Have you considered starting your own business, but are worried about the amount of work it would take to run it? If so, you’re in luck! With some work in the beginning, there are businesses that run themselves over time.
The types of businesses that run themselves range from physical property rentals to digital product sales. Which means there’s probably a business that will work for you.
Let’s dive in and see why you might want to start a business that doesn't require all the time and effort of a regular business and what it’ll take to get it going.
Then we’ll go into some ideas of self-running businesses you can use to start your own small business!
Why choose a business that runs itself?
The main benefit of a business that runs itself is passive income.
The definition of passive income is money you make while not actively trying to make it. For example, if you stick $500 in a savings account and it earns $10 in interest over the year, you’ve made $10 in passive income.
Having a passive income stream is a great way to make a little extra money—or a lot!
Additionally, passive income can help you build wealth. This could help you pay off debt, save more money, or also pay for the things you want, like a luxury vacation.
By setting up a well-maintained income stream, you also build generational wealth for your children and other descendants. Ultimately, this could help them maintain a certain lifestyle while pursuing their passions or starting out on their own.
However, passive income streams often require some form of initial effort. Many types of passive income also need ongoing maintenance, including many businesses that run themselves.
Laying the groundwork for businesses that run themselves
Before you can have this sort of business, you have to lay the foundation. Pretty much every self-sustaining business doesn’t start out that way.
If you’re serious about starting and operating a business, consider how much time, money, and effort you’re willing to put into it. There are two main ways a self-sustaining business still needs your help:
- Getting started: Startup costs and sweat equity
- Ongoing maintenance
Startup costs and sweat equity
One of the main reasons people don’t start their own business is the time and money it takes. While some businesses are less expensive and labor-intensive to start, others take a lot of work to even get off the ground.
For a business to run itself, you have to put in the work to lay a solid foundation. So this could mean a significant initial investment.
Some self-running businesses take a lot of money to get going. Others will need you to spend a lot of sweat equity physically running the business. The most lucrative ones often require both.
Luckily, once you put in the initial effort, many self-sustaining businesses won’t take up a lot of your time.
So, you’ve got your business up and running. Now it’s time to sit back, forget it, and rake in the cash, right?
Well, not exactly.
Even a truly self-running business will need maintenance or management from time to time, including:
- Cleaning or maintaining physical locations
- Bookkeeping and record keeping
- Setting and tracking small business goals
- Creating new products or offerings
- Managing customers
- Administrative needs
- Marketing and advertising
The good news is you don’t necessarily have to do all of these tasks by yourself. Many business owners outsource these tasks and simply pay someone else to take care of them.
9 Types of businesses that run themselves
By now, you know how much work it might take to get your business off the ground — and keep it running (mostly) on its own.
But first, let’s look at the different types of businesses that run themselves.
Generally, self-sustaining businesses fall into one or more of four categories:
- Online products
- Physical services
- Rental-based businesses
- Affiliate marketing and advertising
There are pros and cons for each category, and also the initial cost and effort of each can vary between them. For example, owning a physical business location will likely have a higher upfront cost than starting an online business.
Now, let’s get into some examples of businesses that run themselves so you can start brainstorming your next business venture!
1. Vending machines and ATMs
Did you know many vending machines and ATMs are independently owned and operated?
Businesses like grocery stores, hotels, and also restaurants charge vending machines and ATM owners a fee to place their machines on the business’s property. The machine’s owner then collects the money from selling products (vending machines) or fees paid by users (ATMs).
To set up this type of business, you’ll need to find and buy your machines. Depending on which business you start and also how many locations you want to have, this could cost several thousand dollars.
Then, you’ll want to find businesses or other community locations where you can place your machines.
Once your machines are in place, you’ll need to keep them stocked and ready for customers. So as customers use your machines, you’ll make money off of each sale or transaction.
If you’re in a high-traffic area, you could see high profits very quickly.
Pros of a vending machine or ATM business:
- Potentially low startup cost by buying used equipment
- Low risk by starting small
- Easy to grow with more machines
- Ability to customize product options to fit your market
Cons of a vending machine or ATM business:
- Checking on machines takes time
- Restocking costs, such as the cost of vending machine products
- Potential technical issues
- Security issues of theft or vandalism
2. Party rentals
Have you ever thrown a large event or party? Maybe you rented linens for your wedding or a friend hired a bounce house for their child’s birthday party.
Behind these party rentals was a rental company. And by outsourcing some of the physical work, you can make a party rental business into a business that runs itself.
You’ll want to make sure you choose a rental business that will be profitable. So that means looking for rentals that are in demand (and will likely be in demand in the future). A few good options include:
- Audio and visual equipment
- Staging and dance floors
- Linens and drapery
- Tables, chairs, and other furniture
- Entertainment equipment, like bounce houses or photo booths
- Tableware and décor
Your budget may determine what type of party rental equipment you should invest in for your business. If you have some cash to spare, for example, you could invest in expensive audio and visual equipment.
On the other hand, it could be less expensive to start by renting tableware, which can often be bought in bulk for a discount.
Pros of a party rental business:
- Increased profits over selling equipment — you only buy your equipment once
- Potential for repeat customers
- Opportunities for expanded services, such as setup and takedown services
Cons of a party rental business:
- Cost of damage and theft
- Physical products require hands-on management, including customer pickup or drop off and inspecting items upon return
3. Print-on-demand shop
Do you have an eye for design? A print-on-demand business may be a good fit for you!
Print-on-demand businesses work by printing your designs on t-shirts, mugs, and other goods in single orders. Unlike going to a print shop directly, where you often have to order in bulk, print on demand lets you print items only when customers order them.
One of the best parts of print-on-demand is that it’s pretty hands-off for you. You upload your design, choose the products you want it printed on, and wait for customers to order. The printing company handles all of the printing, fulfillment, and shipping.
For example, you have a print-on-demand t-shirt company. You choose a print-on-demand printing company and upload your designs into their system and link it to your website.
A customer buys a t-shirt from your site and the printing company receives and processes the order. Your customer gets a great shirt and you get the profits from the sale (usually after the cost of the shirt and the printing company’s fees).
You don’t even have to be a great graphic designer to make a print-on-demand business work. There are several print-on-demand companies that offer free-to-use (and sell!) graphics you can add to the items in your store.
Pros of a print-on-demand business:
- Low startup costs — besides a website or listing fees, you’ll only pay when a customer makes a purchase
- Easy setup — choose a few designs and go
- Low time commitment
Cons of a print-on-demand business:
- Lower profit margins after the cost of items and printing company fees
- You have lower quality control, and most print-on-demand printers don’t accept returns
- Potential for printer delays or low product availability
Laundromats are one of the most popular businesses that run themselves. For one, laundromats tend to have a high rate of success. As a new business owner, this is one of the most important aspects of choosing a business.
While the startup costs tend to be higher than other businesses, many laundromat owners start by buying an existing location. This lets them put their feet into the water with a business that’s already up and running — and hopefully making a profit.
Opening a laundromat could be a good fit for you if you have the capital to invest in a physical location and the equipment necessary to run it. You may also be able to get a business loan for a laundromat, thanks to the generally sustainable business model.
Pros of owning a laundromat:
- High business success rate
- High return on investment (ROI)
- An essential service business, meaning consistent revenue
- Straightforward business model — only equipment required is washers, dryers, and utility hookups
Cons of owning a laundromat:
- High startup costs
- Potential equipment failures and expensive repairs
- Competitive industry
- Vandalism or unruly customers
5. Storage facilities
Owning a storage facility is a potentially low-maintenance, high-profit business. Generally, you can choose to purchase an existing storage facility or buy land to build your own.
Those buying an existing storage facility should ask to see the profitability of the business. For example, you could ask the current owner how many of the units are currently rented and what the going monthly rental rate is.
Buying land to build your own storage facility may be less expensive than you think. Many self-storage units are bare-bones buildings that don’t include lights or electricity within each unit.
So this means you’ll only need to pay for the main structure to get started. However, it’s important to pick a location that has the potential to be competitive, including the size of the town or city and how far your storage units are from residential areas.
As a self-storage owner, you may want to require your tenants to purchase insurance for their belongings. Some storage unit owners expand their business by becoming licensed to sell storage unit insurance, which offers an additional revenue stream.
Pros of a storage unit business:
- Hands-off business model
- Storage units are consistently in demand
- High profit margins if units are rented out
- Low upkeep needs and costs
Cons of a storage unit business:
- Higher initial startup costs
- Potential tenant issues, such as nonpayment or vandalism
- Expensive in competitive markets
- May not be able to rent out most units
6. Digital product sales
With so much time spent online, it’s probably no surprise there’s a whole industry of digital goods!
Digital products are any type of product created and sold in a digital format. There’s no physical product to store, ship, or manage. Common digital products include:
- Online templates, such as social media templates or website templates
- Digital music downloads
- Online courses
- Printable artwork
Digital products can often require a fair bit of time to start selling, but the incredibly low cost of entry makes it a great business that runs itself. Once you create your digital product, you can sell it over and over again without additional work.
For example, you create a digital drawing that customers can buy and print out as artwork for their homes. Unlike a physical art print, you don’t have to start totally from scratch each time you want to sell your artwork. Instead, unlimited customers can buy your artwork over and over again.
Many digital sellers use platforms like Etsy to list their products, but you can also create your own website to sell your goods.
Pros of digital product sales:
- No inventory issues
- Low startup costs
- No shipping or warehousing costs
- Unlimited sales potential for each product
Cons of digital product sales:
- Lower profit margins
- Competitive selling market
- Potential for copyright issues — if you accidentally use someone else’s work or someone steals your work
7. Blogging businesses that run themselves
Blogging is probably one of the first ways people started making money on the internet. From lifestyle bloggers to business advice columns, bloggers found they could use the traffic on their websites to make money.
Luckily for you, blogging is still a profitable way to start a business.
You can use ads to generate revenue on your site. However, most people won’t make a fortune running ads on their site, as it usually requires a large amount of traffic.
On the other hand, affiliate marketing is a proven way to make money blogging. It works by using a tracked link on your website to another site.
If a reader follows the link and makes a purchase on the second site, your account gets credit, often as a percentage of the sale price.
For example, you write a blog listing the best car seats for new parents. In the blog, you link to an Amazon page selling one of the recommended seats.
So a reader clicks your link and makes a purchase on Amazon. Amazon then pays you for bringing business to their site.
While startup costs are low for blogging, you will have to commit time to write and edit blog posts. This can be done by writing them yourself or outsourcing your posts to freelance writers.
It’s also a best practice to be transparent with your readers. You want to tell them that you may receive a kickback if they purchase something you recommend on your site.
Pros of a blogging business:
- Low startup costs
- High profit potential
- Almost no ongoing maintenance costs
- Builds a community of repeat readers (and potentially sales)
Cons of a blogging business:
- High amount of ongoing work e.g. writing new posts, researching products and services to recommend, marketing your blog to new readers
- Competitive market
- You need a large following and lots of traffic to make significant money
8. Billboards and outdoor advertising
Think about the last time you traveled down a highway. You likely saw one billboard after another. Businesses pay big money to get their message and brand in front of people on billboards.
And you can be the owner of that prime advertising real estate.
To start a billboard business, you’ll need to either buy an existing billboard or put up your own. If putting up your own billboard, you have to own the land yourself or find a landowner willing to rent you the space for the billboard.
When the billboard structure is up, you then look for clients. Billboards usually work by renting their advertising space to businesses.
The business pays you a monthly or yearly fee to put its message up on the billboard. Even in rural areas with less traffic, having a few billboards to rent out can make you some serious cash.
However, there are certain legal regulations you have to follow before putting up a billboard. For example, in Iowa, you can’t put up a billboard along any scenic byways. Always check state and federal laws before trying to build a billboard, even if it’s on your own property.
Pros of renting out billboards:
- Mostly hands-off business
- Easy to start small and increase business with more billboards
- High profit potential
Cons of renting out billboards:
- Lots of competition
- Potentially high startup costs
- Government regulations and local restrictions
- Ongoing maintenance of physical property
9. Property rentals
We’ve already talked about how you can rent out party equipment like furniture and décor as a hands-off business. But there are plenty of other types of property you can rent out as well.
We’ll go over two main categories:
- Real estate
- Physical goods
Real estate rentals aren’t limited to long-term rentals, like apartment complexes. Many people are finding success and profits in short-term vacation rentals.
For example, large groups often prefer to use an Airbnb or VRBO rental on vacation rather than staying in separate hotel rooms. If you have some extra space in your home or an existing vacation property, you can rent it out to vacation-goers.
Be aware, however, that many local and state governments are putting restrictions on short-term rentals. This is especially true in resort areas or places with high costs of living. As more vacation rentals pop up, there is less housing available for local workers.
For instance, in Denver, property owners must follow strict rules when renting their space to short-term visitors. This includes obtaining a license and only allowing primary residences to be rented.
If real estate is too big of an investment, you can also rent out physical goods like power equipment, clothing, or camping equipment.
Pros of a rental business:
- Easy to start with what you have, such as starting a clothing rental business or renting out your spare room
- High profit potential
- Potential for repeat customers
Cons of a rental business:
- Real estate rental has high initial costs
- Maintaining, inspecting, and repairing equipment or real estate takes time
- More hands-on than other types of businesses
Start earning passive income with businesses that run themselves!
Starting a business is a rewarding venture that can make money. It’s even better if you can start one that mostly takes care of itself! However, you want to be sure you’re making the right choice when choosing which type of business to start.
While it’s okay to make mistakes when starting a business, you want to limit the cost of those mistakes. Be sure you do your due diligence before jumping into starting a business that runs itself. A little research beforehand could save you a lot of time and money down the road!