Sixteen years ago, I bootstrapped a services company with a partner who lived 3,000 miles away. We both worked from home. We had pre-owned Macs and fax machines, existing software applications, and cheap office furniture. We spent less than $10,000, including legal fees, to draw up our articles of incorporation. In our first year we made $400,000. The next year, sales doubled.
Bootstrapping a service business isn’t what it used to be. It’s far easier. Here’s how to get going:
Start by researching your idea online. Find out what the competition looks like and determine how your offerings will be different. Grill potential customers to find out what they really want and how much they’ll pay. To see who’s investing in your space, think about what your Google keywords would be, and then see who’s buying them on Adwords.
Where will you get the money to launch your business and support the inevitable lean ramp-up? Do you need office space? What equipment and software will be required? How many people will you hire? To get a handle on these questions, you might try the Small Business Administration’s free SCORE program, which can help match you with a mentor. SCORE also offers free online workshops on topics such as Developing a Business Plan.
After you’ve completed the initial legwork done, it’s time to get going. Here are some areas just about every entrepreneur needs to tackle.
Legal. Figure out which form of incorporation will be best for you: sole proprietorship, LLC, S corporation or C corporation? Some entrepreneurs use online legal forms such as those from LegalZoom.com or Nolo Press, then hire an attorney to check their work. You may also need a business license to set up shop in your city, and you should also look into business insurance.
Accounting. You don’t want to mix personal and business funds. Set up a business bank account and credit card. Then look at accounting software, but trust me: Software can’t replace great accountants and tax experts who truly understand your business. But you can certainly get going with affordable accounting software options like QuickBooks and FreshBooks. Sole proprietors might use the free Mint.com.
Sales and marketing. Your website is an online brochure and portfolio, so start there. Wix and WordPress are two popular and inexpensive options. It’s hard to be objective with your own marketing, so consider a part- or full-time consultant who understands your audience and can help you get traction fast.
Partnering. Are there other small businesses you can partner with to make your service even more attractive? For example, a solo website designer might partner with an independent copywriter. Can you trade services or refer clients to each other? Just be sure to put details of your collaboration in writing so there is no confusion or nastiness later.
After the start-up high fades, how will you keep your business strong? Remember, that as a service business, your online footprint is your storefront. Blogging, posting to social networks, sending opt-in email newsletters, and offering special promotions are critical to maintaining high visibility.
Prioritize and delegate every day. Otherwise, it’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed. If you’re the Big Idea person, you need to outsource tasks to others who can do it better and cheaper than you. College students are always looking for solid work experience, so hire them as interns.
Once you’ve been in business a while, you’ll see patterns. Some months are slow - and then suddenly your hair’s on fire. That’s just one reason to consider a flexible workforce. You also need to build sales and marketing programs that can scale with your ebbs and flows.
My company was named one of the fastest growing in the San Francisco Bay area, and it’s been the adventure of a lifetime.
Work hard, stay passionate, and pay your taxes.