Ethics June 17, 2020

Stop Calling Yourself "Bootstrapped"

Karl Hughes @karlhughes

I had a conversation with my wife this week. I told her that I attended a "Bootstrappers Breakfast" event online.

"Bootstrapped? I don't like the sound of that," she said.

We had a long conversation about our understanding of that word and some of the implications of using it.

While the phrase, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," was originally intended to denote an impossible task, it's been co-opted in modern American politics to imply that anyone can do a task if they're willing to work hard enough.

To my wife - not a techie or entrepreneur - saying that I was building a "bootstrapped" business ignored the many advantages I had in starting my company. For example:

  • I was raised in a house with a computer from a young age
  • I lived in a family of college graduates who expected the same of me
  • I received family help and scholarships to pay for college
  • By nature of my race (White), location (America), and education (engineering degree) I was able to get high-paying jobs for 8 years
  • These high-paying jobs allowed me to save money and learn a ton about business
  • The connections I got from my high-paying jobs served as in-roads to my first customers
  • Which led to me being able to start my own business

While the term, "bootstrapped" is a convenient way for those of us in self-funded startups to describe what we do to venture-funded startups, it sounds very different to people outside our little world. It comes off as elitist and ignorant of privilege, which I do not want.

If the phrase, "bootstrapped" isn't true (we all stand on some level of prior advantage), and it conveys an impossible expectation for most people, is it a phrase we should continue using to describe ourselves?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    1. 2

      100%. Never been a fan of Newspeak.

    2. 2

      i love this response hahaha

  1. 43

    The definition is "Startup funded without any external help by Venture Capital investments".

    To me, the definition is clear and it doesn't have anything to do with privilege...
    It's just a technical term to indicate the origin of your funding.

    (P.S. I live in Europe)

    1. 2

      Exactly! The definition says it.

  2. 26

    Lol, you Americans have so much trauma about being "privileged".

    The amount of self-guilt I see recently on American Twitter is overwhelming.

    1. 0

      Is it because you don't think privilege exists, or you don't think people should feel guilty about it, or it's talked about too much and is disproportionate to its effects?

      This reminds me of a Trevor Noah semi-doc I saw a few years back. They showed clips of white comedians saying something like "It's been 10 years since apartheid, and these black comedians still use jokes about it to get popular!"

      Maybe using it with the term "bootstrapped" is taking it too far. I don't know or care to debate that, but I think there are perfectly legitimate points mentioned in this post.

      1. 8

        I guess it's just silly that people are trying to solve a complex socioeconomical problem by shaming themselves publicly on Twitter for their "whiteness".

        It's almost like it is a contest in who can feel the most shame and self-hatred towards themselves.

        I don't see how it helps anyone.

        If you feel guilt and shame just post links to some awesome charities that help underprivileged children in schools instead. This will make you feel better AND contribute to the cause much more.

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          1. 4

            Also, I wrote this before, but I will again.

            Poland is a post-soviet country with a long and difficult history of censorship. Even our poems from that era are about fear of censorship, lol.

            Therefore I find it deeply concerning and offensive how Americans are recently the first to start banning certain words or phrases.

            Our grandfathers and fathers in Poland were fighting so that we can write and say whatever the fuck we want.

            And now you Americans are trying to impose some kind of speech restrictions on the world more and more often, using - quite ironically - your privilege of owning the biggest publishing platforms in the world.

            1. 0

              Yeah, banning speech can get ugly pretty quickly. I'm a fan of social repercussions for speech, and not guaranteeing a wide platform for whatever speech we want.

              Authoritarianism seems like the worst possible world.

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              1. 4

                I agree with you.

                I am just saying that I see this sentiment in the US for making the public speech more and more restrictive now.

                And in my opinion it is a slippery slope.

                What happens when Twitter execs suddenly become alt-right? Will you still be happy that they are doing "fact checking"?

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                  1. 2

                    I disagree with you, but I am interested to continue conversation.

                    Do you care enough to talk about it during a video call?

                    1. 1

                      meh, not really. You can email me though, gmx2267 at gmail.com

      2. 8

        I am not OP but, let me give it a shot since I am from a region outside the US (Latin-America). It is not that we dont recognize that historically white people has been treated way better by the system than black people, even today, and it is great that people acknowledge that and fight to improve the situation. Nobody argues against that. What rubs me the wrong way (and many people I have talked to about this agree) is the the disingenuous, bordering in humble-bragging "Woe is me" attitude by some white western people. The unstated subtext is " I know I am better,smarter and more qualified than you, silly minority member, but it is just because I am privileged, but the good thing is I am very virtuous too so I can recognize that". I am "dude you are just an average white guy, you are not Einstein nor Zuckeberg. You have to work and suffer like the rest of us, stop the delusion". Besides it is extremely insulting and simplistic to reduce privilege to race, since ,for example , economic class or country of origin have way more impact in your quality of life.

