How to start a business with almost no money

If you have a business idea and believe you need funding to get it off the ground, think again. Here’s how you can start a business with very little money.

By Catherine Wijnberg

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is: “How can I get funding to start my business?” Today’s Google search will give you 340 million answers to this question. But if it’s just one good answer you need, this one might help.

The reality is that most new businesses don’t begin with a wad of cash but are actually started with very little money. For example, I started Fetola from my dining room, with one laptop and an idea. Similarly, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Apple founder Steve Jobs and South African whizz kids Elon Musk and Mark Shuttleworth all started globally successful businesses from their garages, relying largely on their skills and hard labour, and some help from friends and relatives.

Closer to home, I just got off the phone to Helena van der Westhuizen from Simply Bee, South Africa’s fast-growing, natural, skincare company, which is located in the tiny town of Hopefield. Back in 2011, Helena needed a solution for her very sensitive skin so she developed a lip balm in her braai room at home using a by-product of the bees she inherited from her father.

Since then she has built a business by selling these skincare products at local markets, using face-to-face customer feedback to create better products and carve a market for herself. Now, nine years later, Simply Bee, which is co-owned by her husband, provides employment for 22 people and sells 90 different products. Not bad for a business that started mixing products in the braai room at the back of the house!

It is also possible, and in my experience even easier, to start a service business on a low budget. The starting point is to identify a market, in other words, something people need and will pay for. If you look at Helena’s example, she started by meeting her own need for natural skincare products, tested them on friends and family, and then slowly reached out into local markets and built upwards from there. Family, friends, or church community are great starter markets for small businesses.

Not yet convinced? Let me share a few more examples. If you see there is a demand for a transport service you could create a solution by finding your first client, then finding someone with a vehicle and putting them together for a small fee. In essence, this is what Uber is – they are the match-maker in the middle and don’t own a single car.

Similarly, if fashion is your thing, you could help someone to choose or create a design, assist them to buy the right fabric and then outsource to a seamstress for a small fee. You could do the same with cakes, parties, cleaning services. Just last week I had a budding entrepreneur share a model for fresh oranges where he is the matchmaker between the foreign truckers wanting them, and the farmers selling them.  The opportunities for service businesses are almost endless and once you have something that works, you can refine and improve it until you have built yourself a business of real value.

If you think that this way of starting a business seems long and hard work you are right. The reality though is that most successful businesses are just like that – the difference is that if this is your passion, it won’t feel like hard work at all; it will feel like a miracle is unfolding right there in your dining room, your garage or the shack at the back.

So just to be clear, nowhere in the world is it easy for people to get money for their first business idea. Most people’s first ideas are just a trial run for the real thing, which is why it’s so important to just get started. Encourage your kids to try a business adventure while still at school so they (and you) can get used to the idea of little failures along the way which are just the lessons you need to succeed in the future.

Investors and funders are looking for businesses to put their money into but first, they want to see your track record, feel confident that you know what you are doing, and are a good investment risk.  For this reason, it’s really important to keep a full financial record of your early business journey to use as evidence. Once you have proven your business model and shown your own determination and business skills, the money for growth finance will be easier to obtain.

Maybe one day your idea will be listed on the international stock markets just like those other garage start-ups and once that happens there will indeed be a pot of cash waiting to fund every new idea that you come up with!

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