Startup business grants can help small businesses grow without debt. But if you want free money to start a company, your time may be better spent elsewhere. Competition for small-business grants is fierce, and many awards require time in business — often at least six months.
Some grants are open to newer businesses or true startups. And even if you don’t qualify now, it can pay to know where to look for future funding. Here are the best grants for small-business startups, plus alternative sources of startup funding to consider.
How Much Do You Need?
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Government startup business grants and resources
Some government programs offer direct funding to startups looking for business grants, but those that don’t may point you in the right direction or help with applications:
Grants.gov. Government agencies routinely post new grant opportunities on this centralized database. If you see an opportunity relevant to your business idea, you can check if startups are eligible. Many of these grants deal with scientific or pharmaceutical research, though, so they may not be relevant to Main Street businesses.
Local governments. Lots of federal grants award funding to other governments, like states or cities, or to nonprofit economic development organizations. Those entities then offer grants to local businesses. Plugging into your local startup ecosystem can help you stay on top of these opportunities.
Small Business Development Centers. These resource centers funded by the Small Business Administration offer business coaching, education, technical support and networking opportunities. They may also be able to help you apply for small-business grants, develop a business plan and level up your business in other ways.
Minority Business Development Agency Centers. The MBDA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, operates small-business support centers similar to SBDCs. The MBDA doesn’t give grants to businesses directly, but these centers can connect you with grant organizations, help you prepare applications and secure other types of business financing.
Local startup business grants
Some local business incubators or accelerators offer business grants or pitch competitions with cash prizes. To find these institutions near you, do an online search for “Your City business incubator.”
Even if you don’t see a grant program, sign up for their email newsletter or follow them on social media. Like SBDCs and MBDAs, business incubators often provide business coaching, courses and lectures that can help you develop your business idea.
Startup business grants from companies and nonprofits
Lots of corporations and large nonprofits, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, organize grant competitions. Some national opportunities include:
iFundWomen. iFundWomen partners with other corporations to administer business grants. You can fill out a universal application to receive automatic notifications when you’re eligible to apply for a grant.
Amber Grant for Women. WomensNet gives two $10,000 Amber Grants each month and two $25,000 grants annually. Filling out one application makes you eligible for all Amber Grants. To qualify, businesses must be at lesat 50% women-owned and based in the U.S. or Canada.
National Association for the Self-Employed. Join NASE, and you can apply for quarterly Growth Grant opportunities. There are no time-in-business requirements for these grants of up to $4,000, but you’ll need to provide details about how you plan to use the grant and how it will help your business grow.
FedEx Small Business Grant Contest. This annual competition awards grants to small-business owners in a variety of industries. You can sign up to receive an email when each application period opens. To be eligible, you’ll need to have been selling your product or service for at least six months. Be mindful, though, that each grant cycle receives thousands of applications.
Fast Break for Small Business. This grant program is funded by LegalZoom, the NBA, WNBA and NBA G League and administered by Accion Opportunity Fund. You can win a $10,000 business grant plus free LegalZoom services. Applications open during the NBA season, which runs from fall to early summer each year.
Alternative funding sources for startups
New businesses likely won’t be able to rely on startup business grants for working capital. The following financing sources may help accelerate your growth or get your startup off the ground:
SBA microloans offer up to $50,000 to help your business launch or expand. The average microloan is around $13,000, according to the SBA.
The SBA issues microloans through intermediary lenders, usually nonprofit financial institutions and economic development organizations, all of which have different requirements. You can use the SBA’s website to find a lender in your state.
Friends and family
Asking friends and family to invest in your business may seem daunting, but it’s very common. Make sure you define whether each person’s money is a loan and, if so, when and how you’ll pay it back. Put an agreement in writing if possible.
Business credit cards
Business credit cards can help you manage startup expenses while your cash flow is still unsteady. You can qualify for a business credit card with your personal credit score and some general information about your business, like your business name and industry.
You’ll probably need to sign a personal guarantee, though, which is a promise that you’ll pay back the debt if your business can’t.
