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Small business startup costs are costs incurred before a business is up and running. The common startup costs business owners might need to budget for can include equipment purchases, starting fees, purchasing office space, buying inventory, advertising, building a website, purchasing office supplies, utility costs, and more.
Deciding to start a business is an incredibly exciting moment, but for new entrepreneurs, that excitement is often accompanied by uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt. Many of these feelings stem from financial worries: Not only do you have to worry about whether or not your business will be profitable in the medium- and long term, but you also have to think about the actual costs of starting a business.
And those business startup costs can get pretty big. You have to buy equipment, software, sign a lease, and hire staff—and those are just the obvious ones. What about licenses and permits, website hosting, and business cards?
It’s all too easy for gung-ho new business owners to jump into planning without thinking carefully enough about the business startup costs they’ll need to pay, and whether or not those costs are feasible. Here, we’ve put together a list of 14 different types of business startup costs you’ll need to consider when drawing up that first business plan.
If this is your first business, estimating your start up costs is uncharted terrain for you—and uncharted terrain can be completely terrifying.
Luckily, there are lots of resources out there for brand-new business owners, including the SBA’s startup costs worksheet. Use this template to estimate the total amount of funds you’ll need to fulfill your initial expenses. That way, you’ll have a better understanding of how much capital you’ll need to raise when you seek startup funding.
Also, keep in mind that many of these business startup costs are recurring, so you’ll need to keep paying them over and over again, either on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis—think rent, office supplies, and payroll. Others, like the incorporation fee or office furniture, are one-time costs.
When calculating your startup expenses, a good rule of thumb is to be able to cover six months’ worth of expenses up front. In other words, don’t count on your business’s revenue to start easing your costs until at least after that early period is over. You’ll want a cushion while you get your feet under you and work on attracting business.
Although this is a list of typical startup costs, keep in mind that your exact startup expenses depend entirely upon your specific business and industry—for example, if you’re in a service-based industry, then you won’t have to consider the costs of inventory and shipping.
But with the help of expert advisors, we’ve pinned an approximate number to each of these costs, so you can start to understand, in a real sense, what your startup costs will look like.
Almost every business will have an immediate need for some sort of equipment. If you’re starting your own moving company, you’ll need a truck. If you’re opening a restaurant, you’ll need commercial-grade ovens, stoves, dishware, and cooking utensils. If you own a hair salon, you’ll need styling chairs. If you own essentially any type of business in any industry, you’ll need computers. You get the idea.
Of course, these costs range according to industry, as well as the size of your business—if you have multiple employees, then they’ll all need their own equipment.
Generally, though, David Bakke at Money Crashers says that equipment costs for startups can range anywhere from $10,000 to $125,000.
One of your first to-dos when you’re setting up a business is to choose a business entity, which determines the way you pay your taxes and can affect your loan applications.
If you decide to incorporate your business, making it a separate legal entity, you’ll need to file articles of incorporation with your state, which comes with a price tag attached. You can look at the SBA’s state-by-state breakdown if you want to know what incorporating would cost in your state.
Even if you’re not incorporating, you’ll probably need to apply for federal or state licensing or permits. These specifics depend on the type of business you’re operating and where you live. Some businesses, like those in the agriculture or aviation sectors, require federal licensing. Service-based industries like hairdressers and doctors need to have professional licenses. Businesses based around sales will need sales tax licenses or permits.
Confused and looking for more information on applying for licenses and permits? The SBA comes to the rescue again.
All told, the fees involved in registering your business vary, but it should cost you under $300.
Renting an office or store space will be a sizeable portion of your fixed costs, whether you rent or buy. As a guideline, Bakke recommends planning on spending “anywhere from $100 per employee per month, up to $1,000 per employee per month, depending upon the type of space you’re talking about and the level of conveniences and perks [you’ll provide].”
To mitigate those costs, if at all possible, you should work from home in the beginning. Or, look into coworking spaces, which are ideal for very small businesses: They’re much cheaper than renting out office space, and they can also be great ways to meet other entrepreneurs and exchange ideas with them. And if you own a service-based business—maybe you’re a massage therapist or a pet groomer—you can travel directly to clients to decrease the overhead cost of your own space.
If your business provides a service, inventory startup costs might not apply to you. But if you’re in the retail, wholesale, manufacturing, or distribution sector, chances are high that you’re in need of inventory to sell—STAT.
Balancing your inventory supply can be a tricky balance: If you have too much inventory, you risk spoilage or damage, but if you have too little, you could lose disgruntled customers who aren’t willing or able to wait for an item to come back in stock. This is especially true for seasonal businesses, like landscaping companies or ice cream shops, whose inventory might vary drastically vary year-round.
