How to Find the Most Profitable Service-Based Small Business for YOU (+8 Ideas to Get Started)

profitable small business

The success of a business depends largely on its owner. The owner’s strengths and weaknesses will translate into the business. Finding a successful business means finding a successful business for you. Something that uses your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses.

No single business is right for everyone. But I strongly believe that anyone who wants to own their own business can find a business where they can thrive.

You can jump right to our business ideas here:

  1. Real Estate Agent
  2. Bookkeeper
  3. Catering
  4. Landscaping and Gardening
  5. Organization Services
  6. Cleaning Services
  7. Food Truck
  8. Personal Training

Questions to Ask Yourself:

Are you a people person?

The answer to this question alone will eliminate a lot of business ideas.

If you love meeting and building relationships with new people, then businesses that require a personal touch in sales are solid options. For example, real estate agents spend a lot of time networking and meeting new people looking for clients. Each client relationship only lasts a few months, so they have to constantly fill their pipeline with prospective clients.

However, if you prefer to work alone, then the idea of always having to find new clients may be daunting. You will probably be more successful in a business that builds long term clients with low turn over. For example, a bookkeeper can make a living with only a handful of long term clients. Client relationships can last years so once their schedule is full, they will only have to find new clients if one leaves.

Your likelihood of success dramatically improves when you match your business to your personality. A real estate agent would be bored stiff as a bookkeeper–and a bookkeeper would be constantly stressed out as a real estate agent.

What skill sets and interests do you already have?

Make a list of both your professional skills and personal interests. This can be anything from managing a team to your love of baking. Your list will end up being a bunch of seemingly unrelated skills, but it’s funny how a jumbled list of unrelated skills can come together to be the perfect fit a particular business.

Here’s an example list:

  • dogs
  • photography
  • baking
  • web design
  • social media
  • hiking
  • travel
  • building relationships

I’m a big fan what I’ve heard called the “double niche.” Which is taking two of your interests and combining them, this gives you a unique business.

Take the list above. This individual could go in a lot of directions.

  • Pet Photographer
  • Food Photographer (for restaurants)
  • Travel Blogger
  • Web Designer specializing in bakeries, or pet services–using their photography skills for awesome custom images
  • Hiking guide of the local area
  • Social media manager (combine this with their web design skills)
  • A bakery that specializes in dog treats (or just markets specifically to other dog lovers)

Even if you don’t want to niche your business down quite so much. You can still use your combined passions to find your ideal customers.

I have a friend who is a chiropractor that specializes in pregnant women. She just feels a special connection with pregnancy. Yes, she can work on anyone as a chiropractor, but she markets to women who are pregnant. They don’t have to stop being her patient after they give birth.

There is a lawyer in my area who markets to motorcycle enthusiasts. In his commercials, he is riding a motorcycle and wearing a leather vest over a suit with the sleeves cut off. That’s definitely one way to stand out as a lawyer!

How much money do you need to earn?

Obviously, you want your business to make money. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby! But how much you need to earn is a big factor in deciding which business to pursue and if you will be able to define it as “successful.” Keep in mind that a dollar made from your business isn’t a dollar in your pocket. You’ll have to account for business expenses and taxes.

If you are looking to replace your current job with a business, you’ll want to keep in mind the cost of replacing any benefits you are currently getting. Someone who makes $60,000 plus benefits at their job may have to earn as much as $100,000 once they consider the price of buying health insurance and paying self-employment taxes.

Example: A profit of $100,000 on your business would require you to pay $14,130 in FICA taxes plus any income taxes. Federal income taxes could run about $8,700, according to this estimator. This leaves you with $77,170.

Health insurance for a family is quite expensive. If you need to replace this, you could easily be looking at over $1,000 a month and likely even more. Paying $12,000 a year for health insurance would leave you with $65,170.

I don’t tell you this to dissuade you from starting a business. I tell you this so you make sure your numbers and assumptions are in line with reality. If you need $60,000 to live on you will need to earn more than $60,000 in your business to be successful.

