Nick Wolny is the senior editor of Financial Independence at NextAdvisor, in partnership with TIME,…
You don’t need a lot of money to start a business.
So if you’ve been waiting for capital to turn your idea into a reality…well, you can stop waiting. We talked to ten successful founders who run businesses bringing in up to seven figures a year, and half of them said they started their journey without less than $500. One of them started with nothing.
If you do have some seed funding, great—you’re in an even better position. Make sure you’re using it as effectively as possible.
Here’s how much money these ten founders used to start their business, and their advice for new entrepreneurs.
Nicole Pomije is the creator & owner of The Cookie Cups. COVID-19 forced her to pivot aggressively, and she launched a line of at-home baking kits as a family activity. She started the food product business on less than $500.
“I bought baking ingredients, paid a graphic designer who was a friend to make me a logo, and signed up for a farmers’ market to sell my Cookie Cups as a test run,” says Pomije. “From there, it grew to several more markets and larger local events and then eventually to two storefront bakery locations. I put everything I made back into building the business.”
Pomije has been in business for six years, and did close to $200,000 in revenue last year.
“I became really good at budgeting. I had limited funds and believed in the concept – that’s what kept me going,” she notes.
Pomije encourages aspiring business owners to use their pre-launch time wisely and really understand the market.
“Do your research and know what you are getting into before you start,” she encourages. “Also, know the competition in the space. If it seems like a good idea, go for it!”
Test cheaply and quickly before plunging money into your ideas.
Shaunda Head is the founder of SHH Creative and has over 15 years of experience helping female entrepreneurs elevate their brands. A loan from a family member helped her expand her business at the start.
“I started as a freelance logo designer my freshman year of college,” she says. “I had hardly anything to my name except my college scholarship. I wanted to add studio photography to my business, but I needed funds for legitimate photography equipment. I wrote a business plan, which I presented to my grandmother, and succeeded in receiving a $4,000 cover to purchase the equipment. My granny had just become my largest investor!”
Head notes that it’s important to continue to invest in yourself and sharpen your skills.
“Spend more time investing in both your craft and good coaching. A lot of new entrepreneurs are working in a silo and wondering to themselves how all the pieces fit. Invest in guidance and join a community right away so you can learn more, faster. You can start small with affordable courses and memberships and scale your investments to guidance like one-on-one coaching as your business and profits increase.”
Jenn Edden, CHHC has run a successful coaching business for nearly two decades and specializes in helping people overcome their dependency on sugar. She bootstrapped every penny at the start.
“I started with zero funding and grew my coaching business one client at a time over 18 years,” she says. “I’m a multiple six figure owner now with a team who run my Sugar Freedom Method program, and I coach privately.”
Edden generated $450,000 in revenue last year. She notes that she took on business debt after proving her value proposition to help her scale up faster.
“I took on investment debt when I needed to hire business and sales coaches to teach me the skills I needed to get to the next level,” she says.
When it comes to staying in it for the long haul, Edden wants new entrepreneurs to find something that ignites a fire deep within themselves.
“Make sure you are passionate and aligned with the business you want to start at a soul level. You will need that passion and clarity of vision to weather the storm that comes with starting a business and not quitting after the first few years of uncertainty and stress, which are natural parts of being a business owner.”
Jasmin Haley is a keynote speaker, speaking coach, and presentation skills consultant. Her sole investment in launching her business back in 2016 was the $250 fee to register an LLC.
“I was a full-time college educator and recovering from burnout. I had endured symptoms since 2014 with multiple hospitalizations and urgent care visits due to chronic stress and a toxic work environment. As a young mother and full-time college educator, I didn’t have much capital to grow my business rapidly.”
Haley did what she knows best – using her voice – to get heard and build momentum.
“I began writing blogs, started my podcast, and leveraged speaking. This eventually led me to national stages and publications. I made my voice and brand undeniable even though I had limited capital in my business.”
Her advice for new entrepreneurs is to include money mindset work in your overall business journey.
“When I first started my business, I was solely focused on making an impact. I was purely heart-driven and mission-oriented; I had deep-seated money mindset trauma that made me afraid to ask for the sale. This prevented me from charging the true value for the services I provided.”
“As entrepreneurs, we have to remind ourselves that we are CEOs and are no longer employees. If we do not master our money mindset and focus on the income-generating tasks that will create a sustainable business, the business will be unable to make the impact that we truly desire. To make a heart-driven business sustainable, ask for the sale consistently!”
Serial entrepreneur Jess Ekstrom says that thinking you need to partner with a big company or production partner from day one can trip you up.
“When I started my first company, Headbands of Hope, out of my dorm room in college, I made the mistake of going all in on a manufacturer who ended up being fraudulent,” she says. “I lost all of that money, which was a family loan. Big whoops!”
“After that debacle, I got a $300 grant from my school, found a drop ship company, and started my Shopify website. Headbands of Hope is now a multi-million dollar company that has helped over a million kids with illnesses.”
After the production meltdown, she elected for a leaner, more bootstrapped approach when testing the value proposition of her next company.
