Growing your business takes money, but capital can be hard to find in today's economic climate. If you've planned well enough that you have money in the bank, that's great, but you'll be taking a risk if you spend everything in an attempt to grow.
That doesn't mean you have to put expansion plans on hold. All it takes is a little creative financing. Here are nine unconventional ways you can grow your business without blowing your stash.
- Offer educational sessions: Get good publicity and make consumers aware of your company by holding an event for your community. Find a cheap or free space by talking to your local parks department, senior center or library, and offer to hold a free education seminar. The topic? That depends on your expertise. If you sell medical supplies and accept Medicare payments, show seniors how to fill out claim forms and troubleshoot bureaucracy. A tutoring or day-care business could hold free book readings for children. Have a restaurant? Host a free cooking class. Bridal or retail clothing outlets could partner with a dance school for a runway modeling show.
- Sponsor school/youth sports teams: In the current economic climate, schools are hurting for money, and cutbacks are sure to hit your community. Contact local schools or community sports groups and offer to sponsor a team. Perhaps you could buy the uniforms, adorning the backs of jerseys with your company's name and number. If you're in publishing, you could publish free programs for school music shows, plays or graduations and add your company logo and contact information on the back page.
- License your product: If you have a fantastic product, consider sharing it with your competition for a price. Shop your product around and offer to license it. You could charge a monthly fee, ask for royalties or charge a one-time fee to cover a certain time period. Your product gets introduced to new customers and distributed by someone else while you wait by the mailbox for your checks to arrive.
- Stage a publicity stunt: Get people talking about your business--and maybe even some media attention--by staging a publicity stunt. It doesn't have to be someone in a chicken costume handing out coupons on a street corner (though that works for some). Rent an open-air vehicle and drive around handing out product samples. Find a high-traffic park or open space and enlist a local theater troupe to put on a skit about your business. Use live models in your store instead of mannequins--especially for your front display window. Have your employees--clad in bright and identifiable company shirts--clean up trash in a park or low-income neighborhood. Make sure to check with local authorities about any necessary permits, and don't forget to post a clip on YouTube.
- Start a website/expand online: If you don't already have a website, start one. There are plenty of free and inexpensive do-it-yourself sites available; use one of them or hire a pro to create a site for you. Start slowly, offering information about you and your business. Link to informational articles about topics that will interest and educate your customers. Provide an area where happy customers can add testimonials about your business. Over time, you can expand your offerings--selling products online and reaching new clients.
- Use social media: The use of social media isn't all that new anymore, but it's proven to be a cheap way to promote a business. Create a page for your business on Facebook or Twitter, add "follow" or "like" links from your website to your pages and then e-mail all your contacts and ask them to become followers. Then it goes viral: Their friends will see you and join in, which will expose your business to entirely new audiences, which translates into new customers. Make sure to keep your pages interesting by linking to content relevant to your business and your customers.
- Form an alliance: Businesses need other businesses to operate. Use the people you know and trust to build your business. If you have a line of Italian sauces, talk to local restaurants and pizza joints about selling your products direct to their customers. In return, offer to help market or distribute one of the eatery's signature items. If you have a client-based service business, think of what other services the client may want or need. Those are the businesses you should approach. For example, your massage business could create package deals with the local nail salon to draw in more customers.
- Write a book: You've learned a lot while you've built your business, and you've got a lot to offer your clients. Consider a self-published book in which you impart information about something your client needs. If you run a gym, write about fitness. If you're an accountant, offer clients a tax-smart game plan for their finances. The book may not be a New York Times bestseller, but it's a different kind of calling card. Potential clients will see the book and think of you as an authority on the subject you choose to write about. You can even send the book to targeted media outlets, such as specialty publications in your industry, offering yourself as an expert source for their stories.
- Host a charity event: All charities could use a little help raising money, and there's no better PR than showing that you and your company have a heart. Contact a local charity and ask how your company can help publicize an event for the charity's benefit. You'll see that doing good for charity will also be good for your business.
Karin Price Mueller is an award-winning personal finance and consumer writer. She's a columnist for The Star-Ledger and regular Entrepreneur.com contributor. Mueller lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, two guinea pigs and one Beta fish. Whatever they don't eat goes into her retirement savings accounts . You can read her work at www.KarinPriceMueller.com .