If your business has a dedicated customer base, they can help fund you via crowdfunding. Usually businesses offer something in exchange, like debt notes, equity shares or access to an exclusive event.
There are lots of different crowdfunding platforms that offer different terms, so look around to find the model that works best for you.
Your business plan is the document to help you go from idea to execution. You’ll likely depend on your business plan to organize your thoughts, strategize for success and stay focused. You might also write a business plan to secure funding.
If you want to write a winning business plan, read this comprehensive guide. We’re sharing step-by-step tips on how to write a business plan.
What is a business plan?
A business plan is a document that you use to strategize for your business’ future. The business plan includes an overview of your business, its goals and your marketing strategy. The document will also include financial forecasting.
Need help deciding on a business to start? Check out this list of small business ideas that are easy to launch on a low budget. You might also consider other online business ideas that require minimal upfront investments.
In this article:business plan
Why do you need a business plan
You need a business plan to outline your business goals and the strategy to achieve them. Your business plan is also your first opportunity to create something tangible from your ideas. By putting ideas on paper, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to properly think through your plan and vet its likely effectiveness for business success.
Outside of your personal reasons for writing a business plan, you will need this document if you need to convince funders or investors that your business is legitimate and likely to return a profit. You would be expected to provide investors with a well-thought-out business plan demonstrating market awareness and financial planning.
How to write a business plan
If you’re ready to get stuck in and write your business plan, the next steps will greatly help. You want to be thorough at every step, especially if you’re sharing the plan with potential stakeholders. But remember, this is your business; your plan will be unique to you.
1. Create an executive summary
Your executive summary is essentially your first impression to investors. In a few sentences, it needs to grab attention and explain what you/your business does. It wants to grab the reader’s attention, so they’re compelled to read on.
2. Describe your company
Your business plan will include a description of your company. Think about your elevator pitch and write your company description into your plan. Be very clear here, think about what you do, who you do it for, and exactly what problem you are solving.
You’re likely not the first person to create a company solving a particular problem for your audience, so try and detail what it is that makes your company stand out.
3. Introduce team members
If you have any particularly credible or expert team members, be sure to introduce them within your business plan. Write a short bio with key credentials and how they contribute to your new business.
4. State your company goals
Every business needs goals, and deciding exactly what yours are might not be so obvious. Yes, your company needs to make a profit, but the goals need to be broken down into more measurable and actionable steps.
Start with desired business goals. Then decide what you need to achieve to make each goal a success. For example, for your company to meet your projected revenue goal, then what do you need to achieve? What marketing goals does the business need to meet to satisfy business goals?
5. Detail values and a mission statement
Of course, your business is here to make money and provide the lifestyle that you want. When writing a business plan, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the data and the money, but your why is the lifeblood of your business.
Take some time to create a page that digs into the meaningful element of your business. What larger problem are you trying to solve? What values will you hold the business to? How will you create a truly meaningful layer within your business?
This section should be very useful for you as a business owner since this is what will keep you going. But, it can also be used to help onboard a team later and better understand your connection with your audience.
6. List products or services
When you write your business plan, you must include your products or services.
Within this section, write:
What the product or service is
How it helps your audience
How it stands out in the marketplace
For product-based businesses, include:
A brief introduction to costs (you’ll expand on this later)
Where products are sourced
Quantity of products owned
7. Do market research
Every business must conduct market research. You need to think about the local market and if you’re starting an online business, you must consider the digital market. You may have different competitors in each marketplace.
It’s crucial that you can develop comprehensive market research that shows a deep understanding of competitors and your place amongst them.
Your market research will help you determine if your business venture is justified and also act as support to your proposition which is especially useful when pitching to investors.
The market research section will help you see where the gaps are between your business and competitors, and it will form the beginning of your sales and marketing plan as you strategize to close the gap on leading competitors.
8. Create a marketing and sales plan
Your marketing and sales plan will generally be built from your competitor research. You can use competitive data to get a feel for what’s working. However, it’s important to remember that your brand and its audience are unique.
Also, when it comes to marketing, you are better off doing less better than trying to do more poorly, so you must factor in your budgets.
