Starting Up on the Cheap

One of the most terrifying things about launching a start-up (and there are many) is the amount of capital needed to get off the ground. Most entrepreneurs assume they won’t be able to get a proper paycheck for at least a couple of years, so with lots of bills and no income, how can anyone afford to start a business?

If your idea involves the manufacturing and distribution of a product, there is no getting around the need for initial capital. But if you’re in a service-based industry and your product is essentially you, your brain and your brawn, there are ways to get going with a little bit of cash, a whole lot of motivation and some smart marketing strategies.

Make It Real

If you want to build a business, no matter if it’s a lemonade stand, a real estate start-up or a fashion label, you’re going to need a place where people can go to get information about you. The easiest way to do that is a website, or at the very least, a standout Facebook page. Your website your shop front and it’s the first thing people see when they start to do research about the services you provide. A good website has lots of great imagery and enough content to explain who you are and what you do without being overwhelming or complicated. It’s a good idea to make sure your website answers the 5W’s of your company (who, what, when, where and why) and most importantly, “how” – as in how you can help your potential customers. If you don’t know the first thing about building a website, there are plenty of solutions at your fingertips. If you’re patient and have a bit of creative flair, platforms such as Squarespace and Wix provide all the tools you need to get something simple up and running in a day.  Websites on Squarespace cost as little as $12 a month and getting a domain name is usually around $10 per year, so it’s not going to break the bank.

Get Social

Once you have your website sorted, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the free megaphone that is social media.  Create separate business accounts for Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and any other platforms you like to use and make sure that the content you’re posting is relevant to your business and audience.  I run a marketing and PR consultancy for small businesses, and I like to use a mix of curated and unique content which is a fancy way of saying that I like to share articles that I think small business owners would find interesting, plus I write a fair few of my own.  Make yourself relevant to your audience in both the content that you share and the platforms that you use. As an example, if you’re a personal trainer, offer your expert advice and opinions about at-home workouts, healthy recipes and ways to keep fit on the go. If you’re an accountant, don’t focus all your efforts on building a Pinterest board because let’s be honest, it’s going to be tough to inspire people to use your services by posting pictures. Rather, use a writing focused platform like Medium, where you can publish long-form articles on topics such as how small businesses can keep their incomings and outgoings organized.  Whatever you decide to talk about and whatever you use to do it, never ever bombard followers with sales pitches.  Give them news they can use that has an appropriate connection to your business. Otherwise, they’ll get bored and give you the flick.

It’s Not What You Know…

With your web presence locked and loaded and your content trickling through, it’s time to start shouting about your business from the rooftops. The best brand advocates are often family, friends, and people who, well, like you. If you’re just starting out, contact your internal network and let them know a little bit about your venture with a quick and friendly “about us”. Introduce them to your new business’s social media profiles and pages, and invite them to like and follow you. The beauty of social media is that it can be wide reaching with just a few shares, and you never know who you might be loosely connected with that is in need of your services. When you first set up your profiles, it’s tempting to jump right to this step before deciding on your content strategy. My advice is to hold off until you have at least a few posts up and live. Not even your mom is going to recommend something with a whole lot of nothing in it.

Marketing Magic

After you’ve covered your bases on the home front, it’s time to start getting out there and into the real world. I am a huge fan of free marketing and there are a number of great ways to get the word out about your business without spending a fortune.  Here are my four favorites:

1. Become an advocate.

When I was first starting out, I looked for bigger businesses and opportunities that I could leverage to help me get the word out about my brand. Because I do marketing and PR for small businesses, I found a global brand that was looking for ambassadors to promote an event that spoke directly to my target market. By volunteering my time and energy, I got to meet all the local businesses in the area and introduce them to my business, all while giving them an opportunity to participate in an event that would boost their sales for free.  If I am being honest with myself, I know that I’ll never have the advertising power or reach that this mega brand does, but through my partnership with them, I got a little slice of their pie for my own business.

2. Donate (and it doesn’t have to be dollars).

In my area there is a non-profit that helps high school kids get ready for the working world with a specific focus on business ownership. I don’t know about you, but my high school somehow skipped practical business life lessons, like how credit cards really work and what an interest rate is. Through this non-profit, I volunteer my time to teach young people about basic marketing and PR, which I absolutely love and feel great about doing. On the flip side, being involved in the organization also gives me access to a network of potential clients through the school system, which for someone without kids, probably wouldn’t be an avenue I would normally explore. There are great non-profits and charities that rely on businesses for help, and a lot of the time, expertise is more valuable to them than money.  So get involved.

3. Get in with the media

I’ve been doing public relations since I was 17 years old and while it’s not the easiest way to make a name for your business, it can be one of the cheapest. One of my favorite PR tactics is pitching a column to the local newspaper. I did this for my dad a few years ago, and he still considers it to be a changing point in his business. He is a remodeling contractor who, while having 30 years experience and an excellent reputation in our hometown, was finding it hard to stand out amongst a growing sea of competitors. We pitched the local newspaper on the idea for a weekly column, highlighting home improvement Q&A’s from local readers. All of a sudden my dad’s name and face had a page of its own every week, directly opposite to the cluttered page of three-inch ads from the 25 other remodelers in town. There isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t get a call from a potential customer who is ringing because of that column. It has continued to build his reputation as a trusted expert in the area, which is the kind of recognition that no advertisement could buy, regardless of the cost.

4. Offer free (or cheap) workshops and classes.

One of the biggest mistakes new business owners make is not valuing their own expertise. I used to work with a large group of financial planners who I had to constantly remind of the uniqueness of their skill – an expertise in money – the one thing that people are most confused about and fearful of.  As a business owner, you have to recognize your expertise, and instead of thinking of yourself in the sense of a profession, start thinking of yourself as an expert. If you’re a financial planner (or money guru as I like to call it), offer a low-cost seminar unveiling your top 10 tips to retire by the time you’re 45. If you’re a personal trainer, promote a free butt blaster class for new moms. If you’re a florist, create an architectural arrangements class for brides-to-be. The point is, get creative and get yourself out there. With online platforms such as Meetup and Eventbrite, organizing and marketing a get-together can be a breeze, and by using free event spaces such as a library or a park, your investment can be minimal. Remember, meeting 10 new people is better than meeting none. Just don’t forget to think about your hook and how to introduce your business in an organic way to keep people coming back for more. It’s great to offer something on the cheap but always remember the long-term goal - to generate new business.

If You Spend, Spend Wisely

I religiously trial a minimum of six marketing activities per month and at least half of them cost me nothing. But there are a few things I’ll foot the bill for, which helps me to stay relevant and on top of potential clients minds.  One thing I love to do is good old-fashioned mailings, which take some time but in my experience are well worth the cost. If you are above the age of 30, you’ll remember a time when you’d get more snail mail than e-mail. My how times have changed! Nowadays, a personal letter is a rarity, and, ironically, a point of difference in this digitally driven world. Each piece of mail I send out, which includes a branded letter talking about my and a business card, plus labels, envelopes and postage cost $1.34 per piece. I send out about 100 per month, and then follow them up by connecting with the recipients on social media, giving them a call on the phone or popping into their business or office to introduce myself. It’s a silly little tactic and by no means groundbreaking, but in a time when marketing revolves around the smartphone, a good old-fashioned letter can go a long way.

Final Thoughts

For my business, I base my marketing budget on approximately 15 percent of my revenue, which of course doesn’t account for the things I do to build my business for free. What I make sure to do is acknowledge the time it takes to execute what I call active marketing, which while free is also much more time consuming than simply dropping an ad onto Facebook and waiting by the phone. I have built this time into my business plan and you should too because as they say, “time is money” and just like anything else, it should be accounted for.

If you can’t get the idea of starting a business out of your head, but are frozen by a lack of funds available to get going, change your thinking. There are thousands of great resources available to start-ups, and with some research and the right attitude, anything can be possible.