Switching your print on demand supplier? Get in touch with us here

1. How to start an online business with no money step-by-step

How to start an online business with no money [2023]

Looking for how to start an online business with no money? With today's technology, there are many ways you can start up a business on a shoestring budget. One way to do it is to create a website to sell products or services online. You can build an online store for free and sell products you don't have to pay for up-front.

In this article, we'll show you a nine-step method to build an online business with minimal investment. First, we'll walk you through preliminary steps such as market research, writing a business plan, and registering your business. Then we'll explain how to create a website and start selling products online. Finally, we'll offer tips on how to promote your business inexpensively and how to find funding if you want to scale up.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Market research lays a foundation for a successful business plan.

  • If you're low on funds, choose a business model that doesn't require high startup fees, such as print on demand (POD) ecommerce, selling a service, or selling a digital product.

  • Registering your business is optional but can provide liability protection and bookkeeping advantages.

  • Use free tools to help you set up a website or storefront on a budget.

  • Promote your business through low-cost methods such as email, social media, and partnerships.

  • Seek financing to scale up your business.

How to start an online business with no money step-by-step

The path to starting up an online business on a budget can be laid out in nine steps:

  1. Conduct market research

  2. Choose a business idea

  3. Write a business plan

  4. Register your business

  5. Build your brand identity

  6. Establish a website

  7. Create your storefront

  8. Promote your business

  9. Secure funding

Here's what each step involves and how to execute it:

1. Conduct market research

Market research lays the foundation for a successful online business plan. Performing market research helps you identify profitable opportunities, locate customers, evaluate competitors, and develop a marketing strategy. Thorough market research positions your business for profits, while failing to study your market can set your business up for failure.

When conducting market research, seek to answer key marketing and sales questions, such as:

  • What products and services are selling well?

  • Who's buying them?

  • Who's selling them?

  • What selling points are they emphasizing (problems, solutions, features, benefits)?

  • What sales angles are competitors overlooking that you could emphasize?

To answer these questions, you can use tools such as:

Market research is an ongoing process. Use your initial research to help you start your business. As your business grows, continue to conduct research to stay on top of trends in your market niche and spot new opportunities.

2. Choose a business idea

business idea

Your market research will help you identify some profitable opportunities. Use what you find to inspire some business ideas. If you're starting on a low budget, you should focus on successful business models that involve low up-front startup costs and high profit margins. Here are a few proven business ideas that fit these requirements:

  • Sell print on demand (POD) products: Print on demand services provide you the ability to sell customized products without paying up-front costs for inventory. For example, Gelato lets you sell customized designs printed on popular products such as t-shirts, hoodies, phone cases, wall art, and tote bags. With the POD business model, you provide your printing service with digital designs based on your own original art or photos or ones submitted by customers. Your POD service prints your designs on products your customers order. The best part is that you only pay for what you sell. You don't have to pay up-front costs, maintain physical inventory, or handle order fulfillment. As orders come in, your POD service prints designs on the items and has them shipped to your customers in return for a percentage of profits. This cuts down your business expenses and labor needs.

  • Sell services: If you have a marketable service that can be delivered online or locally, you can create a service business by setting up a website to sell it online. For example, you can sell services such as writing, graphic design, photography, videography, or computer programming.

  • Sell digital products: Digital information products (infoproducts) such as e-books, audio files, videos, and online courses don't cost you anything to store or ship. You can sell digital products to make money online through your own website or sites such as Amazon or Audible. You can sell your own original products, public domain products, or products you have acquired the rights to sell.

Once you've narrowed down a business idea, use your market research to help you refine it. Specify what you're selling, who your market is, who your competitors are, and how you plan to sell your product or service.

3. Write a business plan

Your market research provides you with some of the information you need to write a business plan. A written business plan documents the steps you will take to achieve profitability. This helps you guide your business operations, and it gives loan providers and investors the information they need to decide if your company represents a good financial risk. Companies that use written business plans have a higher success rate than ones that don't.

