10 Businesses You Can Start From Your Smartphone

When all else fails, start your own company with little more than a smartphone. Here’s how to launch a shoestring business

You're out of work. The job listings are thin. You have no money to start your own business. Maybe you don't even have a computer to assist in conducting a proper job search.

Rest easy, we're here to help. We've scoured the earth for ten solid business ideas--endeavors that you can mostly start up with little more than a smartphone and a Gmail address, and that you could get under way tomorrow if you absolutely had to.

Sure, a computer--or at least a netbook--would help with just about any of these suggestions, but for most of your day-to-day activities in these ten enterprises, you won't need anything more than your phone and a big dose of old-fashioned gumption. Now get out there--the economy is waiting!

1. Car Service

Provided you have a car with a spacious back seat--and you're good at keeping it clean and tidy--you can start a car service without much effort, particularly if you live in a smaller town without major taxi regulations. The biggest hurdle is getting the appropriate driver's license for your state and/or city (check with your state's DMV for details). Once that's out of the way, you can put up a simple Website and offer a phone number for customers to schedule pickups. Your phone can double as a calendar and address book to keep track of appointments, and it can work as a GPS device to ensure you're going the right way. Check out UberCab, which lets passengers book travel on private cars directly from their iPhone.

2. Travel/Tour Guide

What better way to turn a lifetime of living in the same town into pocket money than to become a tour guide around said town? Get the word out by building a Website and offering commentary on Yelp to promote yourself as a local expert. Services such as Genbook can help you manage appointments and scheduling, and any Android phone can download a multi-waypoint map from Google Maps to help you plan your tour route. During your downtime, write a tour guidebook and sell it as a print-on-demand book as well as an e-book and smartphone app.

3. Writer

It may be foolhardy to attempt to start a career as a writer without a computer--and we don't exactly advise it--but it has been done before. Blogging is a good place to start: A variety of iPhone apps exist for the major blog platforms (including WordPress and Tumblr) to expedite mobile posts, and many other platforms (such as TypePad) have mobile services built right in. But there's no need to stop at blogging. In Japan it's becoming popular to write and distribute entire novels via cell phone, specifically text message--in 2007, five of the top ten bestselling novels in Japan were "cellphone novels" written specifically for the medium. Are we ready for such a thing on our shores? Only one way to find out.

4. Videographer

In the old days, a documentarian, filmmaker, or other video-production professional used to have to fill a van with equipment and haul it from location to location--along with a sizable crew--in order to get a day's worth of shots. Now that pocket video cameras have reached HD quality, it's possible to forgo all of that. If you're brave, you can even shoot with a high-end cell phone, and handsets such as the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Instinct line include basic video-editing features right in the phone. If you're shooting custom video for clients, you can distribute footage directly to them while you're still on location, or upload it to YouTube with little more than a click and a swipe.

5. Mystery Shopper

One perennially popular scam of the spam world--'Mystery shoppers wanted in your area!'--is actually a legit business for many people, and can bring in real money with a minimum of up-front effort. The important part is doing it right. E-mail come-ons are not the way to start a genuine business. Rather, do your research into legitimate mystery-shopping clearinghouses such as Corporate Research International (where mystery shoppers are called "auditors"), which handles major clients ranging from Chili's to Sears. Don't expect to make a ton of cash--busy shoppers often earn five figures annually in cash and schwag--but if you have lots of time to kill and enjoy shopping, it's worth a look.

6. Auction Maven

eBay may have been the hottest tech company of the last millennium--traffic has been eroding for years now--but it's still big enough to merit the 21st spot among the most trafficked Websites in the world, per Alexa. Business opportunities in the auction field remain as varied as the items for sale on the site. Troll garage sales and storage-center forfeiture sales for buried treasure, and then relist the items at auction. Make your own quilts and offer them up on eBay (or, better yet, on Etsy). Or set up shop helping people who would otherwise be putting their unwanted merchandise out on the street make a few bucks by selling it online. eBay's mobile app for iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry makes managing storefronts easy from anywhere.

7. Life Coach

Ah, the beauty of the life coach: You need no real credentials, no degree, and no special business license to give people your opinion on how they should run their lives. Throw together a Website touting your expertise--in the life-coach world, the more outrageous the design, the better--get some testimonials from people friendly to your cause, and write up a few stories that show off how wise and intelligent you are (something like "Seven steps to a more serene id"). Once the clients come calling, you can book appointments for in-person meetings or, better yet, telephone calls. Charge premium rates or monthly retainers for folks who'd like 24/7 attention. You're on your own, however, when it comes to actually dealing with all these crazies.

8. Virtual Assistant

Who doesn't need a little helping hand from time to time? Virtual assistants let people with too much on their plate outsource the most menial tasks to a peon. That's you! Exactly what you do is up to you and your client, but the most successful virtual assistants are the ones who will do just about anything that falls even remotely within the letter of the law. Realistically you'll be buying event tickets, researching vacations, fetching dry cleaning, and even dogsitting from time to time, but requests can run the gamut from the mundane to the extravagant. Be clear about your fee structure--most assistants bill hourly plus expenses, or offer prepackaged monthly deals for a set number of tasks--and promote the heck out of yourself. Entrepreneur magazine has several ideas along these lines to get you going.

9. Tech Support

Are you the one everyone calls when their computer goes south? Why not get paid for it by fixing the computers and answering the technical questions of helpless strangers? A good Web page touting your services is critical here. Use keywords and make sure you're specific about the local boundaries of any on-site service. Most people looking for help will Google "city name tech support" or something along those lines, so use your best SEO-fu to design a page that beginners will understand and search engines will love--remember, these are frustrated people who can't figure out why the fonts are so small on their new monitor, so simple and clear language is key. Craigslist is a popular spot for advertising your wares when business is slow, but be sure to elevate your postings above the riff-raff.

10. 'Personal' Phone Service Operator

When all else fails, you can always talk to people on the phone. This doesn't take a lot of skill or much in the way of setup beyond getting a 900 number or 800 number (plus a mechanism to accept credit card payments). Want to give out recipe advice, sports-betting picks, or psychic readings? Whatever floats your boat, chances are good that someone out there is willing to pay to listen to you say it. Of course, a lot of these services tend toward more "mature" offerings, but we here at PCWorld would never, ever judge you for that.

This story, "10 Businesses You Can Start From Your Smartphone" was originally published by PCWorld.

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies