My wife and I started our Internet publishing business 11 years ago with $81. I barely knew how to open an email account, but we somehow put up websites and monetized them with Google AdSense. When we had our first year of earning more than $100,000, we were still creating all of the content ourselves. This year the websites may net less than $10,000 — but that’s another story. This story is about how to start a business for nothing, so I’ll get back to the beginning…

I already had an old computer and a tediously slow Internet connection. We registered two domain names for $8 each, bought a $40 program for uploading pages and paid $25 for our first month of website hosting. I wrote and uploaded a few websites and revenue was trickling in within two weeks (it was easier then). After several months, we had made perhaps $800 total, which was enough to buy a laptop and upgrade to cable Internet. By the end of our first year, we were making a living from our websites.

You really can start with nothing. Some readers may protest, “You didn’t start with nothing; you had $81.” True. You may have zero cash, and some businesses listed below might require $200 or even $300 to start. But I’ll bet you can borrow that much from someone, or use a credit card, or sell a few of your things, right?

So you can start with nothing, somehow find the minimal startup capital needed and then use this three-step bootstrapping formula to build your business:

  1. Choose a business according to skills and tools you have or can easily obtain.
  2. Identify and implement one or more low-cost ways to generate revenue.
  3. Use that revenue for whatever you need to grow the business.

Repeat steps two and three over and over to keep the business growing.

By the way, even if you have the resources to fund a larger startup, there are advantages to starting small. The biggest one is that you can fail several times and keep trying again until you succeed. On the other hand, when you invest your life savings, a failure can do some serious financial damage.

Examples of Starting From Zero

To gather evidence for skeptical readers, I Googled “started with $100,” “business was started with just,” and so on. The search results were full of inspiring stories. For example, did you know billionaire David Green started Hobby Lobby with $600? Googling “I started my business with” led me to Sunday Steinkirchner’s article about her rare book company, appropriately titled, “How I Started My Business With $1.” Here are some more examples:

Ryan Smith started making and selling “Bitchin’ Sauce” with just $200. In time, he and his cofounders got the sauce put on the shelves at Whole Foods and other stores.

The Fuzz Band started with $10 for fliers to promote their first performance. They reached revenues of $250,000 annually under the business name “Peach Fuzz Entertainment,” by focusing on doing gigs for private and corporate and clients.

Laurie Davis used her Twitter account and $50 to start Her dating site has since been written up in the York Times and profiled on Good Morning America.

Steve Farmer started a successful business wholesaling auto collision parts with $50. He used his car he had until he could afford a truck. He sold the business after three years.

William Feller borrowed a lawn mower to start his lawn care business, making his startup cost zero. He eventually had more than $15,000 in monthly revenue.

Carrie H. Johnson lived in low-income housing and had been recently divorced when she started a cleaning business with friends. She built it into a multi-million-dollar company.

Matt Shoup went door-to-door to build his painting business. His $100 startup grew to $2.5 million in annual revenues.

Toby Woodward says he started his 25-year-old flooring business “with $50 and a box of business cards.” How do you start with that little? Just install floors until you have the revenues to buy inventory.

The list goes on. Online businesses are perhaps some of the easiest to start for close to nothing, but the examples above show the variety of potential low-cost startups out there. Here are some more businesses you might start with just the cash in your pocket:

  • Used textbook sales
  • Social media management
  • Fitness boot camps
  • Window cleaning
  • Dumpster salvage
  • Handyman service
  • Headstone cleaning
  • Freelance bartending
  • Temporary tattoo sales and application
  • Life coaching
  • Estate sales
  • App development
  • Craigslist arbitrage
  • Boat cleaning
  • Snow sales
  • Auto detailing
  • Video tutoring
  • Grocery delivery
  • Boarding house
  • Rideshare driving for Uber or Lyft
  • Used appliance sales
  • Resume writing
  • Pet sitting

You could add another hundred businesses to the list if you approach them the right way. Work that formula, starting with the first step:

  1. Choose a business according to skills and tools you have or can easily obtain.

In other words, use what you have, what you can borrow and maybe what you can put on a credit card (but don’t get too carried away).

If you have basic hand tools, you can start a used appliance business. Of course to make $2,000 a week selling used appliances, you’ll need some inventory. No problem; just remember the second and third steps:

  1. Identify and implement one or more low-cost ways to generate revenue.
  2. Use that revenue for whatever you need to grow the business.

So buy one used washing machine for $80, watch videos on YouTube to learn how to repair it, and when you’re done, sell it for $175 using a free ad on Craigslist. Then invest that money into two more appliances. Repeat and grow.

Depending on the nature of your business, you may want to have liability insurance. You’ll have to decide for yourself how long to risk going without it. You might also want to create an LLC for additional protection. You can get advice on these and other business matters for free from volunteers at Score. But even with insurance you can start many businesses for a few hundred dollars, which means that credit card in your otherwise empty pocket might be all you need.

Your Turn: Have you ever started a business with nothing (or close to it)?