A comprehensive business plan should include the following:

  • An executive summary highlighting the main points of your plan

  • A description of what your company does

  • A market analysis based on your market research

  • A company description of how your business will be organized and run

  • A product and service description of what you sell

  • A marketing plan outlining how you will promote your products and services

  • Financial projections for your first three to five years in business, including estimated profit and loss statements, balance sheets, and cash-flow statements

  • A funding request letting lenders and investors know how much financing you'd need to run your business and how you plan to spend it

Initially, the financial section of your business plan will be based on estimates. As your business grows, you will gain data to help you do more accurate financial planning. Keep your business plan updated so you can use it to guide your business on an ongoing basis.

If you're not sure how to write a business plan, you can get help from the website of the U.S. Small Business Administration or from SCORE, a network that provides entrepreneurs with free access to experienced mentors.

4. Register your business

As you're writing your business plan, one item you'll need to consider is what business structure you want to use. Your major options include a sole proprietorship, limited liability company (LLC), partnership, and corporation. If you decide to operate under your own name as a sole proprietorship, you don't necessarily need to register your business, but you can gain legal protection and tax benefits from doing so. If you plan to use another business structure, you'll probably need to register, depending on where you live. If you're not sure whether you need to register, consult your state's requirements or talk to a business attorney.

Registering your business makes it easier for you to keep your business and personal finances separate. This can make your bookkeeping easier and enable you to claim tax deductions. An LLC business structure provides you with legal protection by shielding you from personal liability for your business.

To register your business, you'll need to choose a business name. You can take several approaches to choosing a business name. Simple methods include using your own name or a name that describes what you do or includes your geographic location (such as "Sam's Custom T-Shirts" or "Washington Wall Art"). If you want to get more creative, you can choose a catchy name that makes your business memorable, such as a play on words (for instance, "Fit U to a T" for a custom t-shirt company). To inspire you, you can find automatic business name generators online.

5. Build your brand identity

brand building

Your business name also contributes to your brand identity, a critical component of your marketing strategy. Your brand identity tells customers who you are, what you offer them, and why they should buy from you. Elements of your brand identity include the following:

  • Unique selling proposition (USP)

  • Business name

  • Logo

  • Design style, such as colors and fonts

  • Brand story

  • Brand personality

These branding elements will appear throughout your marketing literature, so it's important to select them carefully.

Your unique selling proposition lays a foundation for a strong brand identity. A USP is a brief statement that tells customers what you offer, why they should want to buy it, and why they should buy it from you instead of someone else. To make your USP stand out from competitors, you can emphasize selling points such as price (discount or premium), quality, service, or specialization in serving a particular target market (such as a particular age group or demographic area). An effective USP should be short enough that you can use it on venues such as social media platforms that only allow a limited number of characters, such as Twitter, or a short amount of time, such as TikTok videos.

Your USP should resonate throughout other elements of your brand identity, such as your logo. Your logo visually projects your USP and brand identity to your target market. It should capture the essence of who you are and what you offer customers. For example, the lettering on your logo can be fun or formal, depending on whether your target market is kids or business owners. If you're not artistically inclined, consider hiring a freelance logo designer to help you develop an eye-catching logo consistent with your USP.

Your brand's design style, story, and personality all contribute to your brand identity. Most websites include an "about" page where you can tell the story of how your company came about and what your mission is. You can post videos telling your brand story on your site or social media profiles.

This helps give your brand personality so you can form a personal connection with customers. People buy from companies they can relate to emotionally. Consider developing a persona that represents the personality you want your company to project. A persona can reflect your own personality or a fictional character who embodies your brand identity.

6. Establish a website

establishing website

Once you know the brand identity you want to project, you can begin implementing your marketing plan. One of the most important elements of your marketing strategy is your website. Your website provides a digital base of operations you can use to promote your business and sell your products or services.

If you're operating on a low budget, there are a few ways to create websites at minimal cost:

  • You can rent a domain name, host a site on your domain, and build your own site or blog. This option gives you maximum flexibility for web development. It will require some minimal domain registration and web hosting fees and some technical skills or help.

  • You can use a service that provides free web hosting and web design tools. For example, Wix gives you free domain usage for your first year, free hosting for a limited amount of storage, and free web builder tools with limited functionality. A drawback of this option is that you're limited to the development and design tools provided by your free service.

