On a shoestring budget (and what entrepreneur isn't?), it really pays to scrimp and save. Just in case you've forgotten the value of a hard-earned penny, we've come up with a slew of money-saving ideas to boost your business's bottom line-from cutting your legal bills to inexpensive ways to draw in customers. Though some tips will save you more money than others, the end result of your overall spendthrift strategy could add up to a bundle.
1. Piggyback your advertising. Including advertising material in other mailings, such as in invoices, saves postage and other costs, says J. Donald Weinrauch, co-author of The Frugal Marketer. Likewise, make the most of your point-of-purchase opportunities by tucking coupons, newsletters or other promotional fliers in the bag with customers' purchases.
2. Be a good neighbor. Split advertising and promotion costs with neighboring businesses. Jointly promote a sidewalk sale, or take your marketing alliance further by sharing mailing lists, distribution channels and suppliers with businesses that sell complementary goods or services.
3. Ask the people you know for help. The kind of support you'd most like to get from your contacts is referrals-the names of specific individuals who need your products and services. So go ahead and ask! Your contacts can also give prospects your name and number. As the number of referrals you receive increases, so does your potential for increasing the percentage of your business generated through referrals.
4. Got a happy customer? By telling others what they've gained from using your products or services in presentations or informal conversations, your sources can encourage others to use your products or services.
5. Make a special TV appearance. Local cable TV stations often have very reasonable advertising rates at time slots throughout the day and night. Though you won't necessarily reach prime-time viewers, you will make an impression where it counts-in the comfort of potential customers' homes.
6. Offer expert advice. Teaching a class, speaking at a community meeting, or writing an article for a local paper not only makes you look like an expert but garners low-cost attention for your business.
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7. Start your search engines. Research your market and find potential visitors for your Web site by looking through Usenet newsgroups (forums on the Internet where people post messages for public viewing) and special-interest groups related to your target market, product or service. Or, if you have America Online, visit their Small Business Center, which includes libraries of small-business information you can download at no charge.
8. Cut costs when setting up your online store. Think going online has to cost an arm and a leg? You can start out by selling items for next to nothing on online auction sites like eBay and Yahoo! Auctions . If you want to create a professional storefront, there are several "Web site in a box" solutions available, usually for a low monthly fee.
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9. Start chatting. Find newsgroups that cater to your audience, and join the fray. "I didn't start [participating in online discussion groups] to generate business, but as a way to find information for myself on various subjects," says Shel Horowitz, owner of Northampton, Massachusetts-based Accurate Writing & More and author of several marketing books, including Grassroots Marketing. "But it turned out to be the single best marketing tool I use. It costs only my time. [One] list alone has gotten me around 60 clients in the past five years." Always include your URL in your signature, but don't do any hard selling-most groups will ban you immediately. Instead, provide useful information that'll make people will want to click on your site.
10. Spread the word yourself. Are you letting people know what your URL is? Try putting it on your letterhead and business cards and in e-mail signatures-wherever potential visitors are likely to see it. Include it on employee uniforms, any promotional items you give away, all press releases, in your Yellow Pages ad and on company vehicles.
11. Get a suite deal. You don't have to run your office full-time from an executive suite to benefit from its services. Many homebased entrepreneurs find executive suites meet a range of needs, including access to a private mailbox and a receptionist to answer or forward calls to your home office. Visit the Office Business Center Association International Web site for more information.
12. Be mobile. While the costs of establishing a permanent retail location can be steep-you may spend up to $100,000 or more, with leases spanning three to 10 years-carts, kiosks and temporary spaces can be an easier way to get a foot in the door with a lot less risk. The upfront investment for a kiosk or a cart ranges from just $2,000 to $10,000, according to Patricia Norins, publisher of Specialty Retail Report. License agreements for carts and kiosks are shorter and are usually renewed every month up to one year depending on the location. This arrangement makes it easy for entrepreneurs to "come in, try it out for a month, and if their product isn't working, shift to a new product line or close up shop and move to a new location," Norins says.
13. Buy recycled printer cartridges. Check Google or your Yellow Pages for a local recycled printer cartridge supplier. Or if you want to mix your charitable instincts with your printing needs, visit www.lasermonks.com , a remanufactured printing supply company run by a group of monks in Wisconsin who, after business expenses are paid, donate their profits.
