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Bootstrapping for Startups: Creating a Growth Plan

Start growing your company at the fastest rate possible without breaking the bank.


If you’re trying to bootstrap your startup to coveted unicorn status or are working for one who is, it can be hard to find useful advice that doesn’t involve sending thousands on brand awareness or take a team of 35 to execute. In this series, we’ll share with you our experience on growing your company at the fastest rate possible without breaking the bank. And, we’ll share with you some of our favorite resources for growing companies.  


What Is Bootstrapping?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, Investopedia defines bootstrapping as a situation in which an entrepreneur starts a company with little capital, relying on money other than outside investments. So, if you’ve founded and are trying to build your company from your own finances or by generating revenue without outside investment, you’re bootstrapping. 


Be Honest with Yourself about Time

Good deals take time. Even average deals are slower than you’d think. “Hard data says entrepreneurs should plan for at least 18–21 months of runway, and as much as ~35 months if they want to play it safe.”


No matter how groundbreaking your product is, financial transactions take time. Yes, if you have a great product, you can “always get money.” But how much equity will you have to give up just to stay afloat?


Be honest with yourself about your financial situation and how quickly you need to achieve your goal. Depending on your situation, there are frequently opportunities to push hard and meet a version of your goal in as little as 60 days. Give yourself as much time (and thus, freedom to make the right choice) as possible. 


Adopt an MVP Mindset

CTOs and Product Owners know the importance of not investing too much time and money in development early on in the process. Instead, most will deliver an MVP first -- a Minimum Viable Product -- first. The idea is simple: invest the fewest resources possible to deliver a barebones version of the product to customers. Your goal is to confirm with customers that your product will deliver value to them and to decide, based on their reactions, where to next invest your time and money.


Here’s how Zapier talks about the goal of an MVP:


“[T]he goal of an MVP is to reduce risk and maximize return. Said another way, all MVP’s need to meet 2 requirements:

  1. They must deliver value.
  2. They must allow you to gather feedback.”

Limit your financial investment in marketing and sales until you have figured out yourself what precise problem your product solves for who and how they will find you. This is your MVP. If you start spending before you figure these core elements out, you’ll simply be wasting time and money. And these are your most valuable resources. 


Create a Social Media Specialist

The cheapest way to start generating visibility for your company is through social media. But the need to be active and engage on social platforms is more than a budget saver. According to the Gartner Future of Sales report, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels by 2025. And, there’s data showing that almost all potential investors consult a company’s social media channels when evaluating an investment. Social is no longer optional in today’s business landscape. 


The good news is that the basics are well-documented on the Internet. Service providers like Hubspot share their own research on best practices – from when to post to how and where. Assign responsibility to someone on the founding team to learn best practices and to monitor and make adjustments as you see posts succeed or fail to garner engagement from your audience. 


If you do have employees, it’s a great idea to encourage their engagement with your company posts. In fact, studies show that a company’s message reached 561% farther when shared by employees versus the same messages shared via official brand social channels, according to MSLGroup. Employee-shared content gets eight times more engagement than content shared by brands, according to Social Media Today. 


Define Your Ideal Customer

Your ideal customer is the perfect customer for the solution you’re selling. In enterprise sales, think of your Ideal Customer as a fictitious company that has the precise characteristics of a company that would absolutely devour your product. 

There's no shortage of resources on the internet providing templates and methodologies for implementing the perfect process to build a perfect profile of your perfect customer. And it's important that you start building knowledge about the different approaches to customer profiling. 


But, as a startup, the most critical thing for you to recognize is that an ICP is a working hypothesis about your customers – there is no “right” or perfect answer at this moment. Beyond knowing your market and doing a bit of research, you don’t have the robust historical data required for anything more than a hypothesis at this moment. 

Because your ICP is your working hypothesis, you must be able to easily track and report on its accuracy.


For instance, my ICP is a law firm that has iManage On Premise who has a prohibition against the cloud. In this, we’re narrowing Legal as an industry by technology owned as well as by their organizational policy. These are relatively easy characteristics to monitor and report upon. Don’t invest in expensive analytics and reporting tools at this early stage in your ICP development—ask your potential customers these questions directly and record them somewhere free (like a spreadsheet or free CRM). 


At least once a month, stop and see if there’s any evidence supporting or refuting your hypothesis. Did you sell to anyone using iManage On Premise? Or were all your sales to Worlddox On Premise customers? As you learn more about your customers and products, keeping updating your ICP / hypothesis. You’ll get better returns on all your investments as you nail this down.


Remember! Your Ideal Customer Profile is not any business who could potentially make use of your solution -- it’s the PERFECT customer for your product. 


Your Prime Directive

In the 1980s movie RoboCop, he had three Prime Directives that guided every action he took: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. All you need to do is set your mind to one Prime Directive.


You must establish your Number One priority and be ruthless about maintaining it. There really is no comprising here – your energy, your focus, your money must be directed here. 


If you’re bootstrapping, your choice is probably one of two Number One priorities:


  • Attract outside funding (or a buyer), OR
  • Generate operating capital.


(If you’re doing something else, give us a call so we can write a white paper on you.)


If you’re looking for funding, your Prime Directive is making your company attractive to investors (more on the how to do that in a future article). If you’re self-funded, revenue generation is your Prime Directive. 


Nothing else matters.


If no one ever sees, buys, or knows about your product because you diluted your energy and resources, anything else you've done was a waste.


IMPORTANT! Like any priority, you should revisit and reconsider your Number One priority on a regular basis, aligned to some logical place in your business cycle. If nothing specific jumps out, revisit this priority on a quarterly basis after you review quarterly results.


Map the Journey

It’s important that you intimately understand your Customer Journey – how your customers decide to buy from you. Unless you’ve perfected mind control, your buyers did not wake up today with the random urge to buy your product. Instead, they likely traveled down a common path of becoming aware of their own problem or need, becoming aware of your product or solution, signing up for your mailing list, seeing a demo, and so forth until they’re ultimately happy, long-term customers. 


As with anything, figuring out the likely first step in your Buyer Journey can be a puzzle. Here are some questions you might ask yourself or use in your customer research:


Who does my ideal customer trust for information on this problem? Are there particular information sources, people, or websites?


Where does my ideal customer access these trusted sources?


Does my ideal customer understand their problem relatively well? Or will they need to be educated about it?


Do they even know they have this problem or need?


Are there other well-known products or solutions already serving people with this (or similar) problem? If so, note the words and phrases they’re using to talk about their offerings. Some will be targeted keywords you’ll use later on.


You can adopt a number of approaches to mapping your Customer Journey but consider adopting the most common 5 phases that customers go through when interacting with a brand or a product: 


  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Decision
  • Retention
  • Loyalty


Popular CRM software provider, HubSpot, has published some great resources on mapping Customer Journeys, including, How to Create an Effective Customer Journey Map. If you skip this step, anything you spend money on later -- advertising, sponsorship, referral programs, even your website -- will likely result in you spending 2-3 times more than necessary.



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