There are many intimidating factors in play when considering starting a small business. Financial aspects are a big one, and it’s easy to get lost in the many ways of funding a business — bank loans, venture capital, crowdfunding, bootstrapping, etc.
Wouldn’t it be great to start a small business without all that worry? Sure it would. And it is possible, as long as the entrepreneur knows that an array of challenges will be lurking at every turn. Here’s a look at 10 ways to get a small business off the ground with little to no money down.
1. Spread the word.
Starting a business with a limited supply of money means that there’s no advertising budget. There are no newspaper or Internet ads, no billboards, no radio or TV jingles. But word-of-mouth can be a powerful thing. Jonathan Long writes about this for entrepreneur.com, saying bluntly, “Tell everyone you know what you are doing.”
“Inform your family, friends, business contacts and past colleagues about your new business,” he says. “Call, send emails and make your new venture known on your social-media profiles. Your friends and family members can help you spread the word, and past business contacts can introduce your brand to their professional contacts as well. This type of grassroots marketing can help introduce your company to a much larger audience.”
2. Use your own space.
This won’t work for many small businesses — picture trying to run a restaurant out of your home kitchen — but avoiding a major rent payment will ease the financial burden from the start. Some of the more famous examples of this are the garage headquarters of Bill Gates and Paul Allen for Microsoft, and Steve Jobs for Apple. Donna Fuscaldo wrote about this for foxbusiness.com, and uses Michael Houlihan, co-founder of wine business Barefoot Cellars, as an example.
“Bill Gates isn’t the only one who can be successful starting a business in his garage,” she says. “According to experts, a great way to save money is to run your business in a location that won’t require you to pay extra rent — whether it’s your garage, bedroom, basement or attic. ‘Barefoot’s first office was a laundry room,’ says Houlihan. ‘It wasn’t glamorous. But it held our files and a desk and most importantly, it allowed us to get the job done without spending any extra money.’”
3. Look for partners.
Trying to do everything for yourself is exhausting, not to mention counter-productive. Two brains cultivating ideas and strategy is far better than one. Look for partnerships that are mutually beneficial with the “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” mentality. In a story for cbsnews.com, financial adviser Robert Pagliarini puts a different spin on the burden of a startup: “The truth is you don’t need money. You need what money can purchase. If you had your own small business fairy godmother, money would be unnecessary because everything you’d need to buy you could get for free.” The key, he says, is creating partnerships.
“You have to think in terms of a partnership,” he writes. “It can’t be, ‘Let’s see how much free stuff I can take from others.’ That will never work. You want your partners to feel like they are true partners in the venture. If you pay someone by the hour, you’ll get an hour of their time. If you pay someone based on a venture’s potential future success, you’ll get their time, ideas, life, sweat, blood and tears.”
4. Be frugal whenever possible.
Since any spending will have to come from the initial sales, or the owner’s pockets, it’s crucial to make smart decisions about what to purchase and why, as Long writes in his entrepreneur.com piece.
“You are going to have plenty of expenses, and there are some that just can’t be avoided,” he says. “What you can avoid though is overspending. Take something as simple as business cards. You could drop $1,000 on 500 metal business cards that give off the ‘cool’ factor, or you could spend $10 on 500 traditional business cards. Being frugal in the beginning can be the difference between success and a failed business.”
5. Lean on expertise.
If the starting point for the bank account is zero, a service-based startup has an advantage over one that sells a physical product. For example, those entrepreneurs that have enough experience and credibility to be consultants have no immediate need to pay for a place to set up shop, as author John Cerasani writes for foxbusiness.com.
“A great way to start a business without any cash flow is to open a service-oriented company,” he says. “Consultants and brokers have little need for office space and even less need for manufacturing products, leaving them with a company based solely on their expertise.”
6. Get paid quickly.
It may sound obvious, but establishing parameters that enforce quick and early payments will benefit a new small business because it avoids a lengthy invoice-and-grace-period time frame. In Fuscaldo’s foxbusiness.com piece, she quotes Heather Whaling, CEO of PR firm Geben Communication.
“Whether you are manufacturing a product or providing a service, the sooner you can get paid the quicker you can grow your business, which is why experts say it’s a good idea to try and get paid, even partially, up front,” Fuscaldo writes. “Whaling, who typically gets paid on a retainer basis, has clients make a down payment when they sign on. Not only does it mean money is coming in from the get-go, but it bolsters her relationship with her clients.”
7. Plan to reinvest.
When money starts to trickle in, it could be tempting for the owner to immediately pocket it. Though it might seem daunting, putting your money right back into the business may be the better route, according to Ellis Davidson in a story for Demand Media.
“Budget your early business profits for reinvestment, not for personal expenses or salary,” Davidson says. “This may mean keeping your current job while you start your business as a second full-time job. You can begin taking profits out of your business when it has enough cash flow to both pay you and fund growth to the level you wish to reach — but not before.”
Challenges will come fast and furious for new small businesses. The owner will be responsible for most if not all aspects of the operation, so he or she will need to be ready and willing to go all in, as Long writes for entrepreneur.com.
“Hard work is an absolute necessity, but when you are starting a business with little to no capital then you must be prepared to dedicate everything you have into making the business a success,” he writes. “This might mean cold calling, handling customer support, dealing with billing and accounting, and every other working part of your business. You will wear many hats and it will require the majority of your time and energy if you are to make it.”
9. Take advantage of the Web.
The Internet is the future of all business. It’s an inexhaustible resource and a great way to give a cash-strapped startup a boost. Louise Balle writes for Demand Media, and uses an online T-shirt business as an example. The days of having shelves full of stock to sell are largely over for businesses like these.
“If you want to start a small online T-shirt business, you can upload your own custom designs or witty sayings to a service provider’s website and then publish your T-shirts for sale on the Internet,” Balle says. “You do not have to purchase the T-shirts and hold them in inventory — your only outlay (besides any monthly maintenance fees required by the service) may be the cost of advertising your T-shirts online. When people purchase your T-shirts, you receive a percentage of the sale.”
10. Increase exposure.
A startup with no real source of cash will need exposure, and advertising won’t be an option in the earliest stages. As Fuscaldo writes about Houlihan’s wine business, being involved with nonprofit organizations can help to get the word out.
“To get around the costs of advertising, Houlihan says to partner with nonprofits that you care about. Sure, you’ll be giving your product or service away for free, but you’ll also reach potential customers that share the same beliefs and concerns that you do. Houlihan says the best approach is to reach out to small, local nonprofits and charities. ‘We sought out organizations that believed in causes close to our own hearts,’ says Houlihan. ‘We gained access to huge numbers of potential customers and gave them a ‘social reason’ to buy Barefoot wine.’”