Start Small to Grow Big

When you start, you’ll want to have income goals and a plan to hit that goal. You’ll want to have an idea of how much you’ll earn from each customer and how many customers you will need to make your business viable. But really, these numbers are total guesses. Educated guesses, but guesses nonetheless.

Starting small allows you the ability to make adjustments as you go.

Taking on debt or having huge start-up expenses may cripple your ability to adjust if your original assumptions turn out to be wrong.

I knew a guy who lived in a tourist town and decided to give tours of the area. Not a bad idea at all. He was very familiar with the area so he knew all the interesting spots. He had done some market research and knew what price to charge. He got his tour listed on all the “Things to Do” lists and reached out to the local hotels and arranged for a commission set up for any customers the hotels referred.

That’s all great. Here’s where he went wrong…

He bought several full-size buses and hired many tour guides. He went all out on these busses including expensive wraps so the buses really stood out as they drove around, which is smart marketing, but expensive. His start-up costs were in the $300,000 range.

Turns out his assumptions of demand where off. While he did get some customers, he didn’t get nearly enough to cover the payments on $300,000 worth of debt.

He went out of business in just a few weeks. The only way for his company to be successful was for it to be a full-blown success from day one. This is unlikely!

He could have tested the market for $20,000, rather than $300,000, by starting with one van and one tour guide. That would have allowed him to try different marketing strategies and get some word of mouth going. He would have had time to get feedback from customers and make adjustments to the tour to improve the customer experience.

There is so much that goes into a successful business that it’s almost impossible to have it perfect right out of the gate. Don’t cripple yourself with huge start-up expenses if you can avoid it.

8 Small Business Ideas and Who They are Perfect for

Here’s the quick list again (the detailed list is below):

  1. Real Estate Agent
  2. Bookkeeper
  3. Catering
  4. Landscaping and Gardening
  5. Organization Services
  6. Cleaning Services
  7. Food Truck
  8. Personal Training

Real Estate Agent

Real estate agents help people buy and sell houses. After you get your license, you will need to be hired by a broker and will work 100% on commissions. The broker will have training and support to help get you started.

Due to the nature of the industry, even if you find a client right away, you will likely wait a few months for your first commission check. So it would be smart to either have a second income while you build your clientele or have some savings you can live on while you ramp things up.

Keep in mind that being a real estate agent isn’t just about looking at houses. There are legal contracts involved and a wide array of laws that must be followed.

This is a sales job, plain and simple and while it is a very competitive business, the income potential is unlimited. And you can get started with just the cost of getting your license.

Who will be successful?

Successful real estate agents will likely be someone who:

  • Has strong marketing and sales skills
  • Loves meeting new people and building relationships
  • Is willing to work off-hours, including lots of nights and weekends
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Strong negotiation skills
  • Likes social media
  • Can deal well with last minute changes
  • Has excellent attention to detail (you will be filling out legal contracts)

Being a successful real estate agent is all about building relationships. You will only work one-on-one with clients for a few months, but those past clients will hopefully refer you to their friends, so you’ll want to keep in touch with them. You’ll always be looking to meet as many people as you can.

Real estate transactions can be stressful. Things often come up at the last minute, and you need to make it right or the deal you’ve been working on for months may fall apart. Plus, you have clients who are depending on you to guide them through this major life event while serving their best interests.

Earnings

According to the National Association of Realtors, the median income for agents with less than two years of experience was $8,330. Not very much, however, those with 16 years experience earn an average of $78,850.

When you get hired at a broker, you will split some of your earnings with your broker in exchange for the services and training they provide.

For example, typical agents earn 3% of each sale. So if you sell a $100,000 home, your commission would be $3,000. However, a common arrangement is a 60/40 split between the agent and the broker. So the agent will owe the broker 40% of their $3,000 commission, or $1,200.

Becoming your own broker boosts your earnings by allowing you to keep 100% of the commissions you earn. It also allows you to hire other agents to work for you, earning you a piece of their commissions as well.

Bookkeeper

Bookkeepers work with small business owners to keep their finances in order. They work with accounting software, such as Quickbooks, and record the day to day transactions of the business. They will also process payroll, pay the bills, bill customers and receive customer payments, and complete tax paperwork. They may also track inventory and costs per job.

