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It's 2020, everyone wants to start a business. Don't you have much $$ to do it? Don't worry - in this article, we will learn how to start a business with no money.
You’re probably thinking about your rent or mortgage, your car payment, and every dang insurance you have to have on top of your other bills; and at the end of the day, you have about $41.78. You think, “how am I supposed to start a business with that?”
Well, you are in good company. I started this site with $41.00, so you are actually better off than some. I am currently making +$1,500/month, which might not be a lot for some, but it is great as a passive income.
Throughout this loooong article, I will be teaching you how to overcome each business stage without a penny while sharing my personal experience doing it, share some ideas that you can start without much money, particularly of online businesses, and recommend you some tips and considerations you may want to take throughout the process.
What motivated me to write this post was recently receiving a message in the chatbot down in the corner that said: “I want to start a small business but have no money”. So that’s when I asked myself...
If you google this same question, you’ll probably come across an article from the US Small Business Administration that claims that the average cost of starting a micro business is $3,000.
However, this is quite a controversial and difficult topic to talk about. In the end, starting a business can cost from $0 to millions of dollars, as it depends 100% on the industry you want to operate in, the idea you have had, your knowledge and experience in the field, etc.
The only cost of starting a business that can really be calculated is the cost of forming an LLC, C-Corporation, or whatever kind of legal form you decide to go with. That will depend on which city and country you’re starting the business in. The costs of forming an LLC in the US can go from $500 in Massachusets to $40 in Kentucky.
Another thing that’s important to understand, when doing this analysis of how much does it cost to start a business, are the different types of costs that exist. We will divide them into three categories:
Knowing these kinds of costs will be essential at the moment of doing an estimate of how much will starting your business cost. For you to have a better idea, here’s what the US Census Data estimate for different industries:
This sounds demotivating, right? We claim we were going to build a business with $0 and now find out that the cheapest business to start costs an average of $11k. But that’s just an average and only on a few industries.
The internet has democratized a lot the business world, reducing the costs of starting a business to $0 or almost $0. Someone who can code can easily purchase a domain and hosting for less than $30 and build a site that makes thousands per month.
A great example of this is Alex Tew who, at his 21 years, built a digital billboard that sold 1 pixel for $1. It contained one million pixels and selling them all only took him 4 months, at probably $0 costs.
Feel a little bit more motivated now, right? Let’s get into the interesting part. We will be analyzing how you can go over each stage of businesses without spending any money, from research and coming with an idea, to launching and growing it. In each stage, we will share the details of how we did it with this website called Failory.
The first and possibly most important step of starting a business is to research different markets & customers (or if already have an idea, which is step #2, just research that market).
There is probably no other better resource to learn how to do this properly than in the following video. It's quite long, I know, but it's amazing. You will learn in real-time how Ramit Sethi, a really successful entrepreneur who has sold +12,000 products to hundreds of customers, carries out market research for new businesses.
Eric Ries from Lean Startup recommends asking for feedback as early on as possible. Getting this feedback can come in millions of different ways, from offline surveys to video calls with your target buyer personas. You may want to experiment to find out what’s the fastest and cheapest way to get this feedback while keeping it high-quality and relevant to your business.
Validating your idea is the most essential part, particularly when starting with no money. Many startups fail because they build something no one is interested in. That’s what you need to avoid at all costs. If you aren’t sure where to start, reach out to other businesses and entrepreneurs. Their insight is priceless. Some ways to do this are meetups and Linkedin.
Another interesting thing to do is to research tools. When starting a business, you will probably need many tools and software to build it and sell it. But you don't have a huge budget to pay for them, so a great solution is to find free alternatives.
There really is no need to reinvent the wheel. If you have a general idea about a tool you wish you had or existed, Google it. Seriously, Google exactly what you’re thinking. Google “Top Ten…” and you can even add “Free” in the search and find out which ones are similar.
If you’re starting a business from scratch with no money, then you’re probably pretty creative and clever. Use that creativity in your research to find what best suits your needs and budget.
There are plenty of free tools for everything and don’t be afraid to test out the FREE TRIALS. You can always cancel it. #protip: set a calendar notification to cancel it so you don’t forget and get charged.
