10 cheap small business ideas to start on a shoestring

Whether it’s pet care, street food, or hairdressing, unleash your inner entrepreneur with these low-cost business ideas.

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Starting a business is a dream that many hold, although few put it into action.

But what's holding them back? It could be personal matters, a lack of experience, or just the fact that getting started is expensive. But that last point doesn’t need to be the case.

There are cheap small business ideas you can bring to life on a shoestring – provided you’re in the right sector.

You just need to be wary of the risks, research trends in your chosen industry, and keep an eye on any external factors that could impact your new business venture.

Below we’ve included 10 cheap businesses you 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.

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Creating an online store (ecommerce)

This is arguably the most accessible cheap business idea on our list, with the potential of a massive return on a small investment compared to starting a business in other industries.

The online retail market will continue to grow in 2022, with global ecommerce sales expected to rise to $5.9 trillion this year. That is a lot of money, and plenty to go around for determined, innovative entrepreneurs who want to sell their products online.

So where do you even start? Well before you can sell anything, you need to create a website for your online store. The great news is there are brilliant ecommerce platforms at your disposal that will create your website for you in a few simple clicks, or provide you with a template from which you can build your ideal store.

Some providers charge a monthly fee to publish a website using their platforms, which can range from anywhere between £9–£25 per month, while others, like Square Online, allow you to set up your store for free. In other words, it will literally cost you nothing to launch your ecommerce business – you'll simply work with Square’s fee structure for the sales that you make.

The majority of ecommerce platforms that do charge an upfront or ongoing fee will offer a free trial. This means you can sample the features, and don’t have to pay until you’re sure the platform you’ve chosen is the perfect fit for your business venture.

And, if you want help choosing the ideal provider for your brand new business, you’ve come to the right place. At Startups, we regularly carry out extensive research on the top ecommerce platforms available for small businesses, so we’ve got plenty of product reviews and analysis for you to sink your teeth into.

To get you started, why not check out our review of the nine best free ecommerce platforms for small businesses in 2022.

Dharmesh Suraj Bali, the founder of eco activewear brand HAVAH, provides some top tips to ensure your online store's success:

  1. Focus on SEO from the very start. It is the cheapest way to get free traffic.
  2. Sign up to the HARO website, which is all about helping reporters out, so you can get free exposure from the press.
  3. Create a Google My Business page. It's free and will help boost your business's visibility.
  4. Create a blog and target keywords you want to rank highly for related to your product or service.
  5. Identify your niche. You may have heard that the “riches are in the niches”. Targeting one niche will help you grow at a low cost through advertising.
  6. Focus on only one advertising platform to keep costs down. Choose between Facebook Ads or Google Ads. If your product or service needs to be explained, use Facebook Ads. If your product is a straightforward sell, then use Google Ads.
  7. Create free pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Focus on only one or two platforms to start with.
  8. Use Fiverr to outsource any repetitive tasks, or work that's beyond your expertise.
  9. Build an email list. Mailchimp is the best platform for beginners, and it's free for up to 2,000 subscribers.

Check out HAVAH

Dropshipping

Perhaps you want to open an online store, but you don’t have a physical shop, warehouse or even a large spare room to store physical products – let alone the processing power to get all those items shipped on time. Well, dropshipping is a relatively new business idea that allows you to make money selling online, without the hassle of managing item logistics yourself.

It is a very cheap business idea, as you won’t be spending anything on shipping or storage.

Dropshipping isn’t without its drawbacks – chiefly, dealing with returns and refunds – but it’s definitely one of the easiest, quickest and cheapest businesses to start. Essentially it removes the need for you to manage any of your inventory, as all you’ll be focusing on is advertising and selling the products in your online store.

Your third-party supplier will be doing the rest, providing and preparing your customers' product orders and arranging deliveries. This reduces the costs of you having to safely store and secure your products, and eliminates the hassle of organising shipping and transportation of goods.

Although this is a solid and incredibly cheap business idea, the importance of selecting a reliable and trustworthy third-party supplier can be the difference between you making a profit or going bust.

Establish a positive relationship, and make sure you can deliver on your side of things with some excellent marketing campaigns, top customer service and standout advertising.

Get the guide: How to start a dropshipping business

Check out ecommerce giant Shopify's guide to dropshipping below: 


Cleaning

The COVID pandemic has made everyone very conscious about hygiene, whether that’s in their own homes or their office spaces. We are becoming a nation incredibly concerned about cleanliness – so why not take advantage of this trend and set up a successful cleaning business with minimal expenditure?