“When I started another company, Mic Drop Workshop, which provides tools, courses and community for women to become paid speakers, I was ‘seasoned’ enough to not go all in on the idea until I tested it,” says Ekstrom. “I created an eventbrite and charged $90 for people to show up at this small event space and I’d teach them how to be a public speaker.”
“It sold out almost immediately, so I used that money from the event to get a Kajabi membership and create the course online. These days, there are so many ways to tap into communities and test concepts without dumping loads of money into an MVP.”
Ekstrom encourages aspiring entrepreneurs who are short on cash to reframe their perspective and look at what they do have to work with.
“Start with where you are and what you have and you’ll be amazed with what you can learn.”
Angie Jordan has been in digital marketing since 2008 and focuses on helping service- and consulting-based businesses use podcasting as a tool to grow their business and get more visibility and reach online.
“The first thing I did was hire a coach. The first program purchase was $997. I knew I needed to get help because I wanted to grow fast; I wanted to learn from the people who had done what I wanted to do.”
Jordan’s advice for new entrepreneurs is to keep your day job for the sake of financial stability, but also ramp your education and your network way up.
“Learn from people who have done what you are wanting to do. If that means investing in coaching or courses, do it. If that means you have to work a job longer, do it. The stress of trying to make it early on in business is really heavy.”
She also encourages new business owners to get specific and focused as quickly as possible.
“Stick to one thing,” she says. “The single most effective thing I did was to only talk about podcasting when really I could talk about ALL marketing. I narrowed it down and talked to one person about one thing. This caused people who haven’t even worked with me to associate my brand with a very specific thing. My name is now dropped in conversations about podcasting everywhere. Becoming ‘known’ is a very powerful thing.”
Rae McDaniel is the founder and owner of Practical Audacity, a gender & sex therapy group practice of queer-identified/aligned, trauma-informed professionals based in Chicago. They launched their business with $20,000 on a personal credit card. McDaniel notes that they took an upfront risk because they had already spent years developing their offerings and services.
“I had 18 clients booked in my first week. But I also had spent the previous five years building my skills, expertise, and reputation.”
McDaniel encourages new entrepreneurs to embrace going after their dream, but also to set realistic expectations for growth.
“If the answer to the question, ‘What would I do if I weren’t afraid?’ is to start a business, do it,” they said. “But know that overnight successes are usually the result of years of work building your brand, expertise, and network. Being crystal clear on what you do and who you serve and delivering on your promises goes a long way in setting you up for success.”
Alex Mitow is the co-founder of Superfine Art Fair, a company that puts on boundary-breaking art fairs and gives artists tools for growing their businesses. The company has been in business for six years.
“In terms of startup fees, the honest truth is we started the business with next to nothing,” he says. “A wise person once told me that the best place to get money is from your clients. Not investors, not loans, but from the actual clients you have or hope to have. This involves some confidence and risk, but if you believe enough in your product or service, you’ll put together a valuable offer and offer it (possibly at a discount) to your clients to create the income you need.”
Before COVID-19, the company was seeing nearly $1.2 million in annual sales, with about 80% of business being B2B (Exhibition booth sales at their art fairs) and 20% B2C (Consumer-facing tickets and VIP packages). After an obvious dip in 2020 and 2021, the company has bounced back and does about $100,000/month.
“You have to believe that it can be done,” says Mitow. “Over the last six years, we’ve refined Superfine as a company and adapted to changing global conditions, but our core value proposition and model have changed very little. That back-of-napkin calculation from 2016 still applies today; you have to have the confidence to work with big numbers and believe you can reach them.”
Jenn Robbins, a marketing funnel strategist, started her business after quitting her job in tax accounting. (Side note: She’s kind of a celebrity on GIPHY, have you used one of her GIFs before?) When she launched her business, she focused on getting basics in place, then centered all her attention on sales and building up her client book.
“I started my business with about $500 in my account! I created a website myself for about $50 and then started signing clients.” Robbins did $175,000 in revenue last year and notes that scaling to this number took time.
“It did take about seven years to break the $100k mark for me,” she says. “I had to do everything myself. From website design and maintenance to marketing to accounting, I was a one-woman operation.”
When it comes to advice for new entrepreneurs, Robbins says making the ask is critical for keeping yourself going.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for support. You’ll be surprised by how many people want to help.”
Nicole Barham is the founder of 5 Minute Bookkeeper™ and helps entrepreneurs get their finances organized. She says failure is often the way forward.
“Don’t be afraid to “fail” multiple times before you get it right. 5 Minute Bookkeeper™ is in its 6th or 7th iteration, and each time I got feedback from my clients and tweaked and tested until I ‘got it right.’ Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of putting yourself out there and remember it’s not failure as much as it’s feedback.”
Like many of the other business owners listed above, Barham also emphasizes how important it is to get out of the silo and network regularly with other like-minded entrepreneurs.
“Join communities of other entrepreneurs at all levels so you can learn from them and get to your goal for your business faster. There are many successful entrepreneurs in your niche who are willing to mentor you whether through their programs or events. Be sure to get in the room where these people are and contribute to the conversation so that when they think about what they need in your area of expertise they will think of you and potentially reach out to you.”
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