking, product expansion, and other traditional means.  Or, with a nano-businesses, you can easily just start a second business.  For example, while I’m running an online store that profits $500/month and only working a few hours a week, there’s no reason I can’t start a second one with the goal of achieving another $500/month.  This may double my time spent working, but also double my profits.  But as a nano-business owner, I get to decide if/when I scale, and what I work on when I do it.

Minimal Risk

Because of the low initial investment, my risk of failure is also reduced.  As a personal example, I have had many nano-businesses fail.  Usually because I lost my passion to do that particular work, but not always.  However, because I only invested a small amount (less than $1000), failing was a perfectly good option.  There was no reason for me to continue doing the work that I was not passionate about, when I had almost nothing to lose.  On the other hand, and speaking from personal experience, I have lived in misery for years on a business I bought for $7000 that failed miserably (This was not within my definition of a nano-business).  I couldn’t let it go, because it seemed like such a waste to lose my $7000 investment.  When I finally gave it up (sold it for $800), it was a huge weight off my shoulders.

Bridging The Early Retirement Financial Gap

Returning to the original point of this article, let’s explore how nano-businesses can help enable an early retirement.  Saving up $600K or more isn’t easy, and for some it could easily be viewed as completely unrealistic.  That’s OK – there’s another way to “retire” early.  It may not be “retirement” by whatever strict definition you choose, but it certainly can help you get out of a job you no longer enjoy, while still reducing any risks of financial bankruptcy.

Let’s assume some basic numbers, and please forgive the over-simplification for the sake of this argument.  We have a 40 year old employee (let’s name her Ophelia), who has been making $50K/year since she was 22 years old.  She has a family now, but for the sake of simplification let’s assume she’s always spent $27,600/year, and will continue to do so.  Let’s also assume that our friend has never invested her savings in anything, instead she’s kept all of her money in cash.

So Ophelia has been saving $22,400/year for 18 years, creating a nest egg of $403,200.  This is well short of the $690,000 needed in savings to retire, based on the 4% rule.  In fact, with $403,200 saved up, Ophelia is only pulling in $16,128/year in passive income, a full $11,472 less than she needs.   This puts her in a deficit that runs $956/month.  This is not a good way to start an early retirement, so the easy answer is that she needs to continue to work for another decade or so.

But we don’t like the easy answers here, and neither does Ophelia.  In fact, Ophelia chooses to reject the conventional view that she is $290K short of her savings goal, therefore she must continue to invest $22K/year for the next 13 years (at which point she will be 53 years old).  Instead, Ophelia breaks down her deficit into a monthly problem.  She is just $956 short each month, and making $956/month is not insurmountable.  In fact, she already has some ideas for businesses.

You see, Ophelia likes making crafts at home to decorate her house and to give as gifts.  So the next time she’s making a gift for a friend, she decides to take a picture of it and put it on Etsy.  The cost of materials was $25 and took an hour to make, so she marks the price up to $50 and posts it to Etsy.com.  There was no cost to posting the product, and since she was giving away the original product as a gift to a friend, she decided that she’d only make another one if an order came in.  Sure enough, a few orders came in.  After a few months of this, Ophelia realized that her sales were good enough that she could buy the materials at a discount by buying in bulk online.  And so she drove the cost of goods to $15, now profiting $35 on each sale.  She was averaging 3 sales per week, or about $400/month while working only 12 hours from home doing something she enjoyed.

For someone making $50K/year, $400/month doesn’t seem all that significant.  But Ophelia didn’t view it like that.  Instead, she saw $400/month as a huge dent in her $956/month deficit once she retires.  Now her deficit was only $556/month.

So Ophelia decides to seek out another business venture.  You see, she’s a computer science major, and has been writing Java for years.  In fact, she’s a bit of an expert.  Her career has been focused on GUI writing for corporate compliance training at a major Fortune 500 company, and the material there is monotonous enough to crush her.  But she never fell out-of-love with programming as a science and art.  So she signs up for a Team Treehouse account to transition her Java experience from her corporate job into writing Android Apps for profit.  She knocks out all that education in 3 months, and begins writing her first app. The downloads start slowly, but soon she’s making $20/day in sales and advertisement clicks on her two best apps.

