Below you’ll find a curated list of successful online businesses that were started during a recession.
- Billion Dollar Companies
Keep an eye out for “unicorn” startups like Airbnb, WhatsApp and GitHub.
- 1 Person, Million Dollar Businesses
A mom selling lunch boxes online, bloggers earning serious money, and a guy flogging politically incorrect t-shirts.
- Famous Podcasts + YouTube Channels
You’ll see two podcasts that earn millions per year, and a tech YouTuber who has come a long way since his first video.
- Humble Lifestyle Businesses
One woman writes about San Francisco. Another blogs about natural living. Both earn thousands of dollars per month.
You’ll find details of all those and more below.
May they inspire your own recession-born and recession-proof online businesses 😎
Online Businesses Started During A Recession
- The Joe Rogan Experience – $30 million per year
- Okta – $6 billion valuation
- Airbnb – $31 billion valuation
- On The Map Marketing – $350,000 per month
- Bitly – Sold majority stake for $63 million
- Groove Networks – Sold for $120 million
- Loggly – Raised $47 million in funding
- EasyLunchboxes – $1 million per year
- T-Shirt Hell – $1 million per year
- Brown Thumb Mama – $3,000 per month
- Holstee – $4.9 million per year
- Marques Brownlee – $500,000 per year
- MonetizeMore – $1 million per month
- Uber – $82 billion valuation
- WallMonkeys – 7-figure revenues
- Balsamiq – $6 million per year
- Brennan Dunn – $20,000 per week
- Groupon – $1.35 billion valuation
- Thomas Digital – $48,000 per month
- SFTourismTips – $5,000 per month
- Asana – $1.5 billion valuation
- The Adam Carolla Show – $5 million per year
- Smart Passive Income – $150,000 per month
- Fission Strategy – $1.2 million in first full year
- Stack Overflow – $60 million per year
- WhatsApp – Sold for $19 billion
- GitHub – Sold for $7.5 billion
- Quora – $1.8 billion valuation
- Chris Guillebeau – $48,000 in first year
Should you start an online business during a recession?
Recessions Of The Digital Age
Before we get stuck in, a quick reminder of the recessions we’ve seen since internet businesses started becoming a thing in the mid-90’s…
- Post Dot-com Bubble – March 2001 to November 2001
- The Great Recession – December 2007 to June 2009 1
As of this writing, the coronavirus 🦠 pandemic looks to be triggering a global recession. This will no doubt lead to financial stress and hardship for many people.
But you can also be sure that plenty of successful online businesses will emerge from this latest economic downturn.
Who knows: a few years from now I might be featuring your business on this very page.
ONLINE BUSINESSES STARTED DURING A RECESSION
The Joe Rogan Experience – $30 million per year
“The Joe Rogan Experience is a free audio and video podcast hosted by American comedian, actor, sports commentator, martial artist, and television host, Joe Rogan.” 2
🚀 December 2009
💰 $30 million in 2019 3
Okta – $6 billion valuation
“[Okta] provides cloud software that helps companies manage and secure user authentication into modern applications, and for developers to build identity controls into applications, website web services and devices.” 4
💰 $6 billion valuation in 2017 5
Frederic Kerrest, co-founder of Otka, wrote in 2015:
I built my first startup in Argentina during the economic crisis-turned-revolution in 2001, and my co-founder and I started Okta in the depths of the US recession in 2009. Every struggle opens an opportunity for growth.
Airbnb – $31 billion valuation
“Airbnb, Inc. is an online marketplace for arranging or offering lodging, primarily homestays, or tourism experiences. The company does not own any of the real estate listings, nor does it host events; it acts as a broker, receiving commissions from each booking.” 6
💰 $31 billion valuation in 2017 7
On The Map Marketing – $350,000 per month
On The Map Marketing is “a global internet marketing firm that develops customized, strategic plans to help our clients climb in search engine rankings.” 8
💰 $350,000 per month 9
Founder Rick Hoskins writes in a 2020 interview:
I had gotten tired of working for someone else, so I decided to start my own business. I had the drive and I saw an opportunity in the marketplace so I took it. By 2009, I started my own company On The Map Marketing and I was cold calling attorneys from my living room.
