How to Grow a Small Business Without Needing a Ton of Cash

Bill Hewlett and David Packard started HP with $538. Fred DeLuca founded Subway with $1,000 he borrowed from a friend. And Sara Blakely founded shapewear giant, Spanx, with $5,000 of her personal savings.

Lesson learned? You can grow your business without spending a ton of cash.

I don’t own a multimillion-dollar company, but as a freelance writer, I’ve experienced how to grow a small business firsthand—without spending a dime. Here are a few free and low-cost marketing techniques that have worked for me.

9 Low-Cost Ways to Grow Your Small Business

1. Create strong web content.

How’s your website performing? If you aren’t capturing leads online or growing your website’s traffic, you could be missing a huge opportunity.

Consider these eye-opening statistics:

  • The top two channels for customer research are online reviews at 55% and company websites at 47%.
  • 64% of small businesses have a website.
  • 35% of small businesses without a website believe they are too small to have one.

Whether you sell a product or a service, you need a website. Fortunately, these days, it’s incredibly easy to get a good website up and running fast. All you have to do is follow a few best practices:

Know your audience. Get information through surveys or other research about your target customers. Develop personas that will guide you. Then write web content that speaks directly to their concerns and needs.

Write for humans. Skip the jargon, especially if you’re in a business that’s prone to it. Focus on your customers. For example, talk about your customers’ problems and how you can solve them.

Add useful content. Informative content helps people find you online—and builds trust. Imagine someone searches, “How to hire a roofing contractor.” If you have a blog post on this topic, they might land on your website.

Capture leads. Include a strong call to action button on your website so a customer can leave their information and reach you. Or offer free, helpful content behind a form.

Be mobile-friendly. Visits to websites on mobile devices have outpaced visits on desktops by almost 2-to-1. Make sure your website uses responsive design so it automatically configures itself to be easy to read and user-friendly on mobile devices.

The good news here is that many website companies include this feature in their templates.

2. Stay in touch with email.

If you have people visiting your website and (even better) if they’re willingly giving you their email address, you’ve got gold.

While they may not be customers yet, sharing their email address shows they have an interest in what you have to offer. Using email can be a great way to turn their interest into additional business for you.

Keep them in the know.

Stay in touch with prospective customers by sharing information they can use. For instance, if you’re a plumber, you could send out regular emails with helpful tips, such as how to spot a bad water heater before it bursts, or why it’s important to clean the food trap in your dishwasher.

Share special offers.

If you’re offering coupons, discounts, or other promotions (more on those later) for your small business, send them out to everyone on your email list. You can also encourage people to sign up for your email by making these offers exclusive to people on the list.

Let them know about new or additional services and products.

If you’re a landscaper with a lot of lawn-cutting customers, an email sent in the spring and fall offering yard cleanups can be a great way to pick up more business.

If you’re a massage therapist who now offers myofascial release services, letting your current clients know with an email can get more people on your table or in your chair.

It’s not as hard as you may think.

There’s a wide range of email marketing software that can make email more productive and easier to use. Many programs can help with nearly every part of a good email campaign:

  • Email templates
  • Managing contact lists
  • Scheduling and sending emails
  • Tracking if emails were open and read

3. Back yourself up with insurance.

Growing a small business is a lot like reaching the top of a mountain: you’re only halfway done. A climber still needs to make a safe descent, and a business owner needs to safeguard what they’ve built. That’s why it can make sense to get business insurance early on.

A good business insurance plan, whether it contains general liability insurance or professional liability insurance, can protect you in the event of an unforeseen and costly circumstance.

A brief explainer: General liability insurance can protect you from costs and claims associated with third-party damages and accidents, while professional liability insurance while performing your work.

The bottom line? Get insurance. It’s hard to grow your business if you have an early setback.

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4. Have stellar online reviews.

When was the last time you walked into a new restaurant without reading a review first? For me, it’s been a while. Years in fact.

With platforms like Yelp, Amazon, Angie’s List, and Facebook, it’s easy for customers to rate your work.

First off, people read them. A recent report showed 87% of consumers read reviews for local businesses.

Second, they matter. 79% of consumers trust product reviews as much as a personal recommendation.

A few tips for getting online reviews:

  • Ask your customers for feedback. Call them, email them, or ask in-person. Most people are willing to provide a review. In fact, one study revealed that 72% of people who were asked for a review, gave one.
  • Politely respond to every review, especially if it’s negative. A negative review can be a learning experience and an opportunity to improve your business. Responding to a customer shows you care about what they have to say. And simply doing that can often turn a negative customer into a positive one.
  • Keep track of feedback daily, and aim to grow your number of reviews. The more positive reviews you have, the better.

And remember, don’t get discouraged by a negative review. They happen to the best of businesses. What’s more, they often only stay negative if you don’t respond to them. That’s why it’s worth following up on social media and also offline to turn an unhappy customer into an enthusiastic fan of your brand.

Bear in mind that you won’t be able to create a positive outcome for every negative review, but you will show customers over the long run that you’re willing to listen, respond, and do all that you reasonably can to make things right.

5. Get new customers from existing customers.

Not only can your customers be a great source of reviews, they can even lead right to a new customer or client for your small business.

Ask for reviews.

We just covered how important reviews can be to growing your business, but people don’t always write unprompted reviews, even if the product or service was outstanding.

Asking in person, on the phone, and in email can increase your chances of getting a customer to write a review. You should also consider asking more than once. We all get busy, or sometimes we don’t read emails. A friendly reminder can go a long way.

Offer an incentive.

