9 Recession-Proof Online Businesses to Start From Home

A variety of events have threatened the Canadian economy lately, from the pandemic to trade agreements. The resulting economic spiral has left Canadians scrambling to secure an income, and businesses desperately trying to remain profitable.

I’ve experienced a couple of recessions, one without the internet and one with a very connected Canada. Both resulted in boom or bust scenarios. The defining factors between the two results, often relied on how fast and effectively a company could pivot their products and marketing to serve a more budget-conscious market.

While there are no businesses that are entirely recession-proof, there are those that fare better during economic downturns than others. Many actually thrive. Adobe, 3M, IBM, Microsoft, Kraft, The Learning Company, Urban Outfitters, Bath & Body Works, CNN, Princeton Review, Pizza Hut, FedEx and many other Fortune 500 companies were launched during a recession.

“After the 2008 crash, two unicorn companies were born: Airbnb and Uber,” writes Matt Cimaglia, Co-Founder and CEO of Third Summit. “Both found ways to disrupt old business models by empowering everyday people to find new revenue streams, offering creative, viable, affordable alternatives to traditional workplaces. The gig economy has always existed, but the Great Recession rocketed it to a whole new level. People suddenly found themselves unable to rely on our broken institutions. Self-employment was the solution.”

Why do Online Businesses Thrive During Recessions?

More web-based small businesses stay afloat because doing business online is inexpensive and we can easily serve a broader market. We’re also in a position to monitor shifts in the market and react quickly by refocusing our value proposition. We don’t have to pull ads from TV or wait until a radio campaign is done running, we just have to log into Facebook and adjust our ad copy and target audiences.

Online businesses can be quickly started and operated using low-cost services that are readily available. You can start a small home business part-time so you have a backup source of income, or build it into your main source of income. If an aspiring entrepreneur can’t afford to spend a lot, they can manage the learning curve to do it themselves. Digital marketing is affordable and accessible for everyone.

“Warby Parker was founded in the middle of the Great Recession,” writes Anne Gherini for Inc. “The founders illuminated an enormous pain-point in the market–it was nearly impossible to purchase an affordable pair of fashionable glasses online. They capitalized on the opportunity of their customers’ tightened purse strings and went on to grow Warby Parker into not only a thriving business but also a direct-to-consumer retail and e-commerce leader.”

The internet provides numerous ways to help businesses grow in any economic climate. You can quickly and easily pivot your content and marketing towards savings and economical options. Instead of throwing money at expensive offline advertising that may or may not reach your ideal customer, companies can use laser-targeted online campaigns to greatly improve their results. That alone can cut the cost of customer acquisition in half.

Keep your finger on the pulse by paying close attention to the news, along with trends emerging on social media. Quite often, it’s a simple matter of monitoring and analyzing keywords with a tool like SEMRush, as well as listening to your customers. Once you’ve identified the changing needs of your target market, you’re ready to help them cope. This article is an example of assessing the needs of our target market and addressing their concerns.

In online business, the world is quite literally at our fingertips. If we serve a global market, the exchange on our dollar helps to offset losses when the Canadian economy struggles and the dollar value falls. For example, a low Canadian dollar means I can receive an extra $30+ for every hundred US dollars I deposit. Boosting your bottom line by 30% can be the difference between surviving and thriving during a recession, especially since it’s largely a passive source of income.

You may also end up with new online customers who are forced to change their shopping habits, and then continue because it’s now familiar to them.

“While Canadians have been slow to adopt online shopping, delivery and click-and-collect at grocery stores, these options have been seeing a short-term bump out of necessity, which could result in a longer-term bump among shoppers that have tried and liked it,” Strategy reported, in reference to changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

9 Online Businesses That Thrive in a Recession

Over 20 years of working online has proven to me that the following digital businesses are the most likely to be profitable during a recession. There are many variables and we don’t guarantee that you’ll be successful, but I’d put my money on it.

Step One

For information on starting any online business in Canada, please use our Checklist: How to Start a Profitable Online Business in Canada.

We’ve provided resources below that will guide you through starting each individual recommendation.

1. Digital Media & Content Services

Freelance content writing, video production or graphics design will be in demand for as long as there are websites, and those aren’t going anywhere.

Learn How to Start a Freelance Digital Content Business in Canada

2. Start a Frugal Blog

Think about what people are looking for during a recession and provide content that addresses their concerns. Being frugal can apply to just about any niche. Use keyword research tools to find out what people are searching for online and help them save money.

Once you’re established, you can do quite well with sponsorship from individual companies and/or affiliate marketing.

Learn how to Make Money Blogging in Canada

3. Virtual Events

Virtual events greatly reduce the expense of attending them, making it perfect for a budget-conscious market. There are business opportunities in holding virtual events, and in offering tech or services that facilitate them. Events can be entirely online or be used in combination with an offline event. They’re much kinder to the environment as well.

