Twenty-five years ago, my father-in-law and I got a crash course in how to start a service business.
At the time, starting a business was a pricey venture, and you needed a lot of equipment in place before you ever started. We were exporting poultry equipment and selling it overseas on behalf of American manufacturers, and we had to outfit the new office space we were renting because we had absolutely nothing. We brought in a couple folding chairs and card tables from his house, but it wasn’t an ideal setup — or very comfortable.
A quick trip to Office Depot and Sam’s Club, and we had two desks and chairs, a 6-foot folding table, a fax machine and a couple phones. We also needed three phone lines, a desktop computer for me (he already had one), a printer, small photocopier and several reams of paper. Then we ordered business cards, letterhead and envelopes. A few months later, we had to order binders, bookshelves and a filing cabinet to hold all the paperwork we were generating.
All told, we spent several thousand dollars just getting the office set up, and that was before we ever got our first order.
With today’s technology and our digital nomadic lifestyle, everything my father-in-law and I needed back in 1993 could now be handled with a laptop, a blog and a WiFi connection.
Types of service businesses you can start on a small budget
If you’re looking to start a consulting, financial, educational, training or writing business, these tips can work for you. Keep in mind that many of these service businesses will require licensing, so be sure you have that in place and check the costs before diving in. As long as you’re in a business that doesn’t require much equipment outside of a phone and computer with internet access, $500 can go a long way when starting a service business.
Other service businesses like videography, salons, pet boarding and pool cleaning require more startup fees due to necessary equipment. Check out these articles to guide your way on those ventures:
- How to start a pool cleaning business
- 10 questions to ask before starting a trucking company
- How to get started as a freelance videographer
- How to open a mobile nail salon
- Cosmetology careers: Your complete how-to
- Starting a luxury dog resort — What to include in your luxury boarding services
How to start a service business on the cheap
Here’s all you need to do to get your service business off the ground.
Buy a computer.
Purchase a domain name and a website.
Get some business cards.
Set up a workspace and go online.
Prepare for productivity.
Grab your wallet and let’s get started.
Note: Price estimates are on-target at the time of this writing but, of course, are subject to change.
1. Buy a computer
If you’re reading this on your laptop, you can skip this step. Drop some dough on a fancy dinner and keep the rest for the other items in this article.
If you don’t have a computer, let’s talk about what you need. First of all, you should buy a laptop, because when you’re figuring out how to start a service business, there’s no telling where you’ll end up working on a day-to-day basis so you’ll want the option of working remotely.
No matter what service business you’re getting into, you need a computer that offers internet access and a full, fast keyboard. This is why I don’t recommend an iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. I’ve tried functioning this way, and it’s very slow going.
Instead, I recommend getting a new Chromebook, which is perfect for writing and internet surfing.
There are several different levels of Chromebook, from an underpowered model for less than $200 (don’t get that one) to a high-end model around $1,000. The average Chromebook models cost between $250 and $350. Let’s set aside $300 for ours.
Pro tip: If you’re going into graphic design, I don’t recommend working on a computer that costs less than $500. It just won’t be powerful enough. You can try to buy a used laptop for around $500, but it’s likely to be too outdated and slow. You’ll need to set aside some extra dough for a better laptop or desktop computer, depending on your needs.
2. Purchase a domain name and a website
A website is a must, and the first step is buying a domain name for your business. You can get a .com domain name for less than $20 from GoDaddy. You might have a better luck getting a short domain that really represents the service you’re offering if you consider one of the new domain extensions — there are hundreds to choose from, including .consulting, .design and .services.
If you’re looking for a fast and easy do-it-yourself website building option, check out GoDaddy’s GoCentral. You can choose a template that fits your business, like consulting, landscaping and home services. Even better? You can start for free.
But if you’re a little tech savvy and want to learn how to manage your own site, GoDaddy has a Managed WordPress Hosting option that gives you a one-click install of WordPress and full customization control over your WordPress installation, including using Google Analytics.
As you’re building your site, make sure to include plenty of information about what you do and how you do it. Once it’s live, start blogging on a regular basis to help establish your expertise as well as boost your search engine rankings.
Pro tip: It’s a smart idea to create an email address with your domain name so you look more professional.
