What Does It Actually Mean To Be Bootstrapped?
January 18, 2022

What Does It Actually Mean To Be Bootstrapped?

by Brian de Haaff

When was the last time you felt deep pride? The details will differ of course. But I bet there is a throughline for every answer: You saw a problem or need, you devised an innovative way to solve it, and you delivered real value to another person. It is a simple human truth — we find meaning and self-worth when what we do has a positive impact on others.

This drive to accomplish through skill and service is what inspires us to harness our creativity, embark on new projects, and start companies.

I have been thinking about this concept a lot lately and reflecting on a blog I wrote last summer. That post shared details about how we were able to bootstrap Aha! from the beginning — from the importance of choosing the right co-founder to telling our authentic story at every touchpoint. The intention was to inspire anyone thinking of starting a business on their own terms.

My inbox overflowed after it was published. I frequently get messages from people asking for advice on company building and product management. But these were different — folks wanted to know more about bootstrapping. The questions went beyond the tactical financial aspect (yes, we invested a small amount of our own money to get going) and asked more broadly about the overall approach and if we would ever raise capital to "fuel growth."

What does it actually mean to be bootstrapped? I believe it is much more than how something is funded. Bootstrapping is a mindset. And it is a mindset that everyone reading this can embrace — regardless of the organization you work for.

Now, before I go into exactly what I mean — let’s talk about what I do not mean. There are very real limits that keep many people from having the privilege of building a career or business their way. Plenty of people balk (rightly so) at the ideal that assumes an individual is fully responsible for their own growth, regardless of socioeconomic factors, and that the trajectory is linear. Support is needed at many levels and effort is not the sole success factor. There are many stops, turns, and curves. A person can try very hard and still fall harder through no fault of their own based on challenges that they cannot impact.

I am referring to bootstrapping in business for those who have been provided the opportunity and have the means. For those who are fortunate enough to be in the position to found a company or champion a new program at work, the concept of bootstrapping can be a powerful way to honor your self-reliance, avoid waste, and deliver more value. The cushion of outside funding or a big budget with lots of internal resources can feel like a protective buffer at first. But I have seen quite a few folks sink into that softness and struggle. And in many ways it is why large companies are notoriously poor at ongoing innovation.

To me, being bootstrapped is a way of operating that steers efficient and responsive decisions, especially in complex situations. Here is how:

Clear purpose

Your purpose drives you. You hone in on your goals, which enables you to eliminate distractions. You have a rubric for confident decision making. Your work is grounded in meaning.

Self-reliance

You strive to be responsible. You make it a point not to exploit or squander resources. You reject drama and blaming. You are in control of what you do or do not do.

Waste-avoidance

You eschew extravagance. You use time and money wisely. You treat company resources with the same respect as you would your personal belongings.

Long-range view

You prioritize lasting value. You evaluate short-term needs against the overall horizon. You forgo instant gratification in favor of what will bring you closer to your goals.

We rarely achieve alone — most of us work with a team or partner. You can achieve even more if you bootstrap together.

Taking a principled approach may be difficult at first. If you are bringing bootstrapping to an established organization, for example, you may butt up against others who would rather be swept along with the status quo. But over time you will find folks who want to work differently — people with independent spirits and verve.

Purpose, self-reliance, and long-term value. I believe bootstrapping starts with embracing the mindset, is reinforced with everyday actions, matures into an operating philosophy, and eventually becomes your greatest competitive advantage.

What are the best traits of a company or team that is “bootstrapped”?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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