How to Start a Business With (Almost) No Money
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Keep your current job. By retaining a reliable source of income, you save yourself from the worry of not knowing how you'll pay your mortgage and from dealing with mountains of potential debt. However, you will have to work harder. Ideally, when your new business begins to pick up steam, you can gradually make the transition from a full time employee at your old job to a consultant or part-time worker. Eventually, you can transfer to your own business full-time. Though in real life this process often doesn't go quite as smoothly, it's almost always safer than dropping everything to pursue a dream that hasn't materialized yet.
This first step is all the more important if you're supporting a family. Don't jeopardize your family's future by giving up your primary source of income to pursue a personal dream. Though it's harder to balance your side project with your day job and your family life, it's much safer.
If you think you may want to start your own business in the near future, avoid signing an employment contract with a clause restricting your ability to pursue other sources of income. Don't be afraid to carefully go over your contract with a lawyer.
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Design a business plan. How will you make money? If you can't answer this question, you shouldn't start your own business. The purpose of any for-profit institution is to make money - have a detailed plan for how to do this before you embark on your business venture. Try to answer the following questions - these are fairly fundamental and by no means exhaustive:
How much will it cost you to provide your product or service to the customer?
How much will you charge the customer for your product or service?
How will you increase the volume of your business?
In what ways will your business offer a better deal than your competitors?
What kinds of people will you need to hire? Can the work be done without these people?
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Do a competitive analysis. Who are your competitors? What do they charge for the product or service you're offering? Can you realistically provide this product or service at a higher level of quality or for a lower cost? If so, congratulations - you may be on to something! Research the market you're attempting to break into, as well as businesses that have (and haven't) found success in this market.
Not all industries are equally easy to break into. Business research firm IBISWorld recommends certain industries to aspiring small business owners for their low entry cost and high growth potential. Among them are: human resources & benefits administration, street vending, online auctioning & e-commerce, ethnic supermarkets, wine/spirit brewing, internet publishing, and more.
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Research and test your ideas. Preparation and planning is vital before setting out on any business venture. If you can, look for opportunities to perform "test runs." For instance, if you're thinking of opening a restaurant, first try cooking for a church or school fundraiser to see if you can handle the hectic atmosphere of a busy kitchen and to judge whether your food is well-received. You may also want to try conducting a survey among potential customers to judge whether they would frequent your hypothetical business.
Business plans are evolving documents. If the results of your research or testing contradict your current plans, don't be afraid to change your business plan or even start from scratch. Doing so can be frustrating, but it's far smarter than risking the failure of your business on an idea that won't fly.
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Find opportunities to build skills cheaply. If you have an idea for a business but you lack the skills or training to pursue it, get the training you need for as cheap as possible. Try to make deals with training institutions or companies to have train you in exchange for services rendered. Take on a paid internship or apprenticeship part-time. Look for opportunities to gain practical know-how from friends, family, and skilled acquaintances. You should maintain a source of income while you're doing this - if this means you need to stretch your training over a longer length of time, so be it.
If you need to go back to school, apply for every scholarship and financial aid package you're eligible for. The paperwork can be time-consuming, but the results (in the form of money saved) are worth it.
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Make the most of your existing assets. When you're starting a new business from nothing, you should use the resources you already have at your disposal as much as you can. For instance, make your everyday car your company car. Turn your garage into a workshop. Some of today's biggest companies (most famously, Apple and Facebook) began in humble places - garages, basements, and dorm rooms, for instance. Don't be afraid to make the most of what you've got!
If you have a home, use it as the initial site of your business, rather than renting an office. This way, you'll save the money you would otherwise have spent on rent. For tax purposes, you may want to write off part of your home as a home office.
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Streamline your staffing plans. It's expensive to pay your staff, especially if you want to hire well-trained professionals. Initially, keep your staff as small as possible to minimize expenditures. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) recommends spending no more than about 50% of your profits on employee wages. If you can do all of the business's work without taxing yourself to exhaustion, go it alone initially. Otherwise, employ the smallest number of people necessary to do the job safely and professionally. As the business grows, you'll find a natural need to hire more people.
