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How to sink your lean bootstrap #3: An unsupportive life ecosystem

February 7th, 2012 · 1 Comment

Just to Recap…
Bootstraps 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”.

Starting a company is easy
Anybody can start a company. You can probably start a company and request a federal EIN in less time than it takes to read this post. The hard part is what happens next. And next. And next after that. And next afta afta. And so on. For a really long time.

A lean bootstrap is like Mormon heaven
When Baptists die and go to heaven, they get to spend eternity leisurely singing in choirs and enjoying freedom pain and stuff like that. When Mormons die and go to heaven, we get to keep on working. Forever.

(Please note: This bit is meant allegorically. I’m not an expert on Baptist or Mormon heaven. Comments about either religion where the author appears to be wrapped around the axle or totally off-topic will just be ignored).

I’m not trying to paint a drab picture of what a lean bootstrap is like, or of Mormon heaven either, for that matter. In either case, if you are motivated by your love for solving a particular problem, and not just chasing Dante’s banner, the news that you are going to spend what could be years and years of your free time working on that problem is not exactly bad news. But you still need to take steps to make sure that you can sustain the effort required for as long as you need to.

A supportive life ecosystem is key to sustainability
Shannon and the kids believe in TroopTrack. When my founding partners quit a few years ago, I got a bit despondent. I almost gave up, but Shannon wasn’t having it. She KNOWS that someday we will make enough money off of TroopTrack to support our family, whether it’s another two years or another ten years she doesn’t care. I also have friends who have started their own lean bootsraps with their spouses, and we encourage and support each other.

But that’s not the only part of my life ecosystem that is supportive of TroopTrack. My employer, DeveloperTown, is also behind me. When things go wrong (like OOM errors on my productions server last night), my colleagues at DeveloperTown help me out. When I need work in an area where I lack talent, like graphic design, I can get that help at work. My work schedule is also flexible – I get to choose when I work on TroopTrack and how much, as long as I continue to meet my work obligations. This is a very big deal. Just sayin’.

Financially, I can’t afford to lose much money on TroopTrack. I have to be careful about what I spend on infrastructure and marketing, because I can’t burn money like a VC-backed startup. Heck, I can’t burn money like a single kid leaving in his Mom’s basement. I’m working on changing our lifestyle so that I can spend more on TroopTrack each month, but no matter what I’ll probably never be able to lose more than $1000/month on TroopTrack. Right now, I try to keep it under $100/month on average.

Your life ecosystem is different from mine, but you need to take a good hard look at it. Is it going to help you or get in the way? When your face is swollen and bloody and your head feels like it’s going to explode, is your life ecosystem going to push you back in the ring or tell you to throw in the towel?

You Can Make It Easier to be Supportive
Running a lean bootstrap is a choice. Don’t make supporting that choice harder than it needs to be – you want it to be as easy as possible for your life ecosystem to support you. Here are some things things I’ve done over the years to make it easier on my life ecosystem to believe in and support my ongoing commitment to TroopTrack. Most of them involve me giving up my personal time so that TroopTrack steals less time from my family.

  • I all but stopped watching TV, including 95% of all the sports I used to watch.
  • I knocked my personal spending down a big notch – no more weekly trips to Fry’s, no more casually dropping an unplanned hundred bucks at a bookstore
  • I changed jobs to work for a company that is supportive of my efforts
  • I learned enough about taxes to be able to deduct the money I spend on TroopTrack
  • I (temporarily) gave up on a plethora of hobbies I love, including reading (I only listen to books when I drive now), writing fiction, wakeboarding, working on my boat, working on my beetle, etc

Don’t be Bob Kearns
Some people will ruin the best part of their lives in pursuit of a lean bootstrap dream. Don’t be that guy. Don’t be Bob Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. His stubborn determination to beat Detroit cost him his family and friends. His obsession with winning overtaxed his life’s ecosystem and wrecked it. Or at least that’s how the film “Flash of Genius” portrays his life.

Every entrepreneur is, in a way, like Bob Kearns. I have an idea I feel passionately, perhaps even obsessively, about. I work on it every day. I’m trying to take on and beat bigger, older competitors who already have a product that is well-liked and well-used. I have scant resources outside of time and expertise. And yet I still feel like I can win. True victory doesn’t come at all cost. It needs balance and support from the outside. Do what it takes to make it easy to support you by sacrificing the unimportant stuff you love like TV, hobbies, and the latest books, not the stuff that matters.

Note: It’s worth mentioning that my family is not supportive of the fact that I’ve stopped writing fiction, stopped working on my beetle, and stopped wakeboarding. That’s fun stuff we all enjoyed and they want it back.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Justin // Feb 17, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article. I can relate to quite a bit of it.

    I’m myself currently in a similar situation. I’ve slowly started to gain traction, and am about to launch my website (sorry it’s down – being overhauled).

    I have a strong life ecosytem with my friends and immediate family. They believe in me, and allow me to pursue my dreams. You’re 100% correct about the benefit this provides — as there are times their support is just the extra juice that keeps you going.

    Thanks for the article.

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