7 steps to starting a small business on a shoestring budget - with free startup help
Steve Strauss Special to USA TODAY
Published 8:00 a.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020 Updated 11:05 a.m. ET Feb. 19, 2020
One of the great things about being in business these days – whether it is having a side hustle
or a retail store or an online business – is that there is just so much free help available.
To wit: Last week, I held my most popular webinar ever (almost 4,000 people registered!) for
SCORE, called 7 Steps to Starting on a Shoestring. SCORE is an amazing organization; more
than 10,000 business volunteers who can help and mentor you (physically or virtually) on
almost any aspect of your business – marketing, sales, taxes, whatever. And, like my webinar,
many of SCORE’s offerings are free.
You can also get free help from your local Small Business Development Center and the Small
Business Administration.
The point being, if you want to start a business right now, and especially if you need to do so
on a a tight budget, it is very possible. Here are the steps you would take:
Step 1: Self-assessment
Not everyone is cut out to be their own boss. Some people are athletes, others are artists,
some people make great employees (not me!), and others are meant to be entrepreneurs.
Is the entrepreneurial life right for you? Here’s a question to help you decide:
Does the idea of leaving your job – with its steady paycheck and benefits and boss and coworkers
– more excite you or terrify you? Starting your own business is a risk, and as such,
you have to be comfortable – nay, excited – about that if this is going to be right for you.
Step 2: Pick the right business
Generally speaking, a physical store with inventory is much more expensive to launch than a
service business or online store that you could run out of your home.
That said, you have to do your homework and make doubly sure that there is a market for
whatever it is you want to sell.
Step 3: Consider your name and brand
To succeed and stand out in this competitive world, you have to be unique, different, special.
Are you going to be the sedation dentist, or organic grocer, or what?
The best way to stand out is to choose a business name that immediately reflects your
business promise/brand. For instance, Jiffy Lube promises a quick lube, oil, and filter. Baja
Fresh promises fresh Mexican food.
More: Sift out the small-business prospectors so you can strike gold with serious customers
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More: From workspace to the gig economy, here are the top small-business trends of 2020
Whatever you may think of President Donald Trump, he is a master marketer, and he knows
this rule, too, hence his nicknames for opponents. “Crazy Bernie” or “Crooked Hillary” are
nothing but the political equivalent of this ‘instant branding’ rule.
Pick a name that people will remember and that exemplifies your desired brand.
Step 4: Draft a business plan
Yes, writing a business plan is a lot of work, and no, you don’t want to do it.
Too bad.
A business plan is your roadmap for success. How much money will you need? How will you
market your business and handle competitors? Your business plan will tell you.
And in any case, if you need a loan or investor, they will want to see your business
plan. LivePlan is a good place to start. So get writing!
Step 5: Handle the legalities
You will need to incorporate in some form – likely either as an LLC or an S Corp. LegalZoom
and can help you there. You will also need to get the right sort of business
insurance. (Full disclosure: I do some work with Allstate.)
Step 6: Get your business funded
Most people cobble together the money they need from
• Friends and family
• SBA or other bank loans
• Savings and credit cards
Other options include crowdfunding and microloans.
Step 7: Set up your physical and digital shop
Secure a URL and your social media handles. Rent space if needed. Create your team: Hire a
good lawyer and bookkeeper, find independent contractors, and finally
Throw a grand opening party. Congratulations, you are in business!
Steve Strauss is an attorney, popular speaker and the best-selling author of 17 books,
including "The Small Business Bible." You can learn more about Steve at, get
more tips at his site TheSelfEmployed, and connect with him on Twitter @SteveStrauss and
on Facebook at TheSelfEmployed.