Your marketing plan should be in support of the business goals outlined previously. Your marketing plan should have a clear goal and a strategy to help achieve it. As a business owner, you are not necessarily expected to know the ins and outs of marketing, so if you need support here, you can get it. You may need to reach out to your marketing team or other professionals who can help you decipher what the business needs to succeed.
9. Create a financial projection
When it comes down to it, finances determine a successful business from an unsuccessful one.
If you’re seeking investment, your financial forecast is everything. If there’s one thing that investors need to know very clearly is the financial estimations and performance of your business over time.
In your projection, plan for:
Expenses including wages
Pricing of products and/or services
Contingency for unexpected finances
10. Add an appendix
It’s not enough to simply write a business plan; every claim you make needs to be well-documented and supported. So, include an appendix.
Your appendix is a compilation of supporting documentation and/or evidence. Items that might be included in the appendix include:
Resumes of key team members
Documentation supporting your market research and analysis. If your plan summarizes findings, include the marketing research and data here.
Legal documents, such as incorporation papers, patents, or trademarks
Marketing materials, such as brochures or flyers
Customer testimonials or case studies. New businesses might not have this, but if you have conducted research or focus groups, you can include findings here.
Product prototypes or lab tests if you have them
Any other relevant supporting documentation that was referenced in the main body of the plan.
Business plan format
There are three types of business plans, traditional, lean, and nonprofit. Whilst this article focuses primarily on the most common business plan format, the traditional plan, it helps to know what might be involved in other formats.
The traditional format provides a detailed business overview and is useful for presenting to investors or lenders. In a traditional plan, you will likely write more than you would in a lean plan. Some businesses might opt for a traditional plan and then create a lean version for specific functions.
The lean business plan format is, as you would expect, a leaner (simplified) version of a traditional business plan. The lean business plan format includes the most critical aspects of the business. If you’re writing a lean business plan and you want to pitch to investors, then you must include key sections like market analysis, revenue forecasts, etc.
The nonprofit business plan is similar to the traditional business plan, but naturally, it differs as it includes items that are required to run a nonprofit organization. For example, if you were writing a nonprofit business plan, you would likely include all elements of the traditional plan, plus fundraising and development, governance, and financials.
You may also have research from the local area you’re serving to help with that market analysis section. Your aim will be to prove that there’s a public need for your nonprofit.
Tips for writing a small business plan
Before you start writing your small business plan, read through these tips that might not be so obvious.
Use a business plan template.
Business plans are not new, so why not start with a tried and tested template? There’s plenty of space to turn the template into something unique that feels like yours. Using a template avoids overwhelm and provides structure. Check out this free business plan template you can download and customize in a cinch.
Write for yourself, not just investors.
Your business plan is yours. Writing your business plan is your chance to organize your thoughts and get your ideas on paper. Upon completion, you should feel satisfied with your robust roadmap to success. Of course, consider your audience and investors and give them everything they need, but don’t forget to satisfy your own intent. Remember the business plan formats; you can always start with a traditional plan for you, then provide the investors with the lean version.
Demonstrate what makes you unique.
You’re likely joining a busy marketplace, and you want to go in ready to disrupt and stand out. Clearly articulate what sets your business apart from the competition, and explain why customers should choose your products or services.
Use concrete data and examples.
Your business plan is no longer your place to dream. Writing your plan takes dreams and helps you turn them into something tangible and achievable. Within the business plan, you should be able to support your ideas with concrete data and real-world examples. You need to prove to yourself – and investors – that this business is viable.
Be realistic in your projections.
As above, writing your business plan is about creating something achievable, You must be realistic with your projections. Whilst being optimistic is exciting — and you can still be optimistic — you must be realistic in your plan.
Realistic projects are better for you mentally, too. If you’re more likely to achieve your goals, you’re less likely to get overwhelmed. Plus, goals that are not realistic will heap pressure on you and your team, and that’s the last thing a new business needs.
Business plan FAQ
Here are your most asked questions, answered.
How do I write a simple business plan?
