If you’re planning to start a business in Ontario in the new year, there’s a number of steps to follow and options to consider. Download your free PDF checklist here!

Let me preface this by saying that while it is possible to start a business with no money, my advice is to wait until you do have at least a couple hundred dollars to invest. There are steps on this checklist which require spending small amounts of money, but they can be skipped if you’re determined for any reason to not put any money in up front.

According to the latest statistics from 2017, Canada is home to approximately 1.18 million employer businesses. Of these, almost 98% are considered “small” businesses. More than half of Canadian small businesses are situated in Ontario and Quebec, which has two potential implications: Ontario is one of the most competitive provinces in Canada to start a business, but it’s also one of the most well equipped.

In this post, I’ll provide a step-by-step walkthrough explaining how to start a business in Ontario, as well as links to all the best resources I know of for new entrepreneurs. At the end of the post, you’ll be able to download a free PDF version which includes a printable checklist.

Checklist for Starting a Business in Ontario

  • Connect with free local resources
  • Decide on your business activities
  • Do your market research
  • Write a business plan
  • Register your business
  • Get on social media
  • Raise brand awareness (and capital)
  • Start hiring or DIY
  • Build a Website
  • Network
  • Systemize and Automate
  • Manage your expectations
how to start a business in ontario with no money infographic

Connect with Free Local Resources

The governments of Canada and Ontario fund a number of initiatives intended to encourage citizens to start and grow businesses. This may come as a surprise to some people, but depending on where you live, you can probably get everything you need to get up and running for free fairly easily

The first resource you should look for is a small business centre. There are over 50 locations in Ontario, and the province maintains an up-to-date list of SBC locations.

Different centres will have different features, but generally you can expect to find free resources and guides, workshops, and consultations with business development specialists. I really can’t say enough good things about the small business centres, and although I have no stats I think that connecting with them probably greatly increases a business’ chance of success.

I recommend connecting with the nearest SBC before you continue on with the rest of the steps on this list. They will be able to offer you a leg up with everything else I’m about to explain.

Decide On Your Business Activities

You may already be completely clear on what your business will do – maybe you designed a product you want to sell, or are an expert at providing a certain service. But lots of budding entrepreneurs have no idea what they want their business activities to be, and that’s okay too.

If you already know exactly what type of company you want to build, feel free to skip this step. For everyone else, it’s time to put your brainstorming cap on. If you don’t like brainstorming, here’s a list of the 14 Best Home Business Ideas for Canadians to get you started.

I’m a big fan of lists when it comes to making decisions, because they lay the data out in an easy to manage format. Start by writing three lists on one piece of paper. The headings for the lists should be Skills, Passions, and Desired Outcomes.

Skills can be anything you’re good at. It doesn’t have to be or even relate to a business activity. If you’re a good knitter, snowboarder, or accountant, it belongs on this list.

Passions are things that bring you joy or are important to you. Common passions include family, friends, reading, writing, pets, and many others.

Desired Outcomes are the results you want your business to accomplish. If “make money” is the only thing on this list, that’s fine, but try to delve a little deeper. Will your business give to a certain type of charity? Will it do community outreach or contribute to local events? Will it create a certain lifestyle for you? Write down anything you want to change, so long as your business can be a vehicle for that change.

Once you have your three lists, start making connections between them. If you find a common theme between your skills, passions, and desired outcomes, that might be the right business idea for you.

To use myself as an example, when I decided I wanted to start my business I realized writing and blogging fit into my first two lists, and marketing would be a vehicle to accomplish many of my desired outcomes. Because of that, I declared my business activities as “Marketing and Writing Services”.

Do Your Market Research

Once you know what you want to do and why, it’s important to determine whether there is enough demand for the products or services you’ll offer. Your market research doesn’t need to be expensive or official in order to be effective. When I started thinking about starting a marketing and writing business, I mostly just looked at the needs of local and online businesses.

What I saw was an endless supply of opportunity. For every business that has a beautiful website, there’s a lackluster one with poorly written content. For every business that has an in-house marketing team, there are probably several more looking to hire their first contractor. It helped that digital marketing was one of LinkedIn’s most in-demand skills of 2019.