So now her apps are making $600/month, plus the $400/month from her Etsy crafts.  With just a few months of work up front and a few hours of weekly work from home – she has now overcome her monthly deficit and can safely quit her job.  Better yet, now she can continue to grow her nano-business (or start new ones) now that she has freed up an additional 50 hours per week that she’s not spending in her office cubicle.

Is this really possible?

Yes.  Ophelia’s journey may seem too simple, too easy, and too ideal.  But the examples I used are real.  I’ve personally run an online e-commerce business, an Android app business, and this blog – all for profit.  My wife continues to sell things on Etsy in the same manner that our fictional Ophelia did. In fact, we’ve found it quite easy to make $1000/month while I work full-time and she watches 2 kids full-time, and I see no reason we can’t easily multiple that when I quit.

The opportunities are endless.  Find something you enjoy doing, and think of ways to monetize it.  If you truly enjoy it, and your goals are only to make nano-business type money, then you’ll find a path to make money, as I’ve done.  And, once you’ve retired, nano-businesses are also a great way to fill the other retirement gap.

 

 


63 Responses to Nano-Businesses: Bridging The Financial Gap For “Early Retirement”

  1. Thanks for teaching me a new term. I love it the whole nano business concept. I found that I’m not really a great team player and I function best on my own. This makes the nano business concept a perfect fit for me.
    $400 puts a huge dent in the monthly bill when you’re retired. If you can line up a few of those, you’ll be set for the rest of your life. If you enjoy doing it, that’s even better.

    • Enjoying the nano-business is critical. But since these businesses are flexible, scalable, and easily abandon-able – it’s easy enough to line up a new nano-business before bailing on one that is no longer enjoyable. I’ve bailed on several nano-businesses now, sometimes because it wasn’t a good time/money trade-off, but more often because they ceased being fun.

  2. I had this same revelation a few months ago. Making $500/month on the side is a lot less overwhelming than accumulating $150,000 dollars (the amount necessary for a 4% safe withdrawal of $500/month). As long as you assume you’ll be healthy and able to work, you could take off 3-4 years of working.

    Using my own numbers, if I accumulate $600K, that would mean $24,000 of passive income a year. Then I’d need $12,000 of side income to break even with my current expenses. That’s not a very overwhelming number.

    What I think would be really great would be to find a gig where you could make that $12K with 1-2 months of intense work. If you had a paid off house, you could open a HELOC to buy and fix up distressed houses, one at a time.

    • The HELOC is a great option. I’m looking at opening a HELOC on my house soon, to finance some more hard-money loans. Taking a HELOC out at 4% to loan it to another investor at 12% (and backed by a hard asset – a house) is a win-win as long as you do your research and don’t wrecklessly dive into the world of being the bank.

      • That’s even better. Have someone else do the actual work while you collect 2 points and 12%. I’m sure the returns are higher if one does the work of finding deals, developing relationships with contractors, etc, but it may be best to all that.

      • The investor I’m working with put nothing down, and stands to gain $25K if his forecast holds out. So the ROI is infinite for him. Not bad.

        Meanwhile, my return will be around $7K on $92K invested, for an annualized return somewhere around 12%.

        The difference is that I’m putting about 3 hours of total effort into the work, where as he does this as a full-time job. He’s getting paid for his time/expertise, and I’m getting paid for having cash.

  3. Headed Home says:

    I like the term nano-business too. I’d love to have 3-5 of these nano-businesses throwing off $500/month of profits. You’d never really get bored with all of the choices of how to spend time. Feel like a real renaissance man!

  4. krantcents says:

    Great story! I think the web is the new part time and full time opportunities. Even brick and mortar businesses recognize they need a presence on the web.

  5. I really like the concept of a nano-business. I’ve been working on some ideas to generate extra money that would fall under that category. Great post!

    Do you have any personal experience with Team Treehouse?

    • Not yet. I reseacrhed it after MMM did an interview with the founder – and I loved the concept. I’m currently in the market for a used Macbook, then I’m going to sign up for the iPhone/iPad App writing course on Team Treehouse. I’ll certainly write about it more after I’ve tried it out myself.

      • Very cool. I too was inspired after reading MMM’s post. I’m trying to decide whether to go after android development (my phone of choice) or iOS development (where the market seems to be).

      • There’s definitely a market for Android Apps as well. I had a few apps that were doing great, the best was up to $30/day in ad clicks. Unfortunately, I ran into some legal problems with my app and had to shut it down.

