9 ways I started my small business on a shoestring

I’ve dreamed of running my own business for a long time. Over the years I’ve had lots of business ideas, and many false starts. One thing I felt that always held me back was the lack of funding. So I needed to find a way to get a business up and running with little to no capital. I knew that would be a challenge, but when I developed my latest business idea I decided I had to somehow finally make it happen.

I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to start and grow my business for next to nothing. It’s been fun, stressful and super exciting. I recently thought about how I was able to do it, and came up with the following 9 key factors. Hopefully one or more of these ideas will help you get your own venture off the ground.

1. Focus on what you know

My many business ideas have included inventing new pieces of fitness equipment and developing self-defense tools for runners. But I never went down any of those roads because, first of all, I’m not an engineer and have no background in product development, and secondly, because there was no way I could come up with the capital required to start them.

A couple of years ago I decided to develop a business idea that would draw on the knowledge and experience I already had, particularly my two degrees in Exercise Science and my background in freelance writing. The result: Girls Gone Sporty, a health and fitness website that provides accurate, science-based information on exercise and healthy living. The website also serves as a community and resource to other health and fitness bloggers. There are 550 members of our Ambassador group. I’ve even written a book geared to bloggers to help them improve their writing and recently launched a High Impact Blogging podcast.

This is the kind of business that I can grow because it’s perfectly tailored to my knowledge and skills. Instead of trying something foreign, I’m using what I already know and taking it online. Online businesses are often cost-effective, and with time and effort, they can be incredibly fruitful.

2. Invest in sweat equity

When I first started Girls Gone Sporty, I knew next to nothing about marketing, advertising, or public relations. I took to the Internet to learn more, and found that podcasts are an excellent way to glean topnotch information for free. Entrepreneur on Fire, Smart Passive Income, and CopyBlogger Radio are just a few of the resources I’ve used to learn more about building an online business. These podcasts helped me identify resources I could use to market my company in a proven, effective way. So far I haven’t spent money on marketing or public relations, and have managed to continue to grow my business over the last two years. I know that someday I’ll have to invest in marketing and PR expertise to take my venture to new heights, but I’ll fund that out of cash flow from the business.

3. Use the resources you have

I run Girls Gone Sporty out of my home office in a house shared by five people and two dogs. Sometimes I’ll be hosting a Google Hangout and my dogs will start barking at the FedEx man, or someone will yell up the stairs to get my attention. Other times I’ve had to host phone interviews in the parking lot of a grocery store in 100-degree heat because the Internet went out at my house. But these experiences are part of my story, and I accepted a long time ago that bootstrapping a business isn’t comfortable—but it is cheap. And right now, cheap feels a lot better than comfortable.

4. Work your contacts

I’ve used my contacts over and over again as Girls Gone Sporty has grown. Here are a few examples:

When I launched my website

After freelance writing and editing for two years, I had developed strong relationships with quite a few PR representatives and brands. I used those contacts prior to my website’s launch to engage experts and to highlight products in our first stream of articles. Immediately, we were able to generate more traffic than the typical blog because those experts, brands, and PR reps shared our content with their networks.

When I published my book

I just published my book on March 2, 2014, but it’s already off to a great start, and that’s because I put my contacts to use. I provided free copies of the book to all 550 Girls Gone Sporty Ambassadors and asked them to read it, rate it, and share their thoughts on their own blogs. Obviously, not all 550 Ambassadors have followed through, and I don’t expect them to. But if 10% do, then that’s 55 bloggers talking about my book—55 times the promotion I could do on my own.

When I started my podcast

Even though the High Impact Blogging podcast hasn’t gone live yet, we’ve already started recording interviews with some of the most sought-after health and fitness bloggers in the industry. The only way I was able to score these interviews was by working my contacts. I’ve had the chance to meet with some of them in the past, so I simply sent direct emails asking if they’d like to be interviewed. Others I knew were represented by PR reps I had done business with, so I reached out to the reps and asked if they’d be interested. I even used Twitter to contact some individuals with whom I had no previous relationship. On the docket? Heavy hitters like Cassey Ho from Blogilates (more than one million YouTube subscribers) and Derek Flanzraich, the founder of Greatist.

