We bootstrapped our current business, and after the first three years in business, we made it to No. 382 on the Inc. 500 list and project to do eight digits in revenue next year.
"Bootstrapping" -- building without any outside capital -- was easily the hardest thing I've ever done. But it's also been the best business decision I've ever made.
In past companies, we raised a lot of money early on. (In fact, I had the privilege of helping to put together a venture fund, where that was the raison d'être.)
For some new businesses, venture dollars are indeed required to get off the ground -- for example, biopharma or other businesses with large capital expenditures required prior to ever seeing revenue.
And in that way, venture capital is a critical part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Without those angels and funds, some ideas would never come into existence as a business. Think about where the world would be without Silicon Valley; much of that was built by visionaries taking on great financial risk.
But for most of us, who are selling consumer goods or software-as-a-service, I'd like to offer a few ideas about why you should wait to take on VC cash and a few suggestions to help you do so.
Why you should wait to take on outside capital
Let's start with the obvious and most easily measured reason: The earlier you raise money, the greater the "cost of capital." Without getting into the details, just consider the maximum valuation that you can earn on day one, when your idea is just an idea. Compare that to the valuation you can earn a couple years down the road, when there's validation of that idea, revenue, a team, etc. In many cases, it's an exponential improvement -- you'll sell much less of the company to bring in the same amount of capital.
There is such a thing as "patient capital," and there are angel investors and firms who truly can wait and are focused on the slow steady growth of a business. But let's be honest: Venture capital is a business with its own set of KPIs. Those firms need to realize exits in order to put wins on the scoreboard. If they don't, it becomes very difficult to raise that next fund.
This urgency can be distorting because the focus sometimes becomes the growth metrics (the outputs) at the expense of focusing on "the inputs," like fanatical obsession over your customers, product-market fit, organizational culture, or the many intangibles that need to come together as prerequisites in order to attain the financial results those VCs are looking for.
Necessity is the mother of innovation
The adage is true: When you're cash-strapped and up against a wall, the creativity comes out. And that's a good thing for a startup. The financial discipline is incredibly valuable. Not because it conserves cash, but because it creates a culture of, and ability to, "stretch a dollar."
When we were starting to scale up our current business, I remember telling the marketing team that we couldn't spend more than $50 per day ($1,500 per month), because I was terrified about losing that money on a bad set of Facebook ads. As a result, we didn't hire a fancy marketing agency and didn't blow a bunch of cash on wishful thinking. We were diligent and conservative, and we learned how to do it right. It was slow but effective. Now our goal is to spend more than $100K per month while maintaining our high standard for profitability. I can guarantee that we wouldn't have that same standard -- or that skill set--had we raised VC money early on. We probably would have outsourced that critical skill, and who knows where we would be today.
How to get by while you wait to take on outside capital
I always appreciate when someone brings me a problem along with their best solution. Here are a few tips for scaling your business without venture dollars.
1. Before you launch
If you have an idea, and you need some capital to get it off the ground, Indigogo and Kickstarter are two of the older crowdfunding platforms, and now there are many others. Much has been written about them -- the pros and cons, and the strategy to maximize that path. I'll refer to those articles for a deeper dive.
There is a similar path, which we took in launching this current business, and that's "pre-selling" your product through influencers. In other words, before you've created the product, before you've placed a purchase order for inventory, go see if you can sell it. It's pretty easy to do: Build a one-page website, set up an affiliate marketing system, and go find influencers to help you spread the word. At the start, you might have to give away all your profit to incentivize those influencers. You might even want or need to give them a tiny slice of equity.
The power in this approach is twofold:
a) You can start today. Setting up a website has never been easier or cheaper -- Squarespace, Wix, and many other options exist. And there's no cost for selling your idea to influencers. You can do it on nights and weekends while maintaining your day job.
b) You validate the product-market fit before you take on any significant financial risks (like taking VC dollars or ordering inventory). If the product doesn't sell, despite the endorsement and promotion from influencers, you may want to step back and figure out why.
Even if you decide to raise funding immediately after this launch process, the cost of capital will be substantially lower because you've put up that website and validated that the market exists for your idea. And you'll probably earn some extra points with those investors.
2. Once you've launched
If you already have a little operating history, there are endless financing options. From the more traditional line of credit (or even credit card) from your bank, to Square Capital, Shopify Capital, and PayPal loans, and now innovative businesses like Clear Co and Wayflyer. Don't get me wrong, you're likely going to pay interest on the capital. But that's a tradeoff that preserves your most valuable asset -- your equity.
Lastly, if you have interested investors, explore what a convertible loan might look like.
VCs are awesome
The moral of the story: Be patient, explore other options to get your business off the ground today, and seek venture capital carefully. You'll do yourself and your investors a great service by not rushing into the relationship.
And the best part of "waiting to take on funding" is that you don't have to wait to start your business. There is no barrier to entry today -- for the vast majority of entrepreneurs, you don't need as much capital as you think to get started.
And when you're ready, remember that venture and other private sources of capital provide a critical role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I'm just suggesting that you be very careful about when you use it and ensure you're not waiting to start because you don't have funding.
The world needs you to bring your idea into reality. Don't wait for permission -- or funding.