Keep in mind that, today, depending on where you live and the kinds of people you employ, you may be required to pay for an employee's medical insurance in addition to his or her base salary.
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Ask friends and/or family for a loan. When attempting to build a business from scratch, your creativity and hard work can take the place of a substantial amount of money. However, you may reach a point where you simply can't proceed without a little money. For instance, you may need a certain expensive piece of equipment which you don't own and can't borrow. Many small businesses find their feet with help from a kind relative or friend. Before you agree to a loan, however, make sure you specify the terms of the loan in writing - how long you'll have to pay the loan back, how big your payments will be, etc.
It may be an especially good idea to have a clause specifying that if the business fails, you'll have an extra-long time to pay back the loan (or won't have to pay back the loan at all).
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Secure an official small business loan. Many governments offer loan programs specifically designed to get small businesses off the ground. In the U.S., the SBA is the agency that operates these programs. The most commonly-used SBA loan program is the 7(a) program, which requires businesses to meet a variety of requirements to ensure that the money is being well-spent. These requirements state that the business must:
Operate for profit
Meet SBA guidelines for what makes a business "small"
Operate in the United States or its territories/possessions
Have sufficient equity (basically, value.)
Exhaust other reasonable avenues of raising money before applying
Be able to demonstrate a need for the loan
Be able to show a sound use for the money
Not be delinquent on any existing loans to the government
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Get the word out. The best-run business in the world will fail, if no body knows it exists. Here's your chance to make up for a lack of capital with your own hard work - if you can't afford to run TV adds or rent billboard space, try printing off flyers at home and handing them out on weekends. Go door-to-door advertising your business in the neighborhood. Make your own banner to hang from the front of your business. Dress up in a ridiculous costume and stand with a sign on a busy street corner. Every cheesy, demeaning thing that you can do to get the word out about your new business - do it. If money's tight, your ego might have to take a back seat to your initial marketing efforts.
Today, you also have the potential to reach your customers online via a successful social media campaign. Social media is an effective way for a small business to represent itself to its customers online. Best of all, it's free for your business to join almost all major social media sites. Make an account on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks, and encourage your customers to add you to their online circle (possibly by offering small perks to customers who do so) so that, you can notify them about deals and promotions.
Keep in mind, however, that online customers are used to being constantly bombarded with ads. Try to make your online content genuinely funny or striking - you'll be more popular than if you use social media solely as a platform for ads.
Thinking Like an Entrepreneur
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Grow some passion and determination. Starting your own business can be very, very hard, especially in the beginning, when you're still working out the "kinks" of your new business model. If you love your business - if it's something you have a passion for - the work becomes much easier. If your passion for your work is so great that you feel guilty for making money, you can be confident that you've picked something that's perfect for you. When you have passion for your work, it's easy to keep your sense of determination strong because you won't be satisfied with yourself until you've done your best!
Find some areas you are passionate about and grow your skills in those areas through studies, training courses and the practical application of knowledge and skill. Find ways to make money out of your passion rather than trying to "force" the day job that you work to pay your bills into being the object of your passion.
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Be prepared to reinvent yourself. When you start your own business, you may find that you need to make drastic changes to your habits and even your basic demeanor, to keep up with your new demands. Flexibility is a great asset if you're a new small business owner, as you may have to ‘reinvent’ yourself a few times to find the right slant to tackle the niche you have chosen. Remember, starting your own business requires long hours and lots of focus - change your behavior to ensure you're able to give your new job the time and attention that it needs.
For instance, are you "not a morning person?" Are you "low-energy?" If your restaurant's grand opening is in one week, you can't afford to be these things anymore! Change your habits today - set your alarm clock extra early and drink a big mug of coffee.