        1. 0

          Nice. Definitely agree that it sounds condescending at times.

          And understand that "privilege" is a complex topic in itself. I love Latin America, and I see the crazy disparities every time I'm in Nicaragua, with a weird insulation from really bad conditions but still seeing it. There's a huge quality of life gap in the US, but it's difficult to compare it to other countries.

          1. 2

            Good that you mention Nicaragua. Nominal GDP per-capita in Nicaragua is around 2000 USD . The median income of a black person (+25 yo) in America is 27k USD, for a white person is 33k USD (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_States). So you can see the magnitude of the differences.

            On the other hand there are countries in the region like Chile , Panama, Uruguay whose nominal GDP per capita is around 18k USD, but since many things are cheaper (including public healthcare and education) the parity purchase power increases that income at least 50% , so at the end the difference with respect to the first world is not that marked. Same thing of course happen in countries in center-eastern Europe or South East Asia.

            1. 0

              Yeah, I think Nica is one of the poorest countries in LatAm. And yet when I'm there, I'm meeting the tech geeks like me who are really well off comparatively.

              And that value of money is really weird as well. The price of a tech product like a laptop could be 50-100% more there, while food is cheaper.

              I like the idea of trying to create fair and just societies, both locally and globally. And at the end of the day, being open to work with people and treat them as people. But I still want to have empathy for all the complex issues surrounding the topic.

              For myself, I want to live semi-retired in Latin America :-D

              1. 2

                You can live in Costa Rica with 1000 USD/month . Small apartment in a beach town and food (maybe even health insurance). I suppose Nicaragua can be cheaper. Other nice options are Medellin, and Patagonia both Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia.

                1. 0

                  The eternal spring and natural beauty of Medellin sounds nice right now haha. That's as far south as I've been.

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  3. 10

    Dont take it personally OP, but I have noticed recently a surge of these kind of silly blog posts or comments, saying something that may be considered provocative but at the end is very dumb:

    "Dont call your company a technology company" (Because your customers are persons)
    "Dont focus on your MRR" (A better approach is to use a daily revenue and multiply it by 30)
    "Dont focus on the finances of your company" (Care about the why of your customer first)

    And so on and so forth. Zero actual content.

    1. 5

      I could not agree more (see my most upvoted reply in the MRR thread) but sadly this is nothing new.

      Since medium started taking off years ago these ridiculous "personal brand" building blog posts have plagued the internet.

      "Why I [insert some inane act here]"
      "Why you should [insert some inane act here]"
      "10 things you must do to improve.... whatever"

      You've got the formula right though

      1. make controversial statement
      2. present opinion as fact
      3. share
      1. 2

        Those inane posts started before Medium. I'm pretty sure those posts started with news articles - they became popular because they're social media hacks that get people to click on stuff. There will always be new click-bait headlines, and people slowly become numb to them.

    2. 1

      Hahahahahahahahah! Just wanna say I love this -

      "Dont call your company a technology company" (Because your customers are persons)

  4. 9

    You draw from one example perhaps because it supports your world view but OK 🙂

    It's hard to build a business even when you are an educated person living in a wealthy country. I don't see why we should put the word into the context of the whole world and then beat it.

  5. 8

    The problem is, you can make the same argument you make with pretty much anything.

    To my wife - not a techie or entrepreneur - saying that I was building a "bootstrapped" business ignored the many advantages I had in starting my company. For example:

    I was raised in a house with a computer from a young age
    ...

    Or

    To my wife - not a techie or entrepreneur - saying that I was building a "self-funded" business ignored the many advantages I had in starting my company. For example:

    I was raised in a house with a computer from a young age
    ...

    OR

    To my wife - not a techie or entrepreneur - saying that I was building a "business that I worked hard on" ignored the many advantages I had in starting my company. For example:

    I was raised in a house with a computer from a young age
    ...

    My core problem with this argument is that there is no terminology that can accurately capture implicit privilege.

    To take your argument and apply it to the whole dictionary, what words would survive? Can you really "create" something, or does that gloss over the fact that you had privilege to even be able to "create". What about "working hard"?

    ---

    More practically, if people around you are offended by the term, then by all means use something that doesn't offend them.

    1. 6

      I loved this reply until the last sentence.

