Accessing capital to launch a business is brutal for entrepreneurs just starting out along the path. Traditional lenders will want collateral to back up a loan, like your home or some other asset of value. Most VCs and angel investors are looking to invest in individuals that have a proven track record of prior success.

So, if you’re anything like me, your first startup will need to be self-funded and operated with a very lean budget. I didn’t enjoy the benefits of wealthy parents or a trust fund. Instead, I had to scrape and claw my way through the pre-launch, startup process, and scale of my business.

One of the first things to go, in most budgets, is marketing. After all, sweat equity can make up for a trim marketing budget, but it would be hard to make up for cuts in product development and customer service without sacrificing customer experience.

Current and new customers care a lot more about product or service quality, and the value of your item. They could care less about a fancy marketing campaign or expensive promotional events. Keeping this in mind, I launched a startup with virtually zero marketing budget.

Instead of spending my hard-earned money on outside experts and consultants, I hit the books. Of course, in the internet age, that means reading a ton of current articles and online blogs covering Search Engine Optimization (SEO), content marketing, and social media marketing.

Resources for the first-time, do-it-yourself online marketer

The first place I recommend spending some time learning about SEO is YouTube. You’d be amazed at how many in-depth, comprehensive guides and tutorials you can find freely available from industry veterans.

Google Webmasters has a fantastic channel, chock-full of helpful guides based on the expertise of the team that makes Google work. The first video I’d recommend watching is Maile Ohye’s SEO for Startups in Under 10 Minutes.

YouTube is an endless treasure trove of information, but sometimes videos aren’t a convenient medium for delivering the information you need. If I find myself with a few minutes of downtime (I know you’re running around with your hair on fire, but you’ll find a minute or two to yourself on the journey to entrepreneurial success, I promise!), I head over to my bookmarks folder, which is full of helpful online industry publications, like Search Engine Journal, Social Media Week, and Search Engine Land.

Quick action steps: Developing your own marketing resource list

  • Start by searching on Google and asking your industry contacts for solid resources that cover how your industry works.
  • Create a list of influencers you trust, and subscribe to their RSS and social media feeds.
  • Budget time every day to read content, watch videos, and consume valuable information. Knowledge is power.

Platforms for understanding your online presence

While I benefited from networking in my local community and attending trade shows, I found the best ROI on my marketing efforts came from the work my team did to improve our visibility online.

What’s the first thing you do after hearing about something new? Yep, you Google, Bing, or Yahoo it.

Creating a web presence that converts into sales comes down to two key factors:

  1. Are your websites and social media properties easy to use, full of valuable information, and regularly updated?
  2. Does your website show up in the search results when potential customers search for information related to your product or service?

The first step in achieving any goal is understanding how to measure progress. Google Analytics is a free tool that is a necessity for anyone attempting to measure their online presence. Installation is straightforward, and the real-time information it provides about your site’s traffic (including geographic location, traffic source, and time spent with each component of your site) is invaluable.

As your approach to marketing your website becomes more sophisticated, investing in a tool like Moz or SEMRush can help lay the groundwork for aggressive strategies built around providing your target audience with the content they need to answer their questions. Ultimately, this results in better search engine ranking for your site.

Quick action steps: Tracking your web presence

  • Depending on your budget, start by testing out the SEO tools available to help guide your keyword research.
  • Create compelling content that is informative and valuable, sprinkled in with some effective keywords.
  • Encourage the people that view your content to follow your social media channels and interact with you.
  • Use the feedback from your audience to sharpen your future content.

Both virtual and in-person relationships matter—a lot!

While working on building an online presence, it’s easy to become so focused on the numbers and data that you forget how important personal, human relationships are to the success of your brand. Numbers help guide your decision-making, but they can’t provide an endorsement, give emotional feedback, or breathe life into your business.

People make the journey worth traveling. Entrepreneurs that are just financially-focused, only paying attention to the numbers, in my experience have far less success than those willing to reach beyond the numbers and touch the people around them.

Marcus Lemonis is one of my personal heroes. Two of his quotes have stayed with me and served me well:

“Businesses are based on relationships, and relationships are based on people.”

“If you don’t have emotion and you don’t have passion, then you shouldn’t be in business, because money is a byproduct, not the purpose.”

Behind every marketing effort I undertake, I ask myself: “Is the person that I’m trying to communicate with going to receive valuable information that helps them develop a sense of trust in my brand?”

The people are the target of my efforts. The sale is only a by-product of a relationship, which I hope will mature into a long-term opportunity to meet their needs.

The best self-promoters and marketers get actively involved in communities where their products or services are used. Giving back, in a transparent manner, goes a long way toward generating goodwill toward your brand.

For example, one of my marketing campaigns revolved around providing a platform for successful entrepreneurs to answer questions posed by startup and small business operators. I provided a link between the wisdom my target market needed, and the individuals that would value that advice.

For the individuals that engaged with our platform (which was entirely developed and managed in-house with minimal financial investment), they perceived our brand as a positive impact in their life. This, in my opinion, is where the rubber meets the road in good marketing. Positivity and added value can do more to close a sale than an entire week of telemarketing and email campaigns.

Build relationships with your clients. Show them (instead of just telling them with endless, disingenuous platitudes) that you care about their success. Your products and services should be positioned as something that makes their life easier, more productive, and more fulfilling.

Quick action steps: Marketing and building relationships

  • Find a way to help the people you’d like to market to. For me, the easiest strategy has been to create content that answers questions. This helps with generating organic traffic and goodwill.
  • Focus less on selling your product, and more on establishing a human connection with your network. You’ll be amazed at how much ROI you’ll get from a little human interaction with the people in your industry.
  • Don’t ever promise the people you meet that you can help them unless you’re positive you have both the resources and personal bandwidth to follow through in an amazing way. Promising and failing to deliver is the quickest way to kill a personal relationship.

Take action by writing down a list of your new priorities. The action of putting thought on paper focuses your mind one hundred percent on the task at hand. Consult your list throughout the day and decide if you’re using your limited time wisely.

Accept that you will fail—I do on a daily basis. The best entrepreneurs have the ability to get back up and running with minimal downtime. You can do this! Trust me, from someone that’s a few steps ahead of you on the journey, the climb is worth the view.

AvatarM Rafiq

M. Rafiq is the brain trust behind multiple ecommerce startups, and has become a thought-leader in the entrepreneurial space by providing wisdom and advice based on his decade of startup success. The digital age has opened opportunity to everyone, and M. Rafiq is passionate about providing opportunity to anyone willing to work both hard and smart. He also writes about his personal experience on financentric. Follow M. Rafiq on Twitter.