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Take advantage of unconventional sources of funding. So, you don't have an angel investor or a trust fund. This doesn't necessarily mean it'll be impossible to raise cash for your dream startup! Today, it's easier than ever for people who have great ideas (but no money) to get the attention of people with money (but no great ideas). Consider, for instance, advertising your project on a cloud-sourcing site like Kickstarter. Sites like this allow you to "pitch" your idea to the internet at large - if people online think your idea's good and your business plan is sound, they'll have the option of chipping in some of your startup costs!
Another way to win cash for your small business is to enter yourself in a startup competition. These competitions, often put on by the business schools of major universities (especially San Francisco Bay Area universities like Berkeley and Stanford) allow young, enterprising entrepreneurs to sell their ideas to wealthy venture capitalists. Usually, in these competitions, the winners win an initial round of funding to start their business!
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Put the customer first. One sure-fire way to set your new business apart from established competitors is simply by being more friendly and personable than anyone else - people love when small businesses have a warm "Ma and Pa" feel. Make it your primary objective to please your customers through quality results and friendly service.
Try to understand what the customer wants. Find the best way to satisfy those wants. The main focus of any business is customer satisfaction. (Secondary focus should then be quality, cost/profit, appearance, function of product/service, etc etc...)
Remember that the customer is "always right" - even if s/he is acting entitled or illogical. This doesn't mean you need to capitulate to customers with ridiculous demands - rather, just that you need to make every customer feel respected.
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Offer better value than competitors. Money talks. For most average consumers, money is the "bottom line" - the thing that informs them when they decide which products and services to pay for. Consumers want value for their money and abhor the idea of being ‘ripped off’. Take advantage of this! Offer a better deal than your competitors - doing the same work for cheaper is sure to give you a leg up. However, ensure your profit margins are protected when deciding on your business's pricing structure - you always need to be able to pay the rent.
Make good on your promises and never be tempted to engage in false advertising as it will ruin you and your business’ reputation in no time.
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Let your creativity replace your money. Get your business "back to basics." Initially, try to make sure your business is as lean as it can be. Minimize your need for cash, which can be hard to come by at first, and aggressively increase sales activity through developing and implementing your own creative ideas and concepts. Always think big. One great idea can be worth thousands of dollars.
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Approach contracts and partnerships with caution. Be sure that you consider every business relationship or partnership you make very carefully. Only hire or partner up with people you trust absolutely. If you do decide to partner with a person or business you trust, be sure to have the terms of your partnership recorded in writing before making your relationship official.
It can be a very good idea to pay a lawyer to help you write your contracts for you. Legal fees can be expensive, but a well-written contract can save you many times your initial investment in the long run by preventing your partners from taking advantage of you.
Be careful when using the term ‘partner’ when you speak with business associates, as the legal concept of promissory stoppers (the spoken word superseding a written contract) might bite you at a later stage, especially if you start making money.
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Build your ability to negotiate. When all else fails, negotiate, barter, and trade. Confident crafty bargaining ability is one of the defining traits of a true entrepreneur. This is a valuable skill to build, as it strengthens your innate business "know-how" and improves your confidence. Whether you're hiring a new employee, shopping for some equipment, or hammering out a business partnership, don't be afraid to haggle and make offers that are beneficial to you - the worst the other person can do is say "no." Take risks (while protecting your legal rights) and you may be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
Try making a trip to the local flea market - here, you're usually allowed (even encouraged) to haggle and bargain with vendors, so you can get some good low-stakes practice in.
Staying Safe and Sane
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Rely on your family, friends, and loved ones. You don't have to go this road alone. Even if you don't make business partnerships with your loved ones (which can be a smart idea), you can lean on these people in the beginning (and later, when times are hard). Family and friends can offer powerful emotional support during your entrepreneurial journey. When you're stressed to your limit, this support can make the difference between pushing yourself to succeed and throwing into the well.
Talk to your family and make sure they agree with your overall business plan, because you may, at times, have to tax your family's resources, time, money, health, and nerves. It's only fair that they know what they're getting in to.
