If you’re a new or an aspiring entrepreneur starting an online business, then you’re in the right place. Today I’m going to share my top tips for starting an online business without money or with very little money. I won’t just give you some vague advice that you can’t apply though! Instead, I’ll offer you some grounded practical tips that I used myself and that has made my business a success, even with very little capital.
But why should you even listen to me?
I started a number of ventures while I was in my early twenties; some of which were successful, and others less so. Because of this, I have gained a great deal of learnings that have guided me to where I am today.
Currently, I am at a point where I really enjoy running my business and it is finally taking off. I made so many mistakes, and there were so many things I didn’t know. So really, I hope this blog helps you avoid making the same mistakes that I did. Starting a business is a journey and it is difficult … but it does not have to be. This is the advice that I wish I had, and that I couldn’t really find online or anywhere else.
Let’s dive in!
Tip 1: Prioritise cash flow above all else
My first tip is a bit counterintuitive. I would suggest that if you want to start a big business (like a product-based or tech company) or any business that needs a lot of startup capital, that you start another business first. Start a business that actually generates cash flow from the beginning, because it will make your life so much easier. This is what I wish I’d done!
Choosing a business that has cash flow from the start means you’ll be able to sustain yourself, and this is something that I [naively] didn’t really think about.
What you can then do is build up that cash flow so that you can then use the proceeds from the business that’s actually making money to put it into your bigger, more capital intensive business idea.
I know it seems counterintuitive to do two things at once, but you just have to remember that this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon, and having that cash flow buffer from another venture would make it so much easier if you’re trying to do something that’s really capital intensive.
One of the first businesses I started was a food product, and what I didn’t realise at the time was that food businesses require a significant amount of startup capital. Now that I have a consulting business, I realised that it would have made so much more sense to do consulting first, and then to put the profits into my food business, if that’s what I still wanted to do.
When you have a service based or an online business, you can start that with expertise that you already have, you can literally get it off the ground in a month! You don’t need to invest loads of money to begin. You just need yourself, a laptop and an internet connection.
I started doing copywriting and content writing because that was a skill that I already had and so I could just get started straight away. You could do social media management, you could do marketing, any type of consulting that you can add value with and that you are good at.
And I say this all from personal experience! When I started Peppa (that was the name of my food product), I ran out of money pretty quickly. I had savings behind me that I was going to put into Peppa and I just blew through them within a few months. But not only was I using that to fund the business, I was also using that to fund my living expenses. So to make it easier for yourself, think about your cash flow from the very start!
Tip 2: Don’t be starting an online business just to make money
The second big tip is a little bit cliché but it’s true … Don’t just start something that pays the most! When you’re considering what sort of online service based business to start, don’t just automatically go for the one that pays the most because even though this might not be your ultimate business or what you do in the long run, you’ll still be doing it for a considerable while. So you still need to be passionate about it and you still need to enjoy it! Don’t just go online and look at who’s getting paid the most.
Think about what you would actually want to do day in day out:
- What are you uniquely placed to provide value in?
- What would you enjoy doing, even if you weren’t being paid for it?
- What skill or expertise do you already have that you can monetise as an entrepreneur?
… and then go from there. However, it’s also important to remember that your business is going to evolve and that what you choose now is not forever. But you do need to have a solid starting point.
I remember that when I started freelance copywriting, I kept putting myself down and saying things such as “I’m just a writer,” “I’m just a freelancer”. When you start having this kind of negative self-talk, you start to lose sight of the bigger picture and why you’re actually doing the work that you’re doing.
When you’re doing any of this, or you’re in a job, just remember why you’re doing it … To create income to invest in your business. Don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal and keep in mind that this is just a step on the way to where you ultimately want to be.
If you are kind of struggling with ideas, or really not sure what service you could provide, I’m just going to give you a few leading questions to get you thinking about what type of service you could provide. Try journaling on these to see what comes up for you:
- What am I doing when I’m in a “flow” state?
- What comes easy to me, that doesn’t necessarily come easy to others?
- What am I doing when I don’t notice time passing?
- What’s a personal transformation that you’re excited to share with others? (This could simply be an approach you’ve used in your life or anything that has made an incredible difference to you)
If you can land upon something that you’re good at and you enjoy doing, then that’s a good indicator that you’ll enjoy doing that for other people.
What problem can your business solve?
If you still can’t come up with an idea, then a really effective way of thinking when starting an online business is simply thinking of a problem that you have solved for yourself, and then solving it for other people.
It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that because that’s all that “business” is; you’re essentially solving a problem for others. And if you’ve had a problem that you solved for yourself, then your first business could be you just providing that service and solving it for other people. So have a think now: What are some skills that you already have that you could package and put into a service based business right now?
Tip 3: Don’t fall into the comparison trap
When you’re starting out, stay in your lane. It’s a lot easier said than done. But it will make a huge, huge difference to your journey.
When you’re starting out, you’re going to be quite poor! I remember going on Instagram and seeing all these images of these entrepreneurs on private jets, or all these people that had started a business but had somehow bought their first property a year later, or their own home, or renovated a mansion … All of which just made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
I really urge you to just unfollow anyone that is making you feel bad. That really, really helped me. If you’re finding that you’re following someone, or just someone in your network is making you feel like that, remember that you don’t have to interact with them and you don’t have to consume their content.
This is something I struggled with for quite a while and I honestly thought that I was just doing something wrong. All I was thinking was “how are these people also starting a business, but they’ve got all of this disposable income, and they’re going on holiday every two months, while I’m just about staying afloat?” It just didn’t make sense to me and it just made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
You’ve just got to remember that everyone is in a different financial situation than you; everyone has different opportunities. Someone might be more privileged than you and they might have financial backing or resources that you don’t know about. You basically don’t know the full picture just from what they are portraying online, you never do. So there’s really no point comparing yourself and your reality to someone else, as it is only going to get you down.
What also really helped was listening to the ‘’How I built This?” by Guy Raz. This podcast is really great and I would 100% recommend it because they interview so many famous entrepreneurs like the founders of Airbnb, and all these big companies, and a lot of them discuss their struggles with money at the beginning. That gave me some perspective and made me realise that, actually, I am on the right track! And that I should be emulating these founders instead of the people that I see on Instagram.
Tip 4: Keep track of your expenses
When you’re starting an online business I’d encourage you to be scrappy and to track all of your expenses and all of your income. This actually goes against what a lot of money thought leaders preach, which is that we should be abundant with money and not be in a scarcity mindset. And I fully believe that.
However, I also remember my very early days in the business when literally every penny and every pound counted. So if I had adopted that attitude right at the start, I really don’t think it would have worked. So what I did is I had a really simple spreadsheet where I tracked my monthly expenses so that I could forecast my revenue (or lack of, haha). And don’t worry, you can build this spreadsheet in five minutes.
The dreaded spreadsheet where I tracked all of my money when I was starting my online business.
Using this spreadsheet I kept track of all of my outgoings every month. I went into my bank statements and first eliminated all of the irrelevant stuff I had going out of my account.
I really thought:
- Is this adding anything to my life?
- Is this a necessary expense?
- Is this going to help me grow my business?
If it didn’t, then I simply removed it from the spreadsheet, and after that I added every single outgoing transaction I had to it, as well as the date in which it was to be deducted. Any sort of rent payments, mortgage payments and phone bills.
Then also I started adding expenses that were like a monthly thing for my business, any software, memberships, anything that was happening on a monthly basis.
The next thing I did was I added a part about my income from any clients that I was bringing in, as well as any rental income. This is so I could see across the year, and every month, how much was going out and how much, more importantly, I needed to bring in to not only cover those expenses, but also to have enough to spend on food etc.
Even though it seems quite straightforward, I realised far too late that if you cannot survive day to day, then your business will not survive and will cease to exist.
You are the number one priority. Protect YOU at all costs.
What I did was I got super excited about this food product I was going to launch and I didn’t think about myself. And ultimately that business and that product has ceased to exist because I couldn’t support myself financially. So really put yourself first! Remember, you’ve got to be able to survive financially for your business to thrive. If you don’t look after the expenses and the income and you don’t keep track of that, then it’s all going to go downhill. Or it’s just going to make the whole process of starting an online business so stressful!
This spreadsheet is always going to allow you to calculate your runway. That way if you’re leaving your job, or you’re launching a business using savings, you can pretty much figure out how many months you can survive for until you run out of money.
This allows you to forecast things, and to start thinking “Okay, where is my income coming from? How many clients do I need to bring in per month?” and then you can work out your KPIs backwards. But ultimately it all comes down to “Can you survive on a monthly basis?” – that really is what businesses are at the very beginning.
Tip 5: Be brutal with your spending & only invest for the immediate ROI
You’ve got to be scrappy with your investments and your spending when starting an online business. There are so many things you can spend money on at the start; you can spend money on a fancy website, you can spend money on branding, you can spend money on all sorts of strategies and honestly … It’s like being in a sweet shop where you just want to try everything!
My biggest guiding question when making buying decisions was always: Will this increase profits? Because something like branding or a website is going to increase profits over the long term, but not immediately – and that’s something that you can do yourself. Your branding is not going to look amazing when you do it yourself. It’s not going to be something that you are super proud of but it’s not something that you need to invest thousands of pounds in at the start because that’s not what’s going to bring in money and clients.
Your number one priority should be sales.
Whenever I made an investment, I always thought about whether or not that investment was somehow going to result in more income or sales.
So something that I would look at is, for example, training courses. If you invest in a training course and you learn how to do something, and that something is strategic and focused to what you’re actually trying to achieve, and not just some random thing, then that’s good spending because that’s it actually going to help you bring more clients in! Whereas something like your branding and your website design is nice to have, but it’s not going to directly impact the bottom line.
One day, in a few years, you’ll be able to invest in an agency and they are going to make your brand look absolutely amazing! At the moment though it’s something that you can DIY and you don’t need to spend tens of thousands of pounds on it.
Another thing I want to talk about is software; it’s super easy to just buy all of the latest software and all these tools that do amazing things. But I just mapped out what I needed software for, looked at all of the different options, and just went for the one that did the job and that was most cost effective. Again, remember: you can always change your software as your business grows. Right now, you just need to pick something that does the job. That isn’t the most expensive option, you just need to implement it and not spend hours and hours researching software and trying to find the “perfect” solution.
Tip 6: Don’t be afraid of debt
So this tip is a little bit of a controversial one … But I’m just giving you the information that I wish I had when I started. This tip is about debt. Please note, this is not financial advice! I am just sharing what worked for me.
My personal approach is to take on the debt if you need it when starting an online business.
I’m a risk taker and I don’t think you can really succeed in business, or at least make it big, if you don’t take risks. And they can be really scary at the start.
Of course there are people out there that have done it without debt, and that’s amazing! That’s just not something that was possible for me. I’m just someone who thinks “having this business not succeed is not an option.” So I believe that I will always find a way to pay that debt back, and to make it work. It means I have skin in the game, which is really, really important because it motivates me.
This is exactly why listening to ‘’How I Built This’’ really helped me; because I realised that all of these big founders and entrepreneurs had a ton of personal debt at the start, when they were doing the exact same thing and trying to sustain themselves.
I would say, don’t feel so negatively about debt. For a long time I defined it as this thing to be ashamed of. I really just reprogrammed my mind to think of debt simply as choosing to pay something off over time. Because that’s really all it is. And in my books, as long as that “something” wasn’t lifestyle expenses but business ones, and ones that fit into my “will this give me immediate ROI” parameters, then it was fair game!
My tip for you is that if you need money from somewhere to invest in your business, you can make use of credit cards. There are a tonne of 0% credit cards out there that have been a lifesaver for me when starting my online business. Just make sure you do your research on it and remember that this is not me giving you financial advice.
With 0% credit cards, you don’t pay interest on the money you borrow if you spend within the interest free period and pay it all back, in full, on time. Instead, just a small fee is charged for the initial loan amount. If you want to borrow £20,000 you will probably have to pay something like £500 pounds to borrow that initial amount, but then you don’t pay any interest while you have that money.
With 0% credit cards there is a range of interest-free periods available; you can get them for up to 12 months, or up to 24 months. I think what’s great is that it’s super cheap finance, and it gives you a runway; 12 months is a long time! If you know that you’ve got 12 months to make your business profitable, then you’ll find a way to do it. This is where the spreadsheet comes in again, because you will have to pay off a certain amount of that credit card every month.
Make sure that you budget all of that into your spreadsheet as one of your costs, and then just know when it’s ending so that you can forecast paying the whole amount back.