Beyond observing and considering the needs of your potential consumers, you can also see what they’re saying online. If you join Facebook groups or forums related to your business activity you’ll find loads of complaints, brags, and other assorted posts detailing what is missing in the current market. 

If you can’t find a need for your products or services, you may want to circle back to your last step and find a different business activity. But if you do find a space in the market for your first choice, you’ll be ready to start writing a business plan.

Write a Business Plan

Writing a business plan can be difficult and take some time, so it’s usually best to just get started, finish it, and do your best rather than worrying about whether it is perfect. No matter how much time you spend thinking and “perfecting” your plan, it will inevitably change when your business experiences significant successes or failures.

That said, it’s still important to know where you want to go and how you’re going to get there, especially when it comes to getting investments and your first few clients or customers. Having a business plan that starts off with a strong executive summary for people to glance through can be the difference between getting the startup capital you need or not.

Register Your Business

Although you don’t technically need a license in order to do business in Canada, if you want to use a name other than your own, you will need to register it. Also, other people will take your business much more seriously if you show the willingness to invest time and energy into making it official. 

If you’re planning on starting out as a sole proprietor or a partnership, getting your business number will cost $60 if you register electronically or $80 by mail. If you want to incorporate right away, you’ll likely wind up paying a minimum of $300 just to file the appropriate paperwork.

If you can afford to take a running start as a corporation, that’s probably a good idea. Owners of corporations are much more protected than sole proprietors or partnerships, but it’s usually not practical for small businesses that are just getting started.

What Canada really needs is a version of the USA’s LLC (limited liability company). Until we have a similar legal construct, small business owners in Canada will always be at a disadvantage.

Get on Social Media

Different people will give you different advice for getting started, but I recommend beginning to build your brand’s presence with social media. It’s free, it’s popular, and it can easily lead you to your first consumers. 

The first two profiles I recommend creating are a Google My Business page and a Facebook Business page. Google My Business is a free listing which displays above other search results when people are looking for local businesses online. Facebook is the most popular social media platform, so it’s also a good way to potentially get found. 

After setting up your Facebook page, invite at least 25 friends to like/follow it so that you can choose a custom URL for your page. Mine is Facebook.com/AlexTuckerDigital. This gives you an easy-to-remember link which you can write down or verbally communicate. You can also put a link to your Facebook page in the “website” field of GMB. That way anyone who finds you on Google can get redirected to your Facebook page, which makes it easier to contact you and get more information.

After you’ve set up and optimized both GMB and Facebook, your business will exist online. It won’t be as easy to find or as present as if you had a website, but it’s the logical (and free) first step towards letting more people learn that you exist. 

Depending on the type of business you run, you may also want to set up accounts on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or other platforms. 

Raise Brand Awareness (and capital)

Now that you have a platform or two from which to communicate, it’s time to build your brand awareness and start earning money and collecting investments. Posting to social media regularly with updates about your business and your life is a good habit to get into for most small business owners.

In addition to income from sales and investments, you can look into grants, loans, and other financing options made available by the government. There’s a significant list of free and investment-matching initiatives available; some focus on bringing business to specific sectors, and some are intended to encourage development in certain areas. It’s fairly dense reading material, but it’s definitely worth dedicating some time to.

Another way to get started financially is to look for a funding on a platform like FundRazr. Of course, only certain types of businesses are likely to have success with crowdfunding. I wouldn’t expect many Canadians to be interested in donating to help me grow my marketing business for example, but if you want to start a new environmental initiative, that might gain some popularity.

You can also create a press release and/or contact local media outlets to notify them about your business starting. They may not be interested in covering it, but many news stations intentionally put small businesses in the spotlight once in awhile, so it’s a worthy endeavor.

Start Hiring or Be Ready to DIY

The right option here really depends on the type of person you are, the type of business you’re starting, and the amount of startup capital you manage to put together. I’m the type of person who likes to understand things and do them myself, I started a service-based business I can operate myself at a small scale, and I had almost no capital. For those reasons I opted to DIY just about everything.