After becoming the boss in your business life, you may feel the temptation to become bossy at home, too. Don't act on this temptation. Keep your business concerns and your family concerns separate - make a rule that you won't discuss your business at dinner, for instance.
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Know your rights. Having sound knowledge of commercial law (especially contract law, tax law, and the legal requirements for running a small business) is a valuable skill for an entrepreneur to have. If possible, it's a great idea to familiarize yourself with these areas of law, before starting your business. If you're truly confident in these areas of law, you can save money, you, otherwise may have had to spend on legal counsel. You'll also spare yourself from serious headaches when trying to decipher complex business and tax documents.
However, if you're not familiar with the law, get help. The money you spend on a lawyer can save you many times your initial investment, for instance, by preventing you from getting into damaging contracts.
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Look after your physical, mental and emotional state. If you lose your health, you may lose it all. A healthy body, mind, and soul are vital to success as a business owner. Especially in the beginning, the hours may be very long and the work may be very hard. Still, you should always try to devote reasonable amounts of time to exercise, sleep, and "down-time." Treat these things with the value they deserve - they keep you healthy and sane. Remember, if you're incapacitated, you can't run your business.
Try to get income protection insurance, especially if your job is one with a risk of injury - a self-employed person cannot afford to lose income to this possibility.
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Get the work-life balance right. Do all things in moderation. Live life with a sense of balance, even when you're starting a business with barely a cent in the bank. Losing your perspective in life will make you poorer in the long run (emotionally - not necessarily financially), so it's never a risk worth taking. Never miss a night’s sleep. Don't work yourself to death. Always devote time to your family, your hobbies, and, of course, yourself. Your life should be a source of joy and passion - not just an opportunity to work.
Additionally, you should never rely on drugs to aid your performance ability or to replace your regular healthy eating and exercise plans. This will, in the long run, break you down and cause you to make irrational, emotional decisions which are never a good thing in business.
I’ve got a great idea for a business. But I don’t have any money to start it up.” This phrase is something I’ve heard again and again . . . and again—from students, friends, and sometimes even colleagues. While it’s true that a generous credit line, a team of investors, or an uncle with deep pockets can make starting a company easier, not having money is no excuse. If you are confident that you have a product or service people want, don’t allow the lack of capital to deter you from your business goals. By pivoting, grinding it out, getting creative, and differentiating yourself, you can bootstrap your way to a successful business.
1. Pivot. Use services to generate cash flow and fund a product-based business.
Starting a service-oriented business is easy: First, you provide services, and then you collect funds. But a product-based business often requires significant up-front capital to get it up and running. If you’re in this situation, consider selling services to generate cash flow and to build up funds for a product-based business.
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My current company, Outbox Systems, began this way. We wanted to connect two software applications, but we didn’t have the capital to build the integration. Knowing we needed to generate money to fund our product development, I approached the partner channel at AtTask and asked if I could build a software integration for them. Fortuitously, an enterprise AtTask customer needed to integrate AtTask and Salesforce and was willing to pay us $125 per hour to build the integration. Then we turned around and resold the product to others. A typical tech entrepreneur thinks, “Raise money, build software.” But we turned the model on its head and essentially got the company to help us develop intellectual property for our business.
2. Grind it out. There’s no substitute for sweat equity.
Sometimes you have to get into the trenches and make it happen. During the first two years of business at my prior company, PC Care Support, I knocked on doors, worked my own booth, and closed my own deals. I set up a table at the local college’s business school, hired five college students to work solely on commission, and knocked on people’s doors 7-8 hours per day looking for business. For those two years I didn’t receive a paycheck. But I believed in my service, and I believed we could be successful. I was, as billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk said, “hell bent on making it work.” The hard work eventually paid off.
3. Get creative. Funding sources are everywhere.
Traditional entrepreneurship philosophy dictates that, to be successful, you should stick with one thing and not deviate from it. But desperate times call for desperate measures. If you are having trouble finding access to funds, there are a number of creative things you can do, such as the following: