Entrepreneurs often say they "wear a lot of hats." This is true for most people starting their own business, and many business advisers suggest delegating certain tasks when possible. Entrusting employees with work reduces a founder's busyness and allows them to work on their business, rather than in the business.
The advice makes sense, but what happens if you're the only person within your business? If you're running a one-person business, you don't have to hire a team of employees and delegate to find success. Depending on the industry, you can create successful and long-lasting one-person businesses.
Building a one-person business that finds sustained success can be challenging, though. There are countless obstacles you must face alone, which makes the process of developing a solid business harder. These obstacles can be overcome, however. To understand how to make it as a one-person business, we reached out to entrepreneurs across the country. They shared tips on how to run a one-person business from their experiences.
How to start a one-person business
Before we dive into the tips we got from entrepreneurs about how to launch a one-person business, it's important to note that none of these pointers are absolute facts. Every situation is different, and not every rule applies perfectly to your business. We have found, however, that most people we spoke to about starting and developing a one-person business normally follow a similar trajectory. This doesn't mean you have to follow that plan, but this framework tends to lead to success.
1. Start your business on the side.
An overwhelming majority of people we spoke to mentioned starting their one-person business as a side venture, at least at first. They recommended doing this primarily for financial reasons. Instead of quitting your job and losing a major income source, try to start your business on the side until it gains traction. Use a few hours before or after work to build the business and gain clients or customers. If you do decide to quit your job, you'll want a good bit of money saved up to grow your business. It's going to take time to build a one-person business and quitting your job can make finances a challenge.
Starting on the side also sets you up for success when you decide to leave your current situation. If you develop a client base over a year or two while also working a full-time job, you'll bring in money on the side and be ready to grow an already established brand once you take the venture on full time. For financial security, starting your one-person business as a side hustle is often the way to go.
Beginning as a side project also gives you time to iron out the flaws in your business plan and work through struggles without it drastically altering your income. Starting your business on the side reduces some of the stress that comes with running a one-person business full-time.
You may even find that starting a business brings unexpected challenges that you aren't interested in overcoming. A few months of pursuing a business idea might cause you to re-evaluate your career path or develop new business ideas in different sectors. The main benefit of starting your business on the side is the flexibility to make mistakes and fail without losing your only source of income.
2. Find the right business structure.
The seemingly obvious choice for a one-person business is a sole proprietorship, which are the simplest forms of business available. There's a solid amount of flexibility with a sole proprietorship, as you can be an independent contractor or operate a small business in a more traditional sense. Hypothetically, if your side business consists of you writing marketing copy for businesses on a freelance basis, a sole proprietorship is the logical choice.
On the other hand, sole proprietors are responsible for all the company's profit and debt. This can become an issue as your business expands. If you get into a lawsuit, your assets are on the line and can be held responsible, rather than the business entity. Potential lawsuits become more relevant the more customers you serve. You'll also want to keep an eye on what self-employment taxes you might have to pay.
"I would advise forming an LLC or incorporating the business," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation. "Many entrepreneurs often elect to form a sole proprietorship for their small business. This entity is perfectly fine, but it does not provide the owner with liability protection like a limited liability company (LLC) would. If an entrepreneur decides to start a one-person business as a sole proprietor, they must know they will be held responsible for everything – foreseen and unforeseen alike – that could impact the business."
Different business ideas lend themselves to different business structures as well. If you think your business might find itself facing lawsuits, it might behoove you to incorporate the business, like Sweeney suggests. For example, if you form a one-person company that helps other businesses collect debts, you might be more likely to face legal ramifications than an e-commerce business selling art.
One-person businesses may eventually add team members and change from a sole proprietorship or any other legal structure to a general partnership, limited partnership or an LLC. Starting as a sole proprietorship doesn't mean you're locked into that structure throughout your entrepreneurial journey. Being a successful one-person business doesn't mean you can't eventually become a multiperson organization.
Whatever you decide, it's important to at least consider the type of legal entity you want your business to be. For more information on the different types of business structures, visit our guide on choosing the best legal structure for your business.
3. Prioritize your tasks.
Time management is arguably the most important aspect of running a one-person business. Without the ability to delegate tasks to employees, it's critical that one-person businesses don't waste time. If you waste time, nothing gets done.
