Small Business

How to Start a Side Business with No Cash Investment

So you want to start a side business but you need equipment, and licenses, and maybe even insurance, and you know that money doesn’t grow on trees. 

But money does grow. Labor is the only seed you need to plant. Opportunity is the soil. Determination is all the water you need.

Cheesy metaphors aside, here’s the secret to starting a hustle or side business with no capital:

  1. Trade your labor, any kind of labor, for cash
  2. Trade this cash for the equipment you need to start the hustle you really want to do
  3. Start operating your hustle.

The basic premise here is growth – growth from the tiniest of seeds. Your side hustle business will not leap from your skull fully formed like Venus from Zeus. Not even Jeff Bezos could do that with Amazon. Before the profits from Amazon could dominate the world, Jeff was just a man selling books on the internet before it was cool. (My book is actually in that very bookstore. Grab your copy of Where the Stone Touches the Sky).

Get side business ideas in your neighborhood

Here’s a slightly more sophisticated version of this:

  1. Take a free afternoon. Walk down the street (or the hall) and ask every neighbor if you can do some work for them. Any kind of work, especially miserable work nobody else wants to do. Get ten explicit rejections, five wordlessly pitying looks, three slammed doors, and one YES.
  2. Perform this work quickly, cheerfully, and well. Earn your first client’s admiration. Get paid.
  3. Ask this first client who else they know who could use your services. Write down these people’s numbers. Call them and make another sale.
  4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 until you have made enough money to invest in the minimum amount of equipment you need to start your dream hustle.
  5. Buy your first lawnmower, your first kitchen mixer, your first brewery kit. Repeat steps 1 through 3. You’re off to the races.

All you have to do is start small, with whatever seeds you have, and reinvest the profit.

My dad did this quite literally with his flower business.

He started selling flowers at the end of our driveway, cut from his flower beds on the side of the house, as a goof. Turns out people liked them. He used the profits to buy more seeds to start a small patch the next year dedicated just to flowers he would sell. 

They all sold out. The next year, he bought even more seeds and planted even more flowers. This continued over the last six years or so until today he has a flock of half-rabid flower fans who fund his stable of antique tractors, a growing pile of rusty farm implements, and fancy winter date nights with my mom. Just on his flower sales!

My dad’s a weird guy, I know, but the concept is there. You can do this with any kind of side hustle, not just one that literally requires planting seeds. Start with whatever you have, and grow.

From zero to hustler to business owner

Here’s another example in more detail that I hope will help inspire you. I am my father’s son, so I followed in his footsteps – I started a side hustle from nothing, which grew into a business.

About a year and a half ago, I was desperate. I was a volunteer with AmeriCorps working full time at a refugee agency, living on a stipend that was less than half the poverty level. I prayed for some kind of opportunity, anything that would let me make enough money on the side to finish out my volunteer commitment with AmeriCorps, instead of quitting and getting a “real job.”

Opportunity came. I started mowing lawns for $10 to $25 each for a local landlord, using their equipment and their gas – something I used to do all the time for elderly neighbors when I was a kid. My only cost was my time. It wasn’t a formal job. I got paid cash. 

If I ran behind the mower, which I often did, I was making $50/hr. The landlord was absolutely thrilled to find somebody who actually showed up. That’s 90% of a side hustle or any small business: it’s not about investment capital or loans. It’s just showing up to do the work.

After about two months of doing this on the side, I’d made enough to buy a beater truck. Soon I had purchased my own equipment that I could use for new clients’ lawns, and by the end of the season, I was mowing fifty lawns and was pitching my original landlord on yard cleanup packages totaling $1,500 a month. I had so much work I had to hire my brother to help me.

Your hustle can turn to a side business

The next year, I started my own formal landscaping business. By this time I was tired of the grind of mowing lawns, so I pushed the business slowly toward work I was more interested in, like installing patios and building retaining walls. I didn’t know how to do these things. I learned most of it on YouTube. 

To avoid costly salaries at this stage, I only called in help when I need it for big jobs. Also, I slowly acquired more tools after I landed the jobs that required them. The tools paid for themselves the very first time I used them. No equipment loans required.

I’m not rich but I’ve made enough to support myself and even to take a couple of months off to write my next book (my other business, and personal passion). Now, I know the fundamental principles of making money, and I have no debt. I am free to choose my next step.

I share this story with you not to brag (I have so many people to thank for every success I’ve ever had), but to illustrate how a side hustle which began from nothing can grow. All it took to begin was an opportunity and a willingness to work.

It doesn’t matter what kind of hustle you want to do. And if you don’t want it to, it doesn’t even need to grow into a full-time business. Maybe success looks like an extra $500 a month to you.

You can plant that seed right now. Just get started with whatever you can, wherever you are. You’ll be amazed at how big the smallest seed can grow.

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