In a previous blog post, Why We Should Aim For A Zero-Dollar Startup, I put the idea out there that we should all be striving to start our businesses for as close to $0 as possible. I gave some general pointers on how to do this, but today’s post will be about 5 different ways you can make this happen.
To recap on the older post, your business should focus on the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) version of your business. This means stripping away all the frills and extras to get down to the very core of what your business is. Start there, do it for free or super cheap, and then build out using the profits of the business. This of course assumes that the market wants what you are selling. Starting with an MVP allows you to find out if you have an idea that people are willing to spend their money on. If not, it hasn’t cost you much, if anything, and you’ve learned some things to try for next time!
When you are starting off, there may be things you need for your business such as equipment, materials, skills, digital assets such as graphics or online software (such as Zoom), a place to sell, and ways to let your customers know what you are doing. Of course there are ways to buy all of these things, but as a Simple StartUp entrepreneur, your challenge is to find ways to get the things you need for $0 for at least long enough to bring in profits which will allow you to purchase what you need.
Use What You Have
It sounds simple. It sounds boring. You have stuff lying around your house that can be put to work to help you get your business off the ground. If you are starting a business doing something you love and which excites you, chances are that you are going to have materials and equipment lying around that can be put to work. Look for technology like laptops, webcams, printers, cell phones, lawnmowers, dog leashes, shovels, power tools, paint brushes, baking pans, etc.
Get creative in terms of catering your business idea to use what is available and then branch out into more options as you acquire more materials and equipment.
Find Free Things
One person’s junk is another’s treasure. People are getting rid of things all the time, and often they don’t want anything in return. They just want someone to take it off their hands. Scour the Buy Nothing Groups, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and other local groups for people giving things away. You can also ask for stuff! Put a post up on social media asking if anyone has a ____ that they are looking to get rid of. You’ll come pick it up today. You will be shocked at what you can get for free from others.
My other favorite free thing is free trials of software or software that is just free! Many of the pieces of software you need to get started come with free trials that can be anywhere from 1 week to 1 month. Sometimes the software is just free and you have to deal with reduced capabilities or advertising in exchange. You can get free websites, graphics, video editing, scheduling and booking, emailing customers, selling your products, etc.
My favorite free trial at the moment is Canva and I actually just purchased the Pro version using the profits of my business because I like it so much!
Borrow What Others Have
We all know people. They all have more stuff that they may not be using all the time. Ask them if you can borrow it for a short period until you are able to afford your own. If you have to negotiate a small price for when you return it, that’s less favorable, but at least gives you access to the item straight away. Things I like to borrow are tools, vehicles (I love borrowing pickup trucks for the 1-2 times a year I actually need one), equipment such as paper cutters and printers, lawn maintenance equipment (lawn mower, weedwacker, rotavator, etc.).
You can also borrow software. I’ve used licences for video editing software in the past so that I could make a promotional video for a business. I didn’t need to make any other videos afterwards, so buying a licence didn’t make sense, and I had already used my free trial in the past. So I just borrowed a friend’s login, created when I needed and then logged out. Simple!
Use the Customer’s Stuff
I love this one! If your business is centered around convenience and saving the customer time, then use their materials and equipment to complete the job. This is great for businesses like snow removal, lawn care, interior design, organizing, cleaning, babysitting, dog walking, painting, power washing, etc.
Often people have the tools or materials, but just lack the time, patience, or skills to complete the job themselves, so they hire it out to others!
Exchange of Value
Go one further than the last point and make it part of the deal that you get to use the customer’s stuff to complete jobs for other people too. For example, cut someone's lawn, using their mower, in exchange for being allowed to use it for cutting other people’s lawns too. They are getting their lawn cut for free and they don’t have any use for the lawn mower in the meantime, so why not let you use it to make some extra cash!
If you are doing a tutoring business, could you offer to tutor the kids of a graphic designer in exchange for them creating a logo or advertisement for you?
Find ways to give value to people and they will give it back to you. In terms of dollar amount worth on the open market, they may not be the same, but to the two individuals in the deal, they may see it as a fair exchange.
Bring In Strategic Partners
We’ve talked about what others have and this goes in a similar line of thinking. If you know someone who has a skillset that your business needs (carpentry, website design, social media marketing, delivery) or equipment/materials that would be expensive to purchase, then it may be worth asking them to come into the business as a partner. This could mean they are an active partner who helps out, makes decisions, and shares in the profits, OR they are a passive partner. This means they give you access to their resources in exchange for part of the profits.
It’s not truly free since it will cost you something eventually, but in terms of getting started, it means no money comes out of your own pocket in the beginning and you only pay them if the business makes money. If you have an obligation to repay someone a fixed amount over a period of time, it is technically a loan and definitely not free or an advised way of getting started!
Final and favorite method is to pre-sell your value. This means that before you make or do anything, you sell it to the customer. Now you may be asking how one would manage this? And I’m glad you asked! You can do this by describing what you are going to make or do to your potential customer and then ask for the money up front. You may have a prototype that you made in the past or you produced for yourself, and use that to show what you are going to make/do, or you create a free advertisements that highlights all the features your business will have and put a “buy” button on it.
An example of this last strategy is one I used with the Simple StartUp Challenge courses. For the very first one, I had the idea of a 5-week, 10 lesson course that would act as a virtual summer camp. I could have made all the lessons, setup all the software, and purchased the equipment ahead of time. Instead however, I made a free event using Eventbrite, and advertised all the things I would include in the course if I made it, and then asked for signups. If I hit my minimum goal of 20 signups, I would run the course. If I didn’t, then I would return the money and I wasn’t out any money myself. I ended up selling out 60 places, so I then made and ran the course. It has since run another 3 times and helped over 250 young entrepreneurs get their businesses started.
There you have it! 7 ways to start (and grow!) your business for free. Start a business for free and you will never feel the pressure to force a sale to happen. You will be able to take your time and find out what your customers really want and need.
What have you managed to get for free for your business? Share your stories in our community or in the comments below!