Money. Every business needs it. Where your capital comes from determines who controls your business. Bootstrapping is the process of self-financing a business whether you’re in the seed capital phase (when you’re getting your business off the ground) or the customer-funded stage (when you’re using profits to finance the continued growth of your business).
Bootstrapping is an incredibly popular method for funding a new business. According to Fundable, the majority of startups are bootstrapped. What makes funding such an entrepreneurial favorite? It lets you maintain control over your business. You don’t have to worry about finding access to or competing for outside investors. And it can keep your business agile and self-sufficient. Bootstrapping also requires discipline, creativity, and ingenuity.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about bootstrapping, starting with what it is. We’ll also cover the pros, the cons, tips for how to bootstrap your business, and resources that will help you develop your business without adding to your overhead costs.
What Is Bootstrapping?
Bootstrapping is the practice of self-financing a business with its own capital. Bootstrapping can refer to an entrepreneur investing their own funds to finance a startup, or it can refer to a more established business using their own capital to fund growth (like opening a new store, hiring new employees, expanding product offerings, etc).
Starting a business from scratch can provide autonomy but invites challenges a VC-funded startup typically avoids. So, here are some advantages and disadvantages of bootstrapping your business.
Advantages of Bootstrapping Your Business
- You maintain your equity.
- You control the major decisions for your business. You won’t have to get approval from outside investors.
- If you decide to seek external investment from venture capital (VC) later on, it may be easier to get a clean capitalization structure if you don’t have previous investors.
- You don’t have to worry about repaying a loan with potentially high-interest rates. Most private loan options for startups come with a pretty high cost of capital because of the risk to the lender.
- Less outside stress. When you bootstrap your business, you don’t have to deal with the pressures of external funding that can add a lot of stress to a time that is already stressful for any entrepreneur.
Disadvantages of Bootstrapping Your Business
- Your business may grow at a slower rate (at least at first).
- It requires you, the entrepreneur, to take more financial risk.
- It can be difficult to find the capital you need and manage it well enough to ensure your cash flow stays steady.
What Are the Other Options for Funding a Startup?
- Friends and Family Funding: Many entrepreneurs choose to fund their businesses by asking friends and family. In some cases, friends and family invest in exchange for equity. In others, the funds are provided as a loan. For some, the money is “gifted,” allowing entrepreneurs to bootstrap with a little background help (lucky).
- Angel Investors: Angel investors are early-stage investors. They are often independently wealthy private individuals, though angel investing networks do exist, in exchange for equity.
- Venture Capital: Venture capital and private equity typically invest in more established businesses with high-growth potential. A venture capitalist isn’t looking to start a fire, they’re looking to pour gasoline on something that’s already working.
- Crowdfunding: Crowdfunding is another bootstrapping-adjacent funding model. Crowdfunding is the process of raising capital through small amounts of money from large numbers of people. Crowdfunding “investors” don’t get equity. Instead, they usually receive the product or other perks in exchange for their “investment.”
- Business Loans: A business loan allows you to borrow capital from a lender that must be repaid, plus interest. Business loans allow you to retain full control of the company (you don’t have to give up any equity), but they can come with a high cost of capital. Whether or not this is the right choice for you depends on your business and the loan in question.
If you want to know more about alternative ways to finance a startup, check out our complete guide to startup funding.
How to Bootstrap a Startup
Now that you understand what bootstrapping is, here’s how you can apply it to your business.
- Buy used equipment.
- Rent when possible.
- Start your business as a side hustle, so you don’t have the pressure of immediately making enough money to offset your salary.
- Start your business from home to reduce office costs.
- Hire freelancers or work with consultants rather than hiring full-time employees.
- Carefully consider your labor costs. In some areas, you may want to hire junior talent, professionals who have less experience and come cheaper. That said, sometimes you need expertise, especially when your business is in the early stages and you don’t necessarily have a clear plan for junior employees to follow. Consider what you need and who can deliver the best result at the cheapest cost. Sometimes it’s better to hire a seasoned professional who will bill for 2 hours than an entry-level employee who will spend 2 weeks on the same project.
Increase People Power without Increasing People Costs
- Partner with a cofounder who can share the labor and financial burdens of bootstrapping with you.
- Find trusted advisors and mentors who can sit on your board of advisors. They can provide you with valuable insight and having a board gives your startup credibility.
