Getting a new business off the ground is hard. Paraphrasing @ joshkaufman from The Personal MBA, you have to (1) create something of value that (2) other people want or need (3) at a price they’re willing to pay, in a way that (4) satisfies your needs and expectations and (5) provides the business sufficient revenue to make it worthwhile for you to continue operation.
Most entrepreneurs really enjoy these challenges. The real problem is that we're limited by how much cash we have on hand. If we run out of the funds we're using to cover our business expenses, it's all over. The pressure of this constraint can take a real emotional toll on us — especially for indie founders who bootstrap their businesses.
But we don't have often talk about what it's actually like emotionally to bootstrap businesses.
Enter this round table. I asked several founders what it was like bootstrapping their businesses in the months and years before their revenues covered their living expenses. Indie hackers bootstrap in three ways. They:
Check out what their experiences are like below.
I've tried a bunch of options:
- Cross-subsidy, where you have a high-earning, part-time profession and limit yourself to working X days per week.
- Save and burn, where you accumulate a pile of cash to buy yourself X months of runway.
- Idea selection, where you only agree to work on ideas which have the potential to deliver rapid profits.
I quite enjoyed this last one, and we had $50K in committed sales within the first week, before we had really done anything other than ask folks if they wanted to give us money. This was fun and easy and paid the bills from day zero. I'd do it again if paying the bills was a top concern. The hard part is rejecting lots of wonderfully "good" ideas just because they don't fit the constraints that you happen to be enduring at this particular moment.
Bootstrapping is only stressful before you have a working business, so the "strategy" should be in either creating enough free finances to allow yourself to casually survive that stage regardless of how long it takes, or in picking ideas with an extremely quick and reliable payback period. Once the business is working, then it's no more or less stressful than having any other job.
P.S. You also need to be willing to fail gracefully, for example by admitting it early enough that you're able to give your employees fair warning, help them find excellent new jobs, and transition your customers onto a competitor's product. If you aren't able to acknowledge your own failure, then you're going to have a pretty miserable time through much of the bootstrapping process, and will end up causing a lot of preventable damage to both yourself and the people you care about. I did a bad job of this in my first company and have tried to handle it better since then.
I've supported myself with savings while bootstrapping Encharge. Also, there's a bit of passive income that takes care of about 1/3 of my monthly expenses. I still have enough cash for another year and a half. Hopefully, we'll get to profitability by that point.
However, I underestimated the time it would take for a startup to get going (based on previous experience). That's taking a toll emotionally. We've pivoted several times, and we're still looking for product-market fit.
My co-founder does consulting to pay his own bills at the moment.
My company financially supports me full time. It was established "accidentally" in 2014 when a mobile game I built hit the number one spot in the App Store (A Dark Room). With the extra runway, I developed four more games, and just a few months ago released ADR to the Nintendo Switch. I am now working on a game engine based off of everything I've learned over the past five years (DragonRuby Game Toolkit).
Financially and emotionally it continues to be a rollercoaster. Primarily because I can't "forget" what it feels like to work on something you enjoy and find meaningful. Sure, I have enough money for, say, the next five years. But what about the next forty years? This is kind of what keeps me up at night: there is no guarantee that I'll be able to keep doing this "forever" (given how quickly technology changes).
Ignorance is indeed bliss at times.
I always loved side projects. Tumblrs, newsletters, blogs, startup weekends, etc. None of my projects gained significant traction or made good money, but I learned a ton. That is, until the day I started Remotive.io and people started tuning in. Launched in 2014 as a side project; went part time in 2017; then full time in 2019. And I'm still at it.
I started it while working at Buffer. (They publish salaries; I made over $100K/yr.) At the end of 2016, I realized I'd probably be able to make over $50k in 2017 through Remotive + consulting + severance. That covered my expenses, so I left my job at Buffer to work on Remotive… PART TIME!