Bakke recommends allocating between 17% to 25% of your budget to inventory, depending on your industry. When you’re first starting out, though, you might want to err on the higher end of that scale. “You don’t want to skimp on inventory in the beginning,” Bakke says, “because you never want to turn down a sale for a customer because you don’t have product.”
Marketing materials might include physical materials, like signs, banners, and business cards. You might also consider paid advertisements, as well as more creative options, like videos and giveaways that might require you to hire a consultant or a video producer.
Courtney Barbee, COO at The Bookkeeper, recommends keeping overall marketing costs to a minimum. Specifically, strive to keep your ad materials under 10% of your budget.
The good news? You can do the bulk of your marketing, if not all of it, for free—we live in the age of social media, after all. Thanks to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, advertising costs are often much lower for small businesses just starting out now than they would have been 20 years ago.
It’s extremely important that you have a small business website that looks professional, is easy to use, and offers your customers necessary information about your services, products, hours, and contact information.
These days, most customers start their search for a product or service on the Internet. (How many times a day do you Google something you need?) But even so, 59% of businesses with fewer than five employees aren’t online.
It’s very easy to make sure that you’re in the other 41%, thanks to services like Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly. These content management systems (CMS) are sometimes free, but their premium plans will come at a monthly or yearly subscription cost:
If you’re fairly tech-savvy, it’s pretty easy to build a website through one of these services, no coding background required. But if you’re not very familiar with computers, you may want to hire someone to build the website—which, of course, is an additional cost (although it might become a worthwhile investment).
Office furniture and supplies add up fast. If you’re operating a traditional 9-5 office environment, then every employee will need a desk, a chair, a computer, and a phone. Add in a microwave, water cooler, filing cabinets, and bookshelves, supplies like paper and printer ink, and then the cost of any computer software you might be using, like QuickBooks for accounting or Basecamp for scheduling, and you’ll reach a hefty sum.
Again, that sum varies depending on the tools your business needs to operate, and the number of employees you need to outfit. Nate Masterson, the Marketing Manager at Maple Holistics, estimates that the total cost for office furniture and supplies would be around $5,000. On the other hand, David Bakke takes a more conservative approach: He advises saving about $80 per month per employee for office supplies, and around $500 per employee for office furniture. In all, though, Masterson advises keeping your furniture and supply costs to around 10% of your budget.
In addition to the fixed costs of rent and a down payment, you’ll be responsible for paying the electric, gas, water, Internet, and phone bills for your office space. Bakke says you can estimate spending roughly $2 per square foot of your total office space for utilities, but know that HVAC units (if you need to install one) will come at an extra cost. Typically, individual HVAC units run for a couple thousand dollars, not including installation fees and upkeep.
You need to pay your employees, even in the beginning when you’re not bringing in much revenue—and that includes yourself, too! Remember that payroll includes benefits as well as all forms of compensation: bonuses, stipends, commissions, and overtime pay. Also keep in mind that your staff might grow over the course of the year, as your business starts to pick up.
Of course, payroll costs vary dramatically across startups. David Bakke at Money Crashers suggests keeping payroll costs around 25% of your total budget, but the exact numbers are contingent upon your industry, as well as the size of your company. A conservative payroll budget could work if you’re a sole proprietor, or if you’re running a small enterprise and use mostly 1099 employees—and either is a pretty likely scenario for most startups.
But if you’re paying for regular wages and benefits for a team of W2 workers, you should allow for much more space in your budget for payroll costs. Some of our experts, including Barbee, say that payroll costs can take up anywhere below 50% of your total budget.
It’s tempting to tell yourself that you can do everything all by yourself and that you’re able to get by without hiring any professionals like bookkeepers, certified public accountants, or attorneys. But in many cases, this can be a really, really bad idea.
For example, Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) are extremely helpful when setting up your business: They can walk you through all the different legal structures, help you figure out which benefit program to implement for your employees, and make sure you’re complying with all those pesky state and federal regulations. When tax season rolls around, they’ll be your right-hand men and women and may wind up saving you huge sums of money in deductions.
That’s not to say that you need to hire a full-time accountant. But even after they help you set up your business, it’s a good idea to consult with your accountant on a monthly, quarterly, and/or annual basis to review your financial statements, and for general financial guidance and advice.
You don’t need to hire an in-house attorney, either, but expert legal advice can save you from making major legal mistakes like failing to trademark your logo or developing relationships with vendors without a contract in place.
Every CPA and lawyer charges different hourly rates. Rates and additional fees vary depending on the number and level of difficulty involved in the tasks you need outsourced, the time is takes to complete your projects, and your consultant’s tenure. (The owner of an accounting firm, for instance, will charge more for his or her work than a newbie CPA.)
However, you can mitigate these costs by taking on some basic tasks yourself, only outsourcing the most complicated projects.