If you can think it, it’s probably already out there (and if it’s not, make it and sell it).
A few weeks ago, I needed to schedule some content for social networks. But I didn't want to spend some money on Buffer or Hootsuite. That's why I started googling and found a free solution using Google Calendar and IFTTT. I now basically create an event, set a description which is used as the post text, add a hashtag in the title depending on the network I want that post to be published in, and set up a date and time I want that post to live.
A third thing that’s useful to research is other startups.
We don’t share success and failure startup stories on Failory for fun; we do it for you! Researching and reading about other startups (even in unrelated fields) will help you learn how to start a business without money because you will see what worked and what didn’t.
Researching other startups, more specifically in your field, will better help you determine how much money you may need to start your business, what are some things that work and what don’t, what you may need to avoid, etc
You can also learn about potential suppliers, vendors, customers, and competitors. Learning about suppliers, vendors, and customers will help guide your product. Learning about your competitor will help you learn how to shape your marketing and business strategy.
Plenty of people have brilliant business ideas and great products, but it isn’t always the best that succeeds. That’s why you need to be filled with knowledge. In any industry, a lack of knowledge will truly eat you up, so keep learning. Knowledge really is power, it isn’t just a cheesy phrase!
The research I did before starting this site is a great example of all the things I’ve mentioned.
Before doing it, I had spent many months reading about startups, media businesses, communities, content marketing, etc. I was a big fan (and still am) of Indie Hackers where lots of successful business founders were interviewed every week, which was super inspirational and a great source of lessons and strategies.
At the same time, I remember taking every free online business course I found. I formed part of Facebook groups like “Udemy free courses” and Telegram channels that shared discounts. I even registered on Udacity and Coursera for their free trials, took the courses super fast and removed the credit card before it was billed.
On the side, I was also constantly trying new tools and products, as I have always been a fan of Product Hunt, a site where new startups and products are launched. As I was really limited in the amount of money I could invest, I would always search for trials, demos and discounts that would enable me to use these products at a fraction of the cost.
That’s how at the moment of building the site and lacking of coding experience, I was able to get a 3-month-free deal on Webflow, a visual web design tool, and a cheap domain and hosting plan.
With just $40, I was able to educate myself in a series of business areas as well as build a functional product that would later on bring thousands of users.
Coming with a great idea is essential in order to start a business without money.
You need to know exactly what your idea is and how much you are going to need to start things up. Don’t just go out and get a huge loan; you might not need it. That’s why research is the first step.
Your idea should be refined; it should be specific and clear. What I mean is, test it out and get feedback. We have already talked about feedback... the main idea is to see how practical your theoretical product or service is.
The way I generally come with new ideas is to think issues people are facing. You need to solve an existing and real pain; that’s where people will be more willing to put money in.
Another strategy I generally use is to identify some profitable and fast-growing businesses and adapt them to other niches.
Something you may want for your idea is to have product-market-founder-fit. What’s this?
The fit of these three means that you have came with a product that offers a great solution to an issue, problem, or pain many people are suffering, and at the same time, you’re interested in the solution you’ve built and market you’re providing it to.
Here’s a great and inspirational video from Dan Martell on 9 strategies to come up with winning business ideas:
If you carry out all of the mentioned strategies so far, you should be able to come up with a big list of business ideas. Just brainstorm for now, then you can do deeper research and remove the ones that you don’t think it will work or don’t work with the product-market-founder fit framework explained above.
What I generally do with new ideas is to store them on a spreadsheet with 9 columns:
Such a spreadsheet can help you identify which idea to work in, based on the resources, time and team you have. If you want to have an idea storage like this, just duplicate this spreadsheet.
Okay, I have a spreadsheet full of ideas, now what? It’s time to select one and validate it.
Validation of the idea, as already explained, is essential so as to avoid spending time and money on a product no one cares about. A great way to do it is to build an MVP of the business idea you have.
If you take away only three things from this article I hope that this is one of them.
MVP, which stands for Minimal Viable Product, is a product on a basic level that is valuable and works. You can always add more features and spend time perfecting it, but get it out the door if it is good. Your product may not need all the add-ons.
