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… and yours.

I think that there are a few things that my wife did at the beginning of getting her photo business off the ground that any aspiring entrepreneur can and should do. These are easy things, but not necessarily intuitive to everyone. They’re simple, but when you add them up, they can make a significant difference. Here’s a list:

  1. Get branded. We spent weeks (maybe months) 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; 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 phone numbers for free. You can have this number forward to an existing line, but use it to set up a separate voicemail. They’ll even transcribe your messages (warning: they’re 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 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, but these are just a few that have worked for us.

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

For more on how to do this, check out Seth Godin’s fantastic e-book about entrepreneurship The Bootstrapper’s Bible.

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