Why Bootstrap? Because You Can't Succeed Unless You Persevere
Startup culture is all about the hustle. From blogs to Instagram posts to coffee mugs, today’s entrepreneurs are told to pursue success at all costs:
Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.
Let them sleep while you grind.
Goals don’t care how you feel.
No one ever drowned in sweat.
Mainstream media also perpetuates the 24/7 hustle message with glossy, rags-to-riches stories of founders who followed their passion, slept at the office and built the next Amazon or Facebook.
These are seductive narratives, but they can also be dangerous. Many founders go all-in before they’re ready. Armed with little more than passion, they try to “hustle” their way through an ill-conceived idea. Inevitably, it doesn’t work -- and the subsequent pressure is enormous. That’s when smart, ambitious people burn out. They get sick or go bankrupt (or both). Some lose track of their dreams entirely.
For everyone working 18-hour days and living on protein shakes, I want to share an alternative path. There’s another way to build a business. Twelve years ago, I launched JotForm in a highly competitive industry: online forms. Even Google Forms soon got in on the action. It’s still one of our biggest competitors.
But we stayed in our lane and served our customers. Today, we have 3.5 million global users and more than 100 employees -- and we’ve done it without taking a dollar in outside funding.
There’s been lots of hard work, but this is not a story of passion and suffering. I’ve grown the company slowly. We work at a sane, healthy pace. Most importantly, I’ve maintained my freedom and a rich personal life. Bootstrapping is an excellent way to build a business, but the hustle is a lifestyle, not just a retro dance move.
Here are six points to consider:
1. You might be happier if you keep your day job for a while.
Like many developers, I built my first software product during college. When people began paying me for customizations, I was so excited. That first $150 check felt like a fortune. I also created a paid version that began to get downloads. Armed with a fresh degree, I could have turned my product into a full-time business, but I wasn’t ready. I needed real-world experience.
I took a job as a programmer for a media firm, but I still worked on my product in the early morning hours. I did this for five years until my side income outgrew my full-time salary. That’s when I took the leap and started my company.
The term “day job” has developed negative connotations, but for aspiring entrepreneurs, a steady gig can be invaluable. As long as you’re working for a healthy, productive company, you can learn important lessons about business, communication and teamwork. You also get paid to sharpen your skills. And you’ll make connections that can help down the line.
A great job can fuel your startup dream, instead of drowning it – and you might discover your big idea on someone else’s dime. It happened to me.
2. Chase problems, not passion.
So many founders think their success requires just three clear steps:
- Tune out concerned friends and critics
- Quit your job now
- Work 80 hours a week and chase your dream, above all else
If you leap before you’ve solved a real problem, the pressure (and the bills) will quickly mount. Meeting a need, however, gives you a head start. People pay for solutions. They happily swipe, tap or fork over cash for something that makes their lives better and easier.
For example, JotForm addressed a friction point that I witnessed every day. Editors constantly needed custom web forms for surveys, polls, reader questionnaires and contests. Making them is tedious, but it was my job. I started to consider how to automate the process. I sketched out a drag-and-drop tool that enabled people to quickly build forms, even if they didn’t know how to code.
I refined the idea for six months after I left that job. In February 2006, I released the first version of JotForm. My day-to-day experience had shown me that people wanted the product. It eased a very real pain. This is why founder and author Paul Graham says the best startup concepts tackle:
- Something that you want or need
- Products or services that you can build (mostly) on your own
- Ideas that few other people have had
It’s worth waiting until you’ve ticked all those boxes. Find that sweet spot and then apply your passion and hard work.
3. Organic growth is a good thing.
Scaling a business isn’t easy. That’s why organic growth is so underrated.
When you dive in with little more than passion, you have to swim fast. You’ll drain your savings or your funding -- whichever comes first. Time is rarely on your side. If you start slowly and minimize the pressure, there’s space to learn. You can recover from mistakes. No one is pushing for hockey stick growth charts or demanding you be a unicorn.
Bootstrapped companies rely on real customers, which can take time. The good news? It’s much less risky. That’s because money never lies. If people are willing to pay for your product or service, you’re on the right track. You can adapt to their needs and grow at a sane, steady pace.
I built JotForm one step at a time. My marketing consisted of posting the product on tech forums and emailing people who ran tech blogs. I wasn’t pushy; I just wanted to share what I’d created with people who needed it.
4. Only one metric matters.
You need to earn more cash than you spend. It’s simple, but it’s not effortless.
Our culture admires startups that quickly go viral or earn massive funding rounds. And in today’s market, it’s not uncommon for companies, especially tech startups, to hear the question “So, how do you make money?”
I believe profits should begin on day one, not at some mythical point in the future. Those profits can be modest, but a bootstrapped business needs to work. Period.
There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. Starting a retail store or stocking online inventory can take major capital. It’s pretty tough to open a restaurant on your own dime, unless you have a trust fund. Businesses vary, but the basics of profitability never change.
Just over a year after launching JotForm, we released the paid version. Word spread slowly, but the numbers did begin to grow. By the end of 2007, we had 500 paying customers and more than 50,000 total users.
I could have popped the Champagne and sent out a press release (and I was happy about what we had achieved), but I wasn’t tracking vanity metrics. I knew we needed to grow our subscriber base. So that’s what we’ve done for over a decade.
Work smart, grow slowly and build your foundation. That’s what it means to follow your dream.
5. Partnership is optional.
Type “find a co-founder” into Google and you’ll get approximately 206 million hits. Investors like to work with co-founders because they can bring different skills to the table. We often hear that magic happens when technical founders pair up with marketing and sales experts, for example.
That may be true, but it’s not the only way. Desperately searching for your ideal business match, just to satisfy potential VCs, can inspire a less-than-perfect partnership. That focus on funding (instead of product) isn’t necessarily a solid way to start.
Fighting, misunderstandings and divergent visions have also broken up many companies, of all shapes and sizes.
Years ago, I was in serious talks with a possible co-founder. It didn’t work out, and we were both fine with the result. We’re still friends. Looking back, I’ve been happy to build JotForm on my own. I have so much freedom, and I didn’t have to give away 50 percent of the business. Instead, I hire smart, exceptional people who continue to improve our product, each and every day. There are no power dynamics at play. I can make big decisions without consulting investors.
6. Product comes first.
Here’s another hard truth about VCs: They often want to back founders with Ivy League degrees and dazzling resumes. I don’t have either. Back in 2006, my chances of securing a seed round were slim. I doubt investors would have been hyped up about web forms, either. It wasn’t exactly a sexy idea on paper, and I didn’t know anything about raising money.
So I put my head down and worked on building a good product. Then a better product. It took time, but that singular focus has made all the difference. Invest your time and energy into making your business great. Create a smart product or service and keep refining. Listen to your customers. Spread the word in ways that make sense and don’t drain your bank account.
The business itself is your best investment.
Let passion be your fuel, not your foundation.
Entrepreneurship is not an easy road. There will be tough, challenging days that test your commitment. But it’s possible. Bootstrapping is truly a viable way to bring your idea to life.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, I’m guessing that you also crave freedom. That’s why those “hustle hard” messages are so powerful. The potential for freedom and control can be intoxicating.
So think carefully before you let someone else chart your path. Funding rarely comes without a whole lot of strings attached. Are you willing to surrender your freedom to people who want lightning-fast profits? Do you want to risk everything, including your relationships and your well-being? Sacrificing yourself for a dream might inspire a great Hollywood film, but not necessarily a rich and rewarding life.
Your life matters most. Start slow and grow into your dream.