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how to start a business on a tight budget


I was looking through my old posts to gather everything I had written about pricing furniture pieces and I came across this half-written post.  I decided it was a good day to dust it off and finish it.  The economy has hit a lot of families hard and SAHMs are trying to find ways to help out.  Here are some thoughts on starting a business on a teeny tiny budget.

I know you’re out there.  Yes, you…right there.  Reading this.  Thinking, “I really want to start a business, but I don’t have the money to do it.”  If you want to open up your own shop right away, yes, you need money, but you don’t need a lot of money to put your toe into the world of being a “business owner.”  Every business is different, but if you want to get into a design/antique/painting/crafty sort of business, the list of necessary expenses is pretty small.

The legal stuff:
It’s not the kind of stuff you want to spend your money on, but you need to spend money on registering your name with your state, getting any necessary licenses, and making sure you’re an official business in the eyes of your state.  It probably costs around $50-100 to do all of this in most states.  If you’re putting your toe in, don’t worry about registered trademarks, LLC, and all of that other stuff.  Take care of that later when the money is there.

Again, this one is not fun, but you really need to protect yourself.  Liability insurance is a must in this sue-happy world we live in.  You don’t need to get billions of dollars of insurance…just enough to cover yourself.

Marketing Materials:
You don’t need to dump a bunch of money into this, either, but you do need a way to market yourself to your potential clients.  I started out by printing my own business cards and marketing brochures that my husband designed in MS Publisher.  A word to the wise, if you do have your cards and materials professionally printed, order in smaller quantities.  I ordered 1000 postcards advertising my mural services that I don’t even offer any longer.  So, lesson learned.

A website:
A blogspot blog is free and can act as your website until you have a full-functioning one developed…if that’s ever even necessary for you.  You can buy the domain through Google, so you lose the “dot blogspot” part from your blog name.  It’s important to have an online presence and you can do it for free (or really cheap.)  When you grow, you can then put money towards a designer.  I had my blog for about 18 months before I hired a professional blog designer. Until that point, I had a friend help me out and I did a lot of it myself.

A computer:
You need a computer that is current, fast, and just for you.  If you just can’t afford it right now, save up for one ASAP.  The day of notebooks, a Rolodex and ledger have passed and you need a computer to keep track of all of your business stuff. It doesn’t have to be the biggest and best, it just needs to suit your needs.

A camera:
This is important for a lot of reasons.  You have to take pictures of your work for marketing purposes, for your website, to show customers what is for sale and to build a portfolio.  You don’t need a super fancy camera…just get a simple PNS digital that will take good pictures.  You can upgrade down the road.

Obviously, if you’re selling custom painted furniture, you need furniture, paint, brushes, etc.  If you’re on a super-tight budget, paint some off cast furniture you have around your house, from yardsales, off the curb even.  I know some of you girls have done that!  When I first started, most of my furniture pieces cost me under $20.  Now, my max is around $250 if the piece is fabulous, but I’ve put in almost three years of hard work to build up to that buying power.  For paint, buy $5.00 test pots instead of pricey quarts or frequent the “oops” shelf to find pretty colors.  Wal-Mart carries inexpensive Rubbermaid brushes that have cushy handles and smooth bristles.  This is the place where it is the easiest to get carried away and buy more than you need.  Keep it simple and add and upgrade as you make more money.

Some other thoughts…

Don’t go into debt:
If you’re starting a business to contribute financially to your family as I did, going into debt is only going to add to your stress.  It’s going to make those early weeks and months of your business all about money and making up what you borrowed.  Don’t do that to yourself.  It will stifle your creativity and make you look at success and failure in terms of numbers.  If you paid cash for everything, you can relax and enjoy the first sale, business opportunities that may yield a high return down the road, but not immediately and you can allow yourself rest.

Pay yourself:
Most of your money in the beginning will go right back into your business.  It took about two years to make my business a profitable one and it was about a year until I started paying myself.  So, it’s important to know it might take a while for your business to pay off and that’s normal, but make sure you are paying yourself…even if it’s just a little.  It’s imprtant to know your hard work is going towards its goal and contributing to your family.

The best advice I can give is to make sure your family is supportive of your efforts.  If you’re sneaking money out of your account to start a business that your spouse is not on board with, it’s not going to be a positive experience.  Just be patient for the right timing.  You need support in this venture and you don’t want it to be a point of stress or resentment.