The most recent British Cleaning Council report back in 2021 revealed some interesting insights into the cleaning industry, which contributes over £55 billion to the UK economy every year.

Cleaning companies are on the rise, which is a healthy sign for those looking to start a business – in 2020 alone, there were 66,420 operating.

So how do you get started? Well, you merely need to grab a few basic essentials and you’ll be ready to fight grime. A cleaning business is a very lean start-up model that requires few complicated skills and not much equipment.

In fact, many of the houses or office spaces you work in may even provide their own equipment and supplies you can take advantage of.

If you do need to buy your own equipment and transportation, you should consider the following:

Once you have all your equipment and a van to get you from A to B, you then need to decide whether you want to start a domestic or commercial cleaning business. Domestic cleaning is a more accessible enterprise and certainly more manageable if you’re a one-person band.

Commercial cleaning is far more profitable, but keep in mind that the businesses you will be working for will have procedures you must adhere to, and high standards to meet. Some companies will also have strict sustainable cleaning policies in place, so keep this in mind when it comes to purchasing cleaning products.

A successful cleaning business relies on customer retention and recommendations, so doing a thorough, professional job is a must if you want to be asked back. A job well done will ensure positive reviews and word of mouth referrals – and additional business as a result.

Even in a digital age, a local door-to-door leafleting campaign is an effective way to win customers. You could also advertise in local businesses, or advertise using the power of social media to promote your services.

Rachael Flanagan, founder of the commercial cleaning company Mrs Buckét, started her company sixteen years ago with only £20 to her name. Today, the business turns over £4.5 million and employs 250 staff.

Discussing her top tips for starting a successful cleaning business, Rachael said: “When you’re starting a business and you want to make sure you’re as financially efficient as possible, be prepared to wear many hats. When I first started out – with 1,000 black and white flyers (which I spent my last £20 on), a mop and a bucket – there was no way I could afford for anyone to help me out.

For months not only was I a cleaner, but I was also head of marketing and PR, chief accountant, and personal human resources manager. Even to this day, I still do some things myself without engaging an external agency, such as recruitment.

Don’t ever lose track of where you are financially. Prioritise the creation of a visual asset that helps you to be completely in control of your finances. Know when money is coming in, and be hyper-aware of what outgoings you have.”

In terms of business advice, the cleaning industry is a crowded market, so what are you going to do to stand out? From your branding and story to your values and USPs, don’t follow the crowd. Be unique. When you have that nailed, it’s crucial you shout about it from the rooftops. Use whatever budget-friendly capabilities you have (social media channels, blogging, websites, and personal connections) to get your message heard.

Get the guide: How to start a cleaning business


Gardening

Since the COVID pandemic, our outdoor spaces and gardens have become incredibly precious to us. They are an escape from the insanity of isolation, and after three lockdowns it’s no surprise that the gardening and landscaping business is booming.

In fact, the average amount spent on the services of gardeners and landscapers annually is £2.4 billion.

So 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.

As with cleaning, the properties 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 your vans, getting insurance and buying proper equipment, 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 are very few regulations 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 gardeners 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


Starting a street food stall

streetfood

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.

It also has the added security of being an outdoor business, so if another lockdown comes a knockin’, you’ll still be able to trade.

You don’t need 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.

However, you must ensure you have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food plan in place, and keep records of these plans in case you are inspected by your local authority.

In terms of equipment, you’ll need a van or trailer, which you can pick up second-hand for around £3,500. You’ll also need a card machine to take payments from customers. Check out our list of the best card machines for small businesses to find the cheapest and best option.

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 – both of which this country has in spades. That’s why the sector rewards creativity and bold ideas. Give consumers a taste of something unique and exciting, and you’ll have queues around the block.

Get the guide: How to start a street food business


Personal training

Amid the unpredictability of COVID, starting a personal training business can still be an ideal venture, as it provides so much flexibility.

You can provide sessions in a number of environments, such as local parks, beaches and home gyms. And for those vulnerable people who are trying to restrict contact with others, you can even arrange online sessions via Zoom.

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, equipment, and insurance, while you could charge anything between £20 to £100 an hour depending on experience – although the average rate per hour is typically £30 to £60.