We can’t recommend that you give yourself legal counsel (even if you do have a law degree). But the SBA can help you out a lot here: At their Small Business Development Centers, you can receive free advice, and get referrals to professional attorneys if necessary.
And with the help of good business accounting software, you can take care of some bookkeeping yourself, such as processing and managing payroll, creating and tracking invoices, and managing all your banking transactions. Just leave taxes and their many complications to your accountant.
According to SCORE, all told, the majority of small business owners spend between $1,000 and $5,000 per year on administration tasks, including accounting and legal fees. But as a startup—and by taking advantage of those cost-cutting tactics we mentioned—you’ll probably err on the lower end of that spectrum.
Just like you protect your health, your home, and your car with insurance, your business needs protection, too. There are many different kinds of startup insurance, from protection from angry customers that decide to sue or disaster insurance for a catastrophic kitchen fire that shuts down your restaurant for weeks.
Ultimately, the types of insurance your startup needs is entirely dependent on your business, your industry, the number of employees, and lots of other risk factors, so costs are variable, too. For instance, a sole proprietor running an online business has far fewer insurance requirements than a construction company with several employees does.
But here’s some context: In a recent study, Insureon found that the average small business insurance cost is $1,281 per year. Bakke also says that, typically, startup insurance costs can range anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per year.
Again, every startup requires different types of insurance. However, there are a few essential forms of insurance you should look into to protect yourself, and policy costs vary according to several different factors:
Ah, taxes. They’re a necessary evil, and they come around every year.
Unfortunately, when you’re planning your budget, it’s nearly impossible to assign a dollar amount or percentage of your budget to allocate toward taxes—the amount you pay depends on your revenue (which, as you know, is also impossible to predict), your deductible expenses, and your business entity.
But know that you can often save money by working with a CPA, since they’ll be able to figure out what exactly you can deduct so that you pay as little as possible. Working with a professional accountant can save you time, too, which is money in and of itself.
Not every new entrepreneur needs to factor in travel costs. But if you have a consulting business or you visit your customers directly, you will be traveling a lot, so you need to remember how quickly those costs add up. Factor in the price of airfare, gas money, and train tickets, in addition to accommodation and food costs for your employees, if relevant.
Try to keep total travel costs to an absolute minimum, so you can allocate your revenue toward bigger expenses, like payroll and rent. And to make some returns on all that time on the road or in the air, consider using a travel business credit card, which can earn you points and miles for every dollar you spend.
Service-based businesses can probably stop reading here. But if you’re in retail, you might be shipping products to customers—if so, you’ll need to factor shipping into your startup costs, including packing materials and postage. Depending on what you’re sending, these costs can reach into the thousands of dollars.
However, services like Stamps.com considerably ease the burden of shipping costs (and logistics) on small business owners—with this service in particular, you can print out their own postage without having to buy a costly postage meter. Bakke also recommends ordering free shipping boxes from your shipping service of choice.
All told, the costs of starting a business can certainly add up, and many of these costs are nonnegotiable. But do your research before you splurge on purchases, and recognize that there are ways to take care of some of these startup costs on the cheap. Using software like QuickBooks instead of a professional bookkeeper, working from home or in a coworking space instead of leasing an office, and doing the majority of your marketing through social media will all help to make your budget a little more manageable.
That said, there are some costs that you shouldn’t skimp on. Don’t buy poor-quality equipment just because it’s cheaper—you’ll lose time and money in the long run making repairs and eventually buying new equipment. Hire a legal or accounting expert if you’re in over your head. And make sure your website and advertising campaigns are professional-looking and effective.
But even with these cost-cutting methods, very few small business owners can fund their business startup costs all on their own. If you’ve put together an estimate of your startup costs and are feeling panicked, know that there are plenty of resources to help you figure out startup financing.
It’s likely that your initial funding will come from a combination of debt and equity financing, but keep in mind that debt financing options—aka, small business loans—are fairly limited for brand-new businesses. Most lenders only feel comfortable offering loans to established businesses with hard evidence of profitability, which most startups simply don’t have yet!
That said, once you’ve established a legal entity for your business, you can’t go wrong applying for a business credit card. These seemingly magical pieces of plastic are much easier to apply for, and qualify for, traditional business loans. Plus, they’ll give you access to a higher credit limit than your personal card can, keep your personal and business finances separate, and help you establish an all-important business credit right off the bat.
Just make absolutely sure you’re not maxing out your credit card, or charging more than you can repay. Both can do serious damage to your credit score, which might hurt your chances at securing a small business loan down the line.
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Financing is one of the most stressful parts of entrepreneurship, we know. But being realistic about how much money you need, and accurately estimating your business startup costs, will go a long way toward getting your company up and running.