Starting Your Business: 3 Tips for Bootstrapping Your Way to the Top

Bootstrapping a business startup does not necessarily mean that you are unable to find traditional sources of capital. It may mean that you are clever, or that you know a bargain when you see it, or that you are the type of person who derives a certain satisfaction from crafting something using your own hands and vision, from scratch. If this is the way you feel, a franchise is probably not for you. A venture capitalist, if you could even find a member of that rare species when you are just starting out, is also likely to want some or too much control, and your vision might be thrown out of the window in that scenario as well.

It’s kind of the same thing when you make your first homemade cheesecake using a recipe from a gourmet magazine, and then you realize how horrible those store bought cheesecakes in a box (that you used to eat) would taste in a side-by-side comparison. Just think, if you embrace the “entrepreneur as gourmet chef” metaphor that I have suggested above, you can tell people that you are an “Entrepreneurship Connoisseur” at social gatherings and when you are seated next to other first class passengers on your next flight to someplace exciting. Not going anyplace exciting, you say? Funny you should exhibit such a lack of enthusiasm, because that leads us to tip number one:

1) You may have thought that we’d start out with some high-powered “secret” bargaining strategy for bartering or negotiating with suppliers or landlords. Well, in a way you are right. The all time top tip, numero uno, has to do with your attitude. Do you think you are “having a bad day,” routinely? Maybe it’s not the kind of day or days that you are having; maybe it’s your contagious nasty attitude that infects everyone around you and holds you back.

Here’s a technique that you can use to thwart “nasty attitude syndrome”–a vicious, virulent disease: Use a mirror. If you don’t like the way that you look, imagine how other people feel. Put the biggest, nastiest snarl on your face that you can muster. Stare hard into that mirror and say, “I want the best price–now.” Does the person in the mirror look like he or she would be inclined to melt before your eyes and say, “For you, my friend, I’d give you the world on a silver patter, because you are my favorite kind of person”?

Perhaps I should explain the almost magical curative powers of the mirror that you should now be holding in your hand (yes, use a pocket-sized model that you can carry along, wherever you go–on all of those exciting trips). If you will stand on your head while you are frowning, you can “turn that frown upside down.” Other people will smile at you, and perhaps even chuckle, or roar out loud, rolling in laughter. Now you’re getting the hang of it. A positive attitude and a smile on your face will help you start your business, get out of trouble with your spouse, or get you a date if you are single. Practice being excited, (just about) everywhere you go.

2) For anyone who has forgotten kindergarten, let me remind you that you used to be creative–maybe you still are–and creativity is the heart and soul of bootstrapping. If you have lost touch with your creative side, or it has been pounded out of you as a result of other people’s efforts to turn you into a compliant drone, one who fits perfectly in a cubicle, then it’s high time you start acting like a kid again.

Yes, we’re talking crayons, paint, glue, cardboard, scissors, wood, and trips to a junk yard. We’re talking Animal House (the movie), and good old-fashioned food fights. We’re talking about imaginary worlds depicted in amusement park rides. We’re talking about science fairs, contraptions in your garage, and blue-green gooey stuff oozing out of boiling pots. We may even be talking about an illustration of the product idea that you have, or a three-dimensional model of a store layout–like the one that you will implement in real life when you start your business.

If all of the above seems too silly, you are just flat-out in desperate need of the intervention described under tip number 1. You must get out of the rut that you are in. Working in a cubicle for the rest of your life is the notion that’s really silly. When you leave your present workplace to go home, take a different route. You may find that by getting lost while you are on your journey, you rediscover your creative inner child, inside.

Creativity is an act, something one does, not a trait. You have to give your creative side the time and tools to act. Get yourself unstuck through lots of stimulation. Take the time to actually study innovation, invention, the future, the past, and specific creative techniques. On that last point, here’s an example of one technique: think about opposites. What’s the opposite of a high priced anything? An economy priced version. What’s the opposite of a big package? A small one. It’s chunky versus creamy. Light versus full-bodied.

There are books, Web sites, training programs, articles, and devotees of the study of creativity. It’s time for you to “start your creative engine,” buckle-up, and blast off to other worlds that can be reached only in your imagination.

3) Research, research, research. Study, study, study. Read, read, read. Do your homework. Remember that old adage about “location, location, location”? Well, now you can forget that one, at least for the moment. Your location, your customer base, your supply channels, your price, all of these things will become clear if you become a researcher. We are not talking about the stereotypical, wimpy, “beat me up in the schoolyard and take my lunch money” type of researcher. We’re talking about a new breed of formidable, respectable, “super researcher”: A guerrilla fighter who takes names, observes weaknesses, and kicks booty.

Quickly, the next time you visit your neighborhood video store, count the tapes (DVD’s, games, etc.) on one shelf. Then multiply the number of videos on that one shelf by the number of shelves in a display case. Next, how many cases are on one wall? Assuming four walls, how many new releases does the store have in inventory? Count the middle section, too. How many customers are in line? Do they look happy? How many employees are working? How many are loafing? What have you observed about the business? Does it look like the store’s making money? (No, we are NOT “casing out the joint” for a robbery.) How long has it been in business? How busy is the store, morning, noon, or night?

Collect competitors’ advertisements. Collect advertisements that you simply like (on the basis that they apparently gain attention, sell benefits, and stimulate action). Collect crummy ads, so that you won’t repeat the mistakes made by others.

Bootstrappers pay close attention to what other people and businesses do, so that they might emulate good business ideas, or deviate from the norm with better ideas. It’s amazing how many businesses are founded on the basis of so little research or planning. If you intend to start a restaurant, and you are willing to spend $10,000 or more on a stove or a commercial refrigerator, wouldn’t it make sense to test your idea first? Prepare a meal as though you were already in business. Invite some guests to try your cooking. Ask them questions. How much would someone pay? How often would they eat the type of food that you have prepared? Conduct a survey yourself, or work with marketing students or interns through a local college or university. Ask, ask, ask, lots of questions.

Buy every entrepreneurial startup guide book pertaining to the type of business (if it is a typical one) that you are planning to develop. Go to trade shows. Read trade periodicals. Talk to people. You are a “private eye,” and your client is your would-be business.

Create a “war room.” What’s a war room? It’s a place where you put a map on the wall, and use push-pins to depict an “enemy’s” location; also affix notes to catalog strengths and weaknesses that you have noticed as a visitor. It’s a place where you house all of the competitive intelligence that we’ve been discussing. It’s a place where you plot the rise of your business, from small, well conceived beginnings.

4) I know, the article title said “3 Tips.” This is a bonus tip. It’s a FREE BONUS tip, for those persons who are still with me in this discussion. If you can’t handle the first three tips, don’t try bootstrapping. You won’t make it. You need an inheritance, or you should resign yourself to staying in that cubicle. Try adding some color–a candy jar, or fresh flowers–so that you’ll be happier in your confinement. Hey, that would be a small step toward changing your life, after all!

Here’s the actual tip: Start small, and think differently (you may have supposed that I was going to say “think big,” instead–that wouldn’t be a bad idea, either). Give yourself time. Not days, weeks, or months, necessarily–we’re talking years, if that is what you require to develop a contagious, positive attitude; create a winning idea; and become fully prepared for your exciting journey, bootstrapping your way to the top.