The job requires you to teach a client how to use equipment, motivate them to improve their physical fitness and wellbeing, and help them 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 well.

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/online tutoring

COVID has wreaked havoc on children’s education over the past two years, closing schools and forcing kids to be homeschooled. Home and online tutoring has never been more important for filling in the gaps of academic development, and there has never been a better time than now to start your own online tutoring business.

If you’re highly qualified in a particular subject, or have previous experience working with kids, then you already have a major tick off your checklist. 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, which can you can research via gov.uk. A university degree is also favourable.

You need to decide whether to conduct your tutoring sessions from your home, travel to your students’ houses, or hold sessions virtually.

Parents of younger children will most likely prefer them to be taught under their own roof or online. 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 £20 to £50 per hour depending on experience, although the average amount spent on tutoring per hour is £40. And if you're tutoring online, the costs will be minimal – just make sure you have great broadband!

Get the guide: How to start a tutoring business


Dog walking or pet sitting

dogwalkingbusinessidea

We are a nation of animal lovers who have been struggling to cope with the harsh realities of a pandemic. In fact, a total of 3.2 million households have acquired a pet since restrictions began.

The majority of these new pet owners are between the ages of 16-34, according to a survey conducted by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association. This was all well and good during lockdowns, but as restrictions ease and lockdown becomes a thing of the past (hopefully), the majority of our four-legged friends are struggling to get the attention they deserve as things return to normality and these young owners return to workplaces.

Although this can be seen as a real shame for man’s best friend, for budding entrepreneurs it is the perfect business opportunity.

Offering your services to look after people’s pets, whether that be by walking them, staying with them overnight or during the day to keep them company, or even taking them to the vet, is a great way to earn easy money.

Not only are you helping out their owners, but you are also getting paid to provide comfort and companionship to pets all over the country. Can it get any better?

The entry requirements for this business venture are minimal; it mainly requires a love of animals and experience handling them. In the case of dogs, you’ll also need a love of walking, as you'll be doing a lot of it!

Your main costs are going to be insurance and either some printed flyers or social media advertising. This won’t cost you more than a few hundred quid. 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 your obligation to pick up their mess.

Get the guide: How to start a dog walking business


Teaching English as a foreign language

Although the pandemic may have put a temporary hold on travelling and seeing the world, the demand to learn English as a foreign language continues to grow, as many understand the importance of being able to communicate via the world's most widely spoken language.

Demand to learn English is particularly high in China, with over 400 million people estimated to be learning the language. This education starts from nursery level, and many parents pay for additional tutoring outside of school to help their children learn English more effectively and efficiently.

The demand for English speakers presents an exciting opportunity for someone to start their own business teaching the language, and the best part is that you can teach all of your lessons online – so there are no overheads for travel or classroom costs.

To get started, your native language needs to be English in most circumstances, and an accredited TEFL course will also be required before you start taking on students. TEFL courses can range in price, but you'll likely be spending between £75 to £250 on a course depending on the level and hours involved. Although a bachelor’s degree isn’t necessarily a requirement, it will help you attract clients as the market is quite competitive and a degree could set you apart from other teachers.

You can expect to earn £15 per hour teaching English online, although as you grow your client base and become more reputable, you can increase your fees and charge a much higher rate (up to £40 per hour).

Simon Paine, CEO and co-founder of Rebel Business School, shares his top tips when it comes to starting a business teaching English:

  • There’s a lot more demand for English teachers who speak more than one language, and can explain things in the second language.
  • The majority of students around the world learning English will find it difficult to pay for the courses and classes you offer, so I advise that you have a product/service that is affordable. If you want higher paying students, aim for pronunciation courses or exam prep services – usually, interested students are living abroad or want to move abroad, and will have enough money to pay for services.
  • Find your own area of expertise when it comes to teaching online. You might be a well-rounded teacher but if you can stick to one area and be known for that, it will help you grow and stand out.
  • Many students have had a bad experience being sold courses or classes that are either not delivered or delivered badly, so trust is a major issue that I’ve dealt with. Find ways to build trust, whether it's using testimonials from current students or giving prospective students results before they work with you.
  • A majority of students don’t have the means to pay for services, so be open to providing services for free without expecting students to join your program.
  • Although this is changing, it’s good to be aware that many students have a picture-perfect idea of what a teacher should look or sound like. This is something that’s definitely changing in the industry, but discrimination still continues to be a problem with teachers that don’t fit the picture.
  • Do extensive research on what students actually want and what problems they want to fix, then create a product to solve that problem.

