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Thanks to the Internet, starting a business with zero capital is more within reach than ever before. In fact, sometimes the slow growth bootstrap method leads to higher chances of success.
If you are looking to start a business with no money, the key is to be strategic.
To help you do this, I crammed 10 years of my own experience starting businesses into a 12-Step Crash Course guide for you.
You might be thinking: 12 Steps? So it’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, but for confused, aspiring entrepreneurs?
Think of this lil guide as your rehab from analysis paralysis, imposter syndrome, procrastination station, and wasting time on scams or flat out bad business ideas.
Whether it’s digital software or an eCommerce business, the following steps apply to anyone looking to start a business with no money.
MoneySelfMade’s ultimate guide to starting a business with no money is going to teach you how to:
- Come up with a profitable business idea
- Pick your business name
- Build and test your prototype
- Start your online business with no money
- Register a domain for free
- Build an audience and email list from scratch
- Drive traffic to your website with SEO
- Automate your social media
- And so much more…
Read on to get the basics in everything from finding your tribe, picking a domain name, putting your social media on autopilot, and so much more.
Before we dive in, I also suggest reading this article about online business models and consider which one might be best for you. Everyone has unique strengths and interests, which means it is key that your business jives with your personality.
For example, an extrovert might hate selling on eBay, and love life coaching. Whereas, an introvert’s dream life might be solopreneuring as a blogger or Amazon seller.
Alright, off to the races.
Pick a problem, not a product
‘I wish I had a good idea.’
The magical unicorn idea that hits you over the head, or the vision that comes to you in a dream, is mostly as mystical as the white, one-horned creature itself.
There is no such thing as a good business idea. Success lies in the implementation.
Don’t get intimidated if your business idea or product already exists. That means there is a market out there for it. Score!
Instead of picking a product, chose a problem in the world you would like to solve. It can be as simple as helping people exercise more, run faster, sleep better, drink more water, or spend less time on Instagram. Humanity has a ton of problems, which means there will always be a business opportunity.
Just make sure you build a better mousetrap by improving or iterating. Even if you were to try to copy someone else’s business exactly, it would still wind up with your unique signature spin. Just don’t try to infringe on a trademark, patent, or trade secret.
Solving a problem allows you to evolve, grow, and stay ahead of the competition by making new products that solve your customer’s problem. If for some reason your best-selling product becomes obsolete or gets ripped off, you can iterate or create a new solution for the audience you have spent years building.
Validate your hunches on market trends and research. Don’t make the classic mistake of fooling yourself into thinking you know what your customer needs, and trying to sell them something they don’t want.
You can use the tools below to learn more about what is popular with your market, competitor traffic, and which trends or products are declining or exploding.
What problems are your customers Googling solutions for?
Pick a customer first
Business models come and go, and technology gets disrupted. Relationships are the only constant.
Profitable businesses are built on relationships with happy customers, instead of regretful impulse buys. The best business is repeat business. If someone buys from you once, they are exponentially more likely to buy from you again, based on the relationship of trust initiated from the first interaction.
Putting the customer first will help you:
- Create solutions to solve your audience’s needs.
- Focus on building a loyal audience that will buy from you again and again.
At this stage, it is a good idea to speak with your target audience as much as possible to discover if your idea is addressing pain points and ingrained desires.
As your business grows, you will find yourself with a lot of questions. Keeping in touch with your audience will give you a North Star when you feel overwhelmed.
Find your customer, figure out an urgent problem they need to be solved, and then try to offer something that will make their lives better.
TRAP: Trying to please all of the people all of the time.
A niche is a small, specific group of people that share something in common. Discovering a small market or need no one is filling can make it easier to target and reach your customers directly. The better you know your customer, the easier it will be for you to find them, which can save you from pouring advertising dollars into reaching a ton of people who don’t want your stuff.
For example: Let’s pretend you are selling cowgirl boots. You can pay $1000 to put your ad on the Internet for everyone (grandmas, construction workers, cats) to see. Television commercials have been doing this for years.
You would spend a lot of money and bother a lot of people who don’t want cowgirl boots. A cowgirl might catch your ad and buy something, but it’s a shot in the dark.
Instead, why not use a sniper rifle? Do your homework and get specific. Research and decide on your market FIRST.
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, it is pretty easy to get to know your customers, and efficiently pinpoint exactly who and where they are. When it comes time to advertise, you can allocate $10 into a specifically targeted ad to reach women in Texas who ride horses, love square dancing, and are urgently ready to purchase cowgirl boots for a Honkey Tonk wedding THIS WEEKEND.
Which option will save money and is more likely to make a sale? #2
Even better if you happen to be part of this niche yourself. Examples of niches include knitting clubs, rock-climbers, or anime fans. If you pick a niche you are apart of, it will give cut out some of the guesswork in understanding your customer’s secret hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.