14. Fill it out for free. Instead of buying forms at your local office supply store or spending time creating them yourself, you can find tons of free forms online that you can download, customize and print. Our free forms on Formnet can get you started.
15. Get free software. Visit Download.com to try hundreds of software products for free through trial downloads, freeware and limited versions of the full product. Another tip: If you haven't found what you're looking for through Download.com or our software guide, check out the manufacturer's site. Most offer free trial downloads.
16. Buy used equipment. Save up to 60 percent by buying used computer equipment, copiers and office furniture from stores such as the nationwide Aaron Rents & Sells chain. Auctions and newspaper classifieds are other good sources of used equipment.
17. Save by association. When looking for insurance, check with your trade association. Many associations offer competitive group insurance.
18. Be prepared. Buying appropriate insurance upfront saves money in the long run, says Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute , a nonprofit organization in New York City. Consider what situations would be catastrophic to your business and protect yourself with adequate insurance. "Disaster recovery," says Salvatore, "is one area where business owners shouldn't scrimp."
19. Make a foul-weather friend. By arranging for an alternative place to run your business in case of a major disaster, you may be able to save on business interruption insurance, advises the Insurance Information Institute. For instance, you could arrange with a firm in the same industry to use their facilities in case of damage, and vice versa.
20. Check up on your medical insurance. Before choosing a medical insurance carrier, ask for information on past claims and the loss ratio of paid claims to premiums, advises the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Virginia.
21. Raise your deductible. Raising the deductible on your insurance usually lowers your premiums. Even if you end up having to pay the deductible, it's likely to be less than the amount you save.
22. Aim to lease. Employee leasing-in which you turn over your work force to a professional employer organization that leases your employees back to you-can save you substantial cash on employee benefits, says Bruce Steinberg at the American Staffing Association (ASA). For referral to a leasing company near you, visit the ASA online at www.staffingtoday.net .
23. Go with the flow. Rather than paying for employees who sit idle when business is slow, consider hiring temporary employees to handle surges in business.
24. Make experience count. Get free or low-cost help-and give local college students a chance to learn the ropes-by hiring interns.
25. Use independent contractors. Employers generally don't have to withhold or pay any taxes on payments to independent contractors. But be very careful that your independent contractors fit the definition provided by the IRS or you could face penalties.
26. Commission your sales force. Overhead, salaries, incentives, training costs, fringe benefits and expenses add up when you're hiring your own sales representatives. Contracting independent manufacturers' sales reps, paid on commission only, is less expensive-and often equally effective.
27. Clean up your mailing list. The U.S. Postal Service will clean up your mailing list for free, correcting addresses, noting incomplete addresses and adding ZIP+4 numbers so you'll be eligible for bar-code discounts.
28. Prune that mailing list even more. The Direct Marketing Association offers this checklist of cost-cutting ideas. Eliminate nonresponders and marginal prospects; print "Address Correction Requested" on the face of your mail; investigate co-mingling your mail with that of other small mailers to take advantage of discounts available mainly to large mailers; and stockpile mail to build up larger volumes.
29. Be an early bird. Send mail early in the day, and you can usually expect to get one- to two-day delivery for the price of a first-class stamp.
30. Shop around for an overnight courier. Overnight delivery rates for the major couriers are competitive; however, if you're willing to wait a few hours-or even an extra day-you could save.
31. Mind some petty pointers. Don't get careless about your petty cash account. "Though you don't need receipts for expenses under $75, you should still track these expenses since they can add up," advises Holmes Crouch, author of 18 tax books.
32. Hire your children. If your children are at least 14 years old and pay their own taxes, it pays to take advantage of their lower tax bracket. "You can essentially transfer income from your business to them [to save money]," says David L. Scott, author of The Guide to Saving Money (The Globe Pequot Press).
33. Take a stand on taxes. If your business is new in the neighborhood, you may be at a higher tax rate than those who have been there longer. "Go to city hall to determine what your neighbors are paying, and use this to negotiate a better rate," says Pete Collins of New York City-based PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. "Expanding businesses can often negotiate with community authorities, who want them to stay in town rather than move and take jobs elsewhere."
34. Homebased? Don't overlook crucial tax deductions. In addition to being able to deduct a portion of your rent or mortgage interest and utilities as a business expense, you can also deduct a percentage of various home maintenance expenses, along with a portion of the cost of services such as house cleaning and lawn care. Check out the IRS's Web site , or check with a knowledgeable tax advisor for more information.