The main purpose of an MVP is to get feedback about what people really want. It will help you decide whether there is real interest in that product, what features need to be built firstly, what do your customers struggle with the most, etc.
As I’ve said, I was a big fan of Indie Hackers, where successful entrepreneurs were interviewed. Courtland, Indie Hackers’ founder, was transparent with the numbers of the business and he even shared articles on what he was doing to grow the site.
That’s how I applied the strategy mentioned above of copying Indie Hackers’ business model and adapting it to another niche. I knew that a huge percentage of startups failed but Indie Hackers wasn’t showing those stories. That’s what Failory would do.
Once I had the idea, I needed validation. That’s how I built a website in less than 2 weeks, filled it with 9 interviews and launched in on some communities. In the first week, it received +10k visits, which made me realized I should keep working on it.
A typical business plan is all about the structure or framework of your vision. Define your vision and set goals to guide your overall growth.
What will it look like in six months, three years, and beyond? What kind of resources, manpower, and capital are you going to need at different stages? What makes you different than your competitors? How are you going to build brand loyalty for customers to come back again and again?
A business plan has to do with the general road map and goals. A business strategy is how to achieve those goals.
If you don’t plan, it will be very easy to lose focus of your original vision. Your business plan is what will draw co-founders, employees, and brand advocates to you. A business plan is also a great thing to get feedback on.
Here’s a nice animated video on how to do it:
I’m particularly supporter that the plan comes only after the product is validated. There’s no sense in losing a lot of time working on a plan just to then realize nobody cares about your business idea.
On the side, the late trend seems to be towards less planning before starting the business and more planning as you move on. Startups have a lot of uncertainty about their future so business planning can sometimes be nonsense.
If you agree with me on this point, you may want to just work on a one-page business plan.
Planning for Failory didn’t come until I launched the product and I validated the idea. During the first weeks, it was just my brain and a to-do list that managed the future of the website.
Once the idea was validated, I dedicated further to planning. I took a ton of feedback from users which was helpful to define the future of the site. I started writing some marketing strategies I could think of based on the kind of persona that subscribed to Failory’s newsletter, monetization ideas based on a deep analysis of the competition, and any other interesting insight Failory’s users would share with me.
While it’s true that you can make it with $0 (or almost $0), you will be many steps ahead if you have some funding to invest in the product.
Free tools and solutions to almost any kind of problem you may face, exist. But you will need to spend hours to get it. What you can’t afford to buy with money, will cost you a lot of time.
That’s why here are some funding methods you should consider even if your plans were starting with $0.
Bootstrapping is the minimalist way to start a business. It is starting a business on your own without venture capitalists, angel investors, or large long-term loans. Bootstrapping is completely self-funded.
Bootstrapping keeps costs low. The less money you borrow, the fewer interest costs you’ll have, the fewer promises you have to make.
For bootstrapping to be successful, it is important to figure out what you need to buy versus rent or loan, what you can outsource for cheaper, and what you can get for free that will just get the job done.
Every year, between 35-40% of startups receive startup capital from the 3Fs. The reason why “fools” is included is because of the risk behind investing in seed startups and the lack of investing knowledge from this group of people.
The benefits of this kind of funding are that your friends and family members won’t require a specific credit score or extensive collateral to secure their investment and that they can be more flexible in terms of interest rates and delay to pay back.
Having said that, they can end up terribly. If your startups shuts down and you’re not able to pay the 3Fs their money back, that will end up many relationships.
There are many ways to get startup money if you don’t have it lying in your bank. One way is to get a loan. If you are super confident in your idea, this could work. If you feel that you can earn your loan money back in a certain amount of time, this could be a brilliant idea. You just have to be 100% sure, because if things go wrong, you will be in a very sticky situation!
There are plenty of ways to get loans so do some research to what is the best option for you. There are some businesses, such as Lending Club, that might be better than your typical bank.
Remember, everything is negotiable. If a loan is your only option, don’t just take the first offer anyone makes. The higher up the ladder you can go the more power someone has to give you what you want.
The federal, state or local government generally support startups by providing them with financial awards or zero-interest loans, particularly for beneficial projects.
It’s quite competitive to get one of these grants and it’s a long and paper-heavy process. On the side, grants generally also include a lot of supervision on where’s the money spent.
