An entrepreneur friend needs to expand in order to improve margins but he can't dramatically increase sales without adding more locations. He needs to hire great employees to help him grow his business but he can't afford to pay superstar wages.
He needs funding to fuel product development but first, potential investors want proof of a solid, profitable customer base.
In short, he feels caught in a series of startup vicious circles.
With seemingly no way out. (Sound familiar?)
So I told him the story of CD Leganes, the Spanish soccer team located approximately ten miles from Madrid -- and the home of my favorite team mascot, Super Pepino.
(Yep: "Super Cucumber.")
As a result, the club had no shirt or stadium sponsor. Attendance was almost nonexistent. Debt had spiraled to €500,000. When the club hosted Atletico Madrid's second team, a Leganes player kicked the ball out of play while every member of the team dropped to one knee to protest not being paid.
No fans, no partners, massive debt, employees in revolt. How's that for a vicious circle?
That's when Felipe Moreno and Victoria Pavon bought a controlling interest in the club and paid off the debt and wages owed to players and staff.
The new owners still faced an uphill challenge. To attract more fans and generate more revenue, the club needed to field a better team... but fielding a better team usually means having the resources to pay for better players. The same was true for landing sponsors; sponsors not only want to know signage and activations will reach as wide an audience as possible, they also want to associate their brands with winners.
But it's nearly impossible to win when you don't have great players... and nearly impossible to attract great players when the pay you offer isn't competitive.
So Victoria and Felipe rolled up their sleeves -- literally -- and got to work. They manned ticket windows. They worked concession stands. They helped prepare the field. They cleaned up the stadium after matches. They encouraged people who loved the club to volunteer, like Victor Marin, who helped grow the club's social presence (and now serves as head of communications.)
In classic bootstrapping fashion, they spent money when they absolutely had to... and let skill, experience, and effort take care of the rest.
And slowly built their flywheel. Providing a better match-day and stadium experience attracted more fans. Attracting more fans caught the attention of smaller sponsors; increased sponsor and ticket revenue allowed the club to recruit better players. Better players led to better on-field results, attracting more fans and sponsors.
Six years later, Leganes earned promotion to the Spanish 2nd division.
And in 2016, Leganes was promoted to La Liga, the premier Spanish soccer league, alongside giants of world soccer like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid.
And proving that vicious circles can sometimes become virtuous circles.
Granted, Leganes is far from out of the woods. With a stadium that seats just over 12,000 people and VIP boxes more spartan than the average FBS college football stadium, generating sufficident revenue to compete -- both on and off the pitch -- with larger rivals continues to be an uphill battle.
Leganes currently sits at the bottom of the La Liga table, making relegation to the 2nd division likely.
That's a part of the growth cycle every bootstrapped startup can also relate to. Hockey-stick growth curves rarely exist. Every success is often followed by a setback.
And those setbacks often help build the foundation for future success.
Read stories about successful people or successful businesses and it's easy to think they possess some intangible something -- talent, ideas, inspiration, connections, etc.-- that you don't have.
But if you're willing to work hard, persevere, and take a chance on yourself, who you are is more than enough.
No matter how vicious the circle may appeaar, the only thing that can hold you back is you -- and your willingness to try.
Just ask Leganes.