Basically, they keep the numbers for the business. Business owners rely heavily on their bookkeeper to provide up to date and accurate information so they can make informed decisions about their business.

What’s great about bookkeeping is that it costs almost nothing to get started and can be done entirely from home. You’ll need a business owner who is willing to take a chance on you and you’ll be off and running.

Who will be successful?

Successful bookkeepers will likely be someone who:

  • Strong knowledge of the accounting software of their choice
  • Is detail oriented
  • Likes to work alone (and often from home)
  • Enjoys building long term relationships
  • Likes numbers and organizing data
  • Loves small businesses and small business owners

As a bookkeeper, you will build long term relationships with a small number of clients. If you like a quiet and predictable routine, then bookkeeping may be for you.

Attention to small details is a big part of bookkeeping. One small error may take hours of work to find and correct. Knowledge of the accounting software will both help prevent errors and make it easier to find the mistakes that do happen.

Earnings

According to Salary.com, the average pay for a bookkeeper is between $37,000 and $47,000. ZipRecruiter says bookkeepers earn an average of $59,000 per year.

There are certifications you can earn, but you need two years experience as a working bookkeeper before you can qualify to be a Certified Bookkeeper. However, Quickbooks has its own set of certifications that will likely be enough to land you your first job. 

If you want to boost your earnings, you can grow your team by hiring other bookkeepers to work for you.

If this is something that interests you check out our full article on how to become a bookkeeper

Catering

Do you have a flair for cooking? Catering services can allow you to profit from your skills while avoiding the expensive overhead of a restaurant.

One significant benefit of catering is that you can invest a little at a time instead of putting it all down upfront. Start with a modest selection of menus to minimize the tools you need. As your business grows, you can buy the necessary equipment to add more options. The only substantial investment you might face is renting a kitchen. However, most event venues have kitchens on site, allowing for a portion of the prep work and plating at the place of business.

Who will be successful?

Successful caterers will likely be someone who:

  • Loves to cook
  • Loves to meet lots of new people
  • Has high attention to detail for both sanitation reasons and presentation of food
  • Is punctual and professional
  • Can either build long term relationships with repeat clients or enjoys marketing and sales
  • Can manage a team

Someone who likes parties and being around a lot of people will do well as a caterer. Catering often means going to parties and serving guests. If you love hosting large parties, you will probably enjoy catering.

You can find long-term clients in the corporate world or by building relationships with event planners. But even with this, you will always be meeting (and dealing with) new people–often in large groups.

Earnings

According to CaterSource profit margins for a catering company typically run at about 7-8%. Meaning if you do $10,000 in sales you should expect to earn about $700-$800. This is about double what a typical restaurant earns.

If you are charging an average of $15 per plate, this means you are earning about $1.10 per plate. Doing the math, to earn $50,000 you’d have to serve about 875 people per week.
They go on to say that high-end caterers can earn a profit margin of 25%. And catering companies that focus solely on a single market, such as weddings, can consistently earn a 15% profit margin.

At a 15% profit margin and $15 per plate, you’d be earning $2.25 per plate. This means you’d have to serve 428 people per week to earn $50,000 annually.

See Also: 20 Unique Business Ideas That You Can Start Today!

Landscaping and Gardening

Lawn care is a small business staple for a good reason: it’s easy to scale to your time and abilities. From the high schooler mowing neighborhood lawns for extra cash to the full-scale operations of professional landscaping services, the landscaping business has plenty of operation options.

The most convenient aspect is that it utilizes tools you already own or can buy cheaply secondhand. (And nothing is more cost-effective than using your own two hands to pull weeds.)

Of course, you do need to be prepared for the seasonal nature of this work. Many landscapers work long hours during peak season and very little in the offseason. You will have to ration your income to have enough set aside for the down season. One way to avoid the feast-or-famine nature of landscaping is to provide year-round services. These can include snow removal, power-washing sidewalks, and driveways, or even stringing Christmas lights on houses.

