As veteran entrepreneurs can attest, starting a small business can be an expensive, time-consuming and difficult process under the best of circumstances. But thanks to the rise of online self-publishing services, setting up your own shop isn't just easier than it's ever been before--it's also suddenly a snap for anyone with a dollar and a dream.
The moral of the story: By limiting production runs, providing direct access to consumers and offering universal end-to-end online sales, order fulfillment and shipping solutions, these days, it's easy to go from prototype to packaged good in no time flat (and without breaking the bank or having to beg friends and family for seed money at that). So quit hemming and hawing. With a little help from the following vendors, your next bestseller is just a few clicks away.
ACCESSORIES AND CLOTHES
For those looking to sell their own homemade crafts, goods and jewelry, worldwide online art fair Etsy remains king of the proverbial hill, providing artisans with a virtual stall that millions of idle shoppers can browse. But if you're a fashionista looking to print up custom jerseys, hoodies, T-shirts, gym clothes or underwear (including those stamped with catchy slogans), PrintMojo and Spreadshirt make a welcome alternative. Still, when it comes to overall selection, CafePress is the gold standard, letting you cram an online storefront full of personalized hats, messenger bags, baby gear, pet wear, aprons, tote bags and tank tops.
Prefer to specialize in keepsakes and accessories? Be sure to hit up Zazzle, where you can make bumper stickers, buttons, mugs, novelty ties and mouse pads in minutes. PrintableMemories further offers wide-ranging options, from custom beer steins, jewelry boxes and pillows to individualized bookmarks and magnets as well. The coffee table isn't safe, either, as a multitude of providers such as Shutterfly, Picaboo and Snapfish let you readily assemble photo books and other eye-catching volumes. In addition, you can use them to produce individualized photo gifts such as jigsaw puzzles, coasters and playing cards. The bottom line is that it's easy to fill an entire souvenir shop with all the items you can make online.
BOOKS, MAGAZINES AND NEWSLETTERS
While creating a simple PDF (Adobe offers a service that readily converts Word documents to the file format) can suffice to produce volumes compatible with most PCs, smartphones and eReaders, let's be frank. If you want hard copies of your work to pass out at conferences, mail clients or sell via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major retailers, you'll need to partner with a dedicated online vendor.
Lulu.com offers good prices (if limited customer service) on paperbacks, hardbacks, photo books, calendars, CDs/DVDs and more. (Case in point: Yours truly's last book, Get Rich Playing Games, professionally bound and sold through the world's largest bookstores, cost a pittance to first print up.) But if you need a one-stop option from cover design to editorial oversight and visual formatting--or want to tackle poetry, children's or picture books--services like iUniverse.com, Wordclay, Xlibris, BookSurge and AuthorHouse may offer better options.
Those looking to publish online can also try blogging platforms such as WordPress, TypePad and Blogger, many of which--thanks to their flexibility, massive community support and ongoing updates--are used by the world's top media outlets. However, if you're looking to create custom newsletters delivered direct to recipients' inboxes, you'll want to have a look at services such as Constant Contact, MailChimp and MadMimi instead. Magazines are also a ready option, thanks to vendors ranging from MagCloud to Zinio and Issuu, which allow you to custom-tailor print or online volumes and do an end run around traditional newsstand distribution channels.
FOOD AND HOSPITALITY
Mom-and-pop stores and independent food and beverage providers have a couple of good options for getting their five-star chili or secret cookie mix into the hands of the general public. A culinary equivalent to Etsy, Foodzie lets you sell everything from candy to coffee and meat directly to hungry shoppers. Foodoro (which claims more highbrow products) also makes a welcome platform for serving up vegan, organic and confectionary treats. As for actually whipping the stuff up, well--sadly, you'll still need a spare kitchen and lots of baking sheets.
MUSIC, PODCASTS AND VIDEO
Making a podcast is straightforward enough--a simple Mac/PC headset ($10 or less) and audio recording software such as the free Audacity or professional alternatives like ePodcast Producer can get you started. These homebrew recordings--which can take the form of radio shows, talk programming, interviews, how-to pieces or any form of broadcast you like--can then be easily distributed via iTunes or Microsoft's Zune (or, for that matter, direct download from your own website). Musicians can also tap into recording options like REAPER, ProTools and Garage Band to lay down tracks and then use services like CDBaby and TuneCore to get their music distributed via Napster, eMusic, Rhapsody, Amazon MP3 and other online music platforms.
Shooting your own videos is also easy. Dozens of budget, pocket-sized, high-definition video cameras like the Flip Mino, Vado HD, Bloggie and the Kodak Zi8--our personal favorite because of its external microphone port--let you play filmmaker anywhere. Alternately, you can just use a webcam (less than $30 at your local retailer) to record footage. Short- or long-form creations can then be readily uploaded to video aggregators like YouTube, Metacafe, Vimeo and Viddler for thousands to view, or be embedded into your own blog or website. Streaming your own live shows is also possible via services such as Justin.tv, uStream.tv, BlogTV and Stickam. So what are you waiting for? Your 15 seconds of fame await.
Facebook and Twitter are nice, but what if you want to establish yourself as a subject matter expert on a niche topic or connect with like-minded colleagues, customers and peers in a single, specific industry? Services like Ning, CrowdVine and GoingOn all offer ready platforms for building your own community, as do alternate options such as KickApps. Used wisely, such a vehicle could allow you to create a captive audience whose screen you're in front of several times daily--and one ever-ready to purchase your latest books, DVDs or research reports.
SOFTWARE AND VIDEO GAMES
Publishing for traditional software platforms such as the PC can be lengthy and expensive, as expectations are high and competition fierce. While no cakewalk doing so for cellular handsets either, given the huge amount of programs being created each day for these devices, at least titles of smaller scope and budget are more commercially acceptable on such platforms.
Looking to try your hand at development? Though other smartphone operating systems such as Android and Windows Phone 7 Series are making headway, it's the iPhone App Store that still provides the most cost-effective route to riches on mobile handsets. To publish for the iPhone (or its big brother, the iPad) costs just $99, the price assigned to Apple's developer toolkit, while iPhoneAppQuotes, iPhoneAppCoder and Get Apps Done promise to connect entrepreneurs with million-dollar ideas with capable development teams. (Warning: Results may vary.)
Those dreaming of making video games have several options. Microsoft's XNA Creators Club lets you create independent titles for the PC, smartphones, Xbox 360 or Zune, while software packages such as the Torque Game Engine, The 3D Gamemaker and Adventure Game Studio also empower you to build custom creations. Those with technical and coding experience can also try PlayFirst's free Playground SDK, while musically inclined enthusiasts might consider having a go at selling tracks through top-selling party game Rock Bandvia the Rock Band Network.
Technology expert Scott Steinberg is the CEO of high-tech consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and a celebrated gadget guru and video game expert who frequently appears as a technology analyst on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone.