3 Steps to Launching a Small Business for Less Than $100

Close up perspective view of hundred-dollar bill
Pleaseofart / Getty Images

My wife and I started our internet publishing business 11 years ago with $81.

I barely knew how to open an email account, but we somehow put up websites and monetized them with Google AdSense. Even when we had our first year of earning more than $100,000, we were still creating all of the content ourselves.

This year, the websites may net less than $10,000 — but that’s another story.

This story is about how to start a business for nothing, so let me go back to the beginning…

I already had an old computer and a tediously slow internet connection. We registered two domain names for $8 each, bought a $40 program for uploading pages and paid $25 for our first month of website hosting.

I wrote and uploaded a few websites and revenue started trickling in within two weeks (it was easier then).

After several months, we had made about $800, which was enough to buy a laptop and upgrade to cable internet. By the end of our first year, we were making a living from our websites.

You really can start with nothing.

Some readers may protest, “You didn’t start with nothing; you had $81.”

True. You may have zero cash, and some businesses listed below might require $200-$300 to start. But I’ll bet you can borrow that much from someone, use a credit card or sell a few of your things, right?

So you can start with nothing, somehow find the minimal startup capital needed and then use this three-step bootstrapping formula to build your business:

1. Choose a business according to skills and tools you have or can easily obtain.

2. Identify and implement one or more low-cost ways to generate revenue.

3. Use the revenue for whatever you need to grow the business.

Repeat steps two and three over and over to keep the business growing.

By the way, even if you have the resources to fund a larger startup, there are advantages to starting small. The biggest one is you can fail several times and keep trying until you succeed.

On the other hand, if you invest your life savings, failure can do some serious financial damage.

Examples of Starting From Zero

To gather evidence for skeptical readers, I Googled “started with $100,” “business was started with just,” and so on.

The search results were full of inspiring stories.

For example, did you know billionaire David Green started Hobby Lobby with $600?

Googling “I started my business with” led me to Sunday Steinkirchner’s article about her rare book company, appropriately titled “How I Started My Business With $1.”

Here are more examples:

Ryan Smith started making and selling “Bitchin’ Sauce” with just $200. In time, he and his cofounders got the sauce on the shelves at Whole Foods and other stores.

The Fuzz Band started with $10 for fliers to promote their first performance. They reached annual revenues of $250,000 under the business name “Peach Fuzz Entertainment” by focusing on doing gigs for private and corporate clients.

Laurie Davis used her Twitter account and $50 to start eFlirt.com. Her dating site has since been written up in the New York Times and profiled on Good Morning America.

Steve Farmer started a successful business selling wholesale auto collision parts with $50. He used the car he had until he could afford a truck. He sold the business after three years.

William Feller borrowed a lawn mower to start his lawn care business, for a startup cost of zero. He eventually made more than $15,000 in monthly revenue.

Carrie H. Johnson was recently divorced and living in low-income housing when she started a cleaning business with friends. She built it into a multi-million-dollar company.

Matt Shoup went door-to-door building his painting business. His $100 startup grew to $2.5 million in annual revenue.

Toby Woodward says he started his 25-year-old flooring business “with $50 and a box of business cards.” How do you start with that little? Just install floors until you have the revenue to buy inventory.

The list goes on.

Online businesses are perhaps some of the easiest to start for close to nothing, but the examples above show the variety of potential low-cost startups out there.

Here are some more businesses you might start with just the cash in your pocket:

  • Window cleaning
  • Freelance bartending
  • Boat cleaning
  • Auto detailing
  • Resume writing

You could add another hundred businesses to this list if you approach them the right way. Work the formula, starting with the first step:

1. Choose a business according to skills and tools you have or can easily obtain.

In other words, use what you have, what you can borrow and maybe what you can put on a credit card (but don’t get too carried away).

If you have basic hand tools, you can start a used appliance business. Of course to make $2,000 a week selling used appliances, you’ll need some inventory. No problem; just remember the second and third steps:

2. Identify and implement one or more low-cost ways to generate revenue.

3. Use the revenue for whatever you need to grow the business.

So, buy one used washing machine for $80, watch YouTube videos on how to repair it and sell it for $175 using a free ad on Craigslist when you’re done. Then, invest the money into two more appliances.

Repeat and grow.

But, depending on the nature of your business, you may want to have liability insurance. You’ll have to decide for yourself how long to risk going without it. You might also want to create an LLC for additional protection.

You can get advice on these and other business matters for free from volunteers at Score. But even with insurance, you can start many businesses for a few hundred dollars, which means the credit card in your otherwise empty pocket might be all you need.

Your Turn: Have you ever started a business with nothing (or close to it)?

Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. Of the more than 100 ways he has personally made money, writing is his favorite (so far).