How to start a business with little or no money

January 16, 2024 | 9 minute read

Starting a business with little or no money may sound farfetched, but it is certainly possible. Thanks to the abundance of free and low-cost resources to support small businesses and entrepreneurs — from online courses to grant programs — a growing number of people are launching businesses at their own kitchen tables. In the 12 months leading up to September 2023, more than 5.3 million Americans registered new businesses, according to U.S. Census statistics.1

 

Some of these new owners are starting side hustles that they run while working a full-time job. Others are plunging into full-time business ownership. There are a number of proactive steps you can take if business ownership is one of your goals. If you’re looking to start a business on a shoestring budget, here are some additional factors to consider.

 

Types of businesses you can start with little or no money

In many small businesses, the largest costs are payroll and real estate. You’d do best starting off with something you can do without hiring employees (at least during the early months) or with little or no cost for a physical workspace.

 

Some popular options for budding small business owners with little to no startup capital include:

 

Freelancing

There are many online marketplaces for freelancers. You can put up a profile and bid on work in service-based fields, whether it is app development, copywriting, accounting, consulting or something else. Some of the major ones are Upwork, Freelancer and PeoplePerHour. If you have a service-based business, the most important thing is to let people know about the service you’re selling. 

 

If you don’t have money to spend on marketing or advertising, the easiest people to reach are those in your network. Updating your profile on LinkedIn with information about your new freelance business is one free way to do this. Many owners also put up a profile on Alignable, another social network for businesses. You may also be able to find supportive members in your professional network to spread the news about your new business.

 

E-commerce

Starting an online store is more accessible than ever before, thanks to easy-to-use platforms, such as Wix or Amazon’s marketplace for small businesses. If you have little to no startup capital, one convenient option is working with a drop-shipping supplier that is willing to fill orders for you. The supplier takes their cut of the proceeds and you — the merchant — receive what’s left. No upfront cash is required.

 

Service-area and hybrid businesses

If you have a great product or service and can’t afford a brick-and-mortar storefront, you may not need a permanent location to start. For instance, if you want to open a restaurant, first try your hand at providing catering services and advertise locally. Many cities even offer shared-use or commissary kitchens, which are commercially licensed spaces that allow you to produce food without the overhead of leasing your own kitchen.

 

Kiosks and pop-up shops are another great opportunity to establish a physical presence to sell your product or service. Whether your motive is low cost, limited inventory or a seasonal business, a smaller footprint can save considerably on overhead and operational expenses. Remaining conservative with your costs as you grow your business will help you build the necessary cash flow if you decide to lease a long-term storefront someday.

 

Manufacturing

The days when you needed to own a factory to make a physical product are over. Today, almost anyone with an invention can become a maker from their living room. If you have a great idea for a product, there are platforms where you can find freelance talent to create an affordable prototype and then connect with a factory willing to create a sample for you through a marketplace such as Alibaba or Maker’s Row. Before you invest a penny in manufacturing it, you can place (or upload) a picture of your product on Facebook, Instagram or a low-cost website; purchase inexpensive online ads to drive traffic to it; and take preorders through a simple e-commerce site. Once you have enough preorders, you can use that money to hire a factory to produce a small run. If you don’t receive any orders, you’ll know your product is a dud before you’ve spent any money, and you can move on to your next idea.

 

Managing the essential costs of running a business

As your business plan becomes a real business, there will inevitably be costs. Early on, develop the habit of managing your costs. Our customizable startup costs calculator can help you estimate how much money you’ll need to start your new business. Use this list of tactics from experienced business owners who manage their companies’ finances by controlling their own big-spending impulses:

 

Create a budget — and use it

When you find yourself rationalizing a higher expenditure because it will make you more productive, take a step back. A budget can be a powerful tool. In fact, many successful entrepreneurs budget down to the dollar and penny. Stick to your low-cost, no-cost plan, even if it hurts a little.

