Start a Small Business With Zero Cash: 4 Ideas That Cost Nothing to Launch

Image: Small Business Ideas on Flickr under Creative Commons

Starting a business takes a fair amount of money — ask anyone who’s ever considered opening a restaurant or a coffee shop. While there are businesses you can start with just a few hundred dollars, like a cleaning service or a flea market stand, what if your startup capital consists of only a few crumpled bills in your pocket?

In that case, here are four businesses you can start with nothing.

1. Social Media Management Service

If you spend time daily on Twitter and Facebook, you already have most of what you need for this business. You’ll promote clients’ websites or blogs with frequent posts and tweets that link to them. The average salary of a social media manager is $45,034 per year according to, but as a business owner you’ll have to develop your own clientele.

Start with friends who need help promoting their businesses or organizations. For example, my wife does social media work for a friend who runs a small organization of poets. She charges a couple hundred dollars for ten hours of work spread out over a month or two. Line up enough clients like that, and those little streams of income will start to add up.

To really grow big you’ll eventually need a staff to handle the day-to-day work while you find new clients. But you can start this business with what you have in front of you right now.

2. Used Book Seller

Starting a used bookstore takes lot of books and a place to sell them. But that’s old school. Nowadays, most books are bought online, and not just from large companies. Individuals can easily sign up to sell books on Amazon, for example. But how do you start this business for nothing? Just sell the books you already have and use the money you make from those to purchase your future inventory.

One woman who became an Amazon vendor  made $371.14 selling 46 books from around her home. That’s enough to buy a lot of new inventory! She says nonfiction sells better than fiction, but you can experiment inexpensively. To get an idea of what your books are worth before listing them, check them out on Amazon.

One niche you might want to try is textbooks, which you can sell immediately online to a number of buyers. We’ve talked before about using BookScouter to sell used textbooks. Combine this approach with your smartphone: before buying textbooks at a thrift store or used book store, look them up and see what a buyer will pay. This way, you can focus on the books that bring the highest profits, and skip the ones no one wants. (Click to tweet this idea.)

3. Scrap Metal Recycler

I was helping a friend clean out his new house (previously occupied by a hoarder) when two guys in a pickup truck offered to take the metal items we were throwing away. They loaded up and 30 minutes later were on their way to sell the stuff at a salvage yard. The potential may seem limited, but consider the story of Stephen Greer. After graduating college, he went to Hong Kong with almost nothing and over 14 years built a $250 million scrap-metal recycling business.

How do you start for nothing? Save your aluminum soda and beer cans, for starters. Have your friends and family help you out with theirs too, and collect any other metal items they’re willing to donate.

Of the metals that are easily found, copper and aluminum bring the best prices per pound. Once you have a carload, call salvage yards to see who pays the most. Use your first profits for gas money so you can start tracking down other sources of metals. For advice on where to look, try hanging out in an online scrap metal forum.

For more information, see our previous post on scrap metal recycling.

4. Digital Products Business on ClickBank

You probably already have the equipment necessary to create digital products like PDF ebooks, podcasts and videos, so why not make something to sell?

I used to sell my “Secrets Course,” which consisted of six of my PDF ebooks on various topics. processed the orders so I didn’t need a credit card merchant account for my website. They charge a one-time fee of $49.95 to set up a vendor account, and then take 7.5% plus $1 of each sale. That means I earned $23.97 from each $27 sale, which is even better than the 70% royalty I earn selling Kindle ebooks.

ClickBank has over 100,000 affiliates who can help sell your product for a commission. I offered 60% of my net to motivate affiliates to sell my Secrets Course. After the fees, I made $9.59 on each sale and the affiliate earned $14.38. In my first month, one affiliate sold 17 copies. His newsletter subscribers were customers I wouldn’t have had, and ebooks cost nothing to produce, so in addition to my other sales (which netted me $23.97 each) I made an extra $169.15 ($9.59 x 17 sales) that month by offering a generous commission. ClickBank handled the processing and automatically deposited the money from my sales into my checking account.

If you can write or talk intelligently about any subject, and you have a computer, you can create a podcast or an ebook to sell using free tools. Use social media and a free WordPress website to promote your products and you have a very low-cost business. You could even open a ClickBank account for free and sell other people’s products for a commission until you earn enough money to pay the one-time vendor fee, making this a zero-cost startup.

More Zero-Cost Businesses

Here are a few more posts on businesses that you can start with nothing:

How to Make Money Reselling Craigslist Freebies

Enjoy Writing? Earn Up to $750 a Week Writing for These Websites

Why You Should See Dollar Signs When Your Neighbor Puts Junk on the Curb

Enjoy Walking in the Woods? Here’s How to Find and Sell Deer Antlers

Drop and Give Me 20 (Dollars): How to Make Money Running Fitness Boot Camps

How Pretending to be Your Favorite Fictional Character Could Put Money in the Bank

Making big profits isn’t ever as easy as claimed by get-rich-quick marketers, but now more than ever, you really can start a business for nothing.

Your Turn: Have you ever started a business for nothing or close to it?