What I’ve learned from successfully bootstrapping 3 businesses
When I started my own business 20 years ago, I decided to do it on my own. Not only has my business stayed afloat during these 20 years, but it has also survived crises, changes in technology (the first patent I filed was for WAP technology!), and several life changes.
Working with innovators, I meet all kinds of them. Some innovators are bootstrapping, some just left their jobs to bootstrap, others are looking for funding, and some others are already working with investors that believe in their idea.
I’ve learned that there’s no cookie-cutter way to build a company. That’s part of the challenge of building one. Each company has to find a way to work out. One solution won’t fit everyone.
From the beginning, I chose to be independent and to bootstrap my own business. This is a decision I made consciously. I always knew I wanted to have control over my company, at least in the beginning.
I have learned a lot. I have learned that bootstrapping is not for everybody. Bootstrapping is for the fearless, for the adventurous, for those who trust their ideas so much they want to develop them on their own.
That’s why, as difficult it can seem to be, it’s also very satisfying.
But this is also why I can completely understand why some innovators don’t go the bootstrapping way. Bootstrapping is difficult. It will test you every step of the way and in ways you weren’t expecting. It will make you double-think about what you’re doing and why.
It’s true that many companies can grow faster and stronger if they seek and get external funding, but as mentioned before, that’s also a strategy that won’t work for every kind of business. Plus it may not ultimately be the best long term strategy for a healthy company.
As much as bootstrapping will test you, it will also teach you. It will make you a better business person, and it will inspire you every day.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned in these 20 years of bootstrapping.
You need to have a clear mission
What do you want to accomplish? Who do you want to help? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
My goal from the beginning has been to open access to innovators to change the world. My companies have evolved, the services too, but the goal has remained the same. When I started my first company, I was working for a different patent firm. I spoke with my current clients and also potential new clients before I left my old firm. I told them that I was starting a new patent firm which would work differently than existing firms. These clients effectively asked me why a different way of working would be good for them. They challenged me to explain why my mission would benefit them. They also wanted me to clarify what that mission was.
Sticking to your mission is important because it will help you guide your business and team. When it’s clear what you’re working towards, everything is easier. But you also need to clearly communicate how your mission will benefit your clients.
Knowing your story and values will help you stay focused on what you want to accomplish.
Quit your job… but don’t do it just yet!
A lot of bootstrappers come from the corporate world. This is great because working at corporate gives you an idea of how companies work from the inside. Even if you’re just a small part of that big company, you can get a general idea of how a business works.
But, precisely because of that, you’ll be used to getting a salary, getting job benefits, and, in general, not worrying about how to run the company. I’m not saying this to discourage you! I’m saying this because you’ll need to plan ahead.
Don’t quit abruptly and throw yourself into a new company with no idea of how you’ll make it work. Have a plan. Save money. Learn as much as possible from your current job. I worked at my old patent firm, for my old boss, for 4 years before I started my own business. I figured out what I liked about the way my old patent firm worked — and what I didn’t like.
And did I mention saving money? Those savings really came in handy when I left my old steady job to go out on my own.
Plan how you’ll invest time in your side hustle before quitting. Plan to know when the right moment to quit your job will come.
When the moment is right for you, quit your job and focus on the business you’re launching. It’s good to have a side hustle but it’s better to focus your time on making your own business grow. Not having another source of income will also motivate you to make your newly launched business work.
You need a plan
Plans are useful. Everybody knows that. But, especially if you’re starting a new business, you need to have something in place. Here are some ideas you might consider before starting your own business.
This plan can be flexible enough for your company to change but it has to give you a framework you can follow to run your business.
Of course, a lot of things will be different from the paper but trust me, having something written down will give you clarity in what you’re doing next.
Also, having a plan will help you stay disciplined!
You’ll have limited resources
Well, of course. This is one of the downsides of bootstrapping. But it’s also an advantage, hear me out.
I remember a very young innovator I met that was able to get funding for his idea. It was a lot of money! This young innovator developed his idea as a university project so, when he suddenly had what looked like unlimited resources, he started hiring people, developing new products, making marketing efforts, and, trying to make his company grow fast.
One year after he got the funding, the company started losing money. The team became unmotivated, everything went south.
He admitted to me that he didn’t have enough experience to run a business. He was suddenly put in a position where resources weren’t a problem, so that made him take decisions in a less thoughtful way.
When resources are limited, you tend to solve problems more creatively (and not just throwing money at them). Innovation will be part of your DNA because, when your own money is on the line, you try to innovate to cut costs while having good results.
How you’ll spend money, who you will hire, how you will make people notice your product, everything will have to be thought carefully. When you’re bootstrapping there’s not too much space to fail, you need to make thoughtful decisions.
Thinking through everything you do is great for your business!
One of the reasons people look for investors and partners is that they can also bring experience to the business. Most of them are more seasoned entrepreneurs that can help you guide your team, your business, and the decisions you make.
But that can also be true for bootstrappers.
There are a lot of people you can consult or that can mentor you, without you having to give up part of your company. Of course, this means money. But, most of the time it’s cheaper and better to get help at the right time for the right tasks than to try to solve everything by yourself.
Also, consider that there are several tools out there that can simplify and automate different tasks in your business.
You don’t need to break the bank, you need to be smart about the tools you choose!
You’re building the company you want to build
When bootstrapping, there’s no pressure to return money or to report back to investors. The only compromise is with yourself and your idea.
A big advantage is that you also have the liberty to pivot when it’s needed!
When things become difficult, think that you’re building the company you want to build with the values you want and the culture you want.
There’s one truth about bootstrapping that you need to know and that applies to every company: you’ll have to work, hard.
But there’s also another truth. Nothing will be as satisfying as knowing that you could launch your idea, do it successfully, and build a business out of it.
Building the extraordinary takes guts, start!