Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bootstrapping 101

I moderated a panel discussion last night on one of my favorite topics, bootstrapping, as part of our Silicon Valley Center for Entrepreneurship Eminent Speaker Series at San Jose State. One of my colleagues, Joel West, beat me to the punch with a summary of the program.

We had a good mix of experts on the subject:
Gus shared the strategy of Kennet, which is a unique breed of venture firm, sitting in between early stage Sand Hill Road VC's and late stage/private equity players. They have a standard presentation on bootstrapping, which they present around the country. Kennet has a white paper on that summarizes why bootstrapped businesses are the best. Another interesting related point that he made was that only in Silicon Valley does this message seem to fall on deaf ears, although maybe not now! In other parts of the country, this is business as usual:
  1. Identify a customer need
  2. Build a product
  3. Sell the product
In the valley, the knee jerk reaction is to start with the powerpoint deck and look for the venture capital drug....

Jon Fisher purposely avoided raising venture capital in his ventures. His latest venture, Bharosa, was sold to Oracle for a 6X multiple in 3 years to his angel investors, a sweet close to triple digit IRR. His goal in building the company was to spend 3 years building value and find a good home for the engineers and product. In this case, a win-win for everyone, except perhaps the VCs who didn't get the opportunity to participate. Certainly not to say they couldn't have raised more cash and built this in to a bigger company, but was nice to have the option of going either way and doing what was right for the founders and employees.

Finally, Ilya Ronin, shared the Marpo Kinetics story, a true bootstrapped garage start-up. The three founders shared a vision, built the exercise machines in the garage, and knocked on doors at health clubs, attended trade shows, and worked the phone to get initial sales. We don't know the end of the story, but they have built a real business with hundres of machines sold to gyms all over the world along with government contracts for military purchases.

In this economy, all entrepreneurs are going to hear a lot of "no's", but time spent going after customers rather than investors should provide a higher return on investment. Of course, assuming you are successful in the first, the latter will certainly be an option in the future.