My September column in Mint.
Over the last several years many aspiring entrepreneurs have met me for advice – be it at business schools, through TIE, at conferences, at business plan contests or by simply sending me a mail and asking for time. Almost all of them have had an idea, a half written business plan – for which they were exploring the possibility of raising capital. Most believe that without committed funding by a venture capitalist they cannot start or will not succeed. Most struggling entrepreneurs would believe that it’s great to raise venture capital at the start – but is it really?
While many successful companies did raise venture capital early in their life cycle, yet there are many more that did not – Microsoft, HP, Dell are three such examples. Closer home Infosys, HCL and Reliance and many other first generation successes were bootstrapped and built the hard way. The fact is that most successful companies and most successful entrepreneurs reached where they have without raising venture capital.
In the company where I work – we managed to get external funding only after we had bootstrapped for ten years.We were delighted to raise capital when we did. However in hindsight, it was the bootstrapping experience that taught us valuable lessons that saw us through the later years.
There are many learnings you get by bootstrapping.
First bootstrapping is a test of commitment – if you are really committed to your idea you will muster up the courage to quit your salaried job, put in whatever little capital you have or can raise from friends and relatives, tighten your belt and somehow begin to execute your idea. If you aren’t willing to bootstrap then question your entrepreneurial motivation. VC’s understand this and they prefer to invest behind good teams that are bootstrapping rather than behind professional managers who are still in secure jobs but have a nifty powerpoint presentation.
Bootstrapping helps you to validate your concept for yourself, your team and prospective investors. Validation of the concept would mean that the startup team is in place, the product is ready and there are a few paying customers who are happy with the product and are willing to buy again and recommend it to their friends.
Once your concept is validated investors come in with much greater confidence and give you a much higher valuation then they would have at an earlier stage. You get to keep a larger share of your company for the same money. Most entrepreneurs don’t realise the importance of this until much later – should the company go on to become valuable.
Bootstrapping makes you stretch 24x7. It makes you think about survival, about how to break even, about where the next rupee is going to come from and about where it should be going or not going. You innovate more, you prioritise and focus on the essentials. You manage your cash flows better, you go out into the field and sell to customers yourself and you put in twenty hour workdays if required. It instils a culture of frugality in the company. This is a priceless asset.
At Naukri when we were bootstrapping, we had to break even to survive. We found ways of doing that - somehow. So by the time we raised money what we had to do was to scale up and enhance a validated business model. The fiscal discipline that bootstrapping enforced on us is now a part of our DNA. It ensured that we went through the meltdown and became profitable with 40% of the capital that ICICI gave us still in fixed deposits in the bank.
Bootstrapping ensures that you recruit missionaries and not mercenaries – after all you won’t have the money to pay high salaries. You will pay then in stock rather than cash – non believers will simply not join you. This core group of believers will be the people who will see you through the tough times that every early stage must go through.
It takes a lot of time and effort to raise money – preparing the pitch and the plan, doing the rounds of the investors and meeting the interested ones several times, negotiating and signing the term sheet, dealing with lawyers, going through the due diligence and negotiating and signing the final agreement. It is a six month process if you are lucky. This is precious time you can spend instead on building the product, putting together the team and finding paying customers.
And then after you raise the money you have to manage the investor – and that too takes time. The fact is that when you raise money you don’t just get the capital – you also get the capitalist. He will be on your Board and he will have ideas and suggestions to give – it’s called value addition. And he will have disproportionate powers. But you might want to do things your way. In such a situation it might be a good idea to take the business forward till you have something concrete to show and then raise capital.
So, commit yourself, validate an idea, build a team, be an entrepreneur, bootstrap now, raise money a little later.