Capital Strategy: About Bootstrapping

Before you run out and begin your search for capital, you may want to consider an approach that many businesses — particularly start-ups and small businesses that may not yet qualify for loans or be able to attract venture capital — have used with more than a little bit of success. It’s called bootstrapping. It means finding money and resources by any means possible, including begging, borrowing, bartering, sharing, and leasing everything a company needs.

In short, bootstrapping is guerrilla financing.

So, who bootstraps? Many companies do. In fact, some estimates put the total at 75 to 85 percent of all start-up businesses. Three fundamental rules for effective bootstrapping are

• Hire as few employees as possible. For many companies, employees are the greatest expense. When you add up salary, benefits, overtime, and other employee-related expenses, it doesn’t take long for any budget to feel the pinch. Bootstrappers avoid this pinch by hiring (and paying) as few employees as possible.

• Lease, share, and barter everything you can. No, you don’t have to pay cash for everything that you need for your business to run. Many companies share facilities, equipment, and even employees with one another to spread out their respective costs. An increasing number of firms also have discovered the wonderful world of bartering, the trading of goods and services to other companies in exchange for the goods and services that are needed.

• Use other people’s money. Why use your own money when someone else will let you use his or hers? We’re not talking about getting a loan, we’re talking about convincing a vendor to allow you to pay 30 or 60 or even 90 days after you receive your goods from them. Or, on the other hand, obtaining payment from your customers before you deliver their goods or services. In each case, you have an opportunity to use someone else’s funds to your advantage — for a while, at least.

Some of the more common approaches to bootstrapping are

• Seeking funds from friends and family.
• Getting a home-equity loan.
• Offering equity to employees and vendors in lieu of salary or cash payments.
• Bartering for goods and services.
• Tapping your credit cards.
• Convincing vendors to accept extended payments.
• Starting your business part time while working a full-time job.
• Getting an extra job.
• Working from home or in your garage.
• Sharing offices with another company.
• Encouraging customer financing (deposits and early payments).
• Looking for angel investors.
• Pooling founders’ savings.

Although the need for bootstrapping tends to go away as a business grows and becomes more established — and therefore becomes more attractive to conventional lenders and investors — any company, no matter how big or how small, can benefit by applying bootstrapping techniques in its day-to-day financial activities. One of the greatest dangers as businesses become more established is the growth of overhead — the costs of facilities, administrative personnel, equipment, utilities, office supplies, furniture, and so forth — at a rate far faster than the growth of a company’s sales. This is a recipe for poor profits, sluggish growth, and loss of competitive edge. Bootstrapping can help keep your company lean and mean while keeping overhead in check and profits high.