        I like iOS since the market is larger, but it has one major drawback – you have to own a Mac. Since I don’t, that has an immediate entry price. Android, on the other hand, can be developed on any Windows machine.

      • Mr1500 says:

        BNL-

        I’ve written some iPhone apps and I learned much of it from the famous Stanford course. Its a couple years old now, but most of the information is still relevant and best of all, it’s free. I highly recommend it: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/ipad-iphone-application-development/id480479762?mt=10

        Also, my Macbook is from 2008 and still works great for app development. Max out the RAM and you’re good.

      • Thanks for the Stanford link. Apparently it’s not “famous” enough, since I wasn’t aware of it… 😉

        I did end up getting a macbook, and have started my training on writing iOS apps. Good to hear your 2008 model is running great. I ended up getting a 13″ 2011 Macbook Air off Craigslist, and I’m hoping it will last many years.

  6. Mikek says:

    Very timely article. One of my goals for 2013 was to earn some money from a ‘side hustle’, but maybe I should try to make it a ‘nano-business’ to try and whittle down the time until we’re financially independent! It’s just so boring to wait for the assets to hit that magical mark (currently ~5 years away)!!

    • Something I learned the hard way while in the same position as you: Don’t fall into the trap of living in the future. Once you’ve identified a target date for FI, it’s an easy mistake to start counting down the days and to cease living in the present. And that’s no fun at all.

      After a year or so of letting that mistake get the best of me, I’ve finally returned to a world where I live in the future when it comes to my financial life, but the rest of me can happily relax and enjoy the present.

      • anonymousengineer says:

        Presently struggling with this ^… going on 2 years almost.

        Also seems like no amount of saving is ever enough, I could always save more, side hustle more….

  7. Shawn says:

    I just completed my tax preparation so as I read through your examples I repeatedly framed each of the nano-businesses into an LLC with a long set of business deductions to lessen the tax burden against the profits. A Macbook used 100% for app construction would be 100% deductible!

    I suppose that when I have considered post retirement nano-businesses I have applied more of a service mentality. We pick up your car car washes, small painting jobs, and backyard garden set up for others are some of the ideas that I have had. Just as you had a familial slant with one of your first businesses, I tend to include my children in some of these ideas as ways to get their teenage nest egg started.

  8. This is really great stuff. I’m currently pursuing the same path – building a series of nano businesses to help offset my need for a huge pile of cash. Inspiring to see other people out there actually executing this plan! Can’t wait to read more.

  9. Great article BNL! This really has me motivated to try something out here in Japan. Thanks!

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  18. aw says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience with nanobusinesses. I have an online nanobusiness that needs its Web site updated. For your Mom’s jewelry site, did you do that in WordPress? What shopping cart did you pick? My site sales are dependent on Google searches and so many shopping carts have terrible SEO. Or they’re hosted separately from your site and customer’s can’t easily go between the shopping cart, blog, etc. Maybe you could be generous and share the details of how you rebuilt and optimized the jewelry site? Thanks!

    • @aw

      I haven’t used WordPress to host an ecommerce site yet. When I was setting up my store several years ago, I did look at a wordpress plugin called “WP e-commerce” that looked pretty good. At the time, however, there was no easy way to upload a massive quantity of inventory. My mom had over 1000 different charms and things, and I wasn’t about to manually upload them all.

      I’ve also looked at Woocommerce as well. If I start a smaller site with less products, that’s the one I’d like to try out next.

      What I use on all my ecommerce sites is Zen Cart. There are a few reasons I like it:

      1. It’s free, open-source
      2. It’s easy to modify, and when you can’t figure something out there are many people in India itching to do it for a small price
      3. The community on the zencart forums is awesome. I’ve never asked a question that I didn’t get a great answer within an hour or two, usually even faster than that (reminds me of Linux forums).
      4. There are many great plugins/modules and themes. Including a few good SEO plugins.
      5. Most big hosting sites are very familiar with Zencart, so if they are doing a server upgrade (e.g. to the latest version of PHP) they know whether it might break your site, and let you know in advance so you can prepare it for the upgrade.

      Since you asked about SEO, I can tell you that at the peak of sales, I was ranked anywhere from 1 to 3 for my desired keyword, and I never hired an outside SEO company.

      There are a few bad things about zencart…

      1. If you don’t want to learn basic PHP, it’s a lot harder to make the site look the way you want… Unlike WordPress, where there are hundreds of themes.

