10 cheap small business ideas to start on a shoestring

Whether it’s construction, market trading, or hairdressing, unleash your inner entrepreneur with these low cost business ideas

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We are a team of writers, experimenters and researchers providing you with the best advice with zero bias or partiality. This article was authored by:
  • Henry Williams

Starting a business. It’s a dream many hold but few put into action.

But what holds them back? It could be personal matters, a lack of experience, or just because it can cost so damn much…

But it doesn’t have to. There are cheap small business ideas you can bring to life on a shoestring – provided you’re in the right sector.

Many of these businesses require vocational skills that can be picked up on a course or in your spare time. Another common thread is that they are often very localised operations that can benefit from good word of mouth in a community.

Below are 10 cheap businesses to can start with limited up-front cash and resources. Click on the links in each section to read an in-depth guide on everything you need to get started with each idea.

This article will cover the following:

  1. Building or construction trader
  2. Cleaning
  3. Mobile hair or beauty
  4. Gardening
  5. Street food business
  6. Dog walking
  7. eBay business
  8. Personal trainer
  9. Home tutor
  10. Market trader

But first… do you want to launch a low-cost ecommerce venture?

Selling online has become even more important than ever in 2020; the COVID19 pandemic has meant that many bricks-and-mortar shops have had to temporarily close or have experienced considerably less footfall. The exact future of in-person selling is still uncertain for the time being.

However, this means that online sales have rocketed and have replaced in-store sales as the main channel of revenue for many UK businesses.

The great news is that selling online can be done for free and with little hassle, even if you've never created a website before.

Platforms like Square Online allow you to sell your products for free, meaning it will cost you nothing to launch an ecommerce venture that's Covid-safe.

Building or construction trader

If you’ve got the necessary skills and a well-equipped toolbox, it’s fairly easy to set yourself up as a small contractor or tradesperson.

After that your main expenditure will be advertising your services locally. Approximate construction business costs for a small startup could total £5,000

The construction sector encompasses a huge variety of trades and roles including carpenters, roofers, plasterers, electricians and electricians. You could specialise in one particular trade or offer a number of different services.

Remember that working in the construction industry will require you to be aware of a variety of construction regulations and health and safety issues.

If you employ anyone you will be responsible for making sure they have the necessary skills to carry out their job in a potentially hazardous environment.

Research from the Federation of Master Builders last year found that tradespeople were earning more on average that university graduates. The top trades by salary were:

  1. Site managers – £51,266
  2. Plumbers – £48,675
  3. Supervisors – £48,407
  4. Electricians – £47,265
  5. Civil engineering operatives – £44,253

A van capable of transporting materials and equipment is essential for someone in the construction trade.

Get the guide: How to start a construction company


Get yourself a few basic essentials and you’re ready to fight grime. Cleaning is a very lean start-up model that requires few complicated skills and not much equipment. In fact, many of the houses you work in will have their own equipment and supplies you can take advantage of.

If you do choose to buy your own equipment, you should consider the following:

All you have to decide is whether you want to start a domestic cleaning business or a commercial cleaning business. Residential is a more accessible enterprise and more manageable if you’re a one-person band.

Cleaning relies on customer retention so doing a thorough job is a must if you want to be asked back. A job well done will ensure good word of mouth and create additional business.

Even in a digital age, a local door-to-door leafleting campaign is an effective way to win customers, as well as advertising in local businesses.

Get the guide: How to start a cleaning business

Mobile hair or beauty

Hairdressing or beauty can be a trim idea for a business, especially if you’re mobile as it mitigates the overheads associated with buying a salon. Again, it’s just a matter of having the right equipment, being willing to travel to clients’ houses and advertising your services.

Dependent on how often (and far) you’re travelling, and what services you provide, a mobile beautician business could cost you anything from hundreds of pounds a month, to thousands.

Although there are no set qualifications, hairdressing will definitely require some training before you start snipping away at people’s hair. If you want to be taken seriously as a beautician you should have a minimum NVQ Level Three qualification in beauty therapy or holistic treatment.

After that it’s just a matter of being personable (you’ll be spending a lot of time one-on-one with people) and organising your time effectively.

Get the guide: How to start a mobile beautician business, How to start a hair stylist business


If you’re a green-fingered lover of the outdoors, you could get yourself an arsenal of gardening equipment and set yourself up as a gardener. Like with cleaning, houses you work at may have their own equipment and tools, meaning lower overheads for you.

And if you don’t know a carnation from a chrysanthemum, you can brush up on your horticultural knowledge by completing a course from an organisation such as the Plant School.

If you include costs for purchasing and branding the vans, buying proper equipment and tools and insurance, a typical gardening business might cost you between £5,000 and £10,000. But if you choose to be a solo gardener with a few local clients, costs can be much, much lower.

There’s very little regulation you need to abide by as a gardener, as long as you have the correct insurance and training if you’ll be using chemicals as part of your operation.

According to The Gardener’s Guild, most gardener’s expect to earn a minimum of £150 a day, or between £20-£40 per hour. Depending on how often you work, you could earn upwards of £50,000 a year.

Get the guide: How to become a gardener

Street food business

Street food is a rapidly growing sector in the UK, with festivals, street fares and urban street markets giving you the chance to set up a lean, mean food-focused business and get close to consumers.

You don’t have to have a background in catering or hospitality either. If you have an interest in food and cooking, and the wherewithal to put in long, busy shifts then it’s fairly easy to find a spot at a local market and start plying your trade.

In terms of equipment, you’ll need a van or trailer, which you can pick up anything from £1,500. You’ll also need a card machine to take payments from customers. Check out our list of the best card machines for small business.

Overall, it’s feasible to set up a street food business for less than £5,000. However, it can be risky, and you could lose trade at the mercy of foul weather or stiff competition – and there will be lots of competition. That’s why the sector rewards creativity and bold ideas. Give consumers a taste of something unique and exciting and you’ll have queues round the block.

Get the guide: How to start a street food business

Dog walking

We are a nation of dog lovers. But we are also a nation of increasingly busy people who struggle to give our four-legged friends the attention they deserve.

That means there are plenty of opportunities for you to get paid to take the pets of time-poor people for a walk. The entry requirements for this are minimal; mainly a love of dogs and experience handling them, and a love of walking (you’ll be doing a lot of it).

Your main dog walking costs in the beginning are going to be insurance and perhaps some flyers. This won’t cost you more than a few hundred quid. And considering you can charge up to £20 an hour, there’s good money to be made.

You’ll need to be aware of a few rules and regulations, including the legal requirement for dogs to wear leads at all times and of course, your legal obligation to pick up their poo…

Get the guide: How to start a dog walking business

eBay business

Want to start a business that barely requires you to leave your bedroom or interact with people? Becoming an eBay entrepreneur could be the lean business opportunity for you.

In terms of eBay costs, current subscription prices stand at: Basic (from £17.38), Featured (from £52.17), Anchor (£217.38). You don’t need a subscription to start selling on eBay, but having one can be advantageous.

When starting out – especially with an untested product – start small and slowly build to avoid wasting time and resources. You don’t want to blow all your money on loads of stock only to find you can’t shift it. Research what sells and find out who else is selling it. There are many sites online where you can buy stock wholesale.

Once you’ve identified your niche and started selling it’s essential to build up positive feedback. Good customer service is vital. If something goes wrong in the delivery process and it’s out of your hands it’s still important to placate a dissatisfied customer by offering them something extra. Bad ratings can sink an eBay business.

Get the guide: How to start an eBay business

Personal trainer

There’s no shortage of people that want to get fit and healthy. If you’re a fitness fanatic with a buff body or toned physique you’ll be your own walking advert.

Your main personal trainer costs will be training, insurance, equipment, and insurance, while you could charge anything between £20 to £100 an hour depending on experience.

The job requires you to teach a client how to use equipment, motivate them to improve their physical fitness and wellbeing, as well as set long and short-term goals. Some personal trainers will take a more holistic approach to their clients’ wellbeing and advise on health and nutrition.

As a self-employed personal trainer, you should have at least a Level 2 certificate in Fitness Instructing, Health, Fitness, and Exercise Instruction, or Instructing Exercise and Fitness if you want to be taken seriously by clients. These are available through private providers or colleges.

Get the guide: How to start a personal trainer business

Home tutor

If you’re highly qualified in a particular subject then tutoring could be the job for you. While it’s not necessary to be a fully qualified teacher you should still have a thorough understanding of the UK education system and the school curriculum. Gov.uk has plenty of accessible information about the curriculum.

You need to decide whether to conduct your tutoring sessions from your home or to travel to your students’ houses. Parents of younger children will most likely prefer them to be taught under their own roof. It’s essential you have had a Disclosure and Barring Service check to prove you are suitable for working with children. Though there’s no legal obligation, you’re unlikely to find work if you’re not checked.

Rates can vary from around £15 to £30 per hour. Your only real tutoring costs will be travel.

Get the guide: How to start a tutoring business

A market trader

Becoming a market trader is a great first experience in business and fairly accessible if you have limited resources. It’s also a great way to test a new product without fully committing to investing a huge sum of time and money in a business idea.

As with a street-food stall it’s fairly easy to find a spot at a local market – how much it costs will depend on your location. Many permanent markets will supply the stalls so all you have to do is bring the product. You’ll also need public liability insurance and obtain a market stall licence from the local council. Overall, you market stall costs won’t be more than a few hundred pounds.

After that it’s just a matter of having the right product, having a personable attitude, and the will to work long hours.

Get the guide: How to start a market stall


If you’re feeling thrifty, these cheap businesses to start on a budget could be the perfect startup opportunity.

Whatever you decide to do, click on the links above to find granular guides on everything you need to know to succeed in your chosen sector.

Good luck!


What are the essential tools I need to start my business?

You’re lucky enough to be starting up in an era where there’s never been more affordable and accessible help available in the form of tools and software. You can outsource almost any administrative task to a digital helper, payroll software and customer relationship management, to website builders and marketing tools.

If you’re worried about where to start with this plethora of tools, just read our handy guide on the 10 best business tools and services available.

How can I keep my business costs down when start?

It’s all very well starting up for peanuts, but how do you prevent your running costs stacking up?

Here’s a few key pointers:

  • Make a budget and stick to it – this will help you monitor your costs and spend efficiently
  • Get the right tools and services – see above
  • Lease expensive equipment – when you need it rather than buying outright
  • Don’t grow before you’re ready – controlled, considered growth is more sensible

How do I promote my business?

Marketing is easier than ever, thanks to the range of online platforms on which to promote yourself, as well as the tools you can use to monitor and improve performance.

You should develop a marketing strategy as early as possible and decide which channels will work best for your business.

Read our comprehensive guide for top tips on small business marketing. You can also compare the best website builders here.

Henry Williams
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