“Just like live conferences, virtual event planning comes in many formats,” writes Dan McCarthy in 7 Easy Steps to Successful Virtual Event Planning. “It could be a seminar with one person taking the stage, or it could be more like a tradeshow or workshop. The key is to create a unique experience, something that is different than what the competitors may be doing.”

4. Online Learning

Digital learning products, such as ebooks, whitepapers and online courses have become very popular, but are in especially high demand during economic downturns. Many people are trying to improve their skill set for various reasons, including to help them land a job or to avoid hiring an expensive business consultant. Downloadable products and online courses offer them an economical and practical option to going to school offline.

Learn How to Create Your Own Online Learning Products

5. Remote Working

Whether it’s staff working at home or hiring contractors, remote working is an economical option for businesses. The pandemic has forced Canadian businesses to embrace it.

Anything that supports working from home, from collaboration tools to software-as-a-service (SaaS), offer a sustainable and profitable business model. You could offer your own tech products related to remote working or sell them through an affiliate.

6. Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate programs allow you to advertise for a company and earn a percentage of the sales you generate for them. It’s a risk-free way to earn an income selling products and it offers an endless supply of choices.

To make a decent amount of money with affiliate marketing, you’ll need a website. This will be your home base for everything from building a mailing list to social media promotion.

Learn how to Start Affiliate Marketing in Canada

7. Digital Translation

In Canada, there’s a consistently-high demand for French content and marketing copy. Websites, social media, videos and marketing require a French version and that doesn’t change. Hiring someone in-house for the task usually isn’t practical, so businesses often contract it out.

Learn how to Start an Online Content Translation Business in Canada

8. Virtual Assistant

VAs are an economical option to hiring employees, making it one of the most recession-proof online businesses you can start. Offering a range of specialized services that usually require expensive outsourcing or hiring (from bookkeeping to marketing) will further ensure your success in a recession.

Learn How to Become a Virtual Assistant (VA) in Canada

9. Ecommerce

Ecommerce is the fastest-growing segment in Canada’s digital economy, growing from $4.2 billion in 2010 to over $13.6 billion in 2017, according to Statistics Canada.

Ecommerce can be as tricky as offline retail and many of the same considerations apply. You’ve won half the battle with low overhead, but you’ll still need to choose products that are in demand during a recession. Stagnant inventory can quickly kill any store. You can reduce the risk of making a bad choice by drop shipping to test the market, or make drop-shipped products part of your permanent fulfillment strategy.

Since we compete on a global level, I also suggest focusing on products that aren’t readily available to your target market. Some categories that I’ve personally seen thrive online during a recession, are sustainable (used) fashion, up-cycled goods, health & fitness, self-improvement, and pet care. Additionally, anything that can be done at home rather than paying to have it done, such as gym equipment, meals and haircuts.

Start with a few products or your own creations, then let the sales fuel your line expansion.

Learn how with our Checklist: How to Start an Online Store (eCommerce Business) in Canada

Diversify

To make your online business even more recession-proof, diversify your sources of revenue. You can combine any number of the above businesses into one.

For example:

  • Any website can promote other products that their audience might be interested in through direct advertising or affiliate marketing.
  • Entrepreneurs can add a relevant information product or online course of their own, or earn commissions from promoting related learning products produced by someone else. For instance, an automotive parts business could sell an ebook about fixing cars.
  • A website designer can earn a commission for recommending web hosting services to her clients, or offer to provide a French version of her design.

All it takes is a little creative thinking.

Adversity = Opportunity

“In the startup world, there is always an upside to an economic downturn,” writes John Greathouse, a serial entrepreneur and investor. “Adversity translates into opportunity for those willing to swim upstream and not wait until the tide turns.”

All of these suggestions (and many other online businesses) can easily be started with very little investment, making them an affordable startup in tough economic times. Their virtual administration makes them perfect as a home-based business to supplement or replace your income.

Recessions create opportunities that savvy entrepreneurs can turn into a profitable online business. Put some thought into it and let us know what you come up with!

Discuss this and other online business topics in the Online Business Canada Facebook group!

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Digital Business & Marketing Manager at | Website | + posts

Melody McKinnon's formal education is in business management, which she enhanced with more than 60 certifications revolving around business, marketing, health, general sciences and writing. In over 20 years of working online, she has owned or managed both educational and eCommerce websites.

Melody has worked with many businesses & brands in a multitude of capacities. She can often be found on CanadiansInternet.com, CanadianFamily.net and AllNaturalPetCare.com, as well as other quality digital publications. Her content has earned reference links from highly-respected websites, magazines and university textbooks.

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Shetera

Insightful suggestions and a couple I didn’t think of that are more timely. Praying everybody is doing OK in these tough times XO