If you missed my previous posts on starting a business, here they are:
In the very beginning – getting started
The nitty gritty – all of the details and not-so-fun stuff
Be worth the risk
Don’t be afraid
My story

I know I’ve neglected all of the “business girls” for a while, but I’m picking that back up again.  My business became an LLC this year, so I’ll walk you through that process and I’ve learned more about pricing pieces, insurance and more.  I’ll share it all, including how to start selling your pieces and ideas on where to sell when all else fails.

**All of the information provided in this post is my opinion and is geared towards those who wish to start a business on a very small budget.  There are a lot of other things you should purchase for your business, but they may be out of reach at this point.  Please do your own research and invest in the things you think will help your business succeed.

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  1. this was super super super helpful for me, you and your business are very inspriing and this post helped me see how to start! thanksn so much!

  2. Wise words….
    Julie x

  3. LIke usual you are always an inspiration! Thanks so much for all of your tips, they've helped me a bunch with my business I've been creating for a while now. Thanks again!


  4. Hello Miss Mustard Seed,

    Respectfully I disagree while one doesn't have to register a trademark and can worry about that later one should claim it from the get go which is the difference between tm meaning non registered and the R in the circle meaning registered.

    As for cameras buy the best and maybe even go for a bit more then you can afford. That was my best decision ever to spend a bit more then I could afford. My Canon rebel has been a great companion.

    Registering a business the fees are more like $270 and up.

    • KatieJ says:

      When I was a design student, and went through all the photography classes, it was beaten into our heads, “It’s not the camera, but the mind behind it that makes the quality of the picture.” I always used an old 1978 Nikon and it worked great. Also, I’m reading where Annie Leibovitz is now using her iPhone for a lot of her professional work! Get an expensive camera if you have the money to throw around, but it certainly is not necessary!

  5. Thanks Marian!

    janet xox

  6. Beach House Living,

    Thanks so much for chiming in!

    Buying a nice camera can cost a lot of money that people may not be able to afford. This post is really geared towards those who can't spend several hundred dollars on camera gear.

    In the state of PA, it was free for me to get an EIN and tax id. I only had to pay $75 to register my ficticious name.

  7. Marian you are the best resource, thank you for not only providing us with awesome inspiration but the 'how-to' get there in terms of the business side. I'm all for the project posts but definitely need more guidance when it comes to the sale and your info is priceless. A million thanks.

  8. Very nice post. I agree even in expensive California (where registering an LLC is $800)you can get started on the cheap. You are only required to get a business license in the county in which you live and the EIN is free which is all you need for a business bank account (other than the money, of course). My problem has been turning my hobby into my job since becoming unemployed, now I have to push myself to paint when I would rather do something else. (my hobby of painting signs and furnture was my escape from stress) I do have to say seeing all the lovely things being done in blogland does help to keep it fun and is so informative.

  9. Great post, lots of good info! This whols series has been excellent! So generous of you to share it!

  10. Great post. So full in information. Can't wait for the LLC post. Our business is heading in that direction this year and I could use any info I can find to help me along the way! Thanks for sharing!

  11. You are right on the money about starting a business with a small amount of funds. I am just jumping in with my small business (actually just getting my feet wet) and it is so inspiring reading your post. It made me realize, Yes, I want to do this and I can do this. Thanks for the encouraging words and great information.

  12. What a great post! Although the costs etc would be different in Australia, the principles are the same. I have been getting my furniture on Freecycle, on the footpath or under $60. For my birthday I asked my whole family to put in for a great camera.
    Great info Marian and I look forward to reading your other posts on the subject! Thanks, Megs :)

  13. Thank you Marian. I just started my own business a few months ago and really appreciate the information. Your "Starting a Business" series is one of my favorites and I'm looking forward to the rest of your posts. You're always such an inspiration and so willing to share your knowledge. Thank you for that.


  14. Love all the posts about starting and maintaining a business. I use to have a public relations consulting business for 7 years! I am now at the beginning of starting another business, art and furniture related. Love the refreshers…..

    Another great tip is if you have a friend who is an attorney, don't be afraid to ask them to help you witht he legal stuff. You might get lucky and find yourself a pro-bono client!

    Thanks, Marian!

  15. Thank you Marian! I seriously needed this post. I have been at my dead end job for nearly 5 years and funds are really tight right now so I am trying to start something so I can have extra cash flow and possibly finally leave my job (which may close in another year or so) and I really love the idea of doing something with furniture. I am also in the state of PA so glad to know the investment is not really large at the beginning.

  16. Thanks for this post, I am struggling with my jewelry business. Every penny I make goes right back into my supplies and advertising. My family is definitely supportive. I just keep on keeping on!!!

    It is always nice to see another business and learn of their road to success!