- Collaborate and barter whenever possible. Find trusted friends and colleagues who have skills they can “donate” to the cause. Or, you might find a way to trade sweat equity for their work– be it designing your website or setting up your company bookkeeping.
- Pursue a profitable business model. You’re looking for a business that generates revenue quickly. An ecommerce business is a good example of a business that will generate revenue from sales. Then you can use the profits to continue to fund business growth. On the other end of the spectrum, you want to avoid situations like pursuing a large, 6-month purchase order with a big box store. In that case, you’ll likely have high upfront costs, and it will take a long time to get paid.
- Use business credit cards. This might sound scary because we’ve all been taught to fear personal credit card debt, but business credit cards can be a helpful tool for bootstrapping a business, so long as you keep on top of your payments and your cost of capital. It’s accessible to businesses that don’t have established credit (and it will help your business build a credit history). If you have a large purchase to make, like a piece of equipment, you can open a business credit card with a 0% introductory APR (annual percentage rate). Then schedule the payments over the introductory period so that it’s paid off in full before it starts accruing interest.
- Apply for grants. Grants are essentially free money. Find one that fits well with your business and apply.
How to Bootstrap Your Company’s Growth
If your company is already established and generating revenue, you’re in the customer-funded growth stage. There are a few key things that you can do to help bootstrap your business:
- Look at your profit margin. How much do you have from actual sales?
- Establish how much capital you need. Do you have enough to cover operating expenses? If not, how far short are you?
- Look at your consulting costs. Is there anything you’re outsourcing that you/your team could do instead?
- Consider working with contractors instead of hiring more full-time employees. That way you keep your costs low, and it gives you flexibility if you need to cut personnel costs month-to-month.
If there’s a simple, 6-word explanation for how to bootstrap a business, it’s “increase revenue and keep costs low.” All the resources included in this section will help you do one of those things. Sales will be your primary driver for revenue, and you’ll want to keep an eye on your business finances/bookkeeping to ensure that your cash flow stays where you want it. Hiring and marketing can be 2 primary areas where costs can skyrocket– and where many entrepreneurs feel like they could use a little help and guidance– so we’ve included tools to help you there, too.
- 12 Upselling Tips and Best Practices to Boost Your Sales: Learn how to upsell effectively.
- How to Write a Sales Email That Converts: Learn to write sales emails that don’t flop.
- Creating a Sales Funnel for Shopify: Make your sales funnel work seamlessly with Shopify.
- How to Hire an Ecommerce Team (5 Key Roles and What to Pay Them): Learn who to hire and how much to pay them.
- Employee Retention Strategies to Combat the Great Recession: Attrition costs money. Protect your cash flow by keeping your employees happy.
- How to Manage a Freelance Team: You may find yourself working with contractors instead of full-time employees to keep overhead costs down. Here’s what you need to know to create a strong working relationship with your freelancers.
- How to Structure Your Personal and Business Accounts: Alexa von Tobel, a certified financial planner who bootstrapped her own business to success, gives you an overview of how to manage your business and personal accounts.
- The 15 Best Businesses to Start: Review the businesses with the most bootstrapping-friendly profitability.
- Startup Funding: How Does It Work and What Are Your Options?: An in-depth look at all your startup funding options, weighing the pros and cons of each method.
- Tips for Cracking the Cost of Goods Sold Formula: Know how much your products really cost, so you know how you need to price them.
- 16 Financial Concepts Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know: The financial cheat sheet every entrepreneur needs to bookmark.
- Top 10 Ecommerce Marketing Tips: Greta van Riel, who has started 4 multi-million dollar ecommerce brands, breaks down content strategy, how to build an email list, upselling tactics, the benefits of consistent marketing, and collaboration opportunities.
- How to Build a Profitable Marketing Strategy: Build a marketing plan that helps the bottom line.
- How to Create a Marketing Plan in 2022: Use this marketing plan outline that works with realistic deadlines and down-to-earth budgets.
- Small Business Marketing: The Ultimate Guide for Entrepreneurs: Everything you need to know to market your business like a pro, regardless of your budget.
- The Ultimate Content Marketing Strategy for Startups: Learn how to use the most effective marketing channels for your business.
- 11+ Ecommerce Marketing Strategies to Boost Your Online Sales: Higher profitability will increase your ability to bootstrap.