      No. You shouldn’t use a different word if people are offended. There are obvious exceptions that EVERYONE knows and should understand, but for something like this - no. Because (the obvious and extreme cases excluded) being “offended” these days simply means having a different opinion.

      I’m so sick of people being “offended” left right and center over basically nothing when what they should be saying is “I disagree”.

      I mean “bootstrapped” is offensive? Seriously?

      Go away.

      1. 2

        Responses like yours is why you shouldn't actually take advice from strangers online too seriously. If someone is hurt by something that you do, and it costs you nothing to stop doing it, you should stop doing it.

        The idea that you should stay conservative and not change because you don't have to is just a complicated way of saying that you're a dick

        1. 2

          But on a serious note. You expecting someone to change their behaviour to suit a personal perspective of yours means you’re the dick. I mean where does that end?

          OBVIOUSLY if I was in a personal / local situation I’m not going to say stuff just to get a rise out of someone. By the way - you twisted my words. I said “offended” and you said that I said “hurt” which are different things.

          However in a topic like this, on an ecosystem like the internet where do you stop self censoring incase you offend someone... sorry I mean incase someone has a different opinion to you.

          1. 1
            1. I disagree with the premise that wanting someone to change their behaviour makes you a dick. I standby my premise that refusing to change your behaviour when that behaviour costs nothing AND that behaviour causes harm makes you a dick.

            That's where the line is drawn. That's where it ends. It ends when you can make someone else's life better at 0 sacrifice and yet you still choose not to do so.

            1. Think about your argument. Why is it so important that you not change your vernacular? Is it only because of ego? You want to win even though there's no prize. You could just not say the word that offends someone. Don't let your ego rule your decisions.

            2. I didn't twist your words we were talking about a particular context. We're talking about the situation that OP outlined. I.E. when something offends your wife

            3. When you offend someone you hurt them. It causes them pain. If you disagree then I suspect that it boils down to semantics and not substance. I'm willing to bet that you know what the words offend and hurt mean and you understand how they correlate.

            4. That's on you. You decide how much you want to censor or not censor yourself. You decide if you care about being a dick or not. You decide whether someone is trying to manipulate you, you decide whether it's worth being a dick in a particular situation.

            1. 3

              This is my last reply because things like this are pointless in such a context.

              We disagree. It's allowed.

        2. 2

          I’m offended by this comment.

      2. 1

        Well to be honest Primer I’m offended by your Avatar. It’s offensive to the cartoon community and those sideburns are horrendous.

      3. 1

        I agree with your point Mick, but I'm just talking about him & his wife. He can fight on that hill if he wants, but it sounds like it's not a big deal to him, and compromise is important in a relationship.

        Now, if this was a conversation about if EVERYONE should act like OP, then, well... you saw my original response.

  6. 7

    This is a slippery slope.

  7. 6

    Nope. Honestly.... this is insanity. Soon we won't be able to speak or think about anything without trigger disclaimers, apologies, and risk of persecution.

  8. 5

    Bootstrappers Breakfast means we have serious conversations among entrepreneurs who have started businesses. Not discussions of business plans once we have funding. We focus on

    1. What can we do
    2. That people need
    3. That they will pay for -- revenue

    There are many events for entrepreneurs where you can discuss how to get funding or how to write a business plan. And we are not against seeking funding if you have a business that both merits and requires it.

    But the primary reason entrepreneurs come to the Bootstrapper Breakfast to discuss the practical realities of running and growing a business. Many attendees are working full time and starting their business on the side, so we also discuss the challenges of managing the work/work balance in launching a business. It's a chance to join other entrepreneurs who eat problems for breakfast.

    See https://www.bootstrappersbreakfast.com/ for more background.

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      1. 1

        We started meeting in 2006, I have never heard anyone ascribe a negative connotation to bootstrapped, aside from the standard Silicon Valley bias to seek investment as a first step in starting a business. I have never heard it described as "doing something impossible" See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bootstrapping for examples of the term being used in a broad range of disciplines, indicating
        "In general, bootstrapping usually refers to a self-starting process that is supposed to proceed without external input."

  9. 4

    I don't care if you are Pink, Yellow or Green, from Mars or Venus. Doing a startup is ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS a person can do, and doing so without receiving funding well deserves the term Bootstrapped.

  10. 3

    Identity politics is plaguing America.. let's stay focused on tangible issues and our community in which we live

  11. 3

    +41 XP for virtue signalling
    White Knight Achievement Unlocked!

  12. 2

    Let's say I agree with you now.

    I am brown, from a fairly financially broken family from India. I am well educated and I am extremely lucky, I feel privileged.

    But let's stay without venture investment and see how really, kidney failing-ly difficult this startup thing is in say 1 year. We will talk then about the context of bootstrapping.

    Oh and I consider myself a veteran failure. I have lost years in depression which was partly triggered by my chase of startups. Without external help, like a TON of it, we are so close to "bootstrappers" that we are practically bootstrapping.

  13. 2

    Language is incredibly important, but come on. Who is genuinely offended by the word bootstrapped?

    Do we need to constantly prefix everything we ever say or do with an acknowledgment of privilege? Or is that time better spent supporting, elevating, and amplifying the voices of those less fortunate.

  14. 1

    I love indiehackers. I love the mindset of the bootstrapped founders. A lot here have bootstrapped their way. Some have put a LOT on the line to start their businesses. Some have lost a lot to start and fail. There is nothing wrong with saying bootstrapped. But that's also the beauty of language, if it makes you uncomfortable, just say what you are trying to say. If it's important for you to communicate that you haven't taken VC funding then say self funded. If it's important for you to say you built the entire product alone in your broom closet. Then call yourself a profitable broom-closet company. It doesn't really matter. I think when we start mincing words on words that are not inherently offensive, we are doing ourselves and the community a disservice.

    So what if you had a computer in your house growing up, lucky! Everyone can only start with what they have where they are and make the most of it. If you value that, and you were able to leverage that to some level of profit, you want to pay that forward to someone that doesn't? go buy someone a computer that doesn't have one and is itching to learn to code!

    I work at LambdaSchool and I work with hundreds of students everyday that come from backgrounds all over the map both privileged and not. I love seeing the aspirational minds forget their past, light their fire and chase their dreams.

    So stop feeling guilty, and just work your butt off, inspire others to do the same, and lift where you stand to raise those around you.

  15. 1
    1. Context always matters. Words have different meanings in different contexts, and that idea is generally well understood, so I don't think its necessary to worry about the odd misinterpretation. There are people who will conflate everything, I don't think those ideas are even worth contending with.

    In the context of business and startups, it means a venture that has little to no outside investment. I don't see how the definition of the word has anything to do with one's advantages or disadvantages, or even their background at any level.

    1. On a side note - and this might just me - but I have never seen the bootstrap phrase imply an impossible task in ANY context; in general, I believe it means to utilize existing resources, so I don't see your challenge about the the words current validity.

    2. Finally, you implied that the term shouldn't be used because we all have some sort of advantage; assuming all of your other arguments to be true, that would mean we would have to cut out a ton of words; ie. You can't be hungry, because you're not STARVING, and since you're not starving, that means you must be full...

    Common vocabulary isn't used like that, and considering the majority of concepts are not black and white, there will always be an array of words to describe an outcome. So saying that "since someone has an ounce of 'advantage', they can't say they're bootstrapped" seems to me to be making a mountain out of a mole hill. People emphasize and exaggerate words all the time, and their true meaning is intuitively understood most of the time.

  16. 1

    Hiten shah is this you?

  17. 1

    What term do you propose instead?

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      1. 2

        How arrogant and offensive of you. Some people don’t have funds to feed themselves and you’re bragging about having so much excess that you can self fund a side project / business. Outrageous!!!

        — playing devils advocate here but you get the point. I think ALL of this is utterly preposterous but “self funded” sounds much worse than “bootstrapped” to me.

      2. 1

        Doesn't sound much different to me to be honest. Could be because I don't live in the US so I'm not as influenced by the "political discourse" over there.

  18. 1

    Proud to be priviliged elitist.

  19. 1

    By nature of my race (White), location (America)

    Interesting choice of words given the current situation

  20. 1

    I 1000% enjoyed the stance you took in this post. I believe what you are saying is true. A lot of people don't understand we can be born into homes that give us a leg up in life and call ourselves self-made. Personally, I've vowed to stay away from that inaccurate label.

    However, I also agree with another user in the comments that stated there isn't a clean one word phrase that could take it's place. I don't believe the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" roles off the tongue and/or accurately captures the unassisted rise to success narrative that people try to paint for themselves including me.

  21. 1

    Well, I guess that it's like the world "startup" that doesn't mean something for everyone. Many companies are still calling them "startup", even years after the creation.

    However, in my point of view, bootstrap means : start to create, iterate, iterate, iterate.

    In all case, none of the "many advantage" you wrote means create a successful company.
    But it helps for sure... I'm a big fan of the tv show "sillicon valley" that is showing that in a funny way.

  22. 0

    I believe my wife would have said the same thing, if she is introduced the term "bootscrapped" the way you and I think of it as.

  23. 5

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