"My main piece of advice is that you have to prioritize your day and your schedule," said Mark Aselstine, founder of Uncorked Ventures. "You're going to get pulled in literally every direction and emails, phone calls and text messages all seem incredibly important and everyone wants an immediate response. But, ask yourself, do they actually require one? For me, I ended up time blocking, so I could focus on the long-term health of my business, instead of getting caught up in the various requests that we all get for immediate need type stuff."
Organizing your tasks requires both a short and long-term view. It's important to block out times of your day to work on different tasks, and it's also worthwhile to take a broad approach when attacking projects. This is especially true if you start your one-person business as a side project. If you're only spending two to four hours per day on your business, you don't want to waste that time checking emails or going through tedious tasks. You want to make substantial progress on major projects.
To do this, it's a good idea to set goals for months in advance. If you're starting from scratch, set target dates for creating a website and social media accounts. Set dates for when you might want to have your first five clients. By setting goals, you give yourself something to work toward. In typical organizations and corporate jobs, employees have managers keeping them on track. In a one-person business, it can be easy to fall into a trap of making little progress without anyone putting you back on the right track. It's wise to take a long-term goal setting approach when working alone. Hold yourself accountable to those goals.
"I work in 90-day cycles," said Isabelle Paquin, a Pinterest marketing strategist. "Each quarter, I establish goals and two or three projects I'll be focusing on. Then it's a matter of having the discipline to put blindfolds on and focus on implementation excellence."
Long-term goal setting helps prioritize your tasks.
On the flipside, one-person businesses shouldn't go at projects alone. Putting your head down and getting work done is necessary, but getting help from outside sources like freelancers can help your one-person business as it grows. Getting help makes achieving your long-term goals more realistic and allows you to focus on other aspects of your business.
"My advice to someone starting out is to know what you don't know and surround yourself with great people, not employees, [but] other small businesses and independent contractors who can provide the services that you can't," said Diane Jones, president of DJ Public Relations. "For example, I am a public relations professional that offers a variety of services, including website development, graphic design and video production. However, I personally don't do all those things. I work with an amazing website developer and graphic designer and a video production company who creates the final product while I manage the process. It's a win-win for both of us and the client ends up with the product they want."
4. Build a community of supporters.
With so much work on your plate, you'll need a support system. It's going to be emotionally draining to work long hours to build your business without anyone else on your team. Running a one-person business can be mentally fatiguing. To combat this, you need to connect with like-minded individuals., even if it's outside of work.
"Honestly, just being 'alone' was the one thing that I struggled with, not having a team to chat with about the daily stuff," said Kathryn Selby, president of Selby New York. "If you are someone who thrives with a small team – like me – try to find activities outside work where you can get that community feel, like group fitness classes or dinner clubs – those were two of the things that I found to be the most helpful. It gave me the human interaction while not having to deal with the annoying day-to-day office drama."
In addition to connecting with peers outside of work, it's important to connect with business peers. Here are some of the ways to get advice and reduce business loneliness:
- Join the Business.com community – Our site's community is home to over 100,000 community members and includes an active discussion forum. If you have any questions, post them to the forum and you'll likely receive a response in a few days or less. You can also answer questions and help guide other businesspeople looking for advice and suggestions.
- Reach out to local peers – Even if they aren't running a one-person show, reach out to local business owners and entrepreneurs. Speaking to experienced businesspeople in your area will build connections and give you a group of people you can turn to for advice. You can also share your advice and perspective with them, making it a beneficial two-way relationship. Connecting on LinkedIn with businesspeople in your area is an easy way to quickly build a network.
- Attend SBA events – The Small Business Administration hosts regional events throughout the year. Search for events in your area and attend ones that interest you the most. You'll meet other people in your area who are also building businesses and experiencing the same highs and lows as you. You'll increase your network and learn during the events – many of which are free.
Regardless of the method, you follow to connect with others and build a community of supporters, it's important that you branch out and meet people who can help you along the way. As backward as it sounds, it's unwise to run a one-person business alone.
"I think it's helpful to remember that you're never alone," said Bridget Burnham, founder of BurnBright Communications. "You are part of many communities who want to see you succeed. Don't forget to reach out and share openly about your triumphs and struggles. It's amazing how resources and leads appear when you tell people what you want and need."
