How to Start a Business on the Cheap

Portray Photo: Nashville Photography LogoMy wife recently started her own family and pet photography business.

I just printed out her first invoice. It’s a pretty cool feeling. She’s done a lot of the leg work on her own, but I’ve had the privilege of helping her with some of the business.

We definitely “bootstrapped” it during the start-up phase and have been pleasantly surprised by some of the immediate success we’ve seen over the past few months.

Of course, it’s just getting started, but we’re learning that starting a business doesn’t have to be something that is hard. Not today. Not with the tools at our disposal.

There are a few things that we did at the beginning of starting her photo business that any aspiring entrepreneur can do. These are easy steps, but not necessarily intuitive for everyone. They’re simple, but when you add them up, they can make a significant difference. Here’s how we started a profitable business on the cheap:

  1. Get branded. We spent weeks deliberating on a good business name. We wanted it to be short, memorable, and available. We knew that consistency was essential, so before we settled on anything, we made sure that the domain we wanted was available (since we knew most of our exposure would be online). A friend donated his time and talent to design a logo, and once we had that, we started using it everywhere (even on these invoices I’m printing).
  2. Use free marketing tools. My wife reserved a Twitter account and started a Facebook page almost immediately. I started a blog on WordPress, a free, easy-to-use service that you can use to build simple websites.
  3. Launch a website. When we had reserved all the tools to support the brand, we started adding content to the website and paid the service fee to connect the blog to the domain (this cost us a total of $15 for the year). We could’ve saved a few bucks and kept it under the wordpress.com domain, but it wasn’t worth it for us. A website is your online storefront. If you started a grocery store, would you share a sign with another business? Of course not. That would be tacky. It’s the same with your website.
  4. Get a business line. Google Voice offers a free phone number and voicemail. You can have this number forward to an existing line, while still setting up a separate voicemail message. They’ll even transcribe your messages (still working the kinks out of this function). To keep your business life separate from personal affairs, this is an easy, free way to do just that.
  5. Get a custom email address. No, I’m not talking about [business name]@gmail.com. I’m talking jeff@goinswriter.com. Usually, when you buy a domain, you can set up an email account through that domain. WordPress and Google offer easy solutions for this that are well worth looking into. Again, these are free ways to represent your business in a professional manner that ultimately builds trust with potential customers.
  6. Identify early advocates and reward them. My wife offered special discounts and deals to friends (even some pro bono work as she was still learning her camera), and when these people were pleasantly surprised, she asked them to write a review or refer a friend. She’s now including this on — yep, you guessed it — her invoices.

I could go on with the list (for instance, how she has foregone a studio right now and shoots mostly outside), but I think that you get the point. For less than $100, she was able to start a business, get it operating, and immediately start turning a profit.

It’s never been this easy; if you’re an entrepreneur at heart, what are you waiting for?

I’m sure that there are other ways to bootstrap an online start-up; these are just a few that worked for us.

What are some other ways to start a business on the cheap?

For more on starting a business with little capital, check out Seth Godin’s fantastic e-book about entrepreneurship The Bootstrapper’s Bible.

2 thoughts on “How to Start a Business on the Cheap

  1. My wife and I have done a lot of the above, only as a production studio it’s a bit more tricky for us because, at this time, we aren’t so much a service that people pay for. We instead create content. For instance, we have a comedy troupe that films sketches and puts them online (and on NECAT), and we have a podcast and some other stuff that we do or that we are developing or creating, like music and music videos. We have to try and get clever about how we use things such as Google Adsense, Chitika etc to try and pull in ad revenue, and on top of that try to sell merch for things like clothing (cafepress.com) or DVDs (createspace.com).

    Nonetheless, much of what we’ve done is similar – if not the same – as what you describe above. We have several websites, emails, a Google Voice number (though we haven’t pushed it yet), Twitter and Facebook accounts, connecting sites like Eventful, ReverbNation etc. We’ve also got logos for our company and various projects, and (I particularly recommend this) have put a “TM” by all of our logos so that it is known that this is an intended trademark. We’re also set up as an LLC to protect our own personal property against liabilities that may be taken on by the company (you can do that through Legalzoom… not super cheap but WAY cheaper than going through the whole personal lawyer process).

    We do, of course, intend to provide a service of renting out equipment, space, expertise (and in a sense, a lot of what we’re doing to make our own projects we intend to use as reels to sell our services – much the same as what you are considering as “pro bono” above). That will be a bit trickier to get going as we both work full time jobs.

    Obviously I’m not posting the websites or anything without permission. Just wanted to be of service and chime in.

    I will say as well that we know a couple who also have a photography business. They got our attention when we needed photographers for our wedding last year. Found them on Craigslist (worth trying some ads there… just be careful who you might find responding), and they turned out so amazing that they did some promotional stuff for our comedy troupe AND they’re still very close friends of ours! They started out doing their services for fairly cheap so they could build a portfolio and word of mouth, and have gradually raised prices as they got better and better at it. Fantastic stuff!

    Anyway… good luck with your ventures and if you’re interested in checking any of ours out please let us know!

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