Bitly – Sold majority stake for $63 million
“Bitly is a URL shortening service and a link management platform.” 10
💰 Sold majority stake for $63 million in 2017 11
Groove Networks – Sold for $120 million
“Groove Networks was a software company based in Beverly, Massachusetts. Founded by Ray Ozzie, the creator of IBM’s Lotus Notes application, the privately held company specialized in productivity software that allows multiple users to work collaboratively on computer files simultaneously.” 12
💰 Sold to Microsoft for $120 million 13
Words from founder Ray Ozzie in Founders At Work:
Groove came out at a very difficult time. It was just post-Bubble and IT spending was really down.
Loggly – Raised $47 million in funding
“Loggly is a cloud-based log management and analytics service provider based in San Francisco, California.” 14
💰 Raised $47 million in funding and sold for an undisclosed amount in 2019 15
EasyLunchboxes – $1 million per year
BPA-free, bento-style meal and snack containers, sold via Amazon and EasyLunchboxes.com.
💰 +$1 million annual revenue
EasyLunchboxes founder Kelly Lester spoke about starting the business in a 2015 interview:
“At the time, we really needed the money. The recession had hit.”
More about Lester in The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business:
The flame-haired mother of three and part-time professional actress is also the creator-owner of EasyLunchboxes, an online retail business that she runs from her home in Los Angeles. After eight years, it generates more than $1 million in annual revenue.
“I know a lot of people put their heart and soul and all of their money and all of their parents’ money into a business that never should have been started in the first place.”
Lester, for her part, had sold an earlier internet store that offered decorative switch plates and soaps, in 2006. She dreamed up EasyLunchboxes three years later, when the money from selling that business ran out, the recession hit, and her family needed more income.
She used money from her actor husband’s paychecks to fund EasyLunchboxes, but, she acknowledges, “We took a big risk.”
T-Shirt Hell – $1 million per year
“T-Shirt Hell is a website that sells humorous T-shirts. The company is known for producing shirts that cause controversy due to their products being perceived as offensive and politically incorrect.” 16
💰 $1 million estimated annual revenue 17
Brown Thumb Mama – $3,000 per month
A blog about natural living, healthy eating, and attempted gardening.
💰 $3,000 per month 18
Holstee – $4.9 million per year
“Inspiration and tools to help you live a more meaningful life.” 19
💰 $4.9 million estimated annual revenue 20
Via Indie Hackers:
In the summer of 2009, brothers Dave and Mike Radparvar decided to quit their jobs in the heat of the recession to go all-in on their passion project — Holstee, a functional and sustainable t-shirt company they had started with their friend Fabian Pfortmüller. Without a business plan or experience in fashion, they reasoned that in the worst-case scenario, it would be the most memorable summer of their lives.
Marques Brownlee – $500,000 per year
“Marques Keith Brownlee, also known professionally as MKBHD, is an american YouTuber and former professional ultimate frisbee player, best known for his technology-focused videos and podcast.” 21
💰 +$500,000 per year
Here’s the first tech review video posted on Marques’s YouTube channel, dated January 1, 2009:
One earnings calculator estimates that Marques has earned $4 million from YouTube advertising alone:
While Social Blade estimates that his channel may be earning as much as $2 million per year:
MonetizeMore– $1 million per month
“MonetizeMore is an industry leader in website monetization that combines state of the art monetization technology with a team of dynamic, creative thinkers.” 22
💰 $1 million monthly revenue 23
Founder Kean Graham wrote about his motivation for starting the business:
I originally fell in love with the online industry when working for a large online classified network. The job was an immense learning experience, but once the recession hit the company decided to lay off the marketing department. I lost the best job I ever had but I was determined to turn the bad into something great.
Five days later, I was on a plane to South America to go on a life-changing trip. Four months into my backpacking trip, I was on a four-day trek through the incredible Inca trail towards Machu Picchu. By the end of it, I was sitting on top of Wayna Picchu reflecting on my experiences throughout my trip.
I’d had the most fulfilling time of my life and it finally clicked: I will work and travel when I want, where I want. I decided to start a business that would enable this kind of autonomous lifestyle. Seven months later, I started the digital business called MonetizeMore, which now offers an autonomous lifestyle to every member of our team.