  • You can use a service that provides a free ecommerce platform. For example, Amazon, eBay, and Shopify let you sell products on their sites without requiring you to pay for domain registration or hosting. A drawback of this option is that you're limited by your provider's development and design features.

Any of these methods can be used to get your business up and running. If you're truly cash-strapped, you can even use a public internet connection. As your business grows, you can consider upgrading to a premium option.

7. Create your storefront

Whether you use a website or ecommerce platform, your storefront forms the heart of your sales operations. Customers use your storefront to browse, select, and purchase products. A well-designed storefront helps you make more sales.

Your storefront should make your products easy to find, easy to sell, and easy to buy. Here are some guidelines to help you build a successful storefront:

  • Use keywords to organize your products into categories that reflect what buyers are looking for.

  • Optimize your product descriptions with relevant keywords and descriptive titles that appeal to search engines as well as human shoppers.

  • Take high-quality photos to showcase your products.

  • Use competitive pricing apps to help you set prices comparable to those offered by rival sellers.

  • Include customer reviews to give your products social proof.

  • Test your payment process to make sure customers can make purchases with no hassles.

  • Include support tools to assist customers.

For best results, track the performance of your storefront to see what's working and what isn't. You can use web analytics tools, ecommerce analytics, and website heatmap tools to see what visitors are doing when they arrive on your site. Track visitor activity, review your results regularly, and update your site accordingly.

8. Promote your business

business promotion

Once your storefront is open for business, it's time to start promoting it. If you're promoting your business on a budget, you can use low-cost marketing tools such as:

  • Attracting organic search engine traffic to your site by using SEO to optimize the keywords on your product pages and blog content

  • Using an email autoresponder service to invite visitors to join your email list

  • Posting on social media platforms to build an audience online

  • Partnering with established businesses to promote their customers to your site in exchange for considerations such as commissions or cross-promotion

  • Sharing product samples with influencers in your niche to encourage product reviews

As your business becomes more profitable, you can invest some of your earnings in more costly promotional methods such as advertising on search engines and social media marketing.

9. Secure funding

If you're low on startup funds, attracting financing support can help you get your business going or help you expand after your sales start to take off. You can seek funds from sources such as:

  • Loans from family and friends

  • Small business loans from banks and credit unions

  • Small business grants from public or private sources

  • Crowdfunding

  • Angel investors

  • Venture capitalists

You'll find it easier to attract financing if you have a well-written business plan that projects your finances and explains how you plan to spend what you borrow and pay back what you owe.

How do I start an online business with no money or inventory?

If you don't have financing and you need to keep your business expenses low, one excellent, low-risk way to start an online business with no inventory is print on demand ecommerce. POD services let you sell high-quality, customized products without paying inventory costs. If your POD service handles order fulfillment, this eliminates another expense. Combining a POD service with a free ecommerce platform can let you start up without paying major up-front expenses.

For example, Gelato's POD service lets you sell popular customized products such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, tank tops, calendars, wall art, phone cases, photo books, tote bags, mugs, and cards. Gelato uses local production in 32 countries to cut carbon emissions and keep your business sustainable. Gelato handles order fulfillment, so all you have to worry about is selling products and making money. The Gelato platform is easy to connect to Shopify, so you can use Shopify's ecommerce platform to build a free storefront. You can easily use Gelato to start a clothing brand, sell digital art, or offer customized photo books, for example. Gelato illustrates how POD offers a cost-effective, sustainable option for starting a business with no inventory.

Create a successful online store with minimal investment

The key to starting an online business with no money is finding profitable products or services that don't carry high up-front costs. Primary examples include selling print on demand products, services, or digital products.

Whatever business model you use, good market research and business planning form a solid foundation for success. Use free and low-cost tools to develop your website or storefront and promote them until you can find financing, or you start earning enough to scale up.

Gelato's print on demand platform makes it easy for you to start selling customized products online with no inventory or order fulfillment costs. All you have to do is sign up and connect your account to Shopify to start selling products. Sign up for Gelato's print on demand service today to start selling profitable products without worrying about high startup costs or inventory hassles.


Next steps

Start selling products with Gelato