When starting a business, finding a good idea is half the battle. The other half is funding it.
A great business idea with zero capital doesn’t mean your path to entrepreneurship is over. There are plenty of ways to start a business without money. In most cases, all you need is an entrepreneurial mindset: patience, hard work, creativity, and the willingness to test new things.
This guide shares how to bootstrap your own business with minimal cash. The goal? To start making money you can later reinvest into growth.
How to start a business with no money
- Find a free business idea
- Write a business plan
- Choose a business name
- Launch a website
- Validate ideas with preorders
- Source funding to grow
From validating your idea to making your first dollar, here’s the blueprint to starting a business with no money.
1. Find a free business idea
The first stage of starting a business is to develop an idea. If you’re unsure on what that could be, here are six creative business ideas you can start with no money.
Sell your services
The easiest way to start a business with no money is to sell your services. Even if you haven’t mastered a specific area, being better than the average person at something means you know how to start a business that helps them. So, start by looking at the things you know how to do better than most people. Package that skill set into a service, such as:
- Freelance writing
- Virtual assistant
- Social media marketing
- Handyman services
Since you don’t have the capital yet, start with the things that you have, like your experience, knowledge, skills, and resources you own. These are the best investments you’ll have when you’ve only got $0.
Don’t rule out a service business if you don’t have a particularly strong set of skills. Your time is valuable; busy people often pay an hourly fee for someone else to do tasks they don’t want (or don’t have time) to do. That includes jobs like:
- House or pet sitting
- Dog walking
- Personal shopping
- Car washing
Many entrepreneurs write off these small business ideas because they fear they’ll earn minimum wage. But service-based businesses can be lucrative. Some freelance writers make six figures annually within two years of running their business. One window cleaner even hit the $250,000 mark within 12 months.
Dropshipping is a popular business model for entrepreneurs looking to start a small business with no money. Simply create an online store and choose a dropshipping supplier like DSers or AliExpress. When an order is made, your ecommerce platform will forward the order information to your supplier. It’s their job to pick, pack, and ship the order to your customer.
As a master’s degree student, I didn’t really have much disposable income, so I decided to learn how to dropship. I decided to dropship on Wish, since it wasn’t spoken about as often as dropshipping on your own store or into Amazon.
The best part about dropshipping is that you can get started with a tiny budget. Instead of buying inventory before it’s sold, and storing those goods in an expensive warehouse, vendors will only charge you for inventory when you sell it. Get started with a free 3-day trial and then $5 a month with Shopify's Starter plan.
- 17 Trending Products and Things To Sell Online
- How To Start a Dropshipping Business in 9 Simple Steps (2023)
- Dropshipping Fulfillment: Guide to Supply Chain and Order Fulfillment
Print on demand
The global market for personalized products is estimated to be worth $38 billion. Capitalize on that opportunity, even if you don’t have cash upfront to invest in inventory, with a print-on-demand business.
Print on demand is the process of private-labeling products (such as tote bags, t-shirts, or caps) and selling them on a per-order basis. Suppliers like Printful will print your designs onto inventory, ship it to the customer, and charge you for their service after you’ve received the money from your customer.
We started with a print-on-demand service, bringing initial operational investment to $0. Essentially, we were just a website to start off with—to validate the idea.
Much like dropshipping, there are minimal costs associated with starting this type of business, since you’ll only pay for inventory when a customer orders it. There also are no storage costs to contend with using the print-on-demand model, making it a worthwhile option if you’re looking to start a business with $0.
- 10 Best Print-on-Demand Products to Sell
- 10 Best Print-on-Demand Companies (Free + Paid)
- How to Source Products for Your Online Store: Top Apps and Tips
Sell handcrafted goods
Prefer a more hands-on approach to starting a small business? Turn your hobby into a side hustle by selling handcrafted goods through your online store or marketplaces like Etsy. This can include:
We started out in a garage, buying powders off of websites and getting mixing jars from everywhere that we could. Our first sample was hand delivered with powder in Ziploc bags and a funnel.
Katrina Bell is one entrepreneur who took this approach when starting a business with no money. Now the owner of The Copper Bell, Katrina chose to sell candles because they “do not have a steep learning curve, do not require any government oversight and regulation, and can easily be made in larger and larger batches.”