Uber – $82 billion valuation
“Uber Technologies, Inc., commonly known as Uber, is an American multinational ride-hailing company offering services that include peer-to-peer ridesharing, ride service hailing, food delivery (Uber Eats), and a micromobility system with electric bikes and scooters.” 24
💰 $82 billion valuation in 2019 25
WallMonkeys – Seven-figure revenues
“The premium seller of custom peel and stick wall decals.” 26
💰 7-figure revenues
Jason Weisenthal, who is in his forties, took a very different route when deciding how to grow his e-commerce business, WallMonkeys. His business, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, prints giant wall decals made from photos of kids playing sports, which families use to decorate the children’s rooms.
A former shoe-store owner, Weisenthal opened the business in his basement after closing the store during the recession. As WallMonkeys took off and hit seven-figure revenues, Weisenthal opened a print-on-demand facility and warehouse.
Balsamiq – $6 million per year
“Balsamiq Studios is an independent software vendor founded in March 2008 by Peldi Guilizzoni, a former Adobe senior software engineer. The Web-based Balsamiq mockup tool was launched in June 2008.” 27
💰 $6 million in annual revenue 28
Brennan Dunn – $20,000 per week
“Founder of DoubleYourFreelancing.com, co-founder of RightMessage.com” 29
💰 $20,000 per week 30
Aside from his $20k/week consulting work, Brennan also revealed in a 2014 interview with Mixergy that he had earned $324,000 from product sales the previous year.
He writes on his blog:
When I started freelancing, it was right before the last recession hit in 2008.
I was surprised, especially when I was really worried about the doom-and-gloom of the 2008 recession, by how seemingly better things got for my business when the downturn hit.
Groupon – $1.35 billion valuation
“Groupon is an American global e-commerce marketplace connecting subscribers with local merchants by offering activities, travel, goods and services in 15 countries.” 31
💰 $1.35 billion valuation in 2010 32
Thomas Digital – $48,000 per month
“We specialize in designing and developing custom WordPress websites for small and medium-sized businesses, typically in the service industry.” 33
💰 $48,000 monthly revenue 34
In 2009, Victor Thomas was 32 years old and had just seen his first online business fail after five months of effort.
As he wrote in an interview with eBiz Facts:
At this point, the money was almost all gone.
I was living in San Francisco, which is not a cheap place to live and I was down to my last $10k.
$10k might sound like a lot of money but if you have no job and monthly expenses of $3k then it’s just enough to give you a panic attack.
Then he read a question in a book that changed his life:
If you were in a strange city where you didn’t know anyone and had only $500 in your pocket…what would you do?
With that, Victor decided to start selling WordPress websites.
He earned about $35,000 his first year.
A decade later, his business has evolved into a web design agency that generates $48k/month in revenue.
SFTourismTips – $5,000 per month
A traveler’s guide to the city of San Francisco.
💰 $5,000 monthly revenue
Jill Loeffler, the founder of SFTourismTips, shared some details about the site with us via email.
- See here for more sites like SFTourismTips: Affiliate Marketing Website Examples
Asana – $1.5 billion valuation
“Asana is a web and mobile application designed to help teams organize, track, and manage their work.” 35
💰 $1.5 billion valuation in 2018 36
The Adam Carolla Show – $5 million per year
“The Adam Carolla Show (formerly The Adam Carolla Podcast) is a comedy podcast hosted by comedian and radio-television personality Adam Carolla. Its first episode went online on February 23, 2009.” 37
💰 $5 million in 2015 38
Smart Passive Income – $150,000 per month
“A website dedicated to helping people discover how to do business online and take their existing businesses to the next level.” 39
💰 +$150,000 per month
On June 17th, 2008 I was laid off from my dream job as an architect, and although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the best thing that could ever happen to me.
Pat registered smartpassiveincome.com a few months later and soon published his first income report, reporting $7,906 in earnings from his GreenExamAcademy.com website in October 2008.
In October 2013, five years after starting SPI, Pat reported earnings of $53,774.
His last income report was December 2017, when he reported earnings of $166,559.
