I am probably the queen of bootstrapping. Call it power, call it being in control, call it wanting to know it all. Regardless of the motivation, the most enjoyable thing for me has been to figure out how to do something with as little cash outlay as possible. I started my original company, MEG Fitness, with just my time. I was even able to promote my services by writing a free weekly health column and then took advantage of a cheaper alternative to an ad in another newspaper by being featured in their health section.
When I think of the term bootstrapping, I always think of starting a business without outside financial help, but technically, it means, ‘using a special process to perform a task that one would be unable to do in general’. I found it can refer to much more than just business! But, for our purposes, I am referring to the term as I have always considered it: Raising yourself, and your business, up by your own bootstraps.
With any new and small business, especially small health or fitness practices, chances are you are going to start it with the sweat and tears of your own efforts. You may be in a position where you can quit your ‘day job’ and still pay your bills, but few people are even in a position to do that! So, you must create the plan and vision for your business, and then get it up and running, part-time and with your own finances. Many people feel this is just too overwhelming a proposition to seriously consider, but I know it can be done, because not only did I do it, but many of my previous clients have done it, also. These are the most enjoyable people for me to work with, today, because I know this is their big dream and they will do what is necessary to make it happen. As the business grows, they have a better chance to secure outside financing, but when creating the idea and the plans, the big key will be to start and grow with as little cash as possible.
In business school, we have learned that there are several sources of funding for starting up a business: The first is what is termed “FFF” for Family, Friends and Fools. This category would be where smaller amounts of cash would be offered, maybe $5,000 to $20,000. The second is finding an “Angel”. An Angel is someone with a lot of money who would be willing to invest in your company. Often this is a retired businessperson who has a lot of residual income and is content to put his/her money to work on a high-risk investment. Often an Angel is willing to invest larger amounts of money than the first category. Banks, in the form of a Small Business Association loan, are another possible funding source, which actually can be less demanding beyond just making your payments. However, banks generally want to see a comprehensive business plan that will outline how you will be able to make your loan payments while growing your business. The final funding source is from Venture Capitalists (VC’s) and VC organizations. VCs usually only consider companies that have large growth and profit potential. They are looking for that company that will likely go public or sell for an incredible profit and provide an amazing return on their investment.
Now you know of possible funding sources, and you probably don’t have a rich uncle or father, you don’t know any wealthy family friend who wants to lend money to you, and you’re not ready for an SBA loan or VC funding. The fact is that it is said that 99.9% of all business owners will pull their business up by their own ‘bootstraps’. That probably means you! Let’s now look at how you can make it happen with what you have:
1. Focus on your cash flow, not profits. This is an old lesson in schools of business. Reality is you have to pay your bills, so the biggest motivation is on sales. For a service business, this means bringing in clients! There are multiple stories of companies who grew to success all based on those first customers and clients. Then, not only do they have cash coming in, but also a source of referral for new clients! For this reason, my ultimate goal for new clients is to help them get past the stage of planning and actually put the word out there that they are open for business. This is a scary time for many. What if you fail? My bigger question is; What if you don’t try???
2. Just do it! What this means is, as I mentioned above, many of my clients like to plan, plan, plan, and the last thing they want to do is get out there and do it! But you can’t make money by planning only! No matter how well you plan, until you start working with clients, you won’t know what works and what does not work. Granted, you do have to plan, but no matter how much planning you do now, you will change procedures and processes as your experience grows. You can’t build up experience if you don’t start seeing clients.
3. Keep your day job. Most of the service professionals I have worked with have kept their full-time or part-time job while creating their business. The best way to keep the pressure off is to know you still have a regular income. That way you aren’t motivated by panic and can clearly define what your goals and vision are and create the plans to make it happen. It depends on your level of risk tolerance, however. If you are so driven, and you have a substantial savings, or an income and support from a significant other to carry you for a particular length of time, and you are committed to make your dream come true, you may prefer to quit your job and immerse yourself into the research and planning necessary to make your business a success, now. It can happen!
4. Get your name out there. Sometimes the best way to become known in your community is by offering free presentations or workshops. Examples include health fairs, school fairs, chamber events or community events such as bike races or marathons. Attend lunches and networking events and offer to give small presentations on your area of expertise. People need to know you’re there before they start contacting you. This is one of the easiest forms of free advertising.
5. You can do most of it on your own. In business school, there is big emphasis on building a team. It has taken me several years to start building my team. If you are looking at conserving as much of your funds as possible, there are always ways to do it yourself or only contract out for services that either will take too long to learn or you just have no interest in doing. For years I used templates to create my own websites. I studied all I could on SEO and how best to create a website, learning about website text, white space, headers and sub-headers, etc. Until business was so busy that I could no longer justify the time spent on my websites, I was content to do it all, myself. Other examples of doing it on your own are creating your own business cards, flyers and brochures. Most of us have the necessary software on our computers to create each of these promotional tools. All you need is a printer and ink, and you can have your own business card printed in no time. And, as details of your business change, such as adding a business phone line, a website or new office location, you can easily change your cards without having to throw out cards you spent several hundred dollars on.
6. Focus on function. You imagine that perfect office or location, but you have an extra room in your house. If you want to start making money, now, use what you have! When you have more money, you can then invest in a better location or that ideal office furniture. The key is to see clients, now, not wait until you can have the ideal setting. You may also wonder what is the best computer software program to help you work with clients, but often there are free or cheap options available online that will meet your needs. They may not look at pretty, or you may have to do some copying and pasting to present to the client, but until you can afford what you really want, doing something instead of waiting will still move you forward. Many potential clients will allow this very question hold them back from starting! Don’t forget that Bill Gates started in his garage!
7. Forecast. I always ask clients how much would they like to make in their first year, but then I have them break it down. How many clients would they like to see each week? Then we determine how much they will need to charge for each client and each situation to determine how they will meet that goal income. Many new clients undervalue their services, so this is often a valuable exercise. Another part of forecasting, however, is to know what your expenses are. If you have no understanding of how much you’re spending on your business, you can end up out of business before you’ve even started. Because my clientele are very careful and conservative, this has never been an issue with any of them, but you have to keep in mind that you can’t spend more than you are taking in or have to invest in your business. For this reason, not only is it imperative to start seeing clients immediately, and that you keep your expenses down, but it’s also critical that you understand what your current expenses are and how they will grow as the business grows. As clients progress through their business plan, I work with them to understand what increased expenses they will likely experience with different scenarios of growth.
8. Start with what you know. Let’s say you dream of opening up a health and fitness spa, but you want to start your business now, and you also enjoy working with people with food sensitivities. Creating a spa will take outside funding and a lot of market research, but seeing clients individually or in groups right now will just take some marketing and getting your name out there. When clients work on their business plan, I encourage them to think of the ultimate vision and set up the steps to make that happen. While working with clients, you can also start conducting the research necessary for the ultimate goal of a thriving health and fitness spa.
9. Always say yes! I know this is a scary proposition, but suppose your vision is to provide corporate health programs to local organizations and a company calls you today and say they would love to have YOU create a wellness program for their company. They would like you to start it in 2 months, they want all 100 employees involved, you can create as many groups as you like from those 100 people, and they are offering you your asking rate for not only the time you will spend in presenting the program but also for creating it. The first emotion you experience is amazement that it’s actually happening, then utter fear, and then panic sets in. BUT; you say yes! You cannot afford to say you’ll get back to them! This is increased cash flow. One first theory in business is always saying yes and THEN figure out how you’ll get it done. There are an unlimited number of options and resources when you allow your creativity to come into play. Funny how creative we become when fear of failure drives us and the passion to make it really happen motivates us.
10. Emphasize what makes you unique. You don’t have the luxury of comparing yourself with the leaders of your industry when you’re starting out on a shoestring. You must draw clients/customers to you by focusing on yourself, period. Why will a client come to you instead of sign up for a hospital-based weight loss program? Why will they call you for your personal training services instead of join the health club? Why will they make an appointment with you instead of the doctor down the street? It has to be more than money; it has to be something about you and the unique services or care you offer. When you don’t have the fancy trimmings to attract clients, you have to fall back on what you do have to offer and use that as your competitive edge.
If you have a dream to start your business, don’t let lack of funds stop you in your tracks. The number of successful entrepreneurs who have grown a thriving business from nothing is huge! Life is too short to live in a dream of what may have been. For stories of successful bootstrappers, click this link: