It has become über-fashionable to talk about ‘bootstrapped business’: but… what is this, exactly?
The inspiration for the term “bootstrapping” seems to have been a 19th century tall tale in which somebody supposedly defied the laws of physics “to pull themselves up by the bootstraps” (the leather loops on the back of your boots) right up into the air and over to the other side of a fence. So, when used in its original manner the phrase properly brings with it a sense of ‘getting going in an impossible sort of way’.
And then in the 20th century, computer people appropriated the same term – with a fond sense of irony, I happen to think – to describe the quasi-magical processes by which computers spring to life when switched on. Even today, we still “boot” computers using “boot loaders” such as (the justly famous) Das U-Boot, which some might surely put forward as a powerful argument why clever German programmers should not be allowed to construct puns.
However… the problem is that the way people now talk about “bootstrapping startups” seems to have lost any of this gentle irony. Rather, this more modern concept of “bootstrapping” paints a starkly linear picture of computer pioneers carefully engineering a tricky technical solution to solve a long series of deterministic logical puzzles to get to an end line. So, if you view starting your own business as basically the same kind of activity as Steve Wozniak doggedly squeezing his Apple II disk drive loader into 256 bytes of PROM, then you’re probably happy with the whole concept.
Of course, I don’t happen to see it like that at all. How can you view winning the battle for people’s minds as a series of technical challenges? How can you build things without money? How can you build a Minimum Viable Product without its ending up the Least Attractive Thing In The Market? Honestly, buying into the whole bootstrapped credo falls not far short of wondering how many impossible things you can believe before breakfast.
Even at the best of times, starting up your own company is a hard, hard thing to do; and bootstrapping arguably makes it even harder and significantly slower. For what even the best bootstrapping proponents typically forget to mention is that while it’s true that your unfunded quest to build your own company on a ramen noodle burn rate will consume only a little bit of money, it will also take an awful lot of time.
Yet if you peer outside the blinkers of the fiercely competitive world of TechCrunchicon Valley me-too social media startups, you’ll see countless small companies slowly eking their way into existence, one hard-won customer or product at a time. This isn’t because bootstrapping is fashionable, but simply because it’s the only practical funding path most entrepreneurs have – funding is a million moths and a few dim lights, all else is darkness.
Now, perhaps, you’ll understand why full-on entrepreneurs have to be at least five years ahead of everyone else: because if they’re not, then by the time – say, two or three years – they’ve managed to get whatever they’re doing to market they’ll be too darn late. In a nutshell: vision buffers bootstrapping.