According to Mark Kirschen, owner of Clean2xtreme LLC Lawn Care Service, “a business in the lawn care field is not for the weak but, done with dedication to years of establishing a wide index of clients, owners can establish a strong localized presence and reach success.”

Landscaping requires physical strength as well as business savvy. If you have the desire to start a lawn care business, Kirschen suggests investing in commercial equipment. It will make all of your hard work a lot easier. That hard work can pay off in a strong and successful local business.

Who will be successful?

Successful landscapers will likely be someone who:

  • Enjoys working outdoors and can do physical labor
  • Has strong knowledge of plants, grass, and trees
  • Can run a small crew (or several crews as the company grows)
  • Enjoys marketing and sales, with the ability to meet with potential customers and bid jobs on sight
  • Can manage cash flow for slow times of the year

Owning a landscaping company has an interesting mix of dealing with people. You have to be personable enough to bid and land the job, but then the work itself is generally solitary. If you like both talking one on one with customers and working alone, this can be a good fit.

Earnings

Earnings in the landscaping world can vary a great deal. Green Industry Pros reports that it’s between $25,000 and $93,000 per year. Location can make a big difference. Landscape contractors in larger cities tend to earn more than those in small towns.

Having skills that go beyond what the typical homeowner can do themselves will also allow you higher earnings. These skills would include tree trimming, irrigation installation and repair, and working with chemicals such as weed control and fertilizer.

Marketing to commercial clients is also a way to boost your earnings. Office buildings and strip malls need services too, and they aren’t willing to do it themselves or hire a teenager. They need professional services and will pay higher prices than residential customers.

In the end, being able to accurately price jobs and get them done efficiently will ultimately drive your profits.

Organization Services

As a nation, we have a serious clutter problem. More and more people are turning to professional organizers to help them tame the untidiness. If you have a knack for creating organizational systems, a professional organization service could help you translate your skills to profits.

For instance, when Laura Ellis, owner of Organized by Ellis, first started her professional organizing business, she was still working a full-time job. She provided clients with systems to organize their spaces. From their kitchens to their closets, Ellis offered her clients a method to ensure everything has a place and everything is where it belongs.

At first, she thought of her side business as just a fulfilling way to make a little extra cash, but she quickly realized that her passion for organizing had more potential. She began calculating how to make the jump from part-time organizer to full-time business owner. Once she committed to the business, it was quick to provide her profit. How quick? “It took less than a year,” Ellis reports. “It wasn’t a BIG profit, but it was profit nonetheless.”

One of the benefits of becoming a professional organizer is that you already have the skills necessary to create a well-run business. Ellis’s passion for organizing helped her build a profitable small business: “Luckily for me, I’m organized. So that helped with starting my business,” she explains. “It’s what I do professionally for clients, so I did the same for myself.”

If you want to start a similar organization business, you’ll first need to decide if you will specialize in certain types of organization (businesses vs. homes) or be a generalist. You can also contact the National Association of Productivity and Organization Professionals for more information about creating your own organization business.

Who will be successful?

Successful organizers will likely be someone who:

  • Is organized!
  • Has a calm patient nature (decluttering is stressful and emotional for people)
  • Has strong people and communication skills
  • Has good marketing skills as customer turnover will be high
  • Has an interest in social media since this will be a prime marketing tool (before and after pics!)

Earnings

According to Career Explorer, the average Certified Professional Organizer earns $56,000 per year. Payscale reports the average Certified Professional Organizer earns $42,600 per year. So expect somewhere in that range.

Getting certified will increase earnings, and give you tools to ensure your success. The National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO) is a good place to get started.

Read: The Minimalist Home Office: 5 Tips to Organize Your Workspace and Get More Done!

Cleaning Services

Mom always said, “a clean home is a happy home.” Studies have shown that she’s right. Tidy, organized living spaces help their inhabitants feel happier and more productive. However, in today’s go-go modern world, it’s more difficult than ever for people to find the time to keep their homes in tip-top shape. That’s where your new business comes in.