Why part time? The reason I bootstrapped was to control my time. As soon as I covered my living expenses, growth didn't matter. I wrote a novel in French. It's on Amazon. Took me a year and a half. Every morning, I wrote; every afternoon, I worked on Remotive. I'd rather live with less money and no strings attached!
Remotive is more of a service business than a SaaS company, and less than 15% of the revenue is recurring. For the stressful bad months, I'd always tell myself I could do some consulting.
I finally went full time in early 2019. I also welcomed a CTO. And even though Remotive is now my main gig, I still run side projects! :)
My co-founder and I worked part-time as firefighters while bootstrapping our business for over a year before it got serious enough to consider leaving. The trigger point for both of us was that our CTO went full time before we did. As a leader, that felt wrong and didn't sit well with me. If we couldn't bet on ourselves, how could we ask anyone else to bet on us?
Jake and I were still making precisely zero dollars at that point. It was still a gamble, but it was one that we had to make. We planned out ahead of time to tighten our belts, but also set a hard deadline: if we weren't personally making at least $40K a full year after leaving the fire department, we would figure out the next move.
Shocker, we didn't hit that mark — but luckily, the momentum was heading in the right direction and we decided to keep pushing. Everyone always says things like "people quit right before they're about to succeed." There are two sides to that, because I also think people will keep doing things that don't work forever because they're blind to the fact that it's not working. However, in this case, we just needed a little more time and a few more adjustments and we started to hit our stride.
There was a decent amount of surprise from the fire department. Jake and I were both company officers with bright futures, and no one really expected us to go another direction.
Oh well… SURPRISE!
I'm in the midst of it now. I'm mostly happy with my progress, but continually struggle with maintaining my patience. I also struggle mentally with the molds and wisdom of the bootstrapping community.
In the spring of 2016 I worked backwards from my anticipated monthly expenses, then set out to find freelance work that would cover it. One of the first conversations I had was with a friend of mine who was looking for his first engineering hire at the local office. I accepted a three-day-a-week job. That has turned out to be infinitely better and something I'd recommend to others.
Based on my low expenses (a situation I know not everyone has) I've been able to live a fairly comfortable life, continue to sock away money in my IRA, and save for a down payment for a modest house in about three years. My partner and I don't live extravagantly. We cook all of our meals and trend fairly hard toward hermit-like introversion on the weekends, which helps keep the bills down.
The steady job is an infinite runway since I have a software- and mobile-engineering background to bring to the table. Since incorporating the LLC, I have probably put $15K in cash into the business. I expect to make a small profit for the first time since I broke ground on the code in November 2016.
Financially, I think this strategy has been the right fit. In many ways, though, I feel like a fraud, as if "indie hacker" or "bootstrapper" means you need to be some sort of starving artist (which is also a harmful self-identity, I think). Emotionally, though I've had a lot of ups and downs, I've been relatively even keel.
The hardest part about bootstrapping is being patient. If you don't quit your day job you have an infinite runway to work with. At over $16K MRR I still haven't gone full time, but not because I couldn't. I've just chosen to bring on other people to run other parts of the business.
When I started The Church Co, the expenses were relatively low. I paid $30 a month for AWS and $50 a month for Intercom. That and my time were the only investment. The Church Co is a do-it-yourself website builder for churches and nonprofits. I ran it in beta for a year for free before turning on payments in July 2017. I sent out the email letting my 17 customers know that they needed to put in their credit card, and eight of them quit right away.
It's been two and a half years since turning on payments. I'm at $16,300 MRR and I'm still working full time at my day job. Discipline has been key during this time. Every morning I would wake up at 5am and work from a cafe until 9. After work, I would walk home and answer my customer support tickets. Each weekend I would do around 10 hours on bugs and new features. It was honestly the hardest few years of my life. Just this month I decided to bring on some support. I hired five contractors and distributed all of the work between them. It's another delay in going full time, but it sets the company up to scale more efficiently.
I'll likely go full time on The Church Co eventually. I don't regret the way I've done it. When I finally take the leap I'll have all of our systems in place to allow me to run the business effectively.