You will write a simple business plan if you keep focused and aim to be thorough but concise. Aim to cover all important aspects and don’t over-plan. Focus on shorter time frames and be realistic about what can be done. Rely on research and data to help shape the plan.
Can I write a business plan myself?
Yes, you can write a business plan yourself. That said, if your plan covers areas of business where you’re not so strong, you might need support.
How long should a business plan be?
Your business plan will be as long as it needs to be, but the aim here is to create something thorough but concise. As a guide, aim for around 15 to 20 pages.
How long should it take to write a business plan?
Writing your business plan will probably take a few days, but you’ll need to do a lot of research behind the scenes. You also need to step away from the plan, return and edit it to ensure it is accurate and void of errors. A business plan should take three months from beginning to end.
Chelsea Guffy recently began a side hustle as a travel agent who specializes in Disney vacations.
“I thought to myself, ‘Okay, this could be something really cool,’ Guffy said when a friend she helped advise on a Disney vacation suggested she do it as a job.
This is Chelsea Guffy’s story, as told to writer Jamie Killin.
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This is an as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Chelsea Guffy, who recently began a side hustle as a travel agent who specializes in Disney vacations. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Last year, I noticed on social media that one of my sorority sisters had started working as a travel agent on a lot of Disney vacations and working for a travel agency called ET Family Travel.
I had a Disney vacation coming up that November, and I had already booked the whole thing but I had asked her if she could get me dining reservations, because those are the hardest thing to get at Disney World, and she agreed. She helped me get all the dining reservations that I wanted.
Then she said to me, “Chelsea, you know Disney in and out. You should come on as an agent.” So, I thought about it, and come the new year I thought to myself, “Okay, this could be something really cool.” I joined the team and I fell in love with it.
Travel is just in my blood, and I love booking vacations for my family, so it was a no-brainer.
I grew up in Florida about two hours away from Disney World and grew up going.
The first time I went, I was probably three weeks old. I’ve always had a love for travel – I studied abroad in college, and when I was growing up my family would take trips at least once a year to different places all over the country.
Travel is just in my blood, and I love booking vacations for my family, so it was a no-brainer that I’d like doing it for other people.
The agency I work for focuses on Disney and family-friendly trips, so most agents focus on theme park vacations. However, we do all kinds of travel. I mainly focused on Disney at first, but then I got requests from my friends, so I decided to branch out.
I did a United Kingdom trip for a friend of mine in June, and now I’m doing another UK trip as well as a New York trip. I’ve also helped with California trips and even staycations.
My clientele is primarily my friends and people in my network, but now I’ve had two clients who I did not know previously – one reached out to me through my social media, and another was a referral through the agency.
I’m able to help my clients save a lot of time. I have a lot of knowledge; while they might need months to plan a trip, I can do it for them in three weeks. Sometimes I also find lower prices for them.
I also make sure to tell my clients that this is my second job and that I have a full-time job. I try to give as much time to my clients as I can – but I make sure to set expectations.
I do also get benefits like free Disney tickets and discounts at hotels.
As a side hustle, it’s nice to have the extra cash. I am an independent contractor who makes money based on commissions from the theme parks and hotels. There can also be perks from vendors we work with, which is a benefit for a travel enthusiast like myself.
The amount of time I spend on the job varies, but I average 12 to 15 hours a week in addition to my full-time job. I start as soon as my son goes to bed, so 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. are my prime. It works because I’m a person that likes to be busy – we’re always go, go, go.
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Startups looking to make it easier for people to rent apartments on a flexible, shorter-term basis are gaining momentum thanks in part to the rise of remote work. Last week, Dealbook reported that a flexible living startup, Flow, founded by WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann, has locked down $350 million from Andreessen Horowitz. Earlier today, TechCrunch reported that an online rental marketplace, Zumper, just raised $30 million in a Series D1 round of funding led by Kleiner Perkins to help it better serve people looking for short-term rental options.
Now, Landing, a startup that is making it possible for its customers to rent a fully furnished apartment on its platform for as short a period as one month, says it, too, has secured fresh funding: $75 million in equity funding and another $50 million in debt.
