Starting a business is the aspiration of every entrepreneur who’s ever lived, as well as every person who’s ever been stuck in a nine-to-five job and wants out of the daily grind of answering to their boss. It represents freedom, leadership, ingenuity and determination. In short, it’s something that’s a very worthwhile goal.
There’s a misconception out there about starting a business, though. Some think that you need to have a good deal of money to start one, but you can start a business with no money or with very little in the bank. I’ve done it, and so have many other successful entrepreneurs.
What matters more than having a lot of money when you start out is having a lot of ingenuity, passion and drive. It also comes down to the strength of the product or service that you’re offering customers, plus the savvy with which you market your product or service!
Starting a business with virtually no money is an uphill climb, but so is simply starting a business under any condition. In the end, it all comes down to how much you really want it.
With that in mind, let’s go through everything that’s essential, so you know how to start a business with little to no money: whether you're looking start freelancing, kickstart a small business, or even launch a new startup.
1. Come Up With a Great Business Idea
All successful businesses begin with a great idea because you have to figure out if there’s a market and demand for the product or service that you want to sell. When people realize that your product or service alleviates their pain point or problem, they’ll flock to your brand in droves, but before that happens, a remarkable idea has to be born.
Take some inspiration from famous businesses that are already wildly successful. Apple’s Steve Jobs understood the genius in making complicated and highly useful tech products incredibly simply so that they’d be accessible to anyone at any time. Whole Foods’ founder John Mackey understood the attractiveness and demand for healthy, natural foods that cater to people’s food sensitivities, special diets and all-around wellbeing.
Both businesses even started out their corporate lives in ultra humbleness: Jobs and Mackey were struggling entrepreneurs and had basically next to nothing when they started their ventures.
As you can see from their examples, though, a stellar business idea is the root of a wildly successful brand. Learn how to generate great business ideas and narrow down to the best one to move forward with:
2. Rely on Your Own Skillset and What You Already Know
How to start a business with no money rests on self-reliance. When you have no support in terms of wealthy backers to fund your business idea, no partners to help shoulder some of the load, and no employees to whom to delegate, you fall back on what you already know. You already have certain business skills built up over the course of your working life—now’s the perfect time to make them work for you!
The best way to make this happen is by starting the business around what you already know. This saves you a lot of time and effort in learning something entirely new. Besides, this saves you a lot of money, too, because you won’t need any outside assistance or consultants to support your operations.
When I started my copywriting business, I relied on myself as much as possible. The fact that I already had a strong and longstanding writing background made a world of difference for me, since I didn’t need to hire anyone to do my marketing, my networking, or even writing-related services like editing copy.
3. Write a Business Plan
Think of your business plan as the proverbial roadmap in your entrepreneurial ambition. Without it, your business has no direction, no measurable baselines or goals, and a very low chance of success.
For a solid starting point in composing a business plan, see our in-depth tutorial on writing a business plan:
This covers all the basics, and then some, of sound business planning. Through it, you’ll learn the finer points of writing your business plan, such as:
- How to tie it in to securing funding or getting a loan.
- Identifying your target audience and value proposition.
- The necessity of an internal and external focus.
- The foundations or parts of the plan and their roles.
- The execution of your plan in the real world.
Or you can create a less formal and more fluid business plan. In either case, you don’t need any experts or consultants helping you either!
Even if you’re not a skillful writer or have never taken a business course, you can still put together a well-organized plan. The main criterion is knowing your business inside and out, as well as what the unique selling proposition of your product or service is.
4. Keep Costs Low by Budgeting to Avoid Excessive Expenses
One of the most vital things you have to be on top of during the life of your business is budgeting and bookkeeping, so you’re always running cash flow positive. As a fledgling business, you don’t have money to burn, so you have to accurately keep track of your expenses from the get go.
Forego expensive accounting software like QuickBooks initially; even better priced alternatives like FreshBooks is uncalled for when you’re starting a business with no money. All you really require is as spreadsheet program (like Google Sheets) where you can keep track of business income and expenses.
Don’t get intimidated by spreadsheets if you’ve never used one before either. Our handy Introduction to Spreadsheets course will have you using them with confidence quickly.
For additional help in budgeting effectively, dig into our Coffee Break course on A Freelancer’s Quick Guide to Finances or jump into this comprehensive tutorial:
5. Set Up Your Website and Marketing Channels
Whether you’re starting an online or traditional business, customers will expect you to have a website. With no money to start a website, you can grab a free WordPress site at Wordpress.com. There are some limitations with that setup though.
If you have a small budget to spend here, it’s worth investing in affordable hosting and setting up your own hosted website. That way you can add all the custom features that will make your website stand out—with complete flexibility.
You can setup a simple one page website or a WordPress website on your own for a low cost. We have a number premium HTML sites or Wordpress themes on Envato Market to choose from.
With your website setup, it’s time to build out your marketing channels. You can do this for free or low cost as well.
Social media is one of the hallmarks of inbound marketing. If you curate your new business’ social media pages intelligently, you’ll bring organic traffic to your website. You’ll drive leads who are very interested in your business’ product or service. This means more conversions and sales for your brand.