    Thank you!

  17. Truly wonderful advice my dear. I keep hoping one day I will start something that shows who I am. Fingers crossed I'll figure that out!


  18. Oh how you must be reading my mind! I have been toying around with this for awhile now and my biggest fear was going into debt. I have worked so hard at staying out of debt and that is my biggest fear! Thank you for being so helpful and encouraging to me. I am still praying for God's will in this adventure and your advice helps so much!

  19. Mega kudos to you for providing such information. So many who make it big forget where they came from, and hoard all tips and tricks as if they invented the world.

    I taught quilting and folk art for many years and nothing pleased me more than seeing a student take my instructions and tips and reaching for and achieving a higher level of excellence.

    You are providing a valuable resource and empowering women to become all that they can be.

    My hats off to you..ah, if I wore a hat that is ..:D


  20. Really great, practical advice.
    Lots of food for thought, too!

    Have a great week ahead,

  21. Check and check, and check! Thank you so much for the info…I'm so glad I found you!


  22. I know this must be the millionth time you have heard this but cannot thank you enough for sharing ALL of your wonderful ideas, what an inspiration you have been to me. How you have time to write is beyond me but hope you never get tired of blogging. Getting ready to order my first cans of Annie Sloan paint.Thanks again so much!

  23. how did you know this was exactly what i needed to read??!?! Your work is beautiful and inspirational. Such great information – and thanks so much for sharing!

  24. Thank you so much for this post Marian. I have been wanting to restart my business for a while now. I have been holding back because I just felt like I was wasting my time. I have run my own business in the past, but due to the economy along with medical issues, I allowed my license to expire and just stopped selling. I started out exactly the way you have described here. Some people pushed me to take out a loan and go big, but I felt as you do, that I needed to stay out of debt and take things slowly rather than jumping in and stressing over loan payments and overhead. Your words have encouraged me to get my toes back in the water. I will be reapplying for my business lecense and tax ID this week. I have followed your blog religiously since I first found you, and I appreciate and admire your words of wisdom. Thank you again.

  25. I love following your blog and this is so helpful! Great tips for all us hard-working ladies to become a sucess like yourself. Thanks and keep up the great work – so fun to watch your projects :)

  26. great advice, as usual!

  27. Thank you so much for this information and support. I have always wanted to start my own business but haven't known where to start and working long hours, full time made it hard to have time for anything else. Then I became a stay at home mom last May. I finally had time ahead of me where I can think about it again and honestly this economy is making being a one income family truly hard. In particular, it has been on my mind this week to start my own business. Perhaps this is my sign! Thank you!

  28. Wow, thank you for sharing this valuable information…I have just recently started to sell some of my work and really needed a post like this to feel encouraged and better informed. Thanks!

  29. This was a great post, Marian. Great tips and great advice. Very helpful! Thanks for sharing all of that.

  30. Thanks so much for the tips, Marian! You're the bomb! :)

  31. Love your blog! I became a follower! :) Erin

  32. Anonymous says:

    I am doing some research on pricing? I have a few furniture pieces that I am working on and am taking them to a consignment store in my area but am struggling with how to price them. Any suggestions? Love your pieces you just finished, especially the desk. Thanks so much for all of your advise on getting your own business started.

    Carly Swensen
    [email protected]

  33. Evergirl says:

    Thanks for sharing this, I find it very interesting to hear also about the "business side" of furniture painting.

  34. Such wonderful advice!!!
    Thanks so much

  35. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this post. It is very helpful! I love reading about your journey, you are an inspiration and make starting a business seem obtainable. Thank you again, I hope May is a successful month for you.

  36. Great post! I started out like this years ago. It is the best way when you are on a tight budget. As for Beach Living's comment. We can't all start in the same place. But how lucky you are that you could. I thought your comment came across a little abrasive, though you may not of meant it to be.

    To all those who dream of a Interior Design business, whether a custom furniture, faux finishing, Interior Decorating business…YOU CAN DO IT! Start out where it is comfortable for you and your family and not overwhelming. Being overwhelmed will suck the creativity out of anyone. A lot of you are busy Moms or working full time. Don't let that get in the way. Dream BIG and work on doing one thing each day to get you to the next plateau. This post has some great ideas to get you motivated and inspired to take that step!

    Miss Mustard Seed, I am writing a Ebook about how to start a design business, whether a decorating, faux, furniture etc . It will be a step by step guide (on many different design careers) for those who don't have the time or money to get their Interior Design degree. Great out of the box ideas to make their business stand out and get recognized! And inspiring tips to make them better designers! I hope to have it out in a month or so. :) I would love to buy an ad space here for it. Can you send me pricing on that? Thank you in advance…I look forward to hearing from you!

    Hugs, Meme

    BTW, I am having a Giveaway Series on my blog. First prize is a slipcover. It ends May 5th…:)

    [email protected]

  37. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this and share your experience with starting your business.. I just HATE when people are snarky when others have taken the time to share. ~sigh~ I can't say enough about staying debt free, I just wrote about debt free marriages today and each of those words is so true about business. I also agree with you about the camera. For most learning first to use a good point and shoot will be much easier that hurdeling over the learning curve of a big daddy mac camera that has set them back and couple of grand. I love my big-daddy but it's low of the list of bussiness priorities.

    Good words my dear!


  38. You are awesome to take the time to share this information! This was the hardest part for us in the beginning, so I know it will help a lot of people. I'm still on the fence about the LLC…


  39. I so needed this today! I actually took a mental health day from my "real job" so that I could work on this…YOU ROCK! Thank you sooo much! You are truly an inspiration and "virtual" mentor! HUGS!

  40. Thank you so much for this post! I have decided to switch gears~I will be closing my vintage shop on Etsy~to open a shop geared towards handmade childrens' party supplies such as tutus! I hope to advertise with you once again once I open my new shop! I am really enjoying reading your advice and suggestions.

  41. I think it was so great of you to write this post and share your experience with us. I've been refinishing furniture for almost 10 years now and started selling it two-three years ago. Just when I was starting to pick up momentum, I had a rough pregnancy and a premature baby so I was out of the game for a whole year. Now I'm tring to build it back up again. I have a tendancy to feel pretty intimidated, so I really appreciate that you are so willing to share all you know encourage those of us who are trying to make it work! Also, I ws surprised to see that I have a spraying booth just like yours in my basement-but my sprayer is sadly a pain in the but and not a great one-aka cheap! Now I know what kind of sprayer I want to work toward!

    Thanks again!

  42. Thank you so much for these helpful posts, Marian. I just love ya and you inspire me in so many ways.


  43. Fantastic post & very timely. Thanks Marian!

  44. You forgot 2 things:

    Luck, in your case a place actually named LUCKetts. I do not have one of those in my area, and with no other connections… well it's not going very well. I could get space at a Flea Market in my area, but that is Sat and Sunday and those days are reserved for visiting my dad in Hospice right now, and other family things. Selling on Craigslist can only get you so far. There's a definite end of the road and I think I've found it. It's not pretty and it's littered with items I need to sell, preferrably at a profit, so that I can get my car in the garage.

    Support- everyone needs a support team to encourage them that 'yes! Your stuff is great!' and to help them land some luck… help them network, spread the word, etc.

    The bottom line is that in fact I think there is a saturation level after which another Blog in the Blogosphere is just another blog… and another upcycler/flipper/whateveryoucallit is another face in a very crowded room.

  45. Just to show you how gone the days of "notebooks and ledgers" are, I had to read that sentence three times, thinking, "why are NOTEBOOKS gone?" I didn't even THINK about a spiral paper notebook. I read that word and immediately thought of laptops. Ha!


  46. On May 27 I will be out of a job. My career as a teacher will be over, and although I will miss it terribly I'm determined to land on my feet. Your blog, Mustard Seed, has been a favorite of mine simply because I can do what you do. Not to the extent that you do it, of course, but I know that furniture is a great starting point. Please continue your informative and inspiring posts. I will continue to dream and scheme!

  47. Thanks for all of your beautiful and inspiring pictures and projects. If you don't mind my asking, what camera do you use for your blog pictures? Is it a point and shoot or SLR? I have a Canon SLR on backorder, but may have to choose another.

  48. I love your blog! It is extremely inspirational. And I do not mean just by looking at all your awesome fun pieces. But you sharing your journey is very inspiring. I sit here with garage sale finds and stuff I have found on the side of the road and I have a dream building up in my head. I read this post and it just spoke straight to me.

    Thanks for taking the time. I do believe God is using you in more ways than you know.

  49. This is so helpful! I'm an inexperienced entrepreneur in the baking industry and I'm in the middle of starting up my own cupcake business. What do you think about SEO marketing? Good idea? Do you happen to know about any reputable SEO Firms that can help me with my online marketing campaigns? Thank you!

  50. Hi! I'm in the same position as vickykarin. I've been researching a couple of different seo companies, but I don't know how to tell if they're legit or not. Any suggestions? I really like your blog btw! Take care

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