The power of the internet is real. There are many people who are in financially difficult positions, who get financial help from the public.
Crowdfunding is a legitimate way to get startup funds for your business, so don’t be afraid to advertise your crowdfunding campaign on social media and any other chance you get.
Some crowdfunding campaigns work based on donations. People are looking every day for a cause to donate to, they like helping others. Give them a cause to believe in.
Another way crowdfunding campaigns work is based on rewards. Those people who contribute to your campaign, get access to your product or get some participation on it.
As I’ve already said, Failory cost $40, and then it began to make some money which allowed me to finance further investments. Those $40 came from personal savings, so we can say I went with the bootstrapping path.
I’ve neither got a loan, grant, or money from the 3Fs nor did a crowdfunding campaign. Nowadays, the business is profitable and it finances itself.
The building part (coding the product, connecting with providers, setting up the office space, etc) of starting a business with no money is the hardest one if you haven’t been able to secure any funding.
If you have the abilities, knowledge and experience doing these things, that shouldn’t too hard, depending on the existing setup costs of your idea.
However, if you don’t have this characteristics, finding a co-founder that can take care of these tasks can be a great way to solve the issue, especially if they aren’t things that need to be done just one time.
For example, if your idea is to build a SaaS (software as a service) for businesses, the technical side of your business will be essential and if you don’t have the knowledge to work on it, you would need to either outsource the tasks (which can be super expensive and risky in the long term) or find a co-founder that can take care of it while you do the sales, marketing, management, etc tasks.
If your idea is to build a blog, in contrast, the technical side probably won’t be really essential and won’t require constant updates and tasks. That’s why you can probably outsource that work and avoid dividing the future profits of your business.
Another great idea is to do pre-launch sales and use that funding to build the product. Crowdfunding has made this a really common practice. We’ve recently interviewed the founder of Encharge, for example, who made $4k in pre-sales for a marketing automation tool which helped him validate his idea and get some funding to re-invest in the product,
In the case you’re building an online business and don’t know how to code, you may also find useful the no-code tools. They have lately become super powerful, allowing you to build entire websites and apps without a single line of code.
There are lots of no-code tools out there, so you will probably find a great fit with your needs. In the long term, they can become pretty limiting, but they are an amazing way to build a minimum viable product and validate your idea super fastlyx.
No matter which path you decide to go with, remember to always build a product for your customer, not for you. Learn what your customers’ problems are through user surveys and interviews and build a solution for them.
When starting Failory, I had 0 coding knowledge. However, I was able to build a website in 2 weeks without writing a line of code using Webflow.
Webflow is a visual website designer that allows users to drop elements and customize them a lot. It’s much more powerful than Wix and Squarespace, but still pretty easy to use. I’d say it has a bit of a learning curve but there’s a ton of material out there on how to use it.
The product is finished, now it’s time to launch it.
Even if the product is not perfect, launch it. You need to avoid the “paralysis by analysis”, a syndrome that makes entrepreneurs feel they have to keep improving the product and adding new features, postponing its launch. There will be enough time to refine and tweak your product.
Spend some time preparing your launch. Identify where your target customer lay and find the way to promote your business there without being spammy.
Note that launch is not everything. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get many sales during the launch week. What you aim to get is user feedback. Get to know your first users and turn them into real fans of your product; they will then take care of the word of mouth marketing.
Once I had the finished site, which was far from being perfect, I prepared the launch. I shared the project on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, some online communities, and email outreach.
The result was +10k users visiting the site within the first week. We got a ton of feedback from those people, though we made $0. We begin to improve the site and in a short amount of time, we got our first sponsor and we become profitable.
If you have a great product but poor marketing, you are not going to get very far. It takes both to be successful.
Social Media Marketing is one of the cheapest and best ways to get the word out. I say cheap and not free, because sometimes you’re better off putting in a few dollars for an ad. Ads on most social media platforms are underpriced, so get it while it’s hot.
Content marketing is all about giving; it’s all about providing value. It’s not the same as an advertisement. Content is a way to show what you know, what you can do, and to help people get to know you so they want to do business with you.
