How to Build Your Business When You’re Broke


In January 2014, I was laid off. It had been my first salaried position with benefits, and it lasted only six months.

Before that was a string of unpaid internships and part-time work that allowed me to get some experience on my resume without the financial independence I craved. The salaried position had started to change all that: I moved into a new apartment and was on my way to having a responsible amount of money in my savings account. Then it ended — abruptly.

My plan had always been to start a writing business after a few years of saving. But faced with the awful void of unemployment, I thought it might be prudent to start building my business ASAP. The endeavor would keep me productive, add new skills to my portfolio, and save me from having to explain a gap on my resume while I hunted for new employment.

Nearly a year later, I have not found another full-time position. But I have billed my first client, been published around the Web, and filed away a few notes about building a business under financial stress. Here are my tips.

1. Give yourself time to organize and prepare. I recommend taking one month and devoting as much of that time as possible to strategizing, planning, and building a portfolio or customizing your online store with its target market in mind. This is a step I tried to skip in the beginning (as I struggled to find work). I probably would have been successful sooner if I had given myself a month to develop a robust writing portfolio before focusing on marketing and sales.

If you can’t go a month without some sort of income, pick up a part-time job doing something you’re already amazing at, or consider joining a service like TaskRabbit.

2. After one month, cease and desist all free work. Set your rates and put a minimum in place to determine when a project isn’t worth your time. A lot of advice for beginning freelance writers cautions against setting your rates too low. This was never a problem for me because I needed rent money and $25 project fees weren’t going to cut it.

In fact, I used to be terrified of scaring away potential clients with my rates. When I sent my first quote, I spent hours crafting the email, agonizing over the appropriate language to use and how to calculate a rate that was both fair to the client and worth it for me. And while that was stressful, it kept me doing only work that paid the rent.

3. Pitch often and intelligently. Whether you have the money or not, there will probably never be a point in your life that is 100 percent ideal for starting a business. Fortunately, strained finances aren’t terribly tricky to work around. All you really need to be in business is an exchange of money for goods or services. If you have an email address, you can start pitching your business today — to anyone. No website, business cards, or social media presence required.

I recently emailed another entrepreneur to offer my help, sharing some information about myself and my writing background, just because I admired her work and wanted to be involved. To my knowledge, she wasn’t looking for a writer, but I ended up working on a few projects for her anyway.

4. Network online. Advice from other founders and entrepreneurs who have successfully launched a business can be an invaluable resource as you grow your own business. While networking events are a great way to make those connections, many of them come with cover charges or registration fees.  

So take your networking online. There are tons of free webinars these days — I’ve gained access to some by signing up for newsletters from resources like Skillcrush and Firepole Marketing. You can learn how to set up a WordPress blog and meet other like-minded entrepreneurs in the process.

Also check out free talks and workshops, like CreativeMornings’ breakfast lectures.

And don’t neglect LinkedIn groups or Twitter. I’ve found Twitter in particular to be a great networking tool. Whenever I come across an article I want to share, I grab the author’s Twitter handle so I can credit that person when I tweet the link to the article. Surprisingly, most of those writers have favorited the tweet or even replied to thank me, then pressed the “Follow” button. It turns out people like it when you share their work! And this kind, albeit strategic, gesture establishes some common ground that paves the way for further interaction.

5. Go ahead and neglect your social life for a while. It’s okay! Getting a business up and running takes a lot of work. And if you ask me, it’s a rather fine excuse for avoiding cocktail hour, brunch, and all the other fancy things your friends who are not struggling with money enjoy. Take advantage of that: Save precious money now by staying in and getting more work done than you thought was possible in 24 hours, and reap the benefits later. You’ll probably enjoy a $12 cocktail more when you’re celebrating the launch of your consulting firm.

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