 

Barter whenever you can

Think about all the services you need and if there are ways you can pay for them with your own services or products. If you sell marketing services, for instance, perhaps your accountant would be willing to accept your help in exchange for doing your tax return. Each time you barter, you conserve cash.

 

Shop around

Ask other business owners for tips on where they buy. Finding low-cost outlets for supplies you need regularly, like copy paper or equipment, can help you stay ahead of inflation.

 

Take advantage of offers and free trials

Try out things like accounting, legal and sales software before you commit. That way, you won’t rack up charges for programs you’ve forgotten you subscribed to. Mark the date in your calendar to cancel any you don’t find useful.

 

Look for offers geared specifically to startups and small businesses. The Bank of America Form Your Business page is a great place to start for exclusive offers on business formation and more.

 

Use your library

Instead of buying books and subscriptions you may need for your business, make the most of the free resources. Many libraries now offer audiobooks you can listen to while driving or taking a walk.

 

Use a pay-it-forward pitch

An expensive lawyer or accountant whose advice may be worth every penny might offer some of their services for free if you let them know you’re running a startup and tell them you’ll be back as a paying customer later.

 

Explore cost-sharing opportunities

One way you can cut costs is by partnering with another business to share expenses.

 

Managing costs also means keeping cash flowing to pay for them. You may have to work for another company while launching your business to do that.

 

In the meantime, make sure you’re pricing your products and services at a high enough price that you have the profits to reinvest in marketing or supplies. If you’re not sure how to price your product or service and build in a profit margin, do some research into what competitors are charging or speak to a small business advisor at a local Small Business Development Center or the mentoring organization SCORE.

 

Tap into alternative funding sources

As a new business owner, you may have access to more funding options than you think. In recent years, the number of grants and low-interest loans for entrepreneurs has multiplied. Foundations, nonprofit organizations and other groups have launched programs and platforms to help people start businesses, increasing awareness that small businesses generate tax revenue for the government, create jobs and enhance communities. If you anticipate leveraging external funding, make sure you start separating personal and business expenses so you can build your business credit profile early on.

 

Here are a few more ideas:

 

Research local resources

The U.S. Economic Development Administration has a directory that will lead you to entrepreneurship and business development offices in your state. They may not have cash at hand, but they will be great sources of information about how and where to apply for grants. Bank of America, in collaboration with Seneca Women, also developed Access to Capital Directories, which are geared toward helping entrepreneurs that identify as Black, Hispanic-Latino and women.

 

Ask your friends and family for support

Develop a pitch where you make it clear what your friends and family will get in return for helping you. You may want to give them an ownership stake in the company or pay them interest on a loan to make the deal attractive.

 

Investigate digital platforms

There are a growing number of platforms where you can raise funds from supporters. If you’ve invented a product, try crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where people can sign up to receive an early version of what you’re selling if you meet your funding goals. Some entrepreneurs turn to sites like Patreon, where supporters can subscribe to creative productions such as podcasts, and GoFundMe, where they can make donations. You may be surprised at how willing your fans will be to contribute to your business.

 

Consider keeping your day job

If you start your business as a side hustle, you may wonder if you should eventually turn it into a full-time pursuit. Keeping your job will provide certain benefits, such as a steady income and the opportunity to continue developing skills, but it also requires a significant time commitment and balancing of responsibilities. First and foremost, check before you launch to make sure you would not be violating any of your employer’s policies on freelancing, consulting or moonlighting. More companies are aware that team members are taking side jobs and starting businesses in an environment where the cost of living keeps rising. However, some do have rules against working for another company in the same field. When in doubt, check those forms you signed when you took your job, or ask someone in human resources.

 

The bottom line

It may not be easy to launch a business with little to no money, but ultimately, the lean habits you build will help you lay a strong foundation for the future. Keeping your spending down will allow you to reinvest in the business, and that can be a recipe for growth.

1. U.S. Census Bureau, “Business Formation Statistics,” October 16, 2023.

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