Related: How to start a website from A to Z
3. Get some business cards
Don’t go nuts and buy 1,000 of the fanciest cards you can find. Just get basic cards from a place like MOO, PsPrint or Vistaprint. All three offer huge discounts from time to time, so sign up for their emails and keep an eye out. When you’re ready to buy, simply upload your logo and fill out your contact information, and then you can buy 100 business cards for $30, depending on the quality. Reorder as needed.
If you need imagery for your cards, places like Pixabay offer royalty-free clip art and photos.
4. Set up a workspace and go online
If you have home internet and a place to sit, you’re all set. Your WiFi is already an expense you have, so it doesn’t count toward our $500 budget. If you don’t have it though, that’s no problem.
You can get free internet at a local coffee shop. Usually you can sit for 90 minutes or so for the price of a cup of coffee.
Spend money every 90 minutes or so, and try to get something that costs more than $2. I get a latte every two hours and sometimes buy lunch. I don’t do it everyday, but if I want a change of pace from my home office, local coffee shops offer a nice break in my routine.
If you want to stretch your money, you can spend a couple hours at a fast food restaurant with WiFi for the price of a drink ($1 in many places) or some fries. Again, don’t abuse their hospitality, but you can safely sit for an hour or two for a few bucks.
And if you live in a big city with a nice library, you can often reserve a room for a few hours for free. You’ll have access to the library’s WiFi, plus the different databases and services it subscribes to (Dun & Bradstreet, Lynda.com, Reference USA). If your library doesn’t have rooms available to reserve, you can sit at one of the tables. This is what the library is there for, so use it!
If you think you’ll need to work without WiFi for a period of time, use either Google Drive offline or install OpenOffice on your laptop. This will let you work without internet access, and when you get back online, you can sync all of your documents, check your emails and be on your way.
5. Prepare for productivity
Here’s how to start a service business and cut even more cash from your budget.
Research productivity software
Google Drive is free, and you’ll be able to create word documents, spreadsheets, slide decks and more. OpenOffice is an open-source competitor to Microsoft’s suite. Microsoft Office does require some investment, but has a variety of useful products, so this is something to consider when your business gets off the ground.
If you have a Mac, you can get their office productivity suite — Pages, Numbers and Keynote — for free.
Use your mobile phone instead of a business or office phone
There’s no need to pay for a landline at all, ever. If you have to worry about your data plan or want a business number, get a Google Voice number (free) and the Google Voice app (also free). When you need to make calls, do it while you’re on WiFi. You can also text with Google Voice and receive voicemail.
Editor’s note: Keep in mind that, like most things in life, you do get what you pay for. Look for a second phone number/app that includes reliable product support, an easy-to-use user interface and features like an auto attendant and voice-to-text. Consider an affordable, high-quality solution such as SmartLine from GoDaddy. You can try it for free and you can cancel anytime.
Create a simple icon or logo and paste it into the headers of all word documents you send to clients. (Tip: Google Doc lets you export files as either word documents or PDFs.) And there you have it — letterhead!
Get an online bookkeeping service
A service like Freshbooks can help you keep track of your finances and send invoices on the cheap.
Pro tip: Don’t make invoices on a word processor or spreadsheet. It looks amateurish.
Use the full Google Suite
Schedule meetings with Google Calendar, store photos on Google Photos and post your videos on YouTube. They’re all free, part of the Google family, and if you have Gmail, you have access to all of them already. Between you and me, I’ve run my business on Google Calendar, Drive and Gmail for the last 10 years, and it works just fine.
No more fax machines!
Work only with PDFs. Use Adobe Acrobat Reader to read them and the free version of DocuSign to sign them. I can’t tell you the number of people who expect me to print, sign, scan and email forms back to them. I skip all that. I just drop in my pre-written signature using DocuSign and then email it back.
Editor’s note: When your business is ready, Microsoft Office 365 from GoDaddy is here to help! With DocuSign and business apps like MileIQ, your service business will be ready to take on clients and get the job done.
Everything you need with money to spare
All told, a mid-range Chromebook ($300), a domain name ($15), business cards ($30) and one-year WordPress hosting ($108) OR GoCentral with built-in hosting (start for free and then as little as $72 for one year) through GoDaddy brings us to a grand total of $417 to $453. That leaves us up to $47 to hang out in coffee shops. And if you already have a laptop, you’ve saved yourself $300. So there you have it. You just learned how to start a service business for less $500.