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How much does it cost to start a business?

Tim Berry

8 min. read

Updated March 4, 2024

What will it cost to start your business? This is a key question for anyone thinking about starting out on their own. You’ll want to spend some time figuring this out so you know how much money you need to raise and if you can afford to get your business off the ground on your own. Most importantly, you’ll want to figure out how much cash you’re going to need in the bank to keep your business afloat as you grow your sales during the early days of your business. 

Typical startup costs can vary depending on whether you’re operating a brick-and-mortar store, online store, or service operation. But a common theme is that launching a successful business requires preparation. And while you may not know exactly what those expenses will be, you can and should begin researching and estimating what it will cost to start your business.

How to determine your startup costs

Like when developing your business plan, or forecasting your initial sales, it’s a mixture of market researchtesting, and informed guessing. Looking at your competitors is a good starting point. Once you feel your initial estimates are in the ballpark, you can start to get more specific by making these three simple lists.

1. Startup expenses

These are expenses that happen before you launch and start bringing in any revenue. Here are some examples:

  • Permits and Licenses: Every business needs a license to operate, just like a driver needs one to hit the road. Costs vary depending on your industry and location.
  • Legal Fees: Getting your business structure set up (sole proprietorship, LLC, etc.) might involve consulting a lawyer and at least will involve the basic business formation fees.
  • Insurance: Accidents happen, and insurance protects your business from unforeseen bumps.
  • Marketing and Branding: This is how you spread the word about your product or service. It could involve website creation, business cards, or social media promotion.
  • Office Supplies: Pens, paperclips, that all-important stapler – the essentials to keep your business humming.
  • Rent/Lease: If you need to rent space for your business before you start selling, include those expenses in your list as well.

2. Startup assets

Next, calculate the total you need to spend on assets to get your business off the ground. Assets are larger purchases that have long-term value. They’re typically significant items that you could resell later if you needed or wanted to. Here are a few examples:

  • Equipment: Think ovens for a bakery, cameras for a photography business, or computers for a tech startup.
  • Inventory: If you’re selling products, you’ll need to stock up before opening your doors (or your online store).
  • Furniture and Decorations: Desks, chairs, that comfy couch in the waiting room – creating a functional and inviting workspace might involve some upfront investment.
  • Vehicles: If your business requires a vehicle to deliver your product or service, be sure to account for that purchase here.

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Why separate assets and expenses?

There’s a reason that you should separate costs into assets and expenses. Expenses are deductible against income, so they reduce taxable income. Assets, on the other hand, are not deductible against income.

By initially separating the two, you potentially save yourself money on taxes. Additionally, by accurately accounting for expenses, you can avoid overstating your assets on the balance sheet. While typically having more assets is a better look, having assets that are useless or unfounded only bloats your books and potentially makes them inaccurate. 

Listing these out separately is good practice when starting a business and leads into the final piece to consider when determining startup costs. 

3. Operating Expenses

Finally, figure out what it’s going to cost to keep your doors open until sales can cover expenses. Create a list that estimates monthly expenses, such as:

  • Rent
  • Payroll (including your own salary)
  • Utilities
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Loan payments
  • Insurance premiums
  • Office supplies
  • Professional services
  • Travel costs
  • Shipping and distribution

Then, based on your revenue forecasts, calculate how many months it will take before your sales can cover all those monthly expenses. Multiply that number of months by your monthly operating expenses to determine how much you’re going to need to cover operating expenses as your business starts.

This number is often called “cash runway” and is a critical number – you need enough cash to fund those early red ink months. This number is how much cash you need to have in your checking account when you open your doors for business.

Calculating how much startup cash you need

To figure out how much money you need to start your business, add the asset purchases, startup expenses, and operating expenses over your cash runway period. This is your total startup costs, and it’s better to overestimate than underestimate these costs.