What originally started as a fun side hustle eventually turned into Katrina’s full-time job after being laid off at the start of the pandemic. “I decided to really push my business online with Shopify immediately after that and enjoyed huge growth after a few months of full-time work,” she says. “Sales really took off in fall 2020, and I now operate the business out of a commercial production space rather than just my home.”
Bonus: To make extra cash when you’re just starting out, package your handcrafted goods into a subscription box. The consistent income you’ll generate from repeat orders can be reinvested into the production of new inventory, giving you startup capital without outside funding.
Most of our profits have been reinvested in inventory and in advertising. We're trying to grow at a healthy pace so that we don’t have to rely on outside investments.
- How to Sell on Etsy: A Beginner's Guide
- The Business of DIY: 16 Things to Make and Sell Online
- Etsy Alternatives: 9 Online Marketplaces and Website Builders for Makers
- How This Direct-to-Consumer Brand Disrupted the Handcrafted Footwear Industry
Sell digital products
Digital products are something you can create and sell with just an internet connection, making them a superb way to start an online business with no money.
Start by identifying an area you have more knowledge in than the average person. Then, do some online research to see what problems people in the space are struggling with. Package your solution into a digital product, such as:
The beauty of digital products is that they’re scalable. Create them once and sell them multiple times on Shopify using the Digital Downloads app. It’s no wonder so many entrepreneurs use digital products as a way of making passive income.
Further reading: What is Passive Income: Income Types and Examples
Become a social media influencer
The word “influencer” has taken on a life of its own over the past decade. More people are making money through social media than ever before. All it takes is patience, social media knowledge, and interesting content to share—three things that can be done for free.
Start by building your social media presence on a popular platform, such as Instagram or TikTok. But don’t go in with the hard sell just yet. Followers can be monetized when they know, like, and trust what you have to say.
That leads to opportunities later down the line to make money through:
- Affiliate marketing. Promote products from your favorite brands and earn a percentage commission when your followers buy it.
- Blogging. Sell advertising space, post sponsored content, and promote digital products through your blog.
- Selling merchandise. Add your brand name, logo, or catchphrase to merchandise. Loyal followers will pay to wear it.
Entrepreneurs have used this route to raise cash for a product-based business. YouTuber Emma Chamberlain, for example, started posting videos on YouTube back in 2017. She launched her first direct-to-consumer business, Chamberlain Coffee, to capitalize on her audience just two years later.
2. Write a business plan
A business plan is the blueprint for how you’ll grow your business. The contents of yours will depend on the low-cost business model you’ve chosen. But generally, it includes:
- Company description. An overview of the company you’re about to start, including the business model and legal structure.
- Market research. Include demographics that your target market shares. For example, will you sell directly to the consumer or via wholesalers? How does this compare to competitors?
- Products and service. You’ll make money by selling one of these. Explain what the product or service is and why people will buy it.
- Marketing strategy. Explain how you will promote your business to reach your target market, be that through social media, advertising, or email marketing.
- Logistics and operations plan. How do you intend to get your product or service into the hands of your paying customers? This could be dropshipping suppliers, third-party logistics companies, or printing labels yourself.
- Financial plan. Detail how you intend to make (and spend) money. Include your financial needs, costs and expenses, balance sheet, and cash flow projections.
Need help writing yours? Here’s a free business plan template, complete with examples, to help you get started.
Wondering how to structure your business? See our guides on:
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3. Choose a business name
The next stage in starting a business is to choose a name. This needs to be catchy, recognizable, and most importantly, not already taken. Use this free business name generator to get inspiration if you’re stuck.
Remember: the name you choose will serve you through the business’s lifetime. Make sure it’s one you love—and can see scaling with you—to avoid headaches down the road.
Once you’ve found yours, secure online assets that match the business name, such as:
- The domain name, such as BRAND.com
- Social media handles, such as facebook.com/BRAND
4. Launch a website
The process for starting a business from scratch has been free up until this point. While it’s possible to continue on the $0 path, the smartest investment you can make is in an online store. Your website is the virtual home for your new business—one you can use to educate potential customers about the products or services you sell.
If you’re super tight on cash, Shopify Starter plans are only $5/month after a free 3-day trial. That’s a small price to pay for a sleek, professional website that will help you make your first sale.