SEO, which refers to search engine optimization, is another free strategy that’s related to content marketing. Did you find this article on Google? It’s because we have worked its SEO so that it appears between the first results.
Lastly, cold outreach is a free strategy that if done correctly and with caution (avoid being spammy and bothering the other person), can lead to some big clients and great connections.
When working on marketing strategies without much money to invest, you will need to be creative and dedicate a lot of time.
SEO and content strategies only bring results in the long term; cold outreach requires extensive research and a lot of hours doing it with the risk of getting no prospects; social media marketing, at the beginning, may seem as talking to the wall.
However, if you have made it so far without spending any money, you are probably enough to capture those first clients.
I did a ton of guerrilla marketing since day one. I leveraged the use of social networks, online communities, cold outreach and content marketing.
SEO is currently the main source of traffic for the site, but it didn’t brought any traffic for many months after I begin working on it, so you may want to combine it with other strategies as well.
I have also launched lots of side-projects as the site grew. While it began as a website of interviews with failed small business owners, I later on began adding blog articles, post mortem analysis on why have big companies failed and a list of resources for entrepreneurs.
As the site began to grow, I found myself with more money to reinvest, which meant that I could also try out ads, hiring writers, buying tools that boosted the marketing campaigns, etc.
Nowadays, the site receives +50k users and makes $1,500/month through sponsorships and affiliate links.
Great, now that you have all the tools and knowledge to start a startup and make it throughout all the business stages without spending much money, it’s time to begin creating. Here are some ideas for you if you feel a little bit lost on where to start.
To you, your idea may sound amazing. However, you may be slightly biased. You need to get an opinion from someone who will be honest with you.
It’s important to have somebody who would tell you if you’re going in the right or wrong direction or if it isn’t really complete.
Even if you don’t have a full-time partner who can watch your back every step of the way you should seek wise counsel. A second opinion could be the difference between your business taking off or taking a nosedive.
There are a few great ways to find startup advisors and co-founders. CoFoundersLab and Linkedin are two great resources where you can easily reach out to people that can help.
It’s not always best to go in needy. Remember, anyone capable of giving good advice is probably very busy. Provide value and make a connection; no one wants to feel like you are just trying to get something from them.
Okay, so you have a great idea and you might even be pulling in a little money. Don’t quit your day job. Even if you’re in a job that doesn't pay much, stick with it.
No matter what you’re making, every little bit helps when starting a business from scratch. Save your money; it will make things so much easier for you in the long run. I can’t tell you how many people were dominating their startup game until some other financial disaster or incident happened and shut them down.
Staying employed is a good way to build a buffer, keep your living expenses at bay, and fund your business by yourself. Not to say that you can’t start a business with no money, because you can, but a few extra dollars won’t hurt.
If you can keep a small stream of income, it will make things so much easier for you. If you’re not convinced you can keep your day job and get your side hustle on, check out this article.
Invest your profits. Congratulations, you made your first sale and you want to start your own business, but you also really want to blow that cash you just made. After all, it’s all extra since you already have your day job, right? Wrong! Spending all your profits and not putting it back into your new business is a fatal amateur flaw. Don’t be an amateur.
For many, the first sale is a bit of a surprise. Don’t let the excitement distract you. You might not know how to start a business with no capital (or how to just plain start a business), but from the minute you make one transaction, make a plan or your success will be short-lived.
When I say socially active, I mean attend events and talks. Talk with other business owners and keep updated on the latest startup news.
Search far and wide and always stay informed about what’s happening. This will allow you to meet potential investors, meet possible co-founders, educate yourself, and gain confidence. You need to put yourself out there when you plan to start a business. About 70% of jobs are obtained from networking, so staying at home won’t do the trick. Meetup is a great way to find people who are interested in the same things.
No one wants more spam mail and email, but consider signing up for newsletters to businesses that are relevant to you. Often they have free gatherings and network events that you can attend just for being on their email list.
Ramp up your social media activity. Social media is FREE advertising. It is a bit more difficult than simply running an ad that points them right to your business, but it is free.
You can greatly grow your brand awareness or product on all social media platforms, but figure out which one is best for you and stick to it. Consistency is key. Create a business page, and promote yourself on your personal profile.
