Making something out of nothing is a mountain of work, but that effort pales in comparison to making that nothing into something truly special. I started my company with $400. Yes, that’s right — Four. Hundred. Dollars. Would I recommend this kind of extreme bootstrapping? No. But it is possible to start a business with little more than a prayer — and that’s infinitely better than not starting at all.
So if your money is short and your dreams are big, welcome to the club of busy, excited entrepreneurs. You’re in good company.
Let’s discuss some scrappy tricks.
Carpool smart (not just to save on commuting costs)
I live in Montana and am involved in the startup community. Much of the action happens in towns a three-plus hour car ride away. Fortunately, my lawyer is also involved. So, in an act of extreme bootstrapping, I carpool with him. Hours of windshield time with my lawyer for a few tanks of gas? Not so bad. He is a terrific sounding board for growing the company and a delightful traveling companion.
Spend money to make money
It’s true that $400 won’t get you very far. So choosing how to spend the small amount available to you is very, very important. You need to spend your startup cash on something that will turn into more money directly. I spent it on a rate card so I could sell ads in a magazine that didn’t exist yet. Let me tell you, $400 won’t even get you very many rate cards — so I asked (nicely) for the card back if a sale didn’t look promising.
When Guerilla Marketing was published back in 1984, it shook up the idea that everything about marketing costs money. Simply stated, you can spend energy and time instead of money. This creative, hands-on approach will serve you well. You’ll be nimble and attentive to results. When you start making the millions and have cash flowing, keep these skills — they make you a better business.
Look for extra uses and opportunities in every object and interaction. If you get a grant for training in another city, for example, be sure to tack on some meetings with potential clients while you’re there.
Just don’t use the shower wall = dry erase board trick.
It doesn’t really work that well. Instead, paint one side of an old window. Flip to the glass side and voila! A cheap dry erase board that you can actually make any color you want. Just because you are bootstrapping doesn’t mean that your gear shouldn’t work impeccably.
Time is more than money.
Your time is the most valuable asset you have, especially when bootstrapping.
Look at it in terms of return. It is far too easy to spend too much time on the least important work. Seek mentors who can help you with this; keep an eagle eye on yourself; and build a time budget. How much do you have? Where are you going to spend it? And like any good budget, check the actuals against the projections.
Sharing is caring.
Your employees will not care as much as you do. It’s OK and true. A key bootstrapping tool? Build in equity plays to encourage your employees to care more. It gets you time, passion and heart. Carpool with a great lawyer to find the best way, or do your research to set up an equity plan correctly. It is worth it.
Tap into local resources
We use our local job services to write job descriptions and HR language for us. We adore our public library. We attend free networking events. Be part of the community you are in, and as your business grows, keep participating and feeding that system that sustained you.
Mind your manners
I cannot emphasize this enough. Be nice. You ought to be kind anyhow, but when bootstrapping, manners are key. A thank-you note is the best way to spend a couple of your precious bucks — EVER. Send them to everyone you meet, who helps you, who offers you advice.
Because here is the deal, bootstrapper, you’ve got this. You can make it special. You can make it work. You can do it with nothing but guts, gusto and grace.