Ask most owners of a small business or start-up how much they’re planning to spend on marketing and the answer is usually zero – either that, or it’s a blank stare followed by a bit of stammering.

Because for those just starting out in their business, resources are limited and marketing is something they’ll “get to” after the business is up and running – when they have more time, more staff, more money. But, the truth is that most businesses start thinking about marketing too late.

Marketing isn’t just about promoting products or services – it’s about having a deep understanding of customer needs, finding solutions to meet those needs, and then developing a plan that delivers the right message to the right audience, at the right time, and in the right place. Putting off this research and planning can negatively impact a business’s chance of success.

So as a business owner, with limited time, money and resources, how do you go about establishing a marketing budget that is realistic but can still deliver results? You need to think smarter. You need to be strategic with every dollar. And you need to make sure every effort, no matter how small, is well-planned and executed.


Where to Start

Start by defining your goals – the outcomes you are hoping to achieve. Then determine the tools you will need and estimate how much it will cost to achieve them. Be specific; a range is fine, but don’t think you can use an arbitrary number. For example, if creating a website is in your plan, what will you need? Will you need a shopping cart component, video, someone to help with graphic design, copywriting, SEO?


Finding a Balance

If you can afford it, the best option is always going to be to hire a marketing professional or marketing agency that can plan, develop and implement your entire marketing plan for you. But let’s be honest, that’s not realistic for most businesses just starting out.

The best advice is to start small and know that you’re not going to be able to implement every marketing idea all at once. You’re going to need to become a master at prioritizing and learn to be patient about those special projects or initiatives that you think would be cool to do. And while I am not necessarily an advocate of DIY marketing, marketing with a limited budget will ultimately involve a mix of 3rd party and do-it-yourself options.

But, before you jump in to a DIY marketing project with the mindset that, “this is easy, I can do it myself”, spend some time figuring out what makes more sense for your business – doing the project yourself or hiring a professional.

Figure out what you (and your team) are good at:

  • If you are a photographer, you’ll need a website that is going to showcase your work – a portfolio site that has minimal need for intricate graphics or copy. Because your photos are going to do the “talking” for you, building your site using a low-cost platform such as Squarespace will probably be a good solution that you can do on your own.
  • If you are a social media maven and spend a good part of your day on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, then handling your own social media activity (at least, in the beginning) could just be the way to go.
  • If you are a writer, or just simply love writing, chances are it won’t be a stretch for you to spend some time coming with copy for your website, collateral and even a blog.

Be realistic about what you can take on:

  • Are your design skills really at a level for creating the company logo (even a temporary one)?
  • Do you like writing enough, to spend several hours every week (or day) blogging?
  • Do you honestly have the time to figure out how to optimize a site for SEO and then stay up-to-date on the plethora of algorithm changes Google implements?
  • And most importantly, what is the VALUE of your time? Is it more valuable spent building relationships with your customers or on product development than it is on the time you would need to invest in figuring out a marketing project on your own?

How Much to Spend

How much you should spend will depend entirely on you, your start-up capital and/or monthly income. But if you are working with limited funds, don’t let that keep you from getting started. Remember that marketing on a budget needs to be strategic, not expensive.

You may need to compromise and you may need to do things in phases. Develop a plan and then work your way through each tactic as need, budget, time, and resources permit.

  • Determine those areas you want to focus on in the 1st three , six and 12 months
  • Research cost ranges (check out this article to get you started)
  • Consider what it will take to realize the return on the investment for that project. Is it one new customer? 10 units sold?
  • Determine your minimum and maximum threshold for each

Still not sure where to start? Invest in a plan. Bringing in a marketing professional may cost a little more up-front, but will go a long way in helping you develop a strategy – a clear path in marketing your business – that focuses your time and money on those areas and tactics that will best serve your business goals and result in the greatest ROI.

Marketing is as much art as science. There will always be unexpected costs or adjustments that can be made to bring down spending. So start with a solid foundation and spend strategically.


For more articles on Marketing Budgets for start-ups and small businesses, check out: