In this economy, you can pretty much forget about financing. And it's probably just as well, says marketing guru Seth Godin, author of The Bootstrapper's Bible. People often ask him for advice on raising venture capital for their start-ups, and "nine times out of 10, I advise them they shouldn't," he says. Instead, take these seven steps to self-funded stardom.
Most entrepreneurs want to supply established retailers, but Dameion Royes has always preferred having his own stores, in which he could be sure his Big It Up hats were being promoted properly. In college, he talked the campus bookstore into letting him open a boutique and manned it himself. After his retro designs became a sensation, he rented kiosks in upscale malls, in which he could convert passersby into impulse buyers. Today, celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Wyclef Jean sport Royes's lids, but he still works the kiosks when he can: "Who better?" he asks.
When Bjorn Billhardt started his online training consultancy, Enspire Learning, he had just one rule he vowed never to break: Customers had to pay up front for his online training programs. That didn't stop him from signing up Harvard Business School and the World Bank as his first big clients, and that taught him that the key to survival was cash flow, not growth. So he took work that was outside the company's focus area if it would contribute to keeping the company afloat, and he deferred expenses as long as he could, waiting for three years to hire a full-time salesperson. Now, when VCs call, Billhardt tells them he doesn't need their money.
It is not enough to keep overhead low. Bootstrappers have to build parsimoniousness into their products. Need an industrial designer? Go offshore for a fraction of the price. Need a website? Try open-source software. Need targeted marketing? Use search-engine optimization. "Now you can get standardized work done at a price that competes with companies many times your size," says Godin. "A huge piece of the cost equation has been removed."
Successful bootstrappers get in front of customers quickly, adapt to what they hear, and try, try again. Greg Gianforte, founder and CEO of softwaremaker RightNow Technologies, spent a month calling 400 prospective customers to get input on his first product, which, unbeknownst to them, hadn't even been designed yet. "There's this tendency to want to go off and start writing software," says Gianforte, who is also the author of Bootstrapping Your Business: Start and Grow a Successful Company With Almost No Money. "You can do that for years and still not have a company."
Bootstrappers are always fighting to be taken as seriously as competitors with bigger marketing budgets. But it's a different story for those who become known as experts in their fields. Early in his entrepreneurial career, Josh Baer, founder of e-mail list host Skylist, went on Internet message boards and answered strangers' technical questions, never letting on that he was operating out of his frat house. Later, he sought out speaking gigs and panel slots at industry gatherings, in which he could show prospects that he was just as smart as his better-funded rivals. Before long, he was landing customers such as Disney and Microsoft, which had confidence he knew his stuff.
Bootstrappers are busy, but they can't afford to be bashful. They treat small-business counselors, networking groups, and other entrepreneurs as informal advisory boards. These resources aren't hard to find: The nonprofit SCORE Association offers free assistance with incorporating, financing, disaster preparedness, and other common entrepreneurial headaches, as do more than 900 Small Business Development Centers nationwide. The Bootstrap Network runs a message board on which members can get quick answers to questions as well as advice and referrals. All you have to do is ask.
When Lisa Price founded hair and body products purveyor Carol's Daughter, her credit was so poor that even a bank loan was out of the question. So she kept her aspirations modest, experimenting in her kitchen and selling to friends at parties in her home. It took her six years to open her first retail outlet, but soon, she had fans, including Oprah Winfrey, making special trips to load up on her concoctions (Winfrey lauded them on her show). In 2005, a group of celebrity investors took a stake to help her expand. Yet during a decade of self-funding, Price never worried that she was taking it too slowly. "Reinvesting in the business and just watching it grow was enough," she says. "I was just saying to myself, 'Let's see how far I can take this.' "