The only thing I’ve outsourced in my business so far was my logo design, and I’m glad I made that choice. Don’t get me wrong, I think outsourcing is great… I’m just not quite there yet, and I’ve been focusing my budget on acquiring tools rather than employees or contractors.

The next three steps require some different types of expertise, so your ability to handle them alone may dictate whether or not you need to start hiring.

Build a Website

If you build a website yourself with an open-source content management system such as WordPress, it can be quite cost effective to get started. If on the other hand you need to pay someone to build a site for you, it can be expensive. In between those options we have website building services such as Weebly, Wix, and Squarespace… but I personally don’t recommend them, because I feel they lack power and versatility.

In my opinion, if you’re going to build a website it’s worth the expense and/or time commitment required to create one. But whatever path you choose, the first step in creating a website for your business will be choosing the domain name.

Good choices include your brand name or your brand name plus a related word. For example, I could have gone with “alextuckerdigital” or “alextuckermarketing” or “alextuckerwrites” for my URL rather than just my name. I decided to keep my options open though, which is why using your own name or your brand name is a great idea.

Another good option is choosing something with a lot of search value. An example of this might be something like “bestmarketingagency dot CA” or “topfreelancewriters dot CA”. These types of domain names are usually hard to get because everyone wants a domain that gets regular search traffic. 

Once you have a domain name you’ll need to choose a trustworthy web host, and then it will be time to work on building your site or hiring someone to do it for you. If you go the DIY route I recommend getting a couple free months of premium access to Skillshare with my referral link. That will give you two months of free access to unlimited high quality courses, and they have many great courses on everything from getting started with WordPress to creating eCommerce stores and improving site security.

Network

This is one of the most difficult parts of the process for me, because I struggle with severe anxiety. However, it’s extremely important that I push myself outside of my comfort zone and create a network of clients, potential clients, and allies who I can look to for support in developing and marketing my business.

They can be hard to find, but genuinely kind people who really want to help you exist. There are lots of business owners out there who will nickel and dime you every inch of the way and try to exploit your relationship any way they can… just walk (or run) away from them. Instead spend your time and energy with the folks who are interested in mutually beneficial assistance.

There are many different types of relationships which can contribute to your network. At different times and for different kinds of support, I look to family members, friends, clients, peers, mentors, and accountability partners. As long as you’re willing to lend a hand when they’re in need too, lots of people will be willing to boost you along your path when you hit a slow point.

Systemize and Automate

The more you can automate tasks and create workflows you’re comfortable performing quickly, the less time you’ll waste and the more people you’ll be able to serve. I am very conscious of my workflow for creating blog posts, for example, because blogging is a time consuming activity which demands a large percentage of my effort. Without having my personal systems in place, I would probably waste at least a half hour for every post I wrote.

Automations can also be incredibly useful, whether you’re a solopreneur or working with a small or large team. The first automation you should probably get set up with is an email marketing service. I like Mailchimp and MailerLite because they both have free starter tiers that make a lot of sense for small businesses. With either of those services, it’s easy to set up a process for automatically emailing some information and links to anyone who signs up for your list. 

Another task worth automating is social media posting, which can be accomplished using a variety of softwares such as SocialBee, which I use for my own social accounts. 

By systemizing your workflows and automating some of the more mundane tasks, you’ll create more time for focusing on high level activities such as finding clients and delivering results.

Manage Your Expectations

Many small businesses fail because the owners fail to anticipate the difficulties and adapt and learn as needed. As mentioned previously, having a business plan is extremely important, but you can’t expect it to last (and you should consider yourself lucky if it does). Your business is bound to run into problems, and how you respond to those issues will be a defining factor in your success.

In other words, it’s important to manage your expectations. Setting lofty goals is great, but if you don’t achieve them all, it’s not a huge deal. If your business survives and you make enough to feed yourself and your family, you’re doing well for a beginner.

Final Thoughts on Building a Business in Ontario

I definitely could have planned the launch of my business better, but it went well enough in the end because I did my research and checked every box on this list. You may also want to explore options such as getting insurance and discussing your practices and policies with a lawyer, but these aren’t strictly necessary so I left them off the list.

If you can think of anything I left out that should be included here, please contact me and let me know! Below you can download a free printable PDF of this post, including the checklist.

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