It often makes sense to invest the time to build a slightly more detailed starting costs calculation. Assuming you start making some sales and those sales grow over time, your revenue will be able to help pay for some of your operating expenses. Ideally, your sales contribute more and more over time until you become profitable.

To do a more detailed calculation, you’ll want to invest the time in a detailed financial forecast where you can experiment with different scenarios. If you do this, you’ll be able to see how much it will cost to start your business with different revenue growth rates. You’ll also be able to experiment with different funding scenarios and what your business would look like with different types of loans.

Funding Starting Costs

You can cover starting costs on your own, or through a combination of loans and investments.

Many entrepreneurs decide they want to raise more cash than they need so they’ll have money left over for contingencies. While that makes good sense when you can do it, it is difficult to explain that to investors. Outside investors don’t want to give you more money than you need, because it’s their money.

You may see experts who recommend having anywhere from six months to a year’s worth of expenses covered, with your starting cash. That’s nice in concept and would be great for peace of mind, but it’s rarely practical. And it interferes with your estimates and dilutes their value.

Of course, startup financing isn’t technically part of the starting costs estimate. But in the real world, to get started, you need to estimate the starting costs and determine what startup financing will be necessary to cover them. The type of financing you pursue may alter your startup or ongoing costs in a given period, so it’s important to consider this upfront.

Here are common financing options to consider:

  • Investment: What you or someone else puts into the company. It ends up as paid-in capital in the balance sheet. This is the classic concept of business investment, taking ownership in a company, risking money in the hope of gaining money later.
  • Accounts payable: Debts that are outstanding or need to be paid after a certain time according to your balance sheet. Generally, this means credit-card debt. This number becomes the starting balance of your balance sheet.
  • Current borrowing: Standard debt, borrowing from banks, Small Business Administration, or other current borrowing.
  • Other current liabilities: Additional liabilities that don’t have interest charges. This is where you put loans from founders, family members, or friends. We aren’t recommending interest-free loans for financing, by the way, but when they happen, this is where they go.
  • Long-term liabilities: Long-term debt or long-term loans.

Other considerations for estimating startup costs

Pre-launch versus normal operations

With our definition of starting costs, the launch date is the defining point. Rent and payroll expenses before launch are considered startup expenses. The same expenses after launch are considered operating or ongoing expenses. And many companies also incur some payroll expenses before launch — because they need to hire people to train before launch, develop their website, stock shelves, and so forth.

The same defining point affects assets as well. For example, amounts in inventory purchased before launch and available at launch are included in starting assets. Inventory purchased after launch will affect cash flow, and the balance sheet; but isn’t considered part of the starting costs.

So, be sure to accurately define the cutoff for startup costs and operating expenses. Again, by outlining everything within specific categories, this transition should be simple and easy to keep track of.

Your launch month will likely be the start of your business’s fiscal year

The establishment of a standard fiscal year plays a role in your analysis. U.S. tax code allows most businesses to manage taxes based on a fiscal year, which can be any series of 12 months, not necessarily January through December.

It can be convenient to establish the fiscal year as starting the same month that the business launches. In this case, the startup costs and startup funding match the fiscal year—and they happen in the time before the launch and beginning of the first operational fiscal year. The pre-launch transactions are reported as a separate tax year, even if they occur in just a few months, or even one month. So the last month of the pre-launch period is also the last month of the fiscal year.

Aim for long-term success by estimating startup costs

Make sure you’ve considered every aspect of your business and included related costs. You’ll have a better chance at securing loans, attracting investors, estimating profits, and understanding the cash runway of your business.

The more accurately you layout startup costs and make adjustments as you incur them, the more accurate vision you’ll have for the immediate future of your business. 

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Content Author: Tim Berry

Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software , a co-founder of Borland International, and a recognized expert in business planning. He has an MBA from Stanford and degrees with honors from the University of Oregon and the University of Notre Dame. Today, Tim dedicates most of his time to blogging, teaching and evangelizing for business planning.