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The Funding Dilemma: Bootstrap or VC?

3298287657_a296897cba_bFinding the funding to launch and grow a startup keeps many an entrepreneur awake at night: do you bootstrap or do you attract external investors? The path you choose has a big impact on the kind of business you will build.

Many choose the self-financing approach, using savings and generating cash flow on the side by selling services or other products. Earn during the day, develop at night. It is a lot of work, and it takes monster project management skills to keep on track.

The other option is to go “fat” by seeking and closing venture capital rounds as early as possible. Cash in the bank gives you the runway to more fully explore your market potential and build out more of your product.

The advantage of the bootstrap approach is that your limited resources require you to run smart. You need to become very good at validating assumptions before acting. Bootstrapping forces you to listen closely to the market and build only what your customers are willing to pay for, now. You can freely iterate or pivot as you discover bigger and better opportunities. This is the essence of the Lean Startup approach.

Running Lean allows you to gain real traction in your market as evidenced by recurring cash flow. This is the essence of being in business. Bootstrapping also prepares you to avoid much of the “Death Valley” syndrome where funding is necessarily scarce. Jason Fried of 37Signals (Basecamp, “Rework“) is a big proponent of bootstrapping.

There are a couple of traps hidden in the bootstrap approach:

– Transitioning from a service business to a product business: If you generate most of your income from services and develop a product at night on the side, it is very difficult to pivot your business or your team to become mainly a product business. You may be locked into a long-term (and lucrative) consulting gig. The mindset and team culture needed to succeed in a product business is different than that of a service business.

– Undercapitalization: A bootstrapped business rarely has reserves to take full advantage of a sudden opportunity, or to survive economic hiccups. The longer you bootstrap, the harder it is to raise substantial capital when you need to scale, because VCs like to get in early, before the business has a significant validation.

– Trying to do it all alone: Bootstrapped entrepreneurs don’t have the same access to outside mentoring. You absolutely need to invest time, effort and money to get a mentor-coach and establish an advisory committee. This ensures you are seeing all options around you as you otherwise bury your head in the day-to-day of keeping your business afloat.

Professional money has a lot of advantages, too. The biggest is that the money comes with a support system of experienced mentors to help you focus on the big picture. They have been there, done that, and can steer you around the potholes before you see them.

The downside is that getting outside capital is expensive. Expect to spend 10% to 20% of the capital you want to raise. Expenses include the roadshow and the professional legal, accounting and marketing help you’ll need to be successful.

Professional capital makes your startup less agile, so the more market validation work you accomplish before the investment, the better.

There are other options appearing also. Consider crowdfunding (product or equity, if available) to get cash and gain valuable market insight before moving to the production stage. Angel capital can help at the validation stage, but is less able to help you as you grow because the angels get priced out of subsequent funding rounds.

One approach is not better or worse than the other – it always depends on your particular situation, the maturity of your idea and your offer, your market and your goals. Whatever path you choose, it is a good idea to always be visible to investors, in order to build relationships, validate your idea and demonstrate your ability to perform. In this way, you can quickly shift strategies to access the appropriate financial resources at the right time.

But remember, whatever your financing strategy, the ultimate goal remains the same: get customers who recognize the value you offer them, and who are willing to pay you more than it costs you to make your product. A healthy profit margin is always the best source of cash.


For more information

“Rework” by Jason Fried: https://37signals.com/rework/

“The Bootstrappers Manifesto” by Seth Godin:  http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/docs/bootstrap.pdf

“Bootstrap Finance” by Amar Bhide  https://hbr.org/1992/11/bootstrap-finance-the-art-of-start-ups/ar/1
– A 1992 article in Harvard Business Review which is still highly relevant, and explores this topic even deeper

Image credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr.
Direct link: https://flic.kr/p/62sA1z
Used under Creative Commons

Article adapted from an original text on my French-language blog:


Think-of-the-childrenBrad Feld’s book “Startup Communities: Building An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem In Your City” (Wiley, 2012) is recognized by many as the manual on how to launch a startup community.

Feld’s model is based on the Boulder Thesis, four principles distilled from his own experience with building an ecosystem in Boulder, Colorado:

1. Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
2. The leaders must have a long-term commitment.
3. The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
4. The startup community must have continual activities that engage the full entrepreneurial stack.

His model goes on to group the various actors in the ecosystem into “Leaders” (entrepreneurs) and “Feeders” (everyone else who feeds the ecosystem and supports the entrepreneurs).

I’ve been very active since 2010 in encouraging the development of a startup community in Québec City. After five years, it is starting to show some signs of life, as entrepreneurs themselves are getting involved in creating and leading various activities. I am proud of how our community is evolving.

However, as our startup community gains momentum, and the Leaders are starting to see the benefits of a stronger ecosystem, I am left with a nagging question:

What about the Feeders?

The working hypothesis behind the desire to contribute in building a Startup Community is that as the ecosystem matures and more entrepreneurs start to generate investments and revenues, there will be more money circulating, benefitting the Leader entrepreneurs and the Feeders who support these entrepreneurs.

Larger players such as law firms and accountants have the resources to invest in providing low-cost support to startups, in the hopes that these proto-businesses will grow to become profitable clients.

Investors want to tap into early deal flow, so they are also motivated to invest time, money and effort to build the ecosystem.

Government gets involved with money and resources, to encourage local economic development and job creation.

However there is a whole network of individual service providers, professionals who have a lot to bring to the community, who willingly invest a lot of sweat equity because they believe in their community. The problem is that there is no near-term or long-term business model to sustain our efforts. Entrepreneurs at the pre-funding startup stage don’t have the means to pay for our help at the level we deserve to be paid, so we have to cut our fees or find other sources of revenue to stay in the game.

Setting aside a potential long-term benefit, what is the short-to-medium term win for us independent professionals to get involved as Feeders? I’ve asked this question directly to Brad Feld a couple of times, and his answers have left me unsatisfied. My impression is that he wants us to “build it and the money will come”. The problem is that as the ecosystem matures, the money goes around us.

In my experience, a startup community eventually aligns along a “Founders and Funders” axis. Independent service providers are seen as “parasites” by entrepreneurs, who eventually disinvite us from activities. Government agencies use our tax dollars to compete directly against us. Investors want access to our deal flow, but are not able to pay us for it because of securities regulations. Or even if they could they wouldn’t want to pay us for it anyways. Startup entrepreneurs, hungry for launch capital, gravitate to whomever can give them cash.

The larger Feeders condition the startup entrepreneurs to get a lot for free or at highly discounted rates. As the local startup community gathers steam, competition to gain the best entrepreneurs as clients becomes more and more fierce, squeezing independents out of the game.

As an independent professional, I don’t have the resources to work for free. Nor is it a prudent business decision for me to accept equity, even if the startup had any to offer, because equity does not pay my bills. There is also the conflict of interest when professionals accept equity, between helping the entrepreneur or maximizing the short-term value of the equity stake (two elements which are not always compatible).

So I am left scrambling to be funded by various government programs. With it, I can keep my head above water, but I cannot get ahead.

I suppose I could start a fund and get involved managing other people’s money. But that is not a role which I choose to play, because it is not my strength nor my passion. I’m not interested in joining a VC fund.

On the other hand, I know that I bring a lot of value to our startup community, to the entrepreneurs in it, and especially to the Funders who benefit from the higher quality of deal flow that results from my efforts. I am proud when I see startups I have coached go on to get funding, find traction and take off. My passion is to help entrepreneurs succeed. Which is why I feel strongly about the success of our Startup Community.

Brad Feld’s Startup Communities model is incomplete. There needs to be a better business model to enable passion-driven, independent Feeders, like me, to bring our expertise and our experience to the table.

We want our startups to succeed. But if only well-funded Feeders can afford to dedicate the time, effort and money to supporting an emerging startup community, the risk is that the ecosystem becomes a “Chamber of commerce” for startups.

At this time, I don’t know what a sustainable business model for us independent Feeders looks like, but I know it has to go beyond relying on the diminishing largesse of government. Maybe it starts with the Funders, who are the ecosystem players with the most to gain financially?


Thoughts on a sudden passing


A colleague suddenly passed away yesterday, from a heart attack during his morning treadmill workout. He was 61, only a few years older than me.

I didn’t know him well, having only met once, at a barbeque at his house. But I was preparing to start a closer collaboration with him.

He was active, engaged, influential.

It was like the switch went from “on” to “off”. C’est fini.

Which made me wonder…

First, this is how I want to go. Fast, not a long, lingering illness. Although I want a few more years than he had.

Second, if I were to go suddenly, what would I do with all this experience, all these ideas, all these lessons and messages that I have been holding back? Would they disappear with me?

If my life were to suddenly end, what would I leave unfinished?


For more information

Image credit: Priyambada Nath via Flickr
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Used under Creative Commons licence

#YourTurnChallenge #day2


Validation Is Not Justification

4458183538_139c22ea40_oThree years after the launch of Eric Ries’ book “The Lean Startup”, I see more and more startup entrepreneurs making the effort to “validate” their idea before shifting into coding mode.

Which would be good, except those same entrepreneurs make a fundamental error: instead of validation, they go looking for justification.

If you go around asking people in your target market if they want your idea, a certain number will answer yes. Most startups will ask twenty or fifty or a hundred potential customers, count the yesses, and extrapolate to a market share. They then happily go to the fun part and invest a couple of person-years and a bunch of precious dollars building a solution, only to find that nobody wants to buy it and they have to close shop.

But wait – do all these “yes” answers mean your market is ready to buy, or are they a “yes” that they are interested in knowing more, or merely a polite “yes” just to get you off their back?

When you have an idea, and you’re anxious to get to the fun part of building it, it is only natural to ignore all the data that shows that you’re off-track and focus only on what justifies your desire to move forward. The problem with following this urge is that you will build what you want to build, not what the market is ready to purchase.

Idea validation is an essential part of exploring the problem-solution fit, or “for what critical problem or urgent desire is your solution the answer?” To do this properly, you need to explore your target market’s problems, needs, wants and desires to find out what keeps your potential customer up at night, and if the solution you have in mind really solves that problem or satisfies that desire.

Because your first idea comes from a place where your solution answers a problem which is important to you, then of course you feel you can assume that everyone else who experiences the same problem as you do (or did) would want your solution just as much as you do.

This is a trap.

You need to fall in love with their problem, not your solution. Your initial solution idea becomes a path to explore the problem space, until you find the problem behind the problem that energizes and inspires you to want to solve it. Then you iterate back from the deeper problem to a new solution, which will most likely be different – and better – than your original idea. And, in doing so, you will also figure out for whom the problem you’ve identified is something important to solve, and, most importantly, what will trigger them to seek out your solution.

It’s like the old saying: “Under all this poop, there must be a pony in there somewhere!” Your first startup idea will be crap. The secret is to persevere until you’ve reached your figured out what really excites you and the people around you. This could take five, ten or even a dozen iterations of bouncing back and forth from solution to problem to solution to problem… until you find that magic combination of people who recognize the value of what you are offering and who are ready to commit.


For more information

Image credit: Visionello via Flickr
Direct link: https://flic.kr/p/7MXmDq
Used under Creative Commons licence


I was clicking absentmindedly when I came across this hilarious compilation of informercials, which reminded me of too many startup elevator pitches…

Yeah, you might have found a real problem, but is it worth solving?

Too many of the products pitched on those direct-response marketing ads are one-hit wonders. You can’t build a scaleable business on trivial needs.