“I’ve got a great idea for a business. But I don’t have any money to start it up.” This phrase is something I’ve heard again and again . . . and again—from students, friends, and sometimes even colleagues. While it’s true that a generous credit line, a team of investors, or an uncle with deep pockets can make starting a company easier, not having money is no excuse. If you are confident that you have a product or service people want, don’t allow the lack of capital to deter you from your business goals. By pivoting, grinding it out, getting creative, and differentiating yourself, you can bootstrap your way to a successful business.
1. Pivot. Use services to generate cash flow and fund a product-based business.
Starting a service-oriented business is easy: First, you provide services, and then you collect funds. But a product-based business often requires significant up-front capital to get it up and running. If you’re in this situation, consider selling services to generate cash flow and to build up funds for a product-based business.
My current company, Outbox Systems, began this way. We wanted to connect two software applications, but we didn’t have the capital to build the integration. Knowing we needed to generate money to fund our product development, I approached the partner channel at AtTask and asked if I could build a software integration for them. Fortuitously, an enterprise AtTask customer needed to integrate AtTask and Salesforce and was willing to pay us $125 per hour to build the integration. Then we turned around and resold the product to others. A typical tech entrepreneur thinks, “Raise money, build software.” But we turned the model on its head and essentially got the company to help us develop intellectual property for our business.
2. Grind it out. There’s no substitute for sweat equity.
Sometimes you have to get into the trenches and make it happen. During the first two years of business at my prior company, PC Care Support, I knocked on doors, worked my own booth, and closed my own deals. I set up a table at the local college’s business school, hired five college students to work solely on commission, and knocked on people’s doors 7-8 hours per day looking for business. For those two years I didn’t receive a paycheck. But I believed in my service, and I believed we could be successful. I was, as billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk said, “hell bent on making it work.” The hard work eventually paid off.