Fission Strategy – $1.2 million in first full year
Fission Strategy is “an Internet strategy and web development firm that helps organizations leverage social media for social good.” 40
💰 $1.2 million in 2009
Founder and partner Roz Lemieux shared the following in a 2010 interview on Mixergy:
So, we started in fall of 2008. And we grew a little bit in those first couple months. In 2009 that was our first full calendar year, and we brought in about 1.2 million which I thought was pretty good since it’s just two people and we grew. In that first year we were 100 percent consulting model, so everyone who worked on our projects was a consultant.
[…] we got started right when the recession was starting which seemed like a stupid time to start a business. But it actually turned out to be really good, I think, in a couple ways for us in our particular niche.
One is that non-profits are a cycle behind the economy. So, they got, like, a year warning, I think, over companies where they saw it coming. But because they’d been funded for the coming year, what they did was a lot of non-profits we saw were doing strategic planning because they knew that it was going to be tight in 2010.
And so, they looked at, you know, what are the areas that we can become more efficient and where we need to invest so that we can continue to grow when the money gets tight in a year? A lot of them looked at that and said, ‘Online is the place that we need to be investing, and we need to get good at this and build the infrastructure while we have some money in the bank. And so, I think that actually helped us in 2009 a lot.
Stack Overflow – $60 million per year
“Stack Overflow is a question and answer site for professional and enthusiast programmers.” 41
💰 $60 million estimated annual revenue 42
WhatsApp – Sold for $19 billion
“WhatsApp is a freeware, cross-platform messaging and Voice over IP (VoIP) service owned by Facebook, Inc. It allows users to send text messages and voice messages, make voice and video calls, and share images, documents, user locations, and other media.” 43
💰 Sold to Facebook for $19 billion in 2014 44
GitHub – Sold for $7.5 billion
“GitHub, Inc. is a US-based global company that provides hosting for software development version control using Git.” 45
💰 Sold to Microsoft for $7.5 billion in 2018 46
Quora – $1.8 billion valuation
“Quora is an American question-and-answer website where questions are asked, answered, and edited by Internet users, either factually or in the form of opinions.” 47
💰 $1.8 billion valuation in 2017 48
Chris Guillebeau – $48,000 in first year
“Chris Guillebeau is an American nonfiction author, blogger and speaker. He is best known for The Art of Non-Conformity blog and book. He has also written guides for travel and small business topics under the brand Unconventional Guides.” 49
💰 $48,500 in 2009
Chris launched his website in 2008 and ten months later published a manifesto called 279 Days to Overnight Success.
In the manifesto, he wrote:
I feel fairly comfortable in saying that I should be able to earn at least $48,500 in 2009 with the income from my 279-day-old site. The median income where I live is $42,802, so this estimate puts me a bit above the average.
Should you start an online business during a recession?
The harsh truth is that there is no perfect time to start a business.
And no business is 100% recession-proof.
That said, starting a business during an economic downturn might actually be a smart move.
But don’t just take my word for it…
Warren Buffett: Recession = Opportunity
Some famous words from one of the world’s most successful investors:
During the 2009 financial crisis, Buffett wrote:
“It’s been an ideal period for investors: A climate of fear is their best friend. Those who invest only when commentators are upbeat end up paying a heavy price for meaningless reassurance.”
Another quote from Buffett along these lines:
“A market downturn doesn’t bother us. It is an opportunity to increase our ownership of great companies with great management at good prices.”
Recessions Can Benefit Small Business
Paul Jarvis writes in Company of One:
When I was doing web design full-time, each time an economic bubble burst or a recession hit I found myself in a great place to find more jobs because I could offer the quality of work a larger agency could provide, but at a price that had one less zero in it.
And not only was I still making more profit than if I had been salaried at an agency, but I could still make the most of the price I was charging because my overhead was almost nothing past having a computer and writing off the second bedroom in a rented condo.
And then, when the economy picked back up, agencies were so busy that they had to farm out work, which I was available for. So either way, I had a model for revenue that larger agencies couldn’t have replicated without scaling down immensely.
Opportunities Abound In Bad Times
At the end of 2008, Tim Ferriss shared some words from a trusted mentor:
While many are wringing their hands, I recall the 1970s when we were suffering from an oil shock causing long lines at gas stations, rationing, and 55 MPH speed limits on Federal highways, a recession, very little venture capital ($50 million per year into VC firms), and, what President Jimmy Carter (wearing a sweater while addressing the Nation on TV because he had turned down the heat in the White House) called a “malaise”.