5. Understand your business's growth limitations.
The world's largest and most successful businesses have teams of hundreds, if not thousands of people. You might be able to create a multimillion-dollar business alone, but it's unlikely. You're going to need help if you want to build a massive enterprise. If you're OK with a smaller operation that brings in significantly less revenue, then a one-person operation might work in the long run. It's also worth noting that vacations or illnesses can severely hamper the production of a one-person business, while larger teams are more adept at handling sudden change.
"It is possible to sustain success as a one-person business," said Ali Boone, founder of Hipster Investments. "Where the buck will stop though is with limitation. You can only grow so big without a team. So if you find that limit – the limit that you can get to on your own and can maintain – you can certainly sustain that as long as you want. But now you will have to weigh your definition of success. If you're making enough money to cover your lifestyle, and your goals aren't to build any level of empire, you might be completely content to stay on your own. But if your definition of success involves anything more than that, you'll need to start considering having a team."
In addition to the five tips above, you should consider the following when forming a one-person business:
- Write a business plan – Get your ideas on paper and plan your strategy. Figure out who your customers are and how you're going to market to them. What value do you provide in the industry? Don't go into a new business venture blind. Set up a plan of attack for the best chance of success.
- Meet with a business adviser – There are plenty of ways to find business advisers, including meeting with small business development center counselors in your local area. Talking to an adviser can give you some guidance on how to go about starting your business. Advisers are especially helpful if you don't have a team of knowledgeable peers to bounce ideas off.
- Be patient – Several of the entrepreneurs that shared thoughts about starting a one-person business emphasized the importance of staying patient. A one-person operation will likely grow slower than a business with a team of multiple people. Stay the course and keep moving forward. The most successful one-person businesses take time to develop.
One-person business ideas
Just because you know you want to run a one-person business doesn’t always mean you know what kind of business you want to launch. Try one of the following business ideas to easily and (hopefully) successfully go it alone.
- Blogger or content writer. Companies of all stripes frequently need help with writing. Whether you're creating blog posts, website copy or even articles on prestigious websites, you can easily turn writing into a one-person business – just make sure your editing and proofreading skills are up to snuff.
- Real estate agent. Especially in big cities, becoming qualified to broker deals between landlords and tenants (or banks and homeowners) requires relatively few steps. And there's no shortage of clients either, as people are always looking for places to live, and landlords and banks are always looking for those people. You can be the bridge between them without a team around you.
- Tutor. If you have ample knowledge in a certain field, you can launch a one-person business as a tutor in that specialty. Just post your services to classified ads websites or perhaps social media groups. College students, parents and others who want to learn might flock to you. Plus, even relatively inexperienced tutors can charge hourly rates that rival standard full-time salaries.
- Driver. If you have a car and the schedule flexibility to take people (or objects) wherever, whenever, then try being a driver. Whether your one-person driving business is geared toward people who need personal transportation or help moving products, you only need a car – no co-workers – to get the job done.
- Dog walker or dog sitter. While not necessarily the highest-earning of these ideas, a dog walking or dog sitting business is convenient. For dog walking, your client base can comprise your neighbors, family and friends. You can charge substantially more for dog sitting, and you can usually do other work while you dog sit – even starting and running another one-person business while you're at it.
This list of one-person business ideas is far from exhaustive – you may also find inspiration by learning about some leading companies that first began as one-person businesses.
Examples of most successful one-person businesses
Some household-name brands first started as one-person businesses. They include:
- Urban Dictionary. The internet's go-to spot for defining slang started as Aaron Peckham's one-person business in 1999 while he was in college.
- DuckDuckGo. Privacy-first web browser DuckDuckGo is the invention of Gabriel Weinberg, who founded it alone in 2008.
- Under Armour. Kevin Plank created his ideal athletic undershirt in 1996 and turned his invention into a one-person business. Within two years, he had expanded into a warehouse and headquarters.
- eBay. One of the internet's most popular buying and selling websites was once just a one-person business. Twenty-five years ago, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar was the company's only employee.
- Amazon. Amazon is inarguably the most famous example of a one-person business becoming a massive mega-corporation. Jeff Bezos launched it all by himself in 1994, and in the 26 years since, he has become the world’s richest person.
Additional reporting by Max Freedman