Building businesses from little to no starting capital

Four years ago, our beloved leader, Alex Bellinger, interviewed one Greg Gianforte. By then he’d started five businesses – one went to $10m annual revenue, another to $80-85m at the time of interview. The other three experienced enough success to be sold on.

He believes that borrowing money to start a business is not a good idea, far better to ‘bootstrap’ it using the money generated to help it grow. In fact, he advocates trying to sell your wares before you actually have a product. A few hundred phone calls will tell you whether you’re on the right lines and, if not, where you can adjust your vision to match the market. Make sure, though, that you can deliver on your promises within eight weeks.

Trust Alex to have found Gianforte four years before me. He’s the first story in a recent book called ‘Entrepreneur Journeys: Bootstrapping: Weapon of Mass Reconstruction’, by Sramana Mitra (142 pages). You can get it as a paperback from Amazon US for $16.95 or online for $9.99 at Smashwords.

Mitra mixes her own observations with interviews with a bunch of (mostly) hi-tech entrepreneurs who built their businesses with little or no starting capital. Certainly not venture capital, although a few put their hands in their own pockets, tapped friends and family or went to angels. The general tone of the book is ‘the less funding, the better’.

The book reads like a series of business autobiographies, allowing you to understand the interviewees’ thought processes.

I downloaded the ‘.rtf’ version and read it into Word, from whence I could highlight text which meant something to me and add comments. The conversion from .rtf to Word wasn’t wonderful – some sections appeared all capitalised – but it more or less did the job. You can download in a variety of formats to suit your computer software.

I highlighted 454 bits of text and added 81 comments. Essentially, that’s over five hundred separate mental stimulations as a result of a longish day’s-worth of reading. The comments largely referred to how I intend to do things differently in future, plus insights into my own past successes and failures.

The book has an American orientation, but this is not a reason to reject the lessons it contains. In fact, it’s more a reason to be inspired by the ‘can do’ approach over there. (I was a regular visitor to Silicon Valley for 28 years, by the way, and experienced the culture first-hand.)

Gianforte re-tells his story about how he hired a 48 foot billboard to promote his company right outside the company he really needed to do business with. Within six weeks he’d shipped it a $100,000 order. The client had massive credibility in his market place and, by referencing the sale to new prospects, he was on his way.

Om Malik is a well-known technology writer. In 1999, he thought he’d capitalise on his massive knowledge by becoming an investment manager. Within three months, he realised his mistake. He says, “I think a lot of people do things for money, and it’s the stupidest thing we can do for ourselves.” He went on to create a web-based publishing company, the GigaOM Network, which reaches over three million readers worldwide. He’s probably earning a fortune, but from his first love, writing and publishing quality content.

Rafat Ali, of Paid Content discovered, more or less by accident, the power of a regular, informative, newsletter. Although set up as a web-publishing business focusing on news relating to the economic evolution of digital content, he also published an early morning newsletter of the previous day’s blog posts. At the time of the interview, this newsletter had 50,000 subscribers which gives his company a powerful daily presence in the subscriber’s inbox.

These are just three tiny snippets from the book of a dozen stories, plus Mitra’s essays. Each reader will be stimulated by different things. You might be interested in staffing issues, patents, earnout problems, identifying customer needs, raising capital or something else. It’s all touched on and the stories come from the heart.

Of course, if you have no empathy for American stories or an affinity with the hi-tech sector, then you’re less likely to enjoy the book.

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