Delta-v Capital led the equity piece, joined by new and earlier investors, including Greycroft and Foundry. Landing has now raised $237 million in venture funding and $230 million in debt since its launch in 2019.
We told you a bit last week about Landing’s founder Bill Smith, a serial entrepreneur who we dubbed the “anti-Adam Neumann,” given that he’s decidedly understated, he’s conservative when it comes to raising venture funding, and his two past companies have only made investors money. Neumann, in comparison, is a forceful personality, and not everyone came out ahead, famously, on WeWork’s path to becoming a publicly traded company last year.
Smith’s company works like so: Using gobs of data on pricing and demand around the country, it zeroes in on multifamily buildings around the U.S. Through performance marketing and referrals, it then finds tenants for these apartments, itself signing one-year leases, then quickly moving in everything from furniture to utensils for the tenant. Landing has all of these furnishings made in Vietnam and shipped to warehouses in Austin, Phoenix and Alabama, where it is based.
Tenants, who sign on as Landing “members” for a $199 yearly fee, commit to renting from Landing for a minimum of six months, though they’re allowed to move freely to other Landing-operated apartments during that period, provided they give the company two weeks’ notice. Smith says that currently, on average, they stay in one spot six months.
Right now, Landing — which is not profitable — makes money by marking up what it pays in rent by upwards of 40%. Eventually, Smith told us last week, Landing intends to sell its software directly to the multifamily property owners. “Over time, we’ll partner with owners to bring this product to their building, and it really won’t be a ‘Landing’ lease product,” he said. “They’ll just join the Landing platform. They’ll operate using our technology and our standards. And, and it won’t be this model of, you know, Landing leases it and is committed to that lease.”
It sounds very much like what Flow is building, based on a “inside” story about Flow in the real estate outlet The Real Deal this week. According to the outlet’s sources, Flow is effectively a service that landlords employ to make their properties more attractive to people who want to bounce around yet also experience a branded, consistent experience.
As with Landing, shorter lease terms and furnished apartments will likely allow Flow to command higher rents, notes The Real Deal.
Unlike Landing, Flow will itself own at least some of the multifamily units into which its members move. Indeed, with his ample WeWork proceeds, Neumann has already snapped up more than 3,000 apartment units in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and Nashville, per Dealbook. It could give the outfit an additional advantage. As The Real Deal notes, Flow’s buildings will “also be able to tap into cheaper financing . . . because banks can lend to the properties at the same leverage point offered to apartment projects, or up to 80 percent. Those are more favorable terms than the roughly 55 percent typically offered to hotel developments, essentially creating a high-yield business with lower costs.”
Flow, Landing and Zumper aren’t alone in spying opportunity in flexible living. Last fall, Zeus Living, which is focused on giving people “flexible living” options, raised $55 million in a round led by SIG. Blueground, a pre-furnished apartment rental startup focused on short-term and long-term rental, meanwhile raised $180 million in equity and debt funding last September. Another tech-enabled platform, Placemakr, separately raised $90 million from investors back in March.
Another flexible-living company is Sentral, whose 3,000-plus properties are owned by Iconiq Capital, the San Francisco-based investment firm whose investors include Mark Zuckerberg and Reid Hoffman; Iconiq is also a major investor in Sentral, the WSJ reported last year.
Expect more players backed by more capital, despite the uneven performance of some companies in the space, including Sonder, a short-term rental startup that went public last year via a SPAC merger and that last month cut one-fifth of its staff as part of a restructuring designed to shave $85 million in annual expenses. (On the customer-review platform Trustpilot, Sonder receives 1.3 out of five stars, with complaints about everything from a lack of hot water in its branded units to blood-stained linens.)
While the short-term rental business is complicated given its many moving parts, more individuals are adopting a nomadic existence owing to the pandemic’s ripple effects, and VCs like nothing more than an industry in flux.
“Our view,” Placemakr’s CEO tells The Real Deal, is that the “more the merrier. The institutionalization of an asset class doesn’t happen by a single group.”