If you enjoy bringing tidiness and cleanliness to homes, a cleaning service can be an excellent small business venture. Reliable cleaning services are in high demand, especially in big cities and vacation destinations. With little overhead outside of investing in cleaning products, equipment, and liability insurance, a cleaning company is an inexpensive small business to start.

Student Maid’sfounder, Kristen Hadeed, shares that when you’re just starting you may not need an initial investment. However, after about a year in business, she won a contract to clean hundreds of empty student apartments during Gainesville’s “move-out season.” To do that, she needed a $10,000 loan so she could buy cleaning supplies, vacuums, uniforms, etc. for a team of 60 people.

Once you establish a few clients, word-of-mouth can do wonders for your client list. “Student Maid has always relied heavily on word-of-mouth advertising,” Hadeed says, “but we’ve also used Facebook ads, print ads in local publications, and in-person networking with local business groups.”

The business can run on an individual or team-based models. While working as an individual has less overhead, ­­­­­you may be able to cover more ground (and bring in more profit) with a team. You could always start as a solo cleaner to keep your startup costs low and add team members as you grow your client list.

Eventually, you may want to outsource more and more of the actual cleaning as you grow the company.

Hadeed adds, “The cleaning industry is tough. It has a meager profit margin (the average is 15%), the work is physically demanding, and every customer has unique standards when it comes to cleaning. If you’re looking for an ‘easy’ business to start, this one is probably not the answer!”

Who will be successful?

Successful housekeepers will likely be someone who:

  • Has high attention to detail
  • Can run a small crew (or several as the business grows)
  • Enjoys marketing and sales, with the ability to meet with potential customers and bid jobs
  • Is willing to work off-hours, including overnights if they get into commercial cleaning.

Similar to a landscaping business, you’ll need to be able to meet one on one with customers and bid jobs but then do the actual work alone.

Customer relationships can be long term or one-off contracts. Building relationships with Real Estate agents and property managers will help secure a steady stream of work, but you will likely always be out looking for new clients.

Commercial clients will likely be longer-term customers, and they will also be higher paying contracts, so you will be able to have a fewer number of clients of you go this route.

Earnings

Earnings can vary widely and range from $30,000 to over $100,000.

Residential cleaning has a lower barrier to entry, but the income potential is also much smaller. If you want the big bucks, you’ll want to look into transitioning into commercial cleaning and janitorial services.

Food Truck

Food trucks are a fantastic and practical way for cooks to use their culinary skills to make money. A food truck business allows entrepreneurs to indulge their desire to create unique, delicious dishes while eliminating much of the overhead associated with a traditional restaurant.

The mobility of a “restaurant on wheels” also enables the owner to go where the business is. Having the option of parking near the city’s business district for breakfast and/or lunch, or traveling to music festivals, sporting events, or other popular destinations with hungry people, allows you to find your customers wherever they may be. There are many reasons why both novice and tenured chefs are turning to this method of culinary employment.

While food trucks are less expensive to own and run than a traditional restaurant, it’s not a business you can start up with nothing. You are likely looking at about $100,000 to get started.

You’ll need to purchase the truck and cooking equipment. Then, you may need to spend money to get your truck fitted up as a working kitchen. (That’s not to mention decorating your truck to make it attractive to potential diners.)

If you aren’t ready for that big expense, you can start smaller with a food cart. Walking around festivals, busy parks, and college campuses with a food cart would allow you to test out your recipes for a fraction of the cost. 

Also, look into your cities permitting and licensing requirements. There are all kinds of rules, from health and safety regulations to traffic laws, and everything in between. For example, In LA, food trucks parked for more than one hour must have a bathroom within 200ft of the truck.

Who will be successful?

Successful food truck operators will likely be someone who:

  • Likes to cook, and not just cook but cook as a line cook vs chef.
  • Has strong social media skills
  • Enjoys and keeps track of local fair and festival type events in town
  • Likes marketing
  • Can manage cash flow for slow times of the year

Of course, a food truck has to have great food, but a food truck operator needs to know where the action is in town. Great food won’t get you very far if you aren’t near potential customers. Building a strong social media presence will let your followers know where to find you and help build your reputation.