Check out the Rebel Business School


Launching your own book

If you have a brilliantly creative idea for a novel or expert knowledge in a subject, then writing a book can be a brilliant and cheap business idea. After all, you don’t have to pay for each word you write on a Google Doc (if you did, I’d be out of a job).

Essentially all you need is an idea that serves a particular market. This could mean a cooking, self-help, poetry or photography book, or the next great novel. Once you’ve identified your book’s subject matter you get to have all the fun of writing it and putting it together.

Although it could cost you a lot of time, financial overheads are next to nothing at the beginning, until you begin advertising and marketing your book online or in stores.

The cheapest model to follow when you first begin selling your book is print-on-demand, so you aren’t having to pay huge amounts for physical copies that may not even sell (worst case scenario). Blurb is a great provider for this.

You can also sell your book via third-party providers – principally, Amazon – or via your own online store. Of course, to save on the costs of physically printing your book, you can also sell it digitally.

If you really want to guarantee sales before pushing on, you could always arrange a pre-sale, or start a crowdfunding campaign to drum up interest in your ingenious book idea!

Sarah Banks, author of The IVF Positivity Planner, a unique support resource to fully support people through IVF, has provided a list of her top tips for self publishing:

  • Create a plan before you start. Write down everything you want and need to do so you can create a timeline for completing everything. Breaking it down feels less overwhelming and keeps you on track.
  • Be organised. Write a list of everything you want to include in your book, so you can mark it off once completed. I use spreadsheets to keep me organised!
  • Know and understand your audience. What’s important to them matters most, so do your research.
  • Consider basing your book on personal experience. It makes it a more authentic and trustworthy resource.
  • Be kind to yourself. The first time you put a book out like this, there is a steep learning curve. It’s about testing and learning.
  • Buy a small quantity at first so you're not committing too much cash before you know how it will sell. The unit cost is higher, but it’s better than committing to 1,000+ units initially.
  • Consider using selling platforms. You could create your own site, or use established platforms like Amazon and Etsy. The latter charge fees, but are well worth consideration as they have a huge audience.
  • Build relationships with key people in relevant industries and collaborate to raise awareness of you and your book.
  • Plan ahead. I self-published my planner because I wanted to keep full control and I saw it as a quicker route to market. I did get an Amazon barcode so that I could incorporate that into the artwork, to save labelling every time I send stock to Amazon.
  • Do as much of the work as you can yourself. Think about the bits you can do, and the things you will need to get support with.
  • Create a basic website. All you need initially is a landing page and a PayPal link, which can be set up easily and for free.
  • Set up social media accounts and post on them yourself to build awareness.
  • Use a local designer. This supports another small business, could lower your costs and gives you the opportunity to find someone you trust through word of mouth.
  • Send the books out yourself to keep down warehouse and processing costs. I still send out all the orders from my website and Etsy, and once I'd started selling more I bought a label printer which has made the process quicker and easier.

Check out The IVF Positivity Planner 

Final thoughts

Ready to go? Well, perhaps you won’t be starting your business on a shoestring this very day. But, we hope this article has given you some food for thought and inspiration for the year ahead.

Whatever type of business you’re considering launching, have a clarity of purpose at the front of your mind. Focus on who your potential customer base will be – and above all, what particular need they have that your business can fulfil in a better way than the competition.

Launching a business can be one of the scariest plunges you’ll take. But it can also be deeply rewarding to be your own boss. With the right planning, even a cheap business can quickly become profitable.


FAQs

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

You’re lucky enough to be starting up at a time when there’s never been more affordable and accessible help available from tools and software. You can outsource almost any administrative task to digital helpers like payroll software, customer relationship management platforms, 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 I start?

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

Here are 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 – do this only when you need it rather than buying outright
  • Don’t grow before you’re ready – remember that 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.

Ross has been writing for Startups since 2021, specialising in telephone systems, digital marketing, payroll, and sustainable business. He also runs the successful entrepreneur section of the website.

Having graduated with a Masters in Journalism, Ross went on to write for Conde Nast Traveller and the NME, before moving in to the world of business journalism.

Ross has been involved in startups from a young age, and has a keen eye for exciting, innovative new businesses. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.

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