The beauty of social media is that it’s totally free to sign up to the biggest social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest—and use them to market your new business. Studies continually prove the effectiveness of this marketing strategy.
All it takes is to continually publish high-quality, mainly non-promotional content geared toward your industry on your social media channels to consistently bring in quality leads and grow your business.
6. Use Unique Funding Sources
There are funding sources at your disposal that you may not have heard of before. It’s important that you leverage all of the possibilities to get a cash infusion if needed.
Now that you have a great idea and a functioning business plan, you can approach a business incubator. If you’re accepted into such a program, you’ll get assistance funding for the basics one needs to run a business: office space, shared administrative support services, etc. A lot of times, these incubators are sponsored by universities, colleges and economic development organizations. Getting funding for an area of your business can be a huge help, especially when you’re cash-poor.
Another idea is to approach a business accelerator program, but this one’s only applicable if you’ve already had a stable startup phase and are stuck in the rut of daily operations…but without having a vision for sound, long-term planning. Since you’ll still need money even if you’re more stable, but are still a young business, an accelerator program is worth looking into.
If you're starting a freelance business, then you can likely launch without external funding, but if you're starting a larger small business or startup then it may require external resources. You can still get funding though, without having money to begin with. Read through our comprehensive business funding series or get started with this tutorial:
7. Bootstrap and Invest in Sweat Equity
Sweat equity (or bootstrapping) is basically the hard work and labor you put into starting and running your own business. There’s absolutely no substitute for it when you’re starting a business with no money or a small budget. Rely on yourself to do the things that you’d possibly pay others to do if you could afford to do so.
Not only does this teach you the value of work ethic, but bootstrapping saves you a load of money while still allowing you to grow your small business.
When I was a fledging copywriter, I used to approach numerous local businesses in my neighborhood to simply ask them if they needed any marketing materials written. I reached out to business after business and got turned down quite a bit, but I kept at it and soldiered on—slowly bringing in new clients. It took a number of rejections to get my first clips for my portfolio.
Not only did this teach me essential lessons about how to get my first clients without advertising dollars to spend, but also the grit and determination it takes to breakthrough.
Learn more about doing it on your own without external funding in our Bootstrapping Your Online Business guide or get started with this tutorial:
8. Perform All the Roles at Your Business
This ties into the aforementioned sweat equity, especially when you’re just pushing to get your new business off the ground. With little or no money, you can’t yet hire people and delegate them to run some executive aspects of your business, leaving you free to actually make more money by working more diligently at selling more of your product or service.
You have to be a one-person show as much as you can be, at least in the early days of your business.
When I first started my copywriting business, I couldn’t hire an assistant—virtual or otherwise—to do the basics of administration for me, so I gladly did everything from client task management and going through emails to bookkeeping all by myself. I didn’t have a choice, and I wanted to be an independent entrepreneur, so I did much of the heavy lifting myself.
Only eventually, as I started making money, I could finally buy the tools I needed to organize my operation better and hire people to do some of the more mundane elements of business and marketing management.
Early on in your business you may need to fill a wide variety of roles, at least until your business builds some cashflow and momentum.
You Can Start a Business With Little to No Money
Keep in mind, your first business needn't be overly complicated or world changing to find customers and become successful. If you can identify a customer group that has a need, then you can jump in and fill it. Here are a few simple businesses you can start without much money:
- 1. Freelancing - Whether freelance writing, web design, graphic design, or marketing. If you have a laptop, and the right skillset, you can apply for jobs online and start picking up client work. Read our guide to get started freelancing.
- 2. Virtual Assistant - Busy professionals need someone that can check their email, follow up on phone calls, book airplane reservations, update their calendars, handle administrative duties, and keep their personal and professional lives in order. You can get started with just a computer and minimal office experience. Also, you can work from home.
- 3. Painting Houses - Some states don’t require you to have a license to even start a paint-contracting company (check with your local authorities). Further, you can get cheap supplies and learn the finer points of painting from watching some YouTube videos.
- 4. Pet Sitting - Another easy business to get into, pet sitting involves taking care of people’s pets when they’re away. It can also include taking pets for walks. As with house painting, it’s a business where you don’t need a lot of overhead to get started. Begin with your friends and family, get good recommendations and referrals from them for your work, and start expanding.
- 5. Tutoring - Tutoring is an area in great demand among high school and college students. Another business that doesn’t require much money to start, all you really need is proficiency in the subjects you want to teach and a way to advertise your services. You can take out ads on Craigslist or websites where you can directly be put in touch with people who need tutoring.
Here are an additional 50 small businesses you can start with little time and money. Also, you can start a business on the side even while working a full-time job.
Starting a business with no money is not some pipe dream you only see in the movies. It’s a respectable ambition that you can make a reality by following the steps in this guide. It’ll take a lot of hard work and dedication, but, in the end, it’s worth it and extremely rewarding to be your own boss.
When you start out with next to nothing, the only thing you can rely on is you. Together with determination, a strong work ethic, and a solid business idea, you can make your aspiration come true.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in April of 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.