A lot of people are damn religious about bootrapping businesses. Especially nowadays when it’s so easy to start a software business– you just need a few hackers, Ruby on Rails, a cheap virtual server and you’re ready to roll, right?
But just because it’s cheaper to start a software company, doesn’t mean that it’s that much cheaper to make it from when you launch a product to the point where you’re sitting back, drinking a margarita, and marveling at the recurring revenue machine you’ve created.
The way I look at it, there are three bars that matter to me.
1) Making enough money that the business brings in enough money to pay the overhead. Rent, servers, lawyers, whatever. Hopefully you keep this really lean.
2) Making enough money that the founders get an insultingly low (but still existent) salary.
3) Making enough money that the founders can take home roughly what they’d make if they went and got a real job.
Bootstrappers are woefully bad at guessing how long it’ll take to get over these bars.
Let’s look at everyone’s favorite example of bootstrapping: 37signals (whose products and philosophies I love, by the way). According to a recent post, it took them about 6 months to build Basecamp, with DHH spending 10 hours a week (they don’t mention how much time other folks invested, but let’s assume it’s 2 other people at 10 hours a week). It turns out that with a really popular blog, a very successful consulting firm, and all of the attention that they got with Ruby on Rails, it took them about a year to get to the point where they could give up consulting and work on it full-time. I assume that they were somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd bar (mentioned above) before they made the leap, though they might’ve taken a pay cut as a leap of faith in the growth that Basecamp was experiencing. DHH sez:
“It didn’t turn into a smash hit overnight either. We ran Basecamp for a year alongside our other obligations before it was doing well enough to pay all the bills and afford our full-time attention. Most good businesses didn’t become great ones within the 12-18 months that the poster boys of the startup lottery did.”
I’ll give you an example closer to home. RescueTime (my baby) was on TechCrunch 3 times, LifeHacker twice, and add in a few thousand other blogs (of varying flavors and colors). We are a Y Combinator company, which gives us plenty of geek cred. We’ve been [edit for clarity] mentioned in an article on the cover of the New York Times, and have gotten mentions in PC World, US News and World Report, BusinessWeek, and more. More important than that, we’ve got happy users who seem to like telling their friends (the old fashioned kind of viral marketing!). I think most SaaS startups would feel very lucky to get this kind of attention– we certainly do. But for all of this attention, I really don’t expect to clear that second bar for many many months (we’re only a month or two into having an offering that people can pay money for, so give us time!).
Let me be clear about the type of startups I’m talking about– I’m talking about low-cost (or free) product companies with price points low enough that having a human being actually SELL the damn software would be inane. Whether it’s a payout of $.83 for an ad click or $24 bucks a month for BaseCamp– having a human being wandering around selling this stuff doesn’t scale, and chances are your founding team doesn’t consist of anyone who is a motivated (and skilled) software/ad salesperson anyways.
On the other hand, if your price point is high (generally requiring a more complex or premium offering) or if you have a services component (web development consulting, managed hosting, etc)– you’re golden… Or at least you have great potential to ramp up revenue fast (as you can justify a sales effort and fairly easily convert time into money). Of course, there are the obvious downsides– for enterprise software you have to build… enterprise software (capital intensive and damn ugly). And then you should expect to spend 60-70% of your cash on sales and marketing. If you go the services-heavy route, you’re simply selling time for money… You can make a nice business out of this (I ran a consultancy for 7 years which I eventually sold out of) but there’s virtually no equity to be built– no one wants to buy a consulting business.
In my opinion, if you aren’t prepared for 18-24 months before you actually get your first paycheck (either through savings, doing it part-time / half-assed, or seed funding) you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.