- How To Start an Online Store in 2023 (Step-by-Step Guide)
- A 14 Point Ecommerce Checklist To Launch Your Shopify Store
- The 11 Best Ecommerce Website Builder Picks
5. Validate ideas with preorders
Starting a business from nothing is trial and error. Some ideas will be a hit; others will not prove to be as popular as you first thought. Mitigate risk by testing your ideas with preorders.
Pre-ordering works by taking money for items you haven’t yet produced. It provides cash upfront for you to invest into production, builds hype, and creates a sense of exclusivity. People buy into the opportunity to try something new before the crowd.
Remi Martins is one entrepreneur who took this approach. After conceiving the idea for Natural Girl Wigs while working a full-time job, Remi decided to create an Instagram page to showcase the types of products she wanted to sell: “This is how I got feedback that people are interested in the product and there was a market for wigs specially made for natural-hair lovers.”
Remi chose the preorder route and created the product with a hairstylist, who “agreed to make it with the promise of getting paid if someone orders the product.” An iPhone photography shoot followed, with Remi posting those images to the new Instagram account.
“The first sale came in and then the second. This was how we sold 50 products in the first 60 days of the business, depending on customers to order and then creating the product with their money,” Remi says. “I eventually invested $1,000 in the business to purchase inventory and invest in marketing.”
6. Source funding to grow
If you don’t have money to start a business, then you’ll likely need a significant time/energy investment or guidance from a support network. And even if you’re able to launch with limited resources, there will come a juncture where you’ll need funding if you wish to scale.
We were so confident about the products that we decided to pool in the money we had saved up from our retail consulting business over the last eight to 10 years. We decided we have to go all in and haven’t looked back since. This money was used to develop and produce the first round of products and social media marketing.
Research shows that 29% of small businesses fail because they run out of cash. To survive and thrive, some entrepreneurs look for startup capital—extra money they can use to invest in inventory, marketing, or hiring their first employee.
Options to fund your new business venture include:
- Crowdfunding. This approach to raising money takes small amounts of cash from a large number of people. Ask regular people to invest in new businesses through platforms like Kickstarter, Crowdfunder, and SeedInvest. So-called “backers” get perks, such as access to pre-orders or equity, in exchange for their investment.
- Friends and family loans. Do you have a personal support network that can back your new business idea? Ask them to invest cash into your startup. Most will contribute in exchange for a larger return (with interest) or small equity stake.
- Small business loans. Get larger amounts of money through a lender, like Shopify Capital, to go toward payroll, inventory funding, or marketing. Note that loans only become an option once you start to see success. You’ll likely need proof of revenue—evidence that you’re able to pay back the loan—before being accepted.
- Capital investors. These come in the form of angel investors or venture capitalists. Both provide cash for small businesses in exchange for an equity stake. (Think Shark Tank–style deals.)
- Small business grants. These are one-off lump sums of money given to small businesses. Most don’t need paying back, though there are strict criteria you’ll need to meet before receiving any money. Some issuers also limit how the grant can be spent.
My sister and I started our Shopify ecommerce brand, everlur, in 2019 by acquiring a 0% APR business credit card from Chase Bank. It had a credit limit of $12,000. We used that amount to pay for our startup costs of LLC formation, domain registration and website hosting, our Shopify theme, recurring fees, logo design, packaging, raw materials, manufacturing, and marketing. We paid off our credit card debt then slowly within the first year in business.
When Alicia Ho first started her photography business, Precious Ones Photography, with $0, she “had passion and a genuine interest in photographing my own children with a beginner’s DSLR camera that was gifted to me. From there, friends and family took notice of my work, and I began taking on clients and making a small amount of money.”
Alicia got to the point where she “knew it was time to take my business to the next level.” So, she found a local non-profit organization that offered loans and scholarships for young entrepreneurs “By obtaining a $10,000 loan as well as qualifying for a two-year mentorship program, it was the best step forward for my business,” she says.
- The Entrepreneur's Guide to Small Business Finance and Accounting
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- How Masks For Dogs Landed a Deal on Shark Tank
You don’t need money to start a business
If this guide teaches you anything, let it be this: you don’t need capital to start a business.
Many entrepreneurs have created wildly successful businesses from scratch—oftentimes with no outside funding and on the side of a day job. A great idea, commitment, and an entrepreneurial spirit will see you further than you think.