Building a successful food truck is more about marketing than sales. You will only interact with your customers for a few minutes at a time, so it’s more about building a brand than selling one particular hamburger or grilled cheese sandwich.

Earnings

Actual profits from a food truck are tough to track down. However, it seems that revenues from a food truck are generally $100,000 to $200,000 per year. Take into account that food costs should be roughly 30% of your gross revenue (or stated differently your revenue should be about three times your food costs) that leaves a food truck owner with between $65,000 and $130,000 left for everything else.

How much is “everything else?” That’s a question you’ll want to make sure you have an answer to before you start.

Personal Training

Personal trainers provide education on the most effective methods for achieving even the loftiest of fitness goals. If fitness is your passion, becoming a personal trainer can be an excellent and profitable small business to start.

Initial start-up costs for this kind of solo business tend to be minimal. There are multiple governing bodies in the industry, such as The American College of Sports and Medicine and NASM. Certification can cost between $300-$1,000 and is required to work in most gyms.

If you are already established with a gym, it may be simplest to offer your services there. Otherwise, you may want to provide your training out of your home or in your clients’ homes.

No matter where you work, you need to carry fitness business liability insurance. This will make sure you are covered in case any of your clients are injured while exercising.

This is another business that can grow a great deal based on word of mouth. If you commit the time to help your clients meet their fitness goals, they are much more likely to recommend you to friends and help you grow your business organically.

Who will be successful?

A successful personal trainer will likely be someone who:

  • Has strong knowledge of proper exercise techniques
  • Can build workout routines around the specific needs of the client
  • Likes working out and has an upbeat personality
  • Is motivated and energetic
  • Likes working one-on-one with lots of different people
  • Is patient with clients who aren’t as excited about exercising as they are

Personal trainers will always have to be on the lookout for new clients. Sure, some people will use a personal trainer for many years, but most clients will drop off fairly quickly. Either because they fall off the workout bandwagon or because they find their own groove and no longer need the extra help.

However, pretty much everyone should be working out (and they know it!), so personal trainers have a unique opportunity to niche down their business offerings.

You could offer specialized workouts for all kinds of different people. Examples could include:

  • Lunchtime workouts in an office building
  • Mommy and me workouts for parents and toddlers
  • Specialized workouts for people with injuries
  • Water aerobics
  • Workouts geared toward clients of specific ages; say teenagers or the elderly

Here’s a great article about how to become a successful personal trainer.

Earnings

According to Becoming a Trainer, a full-time personal trainer will earn about $50,000 per year.

Owning your own gym is a way to move up the income ladder into six-figure territory. Then you can hire new trainers to work under you and really start to build your business!

The Bottom Line

The secret to a successful small business is not coming up with a brand new idea no one has thought of. It’s choosing a business model that fits your personality to offers excellent service and value. If you allow room in your business plan for adjustments along the way, you just need to bring the heart and the hustle while filling a need in your community.

What successful small business ideas have we missed? Tell us in the comment section!

About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher and respected personal finance blogger. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her engineer husband and two high-energy little boys. She has written four books: The Five Years Before You Retire, Choose Your Retirement, Making Social Security Work For You, and End Financial Stress Now. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.

Comments

    Speak Your Mind

    *

  1. Peter Horsfield says:

    Just remember not to replace a job with a job in the illusion you have your own business.

    A business should be able to operate and generate profits without you being essential to day to day operation.

    And more importantly be an asset that you can sell in the future for more than you paid for it initially.

    • Emily Guy Birken says:

      Peter, this is an excellent point. My mother owned a small business for nearly 40 years, but when she got sick in 2012, the business couldn’t survive without her at the helm. (She’s fine now, thank goodness!) It was rough seeing her business shuttered while she was ill, but it was also the only way forward to protect her health. I don’t wish things could have been different, since Mom always loved being the driving force of her business, but it was an excellent lesson to me on understanding business sustainability.

      Working toward a day when your business can survive without you ought to be part of your business plan from early on if you want your business to be more than just another job.