Constraints are a good thing. They force us to think creatively, become innovative and operate in a highly efficient manner.

They’re also frustrating as hell.

Wanting to do something and not being able to do it because you don’t have the resources is enough to make you want to pull your hair out. But as entrepreneurs we all face the same problem: Accomplishing more with less.

As a marketing guy, I’m regularly asked by early-stage founders about the best methods for acquiring customers on nonexistent budgets. The unfortunate truth is that there are no silver bullet answers. However with some creativity, smart prioritizing and lots of sweat equity, it is possible to win business without much of a marketing budget.

How? Glad you asked.

Create something insanely useful and give it away for free.

The best way to win a customer’s heart is to help her solve a problem, preferably a really hard or annoying one. While all businesses exist to make customers’ lives better in one way or another, as an early-stage company looking to make hay of your product without the money to fund large scale marketing muscle, a neat run around is to create a tool that is niche in focus but incredibly useful.

When done properly this not only allows you to capture data on your prospects and build brand awareness, but also start ingraining in your prospects’ minds that your company has a credible solution to their perceived problem.

There are lots of good examples of this approach from Triangle-local companies like Contactology and iContact offering limited versions of their service to prospects on a freemium basis to simple tools like the free WordPress plugins from Yoast .

Keep in mind that these tools don’t have to be complicated either. Best practices checklists work. Lists of questions to ask yourself before starting a project work. Even a resource library specific to your industry will work. What’s important is that what you’re creating provides real value.

Have something thoughtful to say and share it a lot.

Yes, I’m talking about inbound marketing. The concept here is simple. Make a list of every question, concern and problem that nags at your target audience and then come up with really smart things to say about it. Then write them down and put them online in a SEO-friendly manner. And share links to them everywhere you can (just don’t get spammy).

Thought leadership is a common tactic in the B2B marketing world and can range from white papers and blog posts to video interviews and infographics. However this same tactic can work really well as a B2C company too.

The trick is to recognize that great inbound marketing takes a while to gain traction. What you write at first will be terrible. And it can be time consuming to develop content. But keep at it. Publish as frequently as you can. If you keep up the momentum you’ll gain traction, and you’ll win customers without having to invest money in paid advertising.

Learn to love public relations.

Public relations is a great way to gain website traffic and earn credibility for your brand. I’m talking about things like coverage of your product announcements, interviews with your executive team, and getting quoted as an expert. If you can’t afford a publicist (and as a startup you very likely can’t) then here are three tips to making PR happen.

  • Recognize that your success will be contingent on making what you say all about your audience and not (exclusively) about you. If all you want to do is talk about your company, no halfway decent publication will cover you. Instead, focus on where you can add value to the conversation and avoid becoming salesy.
  • Come up with a list of all of the publications you and your audience like and respect. Then read them every day. Look for the trends in the topics they cover and the writers who cover them. This will give you a ton of insight into what topics they feel are interesting and allow you to align your pitch as you start to reach out.
  • Subscribe to HARO and BloggerLinkUp. These are free resources that email you every day with lists of media outlets that wants quotes, information or other specific details from companies. Its a goldmine for the DIY publicist.
  • There is no such thing as a viral marketing campaign.

    Let’s get this one out of the way. There are products and services that people love and trip over themselves to share. But no matter how much money you have you can’t force something to go viral. So don’t waste your money trying.

    Budgeting is just another way of saying prioritizing.

    Hate to break the news, but with marketing you’re either going to pay with your money or your time. So if you truly have zero budget, get ready to roll up your sleeves and get dirty.

    Don’t bother marketing if your product sucks.

    The easiest way to waste your time and money is to start marketing a product or service that isn’t ready for prime time. If you’re not sure (even with a Minimum Viable Product) then spend your resources on making your product better first. Only when you have something your proud of should you start scaling your lead generation activities.