What’s a bootstrapped startup
Bootstrapped startups are a version of the lean startup with a 37-signals-esque twist, i.e a lean bootstrap. The goal of a lean bootstrap is to run in the black as early as possible, preferably from day 1. Boostrappers don’t need or want outside capital for the most part, and they are always conscious of the need to validate that they can actually make money doing whatever they are doing.
Basically, if you (metaphorically) placed Rework and The Lean Startup in a blender, turned it to high, then ran the puree through a mumbo-jumbo filter (basically the last 1/3 of The Lean Startup would get removed), the remaining juice would be called “The Lean Bootstrap”.
I’ll let you read those books yourself – I just wanted to introduce the idea so I could then tell you how to sink it.
Lean Bootstraps are Hard to Sink
I’ve been running a lean bootstrap for about four years now called TroopTrack.com. I’ve made pretty much every mistake possible you could make and still be able to qualify for the moniker of “lean bootstrap”. I’ve blown big sales. I’ve blown small sales. I’ve blown really, really big sales. I’ve made bad partnerships. I’ve ignored my customers (unintentionally). I’ve had failed marketing experiments. I’ve gotten distracted by crazy ideas. I’ve gotten so sick that I couldn’t work on it for several months.
Somehow TroopTrack.com survived all that. And I learned from it, and the cumulative effect of all these “mistakes” is that I have a vision for my product that my customers are excited about. Finally.
The point is, a lean bootstrap is hard to sink. As long as you don’t go into debt, give up, make huge commitments that you can’t fulfill on a part-time basis, get sued, or run in the red for extended periods of time, you can keep working on a lean bootstrap for as long as it takes.
A Premature “Big Picture” Pivot Is Your Lean Bootstrap’s Iceberg
A big picture pivot is a pivot designed to expand the “small-time thinking” of your lean bootstrap into an enormous market, usually by making the product more universal
In TroopTrack terms, a big picture pivot might be pivoting from Boy Scout Troops and Packs to all youth organizations from soccer teams to student councils. Or to the military. This type of pivot is tempting because your potential market just went from cute and cuddly to super-model hot.
Resistance is not futile. Giving in to this kind of temptation at the wrong time will sink your lean bootstrap, for the following reasons:
- You will lose focus on the problem you are trying to solve before you ever solve it. If you haven’t learned what you need to learn to succeed in a small market, you don’t have what it takes to succeed in a large market.
- You will alienate the customers you already have – when you transition from trying to feed a village to trying to solve world hunger, the villages you leave behind will not be happy with you.
- You will convince yourself that you need outside investment. Outside investment can be incredibly limiting. It comes with deadlines, burn rates, and other obligations and expectations. Raising money for a big effort can be a full-time job, which will only further exacerbate the problems mentioned above.
The big picture pivot is a big deal, and it can have a huge return, but it needs to happen at the right time. Don’t sink your lean bootstrap by doing it too early.
Make Big Picture Pivots in Small Steps
When your product is successful and you are making your customers happy, big picture pivot opportunities come out of the woodworks uninvited, only they don’t look like big picture pivots on the surface. For example, I recently got an email from someone who had heard about TroopTrack and was wondering if it supported Girl Scouts (it doesn’t). Supporting Girl Scout advancement is definitely on the TroopTrack radar, and we’re actively researching it right now. And a “early adopter” just popped out of nowhere, just like that.
Adding yet another type of scouting organization to TroopTrack isn’t exactly a big picture pivot, but it’s a step towards one. Every time I add a new type of organization to TroopTrack it gets easier to do. It’s also something I can do without outside investment, without running in the red, and without alienating my customer base. It also will give me greater insight into what my customers find valuable about TroopTrack that will help me on my way.
Big Picture Pivots are Just Crystal Ball Gazing Anyway
Creative lean bootstrappers are visionaries. They see possibilities that are endless. They aren’t bothered by the flying pigs in their grand dreams or the snowball fights in Hell. This is something that is totally awesome about being a lean bootstrapper – you can see the potential.
But let’s face it – big picture pivots are an extrapolation into the future based on a myriad of assumptions. You can’t make the leap straight to the big picture without testing all the assumptions along the way. You’ve got to start with the little picture, solve it’s problem, and then move on.
When Should You Make the Big Picture Pivot?
Don’t worry so much about this. As one of my favorite former bosses, Mike Herrick, now of Urban Airship fame, likes to say, “Do good things and good things will happen.” Build a compelling product in the space you are focused on and the marketplace will tell you when to pivot. If you solve your problem really, really well, and make money doing it, early adopters will drag you into the next market when the time is right.