Bootstrapping vs investment: one venture investor says VC money isn’t always best
What a year for venture investing. Crunchbase recently released figures that show venture funding soared to a total of $288bn for the first half of 2021. This represents an all-time record high and four times the level of VC spending four years ago! With all this money raised, it seems natural that venture funding would be the first port of call for startup founders. However, that view is based on several myths. Sometimes venture capital is simply not the right fit for many businesses. And I say that as a venture investor myself.
My first job out of college was working for a private equity fund where I would try to convince founders to raise money, but they didn’t really need it. Every single one was bootstrapped, and they were highly impressive. Admittedly, bootstrapped startups don’t receive much press attention. They aren’t glamorous. They aren’t raising massive rounds, and they don’t have big PR teams. They’re not spending lots of money on flashy events or headlining conferences, but these things don’t make a business.
Successful bootstrapped businesses
Venture capital is not a requirement, and some hugely successful household names demonstrate this fact. For example, Walmart is perhaps the ultimate bootstrapped business. The company’s humble origins are beautifully chronicled by Founder Sam Walton in his autobiography Made in America. Starting out in 1962, Walton parlayed a five-and-dime store in a hardscrabble cotton town in Arkansas into the largest retailer in the world, without any venture capital.
There are many other reasons to avoid or turn down venture capital. For a start, some businesses won’t scale more quickly due to the additional dollars. A VC’s prerogative is to accelerate growth - and that’s certainly what their investors expect, and often, finding the right combination of people or skills is a more pressing matter than receiving a quick cash injection. For these types of businesses, taking VC funding is like putting rocket fuel into a moped - venture capital will drive them off a cliff.
That’s before we approach the thorny issue of how much equity to give away. If you’re able to bootstrap and keep all of it, that represents a significant opportunity for you as a founder.
So let’s say you’ve decided not to raise venture capital and you think bootstrapping is the way to go, how do you go about it? Below I’ve outlined the essentials you need to consider.
A flashy, big-spend PR release isn’t necessary, instead, focus on aspects of the business that are under your control. Take inspiration from YC Co-Founder Paul Graham’s famous 2013 essay and aim to ‘do things that don’t scale'.
The sentiment expressed in Field of Dreams, 'If you build it, they will come', is a common startup fallacy. It just doesn’t happen that way in the real world. Even getting introductions from your neighbour or cousin can get things moving. Before you know it, you will have a dozen happy customers who truly value what you’re building.
Consider the value of sweat equity
It’s totally OK to start working on your business while you're drawing a salary from another job. Don't allow anybody to tell you otherwise. It's inevitable that further down the line, this will change, so just take things step-by-step at first and work on the weekends or in your spare time. It will pay off in the long run. Above all, stay focused on the problem you're fixing for the customer and avoid overcomplicating the task at hand if you don't have the necessary resources to tackle bigger projects at the beginning.
Be open to consulting
This is very relevant to software as a service (SaaS) businesses. In the VC world, it’s widely frowned upon to dedicate too much time to consulting work around your product. That’s because it’s challenging to build a scalable revenue model quickly.
However, entrepreneurs have unique expertise and so consulting holds some value for them, providing cash flow and enabling them to spend more time with customers. The customers are the people you should be listening to, not advisors or prospective customers, but the people who are already investing their own time and money into your service.
Seek prepaid revenue
If you can convince a customer that you’ve resolved a pain point for them, the next step could be to push for annual subscriptions. You will be pleasantly surprised at how many clients are prepared to sign up for this. From a corporate perspective, the required outlay may not be that much so don’t be afraid of asking.
Take out a loan
Companies like Founderpath will loan to SaaS businesses without diluting ownership. It’s a low-cost, formulaic approach that enables you to grow your business — albeit modestly. Founderpath offers loans based on your monthly recurring revenue, which most banks aren’t willing to do, with credit cards also being a convenient source of additional capital. Of course, the choice is yours, but remember that taking risks as a founder is essential.
Check out incubators and accelerators
There are so many organisations targeting you as a founder, even if you’re a bootstrapper. Some of them are local, like Boulder’s Techstars - others, like YC, have a very tight filter. They are difficult to get into, but they offer a fantastic community from which you can learn a great deal, and you are sure to have a much better sense of the right financing path for your business by the time you leave the program.
You can present to local angel investors at their meetings. Alternatively, it’s possible to use platforms like Kickstarter to raise millions of dollars (the site has helped companies raise nearly $6bn since 2012). These sites are heavily skewed towards consumer products, though, and are not turnkey systems, demanding a great deal of promotional work. You could also convince friends and family to invest in your business but make sure you’re all okay with the risk first
Control your expenses
Finally, this is critically important because you don’t have to account for every dollar you don’t spend. Most successful bootstrappers are relentless in controlling their expenses and don’t hire expensive consultants or attend useless conferences, as they know it won’t drive their business forward. The bottom line is this: you must be a responsible steward. Use all available resources to maximum effect.