There is no better way to gain eyes and attention for starting a business without money than to use the right social media platform for your business.
Pieter Levels is a great example of being socially active. He is the founder of Nomad List and Remote Ok and does an excellent job on Twitter. He has an audience of +80k followers who have helped him a lot bootstrap his businesses and make over $70,000/month.
Negotiating is an important business skill. It doesn’t matter what you do. We all negotiate every day.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not trying to be some hostage negotiator,” or, “I’m not negotiating a business take over.” The reality is, if you’re trying to get something out of someone then you are negotiating. When you’re starting a business with no money and a priceless idea you’re going to lay everything on the line.
What we get out of life is largely determined by our ability to ask.
How much do you make an hour? Negotiating for just a few minutes could be the difference of saving or making thousands of dollars. Do you make a thousand dollars a minute? You could.
Whether you’re trying to starting a startup or you’ve been at your job a long time, improving this skill will greatly alter your business and personal dealings.
Here is a quick read to get you started on the path to successful long-lasting negotiations. If you really want to do some further studying on the subject (or you just want to get a better salary or better deal on a new car), “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss, is a fantastic read. Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, and Dr. Larry Iverson are a few other great speakers on the topic.
I’ve already said this many times, but it’s because I think the internet is full of free resources that will help you build a business and the trends seems to be to keep publishing more free stuff.
Free doesn’t mean low quality. While there’s a ton of free garbage, there are complete courses dictated by universities available on platforms like Coursera for free, if you you use your creativity on how to access them ;)
Here are 5 tools that helped me when starting Failory:
Canva: No matter what you do, you need to create a graphic. Canva is a quick pain free way to create professional-looking graphics. Canva comes complete with stock photos, template designs and layouts, and the correct sizing for the platforms you want to publish on.
Unsplash: If you want to promote your business you are going to need to create content. This tool follows Canva, because the stock photos of Canva only get you so far. You need options. To pump out lots of content you need LOTS of options, and you will always need new pictures.
Hootsuite/Buffer: I don’t want to say that these two tools are the same, but they both get the same job done. You need to stay on top of your marketing strategy. Hootsuite and Buffer are scheduling platforms where you can optimize, set, and relax. They have different insights and analysis tools, but they are essential if you don’t want to devote time every day to creating and maintaining a social media presence. As I have said before, I am no longer using these tools (I am mainly using a combination of IFTTT and Google Calendars), but I totally recommend them.
Wordpress/Squarespace/Webflow: You need a website. Wordpress is the most common, but it can be a little difficult if you are going with the .org versus the .com. The .org is far more complicated but has near limitless capabilities and plugins. Squarespace is similar to Wix but is very much about aesthetics. They are very proud of their beautiful templates. Webflow is more of a develop and design yourself platform. Basically you will be making all the changes and coding without actually needing to know how to code. All of these website builders are good, so look into them, check out reviews, and determine what fits your needs and your capabilities.
Quickbooks/Freshbooks: You made a product, and now you want to get paid. Give them an invoice. Some people are willing to pay cash, checks, or use a credit card, but if it is a B2B business they are going to want an invoice to go along with it. A few other tools for B2C are Venmo, Paypal, and Apple Pay.
For everyone, the cost to set up a company isn’t low, but more people are doing in now than ever because it is possible. Starting your own business is truly one of the top ways to financial wealth and prosperity.
The internet and all the free tools out there make it possible. You just have to look. Maybe you just need a laptop, website, and business cards to start your company. Maybe you need a new wearhouse. Either way, it is possible to keep costs down when starting a business. Hang in there.
There is help out there for funding. It can add up, so consider bootstrapping first. Be prepared to pay for something if you want to get serious and make big moves. Many entrepreneurs find that the premium versions of many free tools are worth it.
If you want the best results, you need to invest in your business, and more importantly, yourself. You have social media, crowdfunding, and even the old-fashioned method of public fundraising. If you are fortunate enough to have a job, keep pushing forward and save as much as you can. If you combine these methods, you’ll find yourself with the money that you need in no time at all.
A failure to commit early on is one of the top three reasons startups fail. If you want it then go for it, know it'll be hard work. Have patience and don’t give up.
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