      2. Many off-the-shelf free themes tend to look good in one browser, but not in another… So when I modified things, I’d have to go open pages in IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. This is why I eventually paid a guy a few bucks to just revamp it for me, and I haven’t touched it since. That was probably 3 years ago.

      I’ve thought about doing a more complete post on “How to start an e-commerce website from scratch.” Let me know if that’s something interesting to you, and I can put some more time into it.

      • aw says:

        Thanks! This is helpful info. Yes, I’d be interested in learning more about your experience with building e-commerce sites. It’s “easy” if you don’t look under the hood, don’t care or don’t know about code and consequences, and are willing to hand over control (and profits) to a shopping cart hosting company. But, it seems like the more you know about SEO, usability, browsers and code, the harder it is to figure out how to do it right. So many choices, I get “analysis paralysis.” I’ve done trials with ECWID, Foxy Cart, Shopify, X-cart, Big Commerce and they all have some “issues” that are hard to fit my business model. Sometimes I wish I could start over from scratch, so I’d be grateful to learn about your experiences! Thanks!

      • Cool, I’ll put it in my queue. It should be easy to write, since it’s a topic I enjoy. Just never sure what people are interested in…

      • Chad says:

        I am also interested in more “how to” of ecommerce sites. I would like to help my wife set up a new nano business for crafts. I have a little wordpress and HTML knowledge, but do I need to study up on pho and other coding?

        Do you just research producers on eBay, etsy to judge demand? Any other tips in the research phase of a nano biz?

        Great post! Thanks.

  19. Carolinec says:

    Selling on Etsy is great, but it is really saturated with crafts/jewelry. You don’t mention marketing, and I was curious if you do any to drive traffic to Etsy or increase product visibility in any way.

    • We never tried directing traffic, but that’s an interesting idea.

      I wonder how many Etsy buyers come from search engines versus how many just like to buy on Etsy. If the former is greater than the latter, then it seems like driving external traffic and increasing SEO would be beneficial.

  20. Nano-business! I love it!

    We had built 2-3 “small” businesses into our FI plan, but I think they’re more likely a “nano-business”!

    Now we just need to come up with the idea!!!

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  22. Susan says:

    Hi BNL, I’d like to know more about your advice on “How to start an e-commerce website from scratch.” Especially, I would like to know how you selected what products to sell. Did you start selling on Ebay or Etsy first and then build your own website, or you do the things in parallel? Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Susan,

      I will plan to write a post on this, maybe even multiple posts. It wouldn’t do it justice to address it in the comments. But here are a few quick answers since this could take awhile to write.

      Q: I would like to know how you selected what products to sell.
      A: I recommend that you first consider products you enjoy enough that you are (or can become) an expert in the field. For example, I wouldn’t start a business selling electronic cheese graters, but selling products for DIY renewable energy would be a blast for me. After you choose a couple potentially products, you can use Google Adwords to study how much traffic you can expect to get, as well as how tough the competition is. You probably don’t want to be competing with Amazon, unless you have something truly unique and useful that you can offer.

      Q: Did you start selling on Ebay or Etsy first and then build your own website, or you do the things in parallel?
      A: I’ve done both. If it’s homemade, it’s definitely worth listing on Etsy either first, or in parallel. Ebay is good for some things, but not for others. Some manufacturers don’t allow you to sell on Ebay, and if they catch you then they will stop selling to your retail business. Ebay (and Amazon) also have large commissions, so if your margins aren’t high, then it may not be worth it to list on either of those places.

      There is much, much more to consider. Sometime soon I’ll write more about it. I’ve even considered trying to get a group of people to start their sites together using the method I’ll be writing about, and that way we can all share our results and lessons learned.

  23. Susan says:

    Hi BNL, really appreciate your reply. Very useful. Thank you very much . Looking forward to your post(s) on this subject.

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  25. Steven says:

    I enjoyed the article, definetly a little easier for someone with a coding background, but it still can be done, I use ebay, started a website and went back to eBay. I am a big believer in the nano-business, I started selling new and used clothing items on eBay and it’s great to receive an $10 or $1000, I call it my “man fund” so far I’ve done everything from purchase appliances to date night with the wife to pay off student loan debt.

    Plus once you have any sales you are basically playing with house money, which is always a good feeling.

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  28. […] Nano-Business: Bridging the Financial Gap For “Early Retirement” […]

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