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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Are you a bootstrapper?

At SJSU, I’ve been working with some faculty colleagues to try to better explain how and why firms bootstrap. (Of course, there is a big question about what “bootstrap” means).

Last night, our Silicon Valley Center for Entrepreneurship had a panel discussion entitled “Bootstrapping Startups: The Pros and Cons.” It was moderated by angel investor, blogger and SJSU entrepreneurial finance professor Steve Bennet. His panel consisted of:
Steve opened by saying “Bootstrapping is a topic near and near to my heart.” As he noted, current difficulties of raising investment capital have raised the interest in bootstrapping.

Jon had an interesting definition of bootstrapping:
Can I approve with my management team a merger? … Do the team and I own 50.1% of the company. … Do we have the ability to exit when and if we should?
Jon noted — as I have argued for a while — that the IPO exit was extraordinary, and the normal exit for most firms is (and will be) acquisition. Thus, he argued, it is important for entrepreneurs to design their companies to be acquire-able.

Gus Alberelli’s Kennet Partners, surprisingly, specializes in investing in companies that have already bootstrapped to significant financial results. As their home page proclaims:
You’ve funded your growth the hard way: by selling real value to real customers.

You don’t need venture capital to validate your idea: the market has already done that. You need a different kind of capital.

The companies we invest in often do not need money to survive. They have options.

But the right investment from the right partner can help them keep ahead of their markets, expand internationally, ramp up their sales forces and lead to greater value for shareholders.
This is a very thoughtful argument for the bootstrap strategy (and their ability to profit from them). They have detailed pages on why this helps entrepreneurs, and how they choose firms. They have an entire page about bootstrapping, and a white paper entitled “Bootstrap Your Business for Success.”

During Q&A, Gus said they looked for two key things: “Do you have a repeatable sales model and is there a big enough market?” Unlike other VCs, they claim to be agnostic as to whether they will keep the founding CEO (and grow his/her skills) or bring someone else in.

I didn’t take as careful set of notes for Ilya (my former student), because he had a one hour presentation to my day class that had many more details. At that session, he listed some of the key bootstrapping challenges:
  • Lots of work
  • Difficulties in attracting a good team
  • Small volumes mean less buying power and higher COGS
  • Slower growth
  • High level of stress on personal life
Starting with limited funds, the bootstrapper’s way out is to acquire customers quickly that pay the bills. Ilya number one piece of advice:
  • Look for customers that are most likely to buy quickly
  • Don’t target big segments that will take longer and are less likely to pay off
I am hoping that the panel will end up on the web or iTunes U. If so, I’ll add a link.

Finally, I want to end where Steve started: with a humorous quiz on bootstrapping, crafted by Greg Gianforte, founder of RightNow Technologies. (Angel Tim Keane has the full quiz online). The theme of the quiz is a self-assessment of the reader’s bootstrapping abilities (or proclivities).

My favorite question:
5. Your product does not do everything a prospect wants. You should?
a. Tell them it won't do those things;
b. Get them to pay for the enhancements;
c. Take the order and tell them it will ship in four weeks;
d. Explain why those things are difficult to do and convince them to buy the current product.
This was funny because it was so real: it exactly fits my experience as the head of a software company that bootstrapped from a $12,500 staring investment to a seven-figure run rate.

Update 1:45pm: Steve Bennet has summarized his own views of the event.