Customer referral bonuses or rewards may not be new ideas, but they can be very successful. From your local coffee shop to your mobile phone provider to your health club — just think about how many times you get asked for a customer referral.

The other good thing about referrals is that research shows many of them tend to turn into customers. That’s because the people who referred them already see the value your small business provides and know who among their friends would be a good match for what you offer.

Get creative.

Think about your business and what would motivate existing customers to refer new ones. If you offer music or dance lessons, you could offer existing customers a discounted monthly rate for each friend or family member they get to sign up.

Don’t be afraid to test a new idea. I worked for a company that sold many of its products directly through a call center. These products would often be purchased as gifts.

As a test, we had some phone representatives ask customers if the purchase was a gift. If the customer said yes, the representative would ask if the caller would like one for themselves. A simple idea, but it delivered big results. We saw nearly 50% of the people who were asked said yes to buying a second product for themselves.

Delight your customers.

First, you want to make a customer happy with your product or service. That’s a no-brainer. Why not take it a step further? Show your customers how much their purchase means to you personally. Something as basic as a thank you note (or even a thank you email) is a good start.

Additionally, you can build on that by offering discounts, upgrades, and gifts — but just a simple acknowledgment of their business can help build loyalty and create not only customers who keep coming back, but those who will shout your praises from the rooftops.

6. Be smart about social media.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and LinkedIn are incredibly powerful tools for reaching new customers and growing your small business. Find out where your customers spend time, and then start posting engaging content. Reach out to influencers in your industry, too.

A few examples of how different small businesses can take advantage of social media:

Photographers: Instagram is a great place for you to post samples of your work. You can tell stories through your photos, explain your creative approach, and network with photography influencers. Cross-post your content on Facebook, too.

Landscapers: Try Facebook or Pinterest. Facebook is still the most popular social media network, so it’ll increase your reach. Pinterest is a great place to reach customers who are looking for landscaping ideas and images.

Beauticians: Once again, make sure you’re on Facebook. And because your industry is about aesthetics, a beautiful Instagram page could serve you well too.

Accountants: LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube could help you reach new customers. Try uploading a video series to YouTube that answers common tax questions.

Contractors: Today more people than ever are searching for “how-to” videos. You’re the perfect person to answer their questions. Upload a video series on Facebook and YouTube that answers common homeowners’ questions.

You can also combine your social media posts with your referral efforts. Ask your customers to follow, retweet, tag, and post about you. According to a report, 71% of consumers are more likely to make purchases based on social media referrals.

7. Participate at talks, webinars, and local events.

Now’s not the time to be shy. Speaking at a community event or industry conference will position you as an expert in your field—and help your business grow. If public speaking isn’t your thing, practice or take a class. Trust me, it can be well worth it.

Don’t want to travel or speak in-person? Try offering a free webinar. It’s easier to host a webinar with an organization who has a following. This way, you don’t have to spend time marketing your event. Here’s an example: I write website content for financial advisors who are part of an industry network. So this year, I offered to host a webinar for that network on blog writing.

You can use these events to do even more than just promote your small business. You can build good will in your community. If you’re a landscaper, consider “adopting a visibility site” in town. It’s a great way to easily show a lot of people just how good you are at turning a forgotten space into something beautiful.

A local karate academy I know does child safety presentations at local schools. They’ve also offered a free self-defense workshop for local residents. It has not only been good for their business, it’s been a feel-good experience for them as well.

It’s a great way to show the value of what they teach and to demonstrate their commitment to the local community.

Even if what you do or sell doesn’t have a direct way to benefit the community, you can also consider sponsoring local sports teams or charity events.

When thinking about how to grow a small business, you can do a lot by asking, “How can I reach customers and teach them more about what I do or sell?

8. Offer a coupon or discount.

What’s the most powerful word in marketing? Free. Yup, people love a deal. Look at the coupons and discounts your competitors offer and try to match (or beat) them. You can also offer a discount for customers who refer to your business. The options are endless.

Here are a few ideas for creating an enticing offer:

  • Give it a deadline (i.e. “limited-time offer”).
  • Create a customer reward program.
  • Offer a free gift with a purchase.
  • Enter your customers in a free giveaway.
  • Promote your discounts on your website, social media channels, and in your brick-and-mortar store (if you have one).

9. Above all, offer great service.

You need to be able to back up your marketing with outstanding customer service. Otherwise, no matter how much you market your business, you won’t grow. The simple truth is this: people notice the great customer service and tell others.

Whatever you do, do it well and put customers first!

Share Your Why

A key to getting customers to buy from you is to get them to believe in you, in your product, in the service you offer. The good news here is that you already believe in what you’re offering them. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have started your own business.

The success of people like Hewlett and Packard, Subway’s Fred Deluca, and Spanx’s Sara Blakely isn’t a fluke. While their businesses are very different, what they have in common is a belief in what they’re doing.

Learning how to grow a small business isn’t easy, but there are many ways to do it. It’s also an area where you can experiment with new ideas to find the ones that work best for your business and budget. You just gotta believe.

Emily Thompson

I earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (go Bucky). After realizing my first job might involve carrying a police scanner at 2 am in pursuit of “newsworthy” crimes, I decided I was better suited for freelance blogging and marketing writing. Since 2010, I’ve owned my freelance writing business, EST Creative. When I’m not penning, doodling ideas, or chatting with clients, you’ll find me hiking with my husband, baby boy, and 2 mischievous mutts.

Emily writes on a number of topics such as entrepreneurship, small business networking, and budgeting.