It’s been two years since Chris Guillebeau’s manifesto for microentrepreneurs The $100 Startup hit shelves and grabbed bestseller titles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But the dust settling on the book’s cover doesn’t make it any less applicable in 2014. At its core, The $100 Startup is Guillebeau’s “how-to” bible for anyone with high aspirations, shallow pockets, a laptop, and a slight disdain for authority. As the title clearly suggests, Guillebeau’s thesis is that anyone can start a business with only US$100. He writes:
What if – very soon, not in some distant, undefined future – you prepare for work by firing up a laptop in your home office, walking into a storefront you’ve opened, phoning a client who trusts you for helpful advice, or otherwise doing what you want instead of what someone tells you to do?
The $100 Startup is not reinventing the wheel, as books about setting up online businesses with a shoestring budget have been popular for quite some time now (ie: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, and more). But to Guillebeau’s credit, he takes a slightly punchier, more example-driven approach to building a streamlined and creative SME. He also makes it clear that The $100 Startup is not a spiritual guide that suggests passive visualizations or wishful thinking to get ahead. Instead, Guillebeau claims to base his message on “planning, action, and sacrifice.”
Before writing, Guillebeau vetted 1,500 people who were able to put together SMEs, and who now earn US$50,000 or more per year from said business. The catch was that their ventures had to be built from a very small investment, usually around US$100. Guillebeau systematically carves the number down to 50 of the most compelling case studies. In each case, he found people with no particularly special skills who were ultimately able to use their personal interests to profit. Some readers may agree with Guillebeau that these people are true innovators, but other may just consider them extremely lucky.
The case studies inside The $100 Startup are quirky, and include that of a man named Gary Leff, who found out how to use his Frequent Flyer Miles to travel the world in first class. His friends kept asking for advice. On a whim, he put up a website offering to help others do the same as he had done, but for a fee. What started out as Leff’s side business ended up earning more than US$100,000 per year simply because most people don’t want to take time to learn an otherwise tedious process.
Guillebeau highlights how being playful on the internet can also be lucrative. He writes about a woman named Nathalie Lussier who lost weight and discovered a new way of life by following a raw foods diet. Lussier set up a micro business consulting people through webinars, courses, and personal coaching on how they could do the same thing. Guillebeau writes, “One of the tipping points came when Nathalie discovered that the initial name she had chosen, Raw Foods Switch, could also be rendered Raw Foods Witch. Nathalie jumped into character, dressing up with a broom and pointed black hat [...] Within a year, the business grew to more than $60,000 a year in net income.”
In addition to off-beat case studies, Guillebeau also provides some concise and comprehensive tools for entrepreneurs. These include simple documents like his one-page business plan, a one-page promotion plan, and seven steps to market testing.
The $100 Startup does not claim to be fool-proof, however, as Guillebeau stresses the importance of implementing sound business models. He notes, “Not everything that you’re good at and excited about can become a business model—but something can. This is why you need to find a convergence between those skills and passions, and what other people also value. Spend as much time as you need figuring out this part.”
As the name would imply, the book talks a lot of about starting up, but it doesn’t go very deep into scaling up. It doesn’t talk about the next stages, which might include taking on new investors or looking for venture capital after creating your winning formula. Once readers have assembled a fun and fulfilling SME, they may soon wonder where they can go from there. For this, Guillebeau invites entrepreneurs to contact him through his blog The Art of Non-Conformity (Guillebeau has also published a book by the same name), where he encourages further discourse on micro businesses.
Maybe we can see some growth advice in one of his future books should he decide to explore the topic further, but until then, The $100 Startup should probably best be used as a simple and entertaining weekend read for inspiration.
Photos courtesy of Chris Guillebeau.Editing by Paul Bischoff