For example, a single, childless frat bro in his early 20s might have trouble understanding how to improve a baby stroller for 30something expecting mothers. Unless you are a doting father AND frat bro, maybe ditch the baby stroller idea for an exciting beer pong invention.
COMBINE + CONQUER
If you are struggling to come up with an idea, consider taking two products your market loves and COMBINING them.
Putting a new spin on an old idea can streamline your success. This approach is called the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’. Instead of competing with existing products in bloody red shark-infested waters of existing competitors, you are inventing a new product to sail into a clear, blue ocean of untapped market.
This is what Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak did. Walking into a bookstore one day, he noticed two top sellers permeating the shelves: the fanboy horror comic niche (i.e. The Walking Dead) and chick lit classic niche (i.e. Twilight). After studying each separate market, he decided to combine them to invent a ‘blue ocean’ market: the chick lit horror genre.
This is how the wildly popular ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘ was born. Instead of competing in the busy world of romance novels or zombie fan fiction, Rekulak created his own genre with zero competition. Because he melted two popular ideas into one, his genre also had a proven, built-in niche audience.
Take a customer survey
Create a survey and send it to close friends, family, or acquaintances you *know* will be honest with you. Beware false praise and encouragement. Build out the idea as best you can with photo examples, a description of the product, and the problem you are solving. Here is an example of a survey you can copy and use.
Test your online business idea with a minimum viable product (MVP)
‘Back to the Roots’ was created by two college kids who figured out how to make mushroom growing kits.
To test their idea, they showed up at Whole Foods with a weird bucket of soil and fungus and asked the buying manager if he could sell it.
Shockingly, he said yes!
The duo then crashed the world famous chef Alice Waters‘ restaurant and repeated the same successful conversation.
They didn’t need flashy packaging or a profit projection deck. They just needed to ask people if this is a product that would improve their lives.
Find out: does your product sell?
Put a prototype together with whatever means you have possible. Then, do whatever you have to do to get your product or idea in front an audience.
In my most successful product to date, a majority of my friends and family said they wouldn’t purchase my product idea via a quick text survey. The honesty was appreciated, but was I undeterred knowing my vision wasn’t clearly communicated. I figured it was worth a shot to run a test.
I created the product, took pictures, and posted a listing on Etsy. Within a week, a few friends had made a purchase, and within three months, had over $10,000 in sales.
If you are selling a physical product, you can throw up a listing on:
You can even create listings on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or NextDoor to see if someone will bite. Just make sure your digital marketplace audience matches your niche. If you need product photos, just use your smart phone or a digital camera. Don’t overthink it.
For digital products, you can use Unbounce or Launchrock to set up a faux landing page to collect emails and explain your product in-depth to potential audiences. You can also code an MVP, or hire someone on UpWork to do it for you. I don’t recommend going this far until Step 6
You have a market. You have a prototype. Did someone try to sign up or buy it?
If the answer is yes, great! Collect $500 and pass go. You have a viable market and product.
If the answer is no, you can experiment with a digital ad campaign on Pinterest, Etsy, Google Ads, or Facebook. Run an ad for your product for a couple of weeks until you have at least 100 clicks to your listing.
You either win or you learn on this one, because digital ads proficiency is a skill you will need later. Allocate a budget of $200-300 and consider it a learning investment.
If after running the campaign for a month, no one has made the purchase, stop here and reflect. Are your ads compelling? Is your website clearly communicating your product benefits? If yes, you must come to terms with the reality that your product might not be resonating. Consider pivoting, or jumping back to the starting line.
If you must continue, be ready to launch your project with a huge budget, insane marketing savvy, and a sprinkle of delusional self-confidence.
Once your online business idea has been validated, set up your website or online store.
If you are creating a physical product, you are ready to set-up a store and start selling. Commerce platforms such as Etsy, Amazon, and Ebay are a great testing environment for your product, but ultimately can be cut-throat, with limited direct customer access. In order to scale, be ready to set up your own website or store.
Creating a digital product is slightly more complex. At this stage, it is time to code your product so people can use it, or you can scrap existing tools together to make a raw prototype.
Before you invest millions and sign on investors, pause for a moment. How you can solve this problem with currently existing tools?
The founder of ZeroCater began his entrepreneurial journey as an assistant who had to order lunch for the whole office every day (and hated doing it). He wanted to make money and solve a problem, by helping other companies with their office lunch order process.
He didn’t need millions of lines of code to pull this off. All he needed was his simple excel spreadsheet restaurant database, and a pitch website for customers sign up on.
Congratulations! You are half way through.
In part two of this series, you will learn all kinds of cool tricks to build and audience and make your online business profitable, including how to:
- Pick a your business name and register a domain for free
- Build an email list from scratch
- Drive traffic to your website with SEO
- Get mentioned in the press
- Automate your social media
- And so much more….