35. Get out on the town. If much of your business is conducted at restaurants or you find yourself driving to clients' offices, make sure you take those deductions. If you entertain clients or potential clients to discuss a current or future project, you can deduct a portion of your entertainment costs. To qualify for this deduction, you must maintain a log of entertainment-related expenses you plan to deduct. For mileage, you can deduct 37.5 cents per mile in 2004. This figure usually changes annually, so check with your accountant at the beginning of each year.
36. Make credit comparisons. If you tend to run unpaid balances on your credit cards at the end of the month, shop for a card with a low interest rate. If you pay in full, it's more important to avoid an annual fee and look for a longer grace period. "Often credit card issuers waive the annual fee or reduce the interest rate if you ask," says Scott. "Just tell your credit card company you've had several solicitations from other companies with more favorable interest rates or no annual fees, and ask if they will reduce yours."
37. Avoid cash advances. "Credit card companies usually charge an upfront fee of up to 2 percent of the advance, with interest accruing immediately," says Scott.
38. Bank on an early deposit. Make bank deposits early enough in the day so you get credit (and start earning interest) that day.
40. Form a buying alliance. Join with another business or a trade association for bulk purchasing discounts.
41. Take it with you. If you're near your suppliers, pick up your order yourself-or perhaps have a friend or family member do it for you, suggests Sarah Williams Steinman, president of Casco Bay Herb Co., an herbal soap manufacturer in Cumberland, Maine. For example, Steinman's husband travels throughout the Northeast. "He keeps me updated as to when he might be near one of my suppliers," she says. "He often travels through the town where my olive oil supplier is, and he'll pick up a few hundred pounds of oil on his way home. That saves me about $75 in shipping." Caution: Pick up supplies yourself only when it truly saves you money. If it's taking you away from a revenue-producing activity, you're not really saving.
42. Be reluctant to give credit. If you do extend credit, thoroughly check the client's credit background, says Collins. For less-than-creditworthy accounts, Collins advises considering the following actions: Collect cash in advance; send partial shipments; request letters of credit, personal guarantees and a pledge of assets; take out credit insurance; or think about factoring (see below).
43. Query your consultants. The professionals you work with regularly are often easy to bargain with, thanks to the rapport you've developed with them. Ask your insurance agent, accountant or attorney how you can cut back on their costs. You'd be surprised at the suggestions they might offer on ways to cut your premiums, reduce billable hours or avoid huge retainers. You might also barter your services.
44. Be a legal eagle. When hiring an attorney, make sure you have a written fee agreement to prevent surprises. It should include an estimate of the time to be spent on your case and specify what's covered in the fee-including typing or copying-and what is not.
45. Learn something new. Rather than pay a consultant to write your press releases, for example, hire one for an hour or so to show you how to do it yourself.
46. Run from the law. "Avoiding lawsuits is a big factor in business success," says tax book author Crouch. "Even arbitration can get expensive." The best alternative: Try to work out any problems before they grow to the point that attorneys get involved. "Don't ignore any written or phone complaints."
47. Stretch your budget with barter. Swapping one product or service for another is a good way to avoid cash outlays-and unload slow-moving inventory. If you'd rather not bargain with other businesses directly, hire a commissioned barter broker (listed in the Yellow Pages under "Barter"), or join a commercial barter club or exchange. The National Association of Trade Exchanges (NATE) is a clearinghouse for member exchanges across the country, allowing business owners to swap just about anything with anyone. Participants typically receive "trade dollars" for their goods or services, which are brokered across cities nationwide with the help of NATE. Visit NATE at www.nate.org .
48. Time your payments. Ask suppliers if they give discounts for early payment. If not, it's to your advantage to pay your bills-including utilities, taxes and suppliers-as late as possible without incurring a fee, advises Scott. "The longer funds are under your control," he says, "the longer they're earning a return for you rather than someone else."
49. Join an association. Many trade and business associations have reasonable membership fees and offer discounts on everything from insurance, travel and car rental to long-distance phone service, prescriptions and even golf course fees.
50. Seek at least three bids on everything. Even mundane purchases merit shopping around. If you quote a competitor's lower price, a supplier or vendor will often match that price to win your business.
Contributors include Jacquelyn Lynn, Ivan R. Misner, Chris Penttila, Guen Sublette and Laura Tiffany