5. Require upfront payment

I have made a point not to extend credit to my customers. I make it clear that all payments are due up front, or—in the case of project-based work—at least half up-front, with the remainder due on completion of the project.

I have found that many companies and clients understand the need for immediate payment, especially when doing business with a startup. Hopefully your experience is the same. Just make sure you’ve clearly stated your payment terms prior to agreeing to service.

I’m happy to say I’ve had very few problems with receiving payment from my clients. It’s one of the benefits of requiring upfront payment—without payment, you’re not obligated to do the work, and you don’t have to chase clients after the fact to receive the sums you’re due.

6. Use credit with caution

I’ll admit that shortly after Girls Gone Sporty got started, I used credit to print an inventory of tank tops, sweatshirts and tees. It was a poor decision. Despite the fact that the clothing line was incredibly cute, I failed to recognize that selling clothes wasn’t really in our business plan, and the competition I was up against was fierce. I wasn’t prepared to spend additional time marketing and advertising the apparel, so I ended up with a huge inventory of product and a nominal number of sales. I learned a lesson. While I could see instances where it would make sense to use credit for my business, I try to avoid borrowing against unearned funds. In fact, I haven’t used credit since my clothing investment.

7. Use free marketing and advertising tools

I don’t have tons of money to spend on a TV advertisement or radio spot, so I’ve focused my energy on taking advantage of many of the free or cheap marketing option available to me, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and YouTube.

While I won’t claim that Girls Gone Sporty has the biggest social following around (a solid following of almost 15,000 across all channels), our Ambassador program grew and developed specifically because of the influence of Twitter, and considering that our Ambassador program essentially amounts to half our business, that’s pretty significant.

When I first decided to start an Ambassador program, all I did was put together a simple Word application, and I tweeted that if anyone was interested, they should email me. About 20 women got in touch, and as soon as I accepted a group into the program, the wheels were set in motion. Before I knew it, I was getting tons of emails and tweets asking about the program and how to apply. I quickly realized the idea was a win, and I started putting more energy and effort into the development of the group.

Not every social venture works out that way, but it’s the perfect example of how free social marketing can significantly impact your business model.

8. Be creative

Girls Gone Sporty is not the first health and fitness website around. It’s not even the first health and fitness website that offers an Ambassador program. In fact, to my knowledge, Girls Gone Sporty was the third such community to start a similar program, and I’d guess that we’re still ranked third in terms of results from our work.

That’s why this year I’ve changed tactics. I’ve redefined our program and decided to focus more on providing free, quality resources to our Ambassadors and audience to help them find greater success on their own. That’s why I wrote my book and why I’m starting the podcast. These are things the other two groups haven’t yet done, and they’re things that will help set us apart. The more you can think outside the box and set your own standards for success, the more likely you are to create something incredible.

9. Grow naturally

At 550 members, our Ambassador program may seem pretty large – but I can tell you right now that more than 200 applications have come in since January 1, 2014, and I won’t bother looking at them for at least a few more months. If my goal is to serve the Ambassadors well, then my first responsibility is to serve the ones I have. That means I can’t take on more members while in the midst of tackling a podcast or expanding other areas of our business. I only have so much bandwidth, and growing the group too fast would mean sacrificing the care I put into the group I have.

The phrase, “Hire slow, fire fast” is a popular one in start up companies, but it expands even further to “Grow slow, cut your losses fast.” I’ve taken this advice to heart, because it gives me the chance to make adjustments to what’s working and cut out the things that aren’t working without undergoing unnecessary expense, stress or bad press.

Final thoughts

Starting a small business without much money is certainly not easy, but it’s not impossible either. And while there will be days that make you want to throw in the towel or heave all of your savings into your business, it’s better to take it slow and steady. Invest enough funds to cover all your necessary expenses, but keep close tabs on what’s actually necessary. It might be nice to pay for fancy business cards, but a free, electronic business card will probably work just as well.

Have you started a bootstrap business? How have you made it work?

More great ideas to grow your business

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.