Written by Lidia Vijga, co-founder at DeckLinks
When my co-founders and I stopped chasing VC capital, and decided to bootstrap our second startup, we had no choice but to embrace the struggle in the early days and develop a resourceful bootstrap mentality. But now that we have done it, and have no regrets, I want to write about this valuable experience and how it helped us cultivate a new way of thinking and building a sustainable business.
Nothing in startups is easy, and to be completely transparent, bootstrapping a company is probably the most difficult thing I have done in my life. But would I go back and change anything? Absolutely not!
I speak with many early-stage tech founders who spend more time and energy on fundraising rather than customers and traction. The reality is 98% never close those fundraising rounds. And even for those who do secure funding, having a bootstrap mindset is invaluable no matter how much capital gets raised.
The skills you built from bootstrapping enable not only starting lean but smart reinvestment of profits when capital does come. Whether or not your startup ends up VC-funded, I always advise adopting the bootstrap mindset from day one to build a sustainable business focused on customers and value creation.
And if you choose to build a company from the ground up with no outside funding, I strongly believe that with creativity, resilience and self-improvement, it will become a sacrifice worth making in the long run.
The only question I have for you is: “Can you eat chicken soup without a chicken for a year or two?”
If your answer is YES, then you came to the right place.
In this article, I’m sharing how my co-founders and I cultivated and embraced the bootstrap mindset, some of our strategies for acquiring clients on a $0 marketing budget, and ultimately how we are continuing to build a sustainable startup without outside capital.
Where did the Bootstrapping term come from?
The term “bootstrapping” comes from the phrase “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” which is a metaphor originating from the impossible physical task of someone lifting themselves off the ground by pulling on their shoelaces. This phrase is used to describe tasks that require additional effort due to their difficulty.
Another origin of the term Bootstrap comes from the computer world, where it is used to refer to the process of starting up a computer or initiating a series of processes that ultimately lead to the operating system being launched. In essence, when you press the power button on your computer, you are booting up the system and setting off a chain of events that culminates in the operating system being loaded and ready for use.
In the startup context, this term refers to the immense challenge founders take on when they are building the company without external help from investors. With no capital investments, you need to depend fully on your own resources, traction with customers, and good old grit and hard work to grow. It almost feels like you are trying to levitate a business using nothing but sweat and tears.
The Bootstrap Mindset
As a tech founder who bootstrapped my 2nd startup with no funding, I learned firsthand how embracing constraints with hardship breeds innovation and progress.
It’s surprising that our willingness to endure discomfort and develop self-reliance and self-improvement has become the driving force behind determination, resourcefulness, and innovative problem-solving, which are essential for bootstrapping startup growth.
We are all familiar with the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” which rings true for many founders who have built companies by solving the problems that they have experienced firsthand. But in the world of bootstrapping, one of the primary driving forces behind their startups is the tough conditions and the harsh constraints that naturally cultivate a strong need for survival.
Yes, I’m talking about the basic instinct, a simple need to survive, which fuels the bootstrap mindset more than anything else. That doesn’t mean that founders who bootstrap don’t solve problems. It simply means bootstrapped startups are just built differently.
Founders who bootstrap thrive by gaining strength from adversity and often convert misfortune into grit.
The bootstrap mentality is the biggest factor that not only sets these founders apart but also helps them get ahead and become more resilient and durable in distressing situations.
How to Bootstrap a Startup
If you are prepared to endure a few years of discomfort while living on the bare minimum and have total faith with conviction, then you can bring your startup dream to life through bootstrapping. This involves being creative with very few resources and managing to survive the initial stages of company creation, even if it means living off instant noodles.
Here are the key concepts I share with founders on bootstrapping and how to approach this difficult yet very rewarding startup journey.
Earn runway through revenue, not funding
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of earned runway over fundraising when it comes to sustainable growth. Too often founders build bloated products based on assumptions and then desperately chase funding to sustain themselves. But by bootstrapping traction yourself first, you can build exactly what the market needs, extend the runway with the dollars from your customers, and retain control rather than climbing on the VC treadmill.
Given that our 1st startup was backed by investors and 2nd is completely bootstrapped, the most important lesson was that investors’ money does not solve money problems long-term. But customer traction does.
With the right rapid testing and business model, you can extend your hustling years through revenue rather than fundraising – buying time to build assets investors eventually want to back.
In the early bootstrapping days, my co-founders and I were focused on 3 key areas:
Learn new skills to build and grow on your terms
When you are building a VC-backed startup, it’s on the VC terms, not your terms.
In the early stages, most startups raise capital to build a working product and hire the right talent. But if you constantly learn new set of skills, you can build your MVP and get to the market without the help of investors. Curiosity and outgoing self-improvement is the key.
And since we didn’t have funding to hire experts, we had to learn everything ourselves, from designing in Figma to SEO and growth hacking.
This is a photo of one of my co-founders working late to apply the lessons learned from an online tutorial. When we were just starting to build our first company, Ravil was a stock trader with a biochemistry degree. Now, he has learned how to create mockups on Figma, build websites on WordPress, create SEO-optimized content, prompt engineer AI and much more.
Learn new tools fast and become really good at them to expand your skill set. This way you can enable organic business velocity through your own skills, not capital. And with the right rapid iteration, you can build and grow on your sustainable terms.
Become insanely creative in acquiring customers
When you have to persistently win over users with little resources, it activates creativity and a completely new way of thinking, something you didn’t even think you had before. It’s funny to think this way, but out of adversity came our secret sauce.
Some of our most successful growth hacking tactics stemmed from scarcity – the biggest wins were small bets that created intimacy and word of mouth. For example, I discovered niche Reddit subgroups passionate about the problem we solved so we provided insane value there rather than broad social media bursts.
We avoided mass blasts and instead focused on laser-targeted communities who shared our ethos. We were determined to get our product in the right user hands even if only a few at a time. Small but mighty tribes of advocates organically multiplied our message despite no funding.
If people love your product enough, they become the marketing. And your early adopters will spread your story far more powerfully than any advertising.
Expect to fail hard and fail often
By embracing the bootstrap mentality, startups operate on the fastest lane despite having scarce resources. This means they build fast to fail faster, so they can iterate much quicker and get to market with a better solution that stands out from the rest.
I became familiar with the concept of failing fast only after we started bootstrapping our 2nd startup. When we had funding in our previous startup, we kept adding fuel to our hypothesis hoping it would all work out one day. But when we started to bootstrap, we didn’t have that funding safety net. What you do have is competitors with funding and bigger teams. So you have no choice but to rapidly test ideas and iterate without hesitation.
In the startup world, failure is inevitable. But failing cheaply and failing often is precisely what enables bootstrap founders to eventually find the formula that works.
Bootstrap Mentality in Marketing
As an entrepreneur bootstrapping a startup, stretching our ultra lean budget forced us to innovate on marketing with a resourceful bootstrap mentality. In those earl days, our marketing was driven by time and vision rather than media dollars. We leveraged existing relationships and focused on building a community around our product and our mission.
In this section, I’m sharing exactly what we did to grow and attract more customers. But first I want you to start thinking of the resource constraints as an asset, approaching marketing with a thriftiness mindset so that you can unlock growth potential through ingenuity and customer collaboration rather than excessive ad spending.
Create engaging content with industry experts
As someone who experiments with marketing a lot, one of the most powerful marketing tactics was creating authoritative content featuring industry experts. When capital is scarce, you need to establish credibility quickly and affordably. That is where leveraging the voices of respected leaders pays dividends.
I have identified rising stars and veterans in our startup’s niche and requested to collaborate on the video content together. Not only was this free access to esteemed perspectives my audience craved, but it also associated our unknown brand with trusted names.
Instead of podcasts and long interviews, we decided to produce short rapid-fire Sales Rush videos for LinkedIn, where I ask industry leaders questions about sales and their personal lives.
By creating a casual yet insightful format, we were able to get leaders to open up and share off-script, which allowed us to extract tactical gems that our audience craved. This approach helped us to introduce leaders in an authentic way while still providing unique value to our audience.
The ingredients to replicate this are straightforward for bootstrapped founders:
Rather than paying your way to legitimacy through sponsorships like funded competitors, bootstrapped entrepreneurs can earn recognition through smart relationship building. If you demonstrate you can create value and readership for industry leaders, they will return the credibility favor.
Set up channel partnerships
Since we didn’t have external funding to hire salespeople, we had to tap into our network for channel partnerships. This strategy served us very well and helped us expand into new markets.
We started by identifying players serving our target client segments with an offering that could be enhanced by our solution. For instance, we explored partnerships with consultant firms and mid-sized agencies that help clients create presentations. Since sharing and tracking PDF presentations is the next obvious step, our partners would recommend our platform to their existing clients to track the recipient engagement in real time.
For bootstrapped founders, channel partnerships can magnify market penetration exponentially based on shared objectives rather than just advertising budgets. This high-leverage model fuels scalability through credibility borrowing and incentive alignment so mutual customer growth unlocks your own.
Stand out at the events
I will always remember one of our tech events when we had no budget for a fancy backdrop or company swag. Moreover, the invitation was sent out at the last minute, which meant we had to come up with a quick solution. We decided to purchase a piece of white cardboard from Home Depot and drew our logo and tagline on it. During the event, we took selfies with the attendees and asked them to share their best sales tips and write them on the backdrop.
We had a great time at the event and our startup stand was the most popular among all the exhibitors. But the best part was that we got to connect and interact with the attendees in a more meaningful way. Plus, we even met someone who became our startup lawyer.
Learn SEO to build your Moat
With no ad budget, we needed traffic and conversions from organic search to compete with VC-backed players. This forced us to become proficient at content writing and SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
We focused on creating in-depth, engaging content that answered key questions and gave our ideal clients exactly what they needed to satisfy their search queries.
It takes time to build your domain rating, so to rank faster we doubled down on building a topical authority and we focused on our firsthand expertise and experience in our content approach.
We also started to collaborate with industry specialists respected by our niche to create educational “How To” articles filled with insider tips. By featuring their specialized know-how with practical guidance, it helped us establish our own credentials and helped us outrank other competitors on Google.
I was recently invited to speak at the SaaStock event to share our SEO strategy with other bootstrapped founders. In this video, I give some of the most practical tips that you can start implementing today.
To share the SEO knowledge with the content process that we have developed, I started running private SEO group workshops for early-stage founders and marketers.
Adopt founder-led growth approach
As someone who doesn’t even have a personal Instagram, putting myself publicly out there as the face of the brand was a leap. I had to embrace sharing my insights to cultivate community and grow our brand in the most authentic way possible.
While I barely tweeted and lacked polished delivery, I felt called to spotlight the raw journey and the lessons learned directly from the entrepreneurial trenches. So I cautiously began documenting my personal journey building a tech startup with my two co-founders and sharing these learnings on LinkedIn.
The most difficult part was finding my own own voice. The vulnerability didn’t win style point, yet it resonated as other founders started to reach out and thank me for “keeping things real.”
That was the time when I realized that raising up other entrepreneurs and bootstrapped founders through grounded and real experiences was the voice I was looking for.
If I could leave imprints for those feeling alone on their own founder path, magic happened through every transparent story shared. Personally, I’ve had success by approaching common beliefs from a fresh perspective or delving into unpopular opinions that haven’t been explored before.
I urge founders still finding their voice to:
While it may feel vulnerable to share imperfections, your grounded place fosters inclusive ecosystems. If your goal is to grow your online community and advance your brand, a great start is to highlight your existing customers and empower others through reflections and real stories.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Bootstrapping
As a founder who has gone both routes, I’ve experienced firsthand both the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing the self-reliant bootstrap route versus VC funding.
Advantages of Bootstrapping
On the advantage side, bootstrapping breeds resilience, self-improvement, focus, and operational excellence out of necessity. With limited resources, you become incredibly lightweight, adaptive to market signals, and creative at doing more with less. The scrappy mindset forces laser targeting of early adopters and agile development keyed to customer traction vs vanity metrics.
Most importantly, you retain flexibility, control, and financial independence without chasing outside capital or prematurely scaling. The ability to organically grow on your own steam also makes your unit economics highly attractive when you do eventually seek investment.
I’d summarize this into 3 main advantages:
Disadvantages of Bootstrapping
The flip side of bootstrapping can be a painful test of persistence, hard work and never ending hustle in those wilderness years. You need to squeeze every dollar while living on passion and chicken soup without chicken before finding a product market fit. Rather than a quick injection of capital to accelerate growth, you earn slow organic velocity through long hours and waved salaries.
And once you achieve takeoff, not having deep pockets still limits how fast you can scale up marketing and beat others. There are periods where inches feel like miles while funded competitors move in leapfrog strides.
These are the main disadvantages that both of my co-founders and I experienced:
The tradeoff is between slowed short-term growth but control and resilient models long term. My advice is to embrace constraints now and leverage funding later once you’ve proven sustainability. As I mentioned previously, the skills forged in scarcity are invaluable regardless of the later runway.
My Final Notes on Bootstrap Mentality
The bootstrap mentality recognizes that money simply funds the fire but true traction comes from solving real problems creatively. By embracing constraints, you give yourself no choice but to build products users innately want through insight and invention rather than glossy veneer.
You will need to eat a lot of instant noodles, close sales yourself, and leverage assets creatively along the way. But out of that hunger comes the capability to construct a sustainable startup from the ground up using time and care rather than just capital.
What emerges from working shoulder-to-shoulder with customers using your bare hands is far more rewarding than a hockey stick metrics bought through capital alone.
So have courage during the early days, fall in love with the problem you are solving for your customers, and keep your vision rooted in creating authentic value. If your commitment outlasts the darkness, the bootstrapping lessons will transform you into a new type of leader – one that possesses an enormous amount of empathy and can adapt to any situation, but most importantly a leader who can eat the chicken soup without the chicken if needed.
Bootstrap Mentality in entrepreneurship embodies a self-reliant approach where founders use personal resources and revenue to grow their business. This mindset emphasizes strategic planning and resourcefulness, focusing on sustainable growth and financial independence without relying on external funding from investors.
Startups choose bootstrapping to maintain control and independence, fostering a culture of self-reliance and resilience.This approach promotes sustainable growth free from investor pressures. It encourages efficient resource use, strategic planning, and market adaptability, allowing organic business model development.
Bootstrap Mentality drives business growth in startups by fostering a culture of self-reliance and resourcefulness. It emphasizes efficient use of capital and strategic planning leading to a lean and agile business model. This approach focuses on customer acquisition, market adaptability and a strong value proposition.
Bootstrap Mentality significantly influences innovation by pushing startups to think creatively in resource-limited environments, leading to unique solutions and products that can offer a competitive advantage in the market. Operating with limited funds, startups are compelled to innovate to outperform competitors.
Yes. Bootstrap Mentality and venture capital can coexist in a startup’s growth stage. Startups initially bootstrap to build a solid foundation with self-reliance and resourcefulness. Later, they may leverage funding for scaling, blending bootstrapping’s efficiency with the financial and networking benefits from VCs.