It was during those times that two kids without any real college education, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, started companies that did pretty well. Opportunities abound in bad times as well as good times. In fact, the opportunities are often greater when the conventional wisdom is that everything is going into the toilet.
Worth noting that Tim Ferriss’s famous book, The 4-Hour Workweek, was published just a few months before the start of the recession in 2017, and many readers went on to create successful “location independent” businesses.
15 More Businesses Started During Recessions
Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle Is The Way:
Do yourself a favor and run down the list of businesses started during depressions or economic crises.
Fortune magazine (ninety days after the market crash of 1929)
FedEx (oil crisis of 1973)
UPS (Panic of 1907)
Walt Disney Company (After eleven months of smooth operation, the twelfth was the market crash of 1929.)
Hewlett-Packard (Great Depression, 1935)
Charles Schwab (market crash of 1974–75)
Standard Oil (Rockefeller bought out his partners in what became Standard Oil and took over in February 1865, the final year of the Civil War.)
Coors (Depression of 1873)
Costco (recession in the late 1970s)
Revlon (Great Depression, 1932)
General Motors (Panic of 1907)
Proctor & Gamble (Panic of 1837)
United Airlines (1929)
Microsoft (recession in 1973–75)
LinkedIn (2002, post–dot-com bubble)
In fact, half the companies in the Fortune 500 were started during a bear market or recession. Half.
The point is that most people start from disadvantage (often with no idea they are doing so) and do just fine. It’s not unfair, it’s universal. Those who survive it, survive because they took things day by day—that’s the real secret.
Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.
To Sell During A Recession, Focus On Results
As in, the tangible results you can get for clients.
Neville Mehra writes:
But as the recession set in, I noticed a trend. The proposals that we sent out for purely technical projects, things like server upgrades and backend data center stuff, were rarely accepted. But the proposals that we would send out for things like adding a shopping cart to a client’s website or doing some email marketing, those proposals were accepted more often.
In both cases we were simply proposing to do whatever the client had asked for, but the proposals that tied directly to their revenue were the ones that got accepted.
Rob O’Rourke noticed similar in his web design business and strongly recommends focusing on client results to sell more of your services…
Rob sent that video out to his mailing list, along with these words:
EVERY business is also feeling out of control right now.
Every business out there at this moment is looking to feel safe.
They want security, they want peace of mind. They want to feel back in control.
This is how you need to be selling your services right now.
Nothing else is going to work, because nothing else is going to matter to the people you are trying to sell to. If it doesn’t make them feel back in control they won’t give a shit.
Can you sell your web services in this way? Can you show people how your web services give them back control?
Do you know how to sell results?
Not your design, not WordPress, not code, not pages – RESULTS.
Right now today you have probably the best chance in years to quickly grow your web design business, but it’s all going to come down to how you are selling yourself right now.
Speaking of feeling out of control…
2 Things You Can Control During A Recession
You can’t control the economy, but here are two things you can control…
There’s a lot of scary things happening out there.
But, what I can control is my attitude and my actions.
I can look at this as an opportunity to make myself better, and to do something better for my future, and that’s what I’m choosing to do.
Those are words from Sean Ogle in this video…
How To Be Recession-Proof
Paul Graham of Y Combinator writes:
the way to make a startup recession-proof is to do exactly what you should do anyway: run it as cheaply as possible. For years I’ve been telling founders that the surest route to success is to be the cockroaches of the corporate world.
The immediate cause of death in a startup is always running out of money. So the cheaper your company is to operate, the harder it is to kill. And fortunately it has gotten very cheap to run a startup. A recession will if anything make it cheaper still.
Don’t Assume The Worst
Finally, if you’re already running an online business, don’t assume that a recession will hurt you.
It may in fact do the opposite.
I was surprised, especially when I was really worried about the doom-and-gloom of the 2008 recession, by how seemingly better things got for my business when the downturn hit.
Members of our private Freedom Business Builder community reported similar in March 2020:
Are you building a recession-proof business?
We’d love to hear about it in the comments below 👍
You can also let us know via the comments if there’s a business we should add to the list above.