On March 12-15 in Mexico City, my firm Earnest Capital (with our friends SureSwift Capital) will be hosting the Founder Summit. It’s a gathering of entrepreneurs, founders, makers, and indie hackers to learn from one another, build relationships, and have a blast. No slide decks, no sales pitches, no ‘speakers only’ section, just awesome people hanging out, doing workshops on everything from leadership, mindfulness, persuasive writing, building culture, and working remotely. Tickets are only available by filling out the pre-registration form at foundersummit.co.
“Bootstrap a lifestyle business, strap yourself in to the VC roller coaster, or take out a loan with a personal guarantee and risk losing everything if the business fails.”… For as long as I have been an entrepreneur this was pretty much the menu of options available to most founders of software companies. Before you even tested the business you had to commit to one path and hope you chose wisely. Choose incorrectly and you could kill an otherwise great idea by setting yourself down the wrong path. Raise VC for a business that tops out at $10m a year in revenue; you’re headed for zombie status or a forced acquihire. Carefully build a small profitable business; well you’re obviously not the kind of ambitious dent-in-the-universe founder VCs want to back, so get ready to burn through your savings. Good luck even getting your local bank to talk to you about a loan to start your new SaaS business; you’d be better off asking them to finance the 5th Taco Bell in town.
But recently, a proliferation of new tools and funding options are creating more pathways for entrepreneurs to build and fund software companies while maintaining flexibility and optionality. Let’s follow the path.
0/?You find a unique pain point and have an idea for a product that will solve it
What you don’t do is put together a pitch deck, finagle a multi-billion-dollar total addressable market and spend the next 6 months fundraising. You know that for all the new “pre-seed” funds popping up and all the talk about how “it’s never been easier to raise money” that fundraising on a pitch deck and an idea is a long, hard, time-consuming process that’s unlikely to be successful. Better to just get started on the business without asking investors’ permission. So you do…
1/?♀️Launch a minimum viable product and get your first customers
The path starts by just getting started. You work directly with your potential customers and validate that they actually have a problem and want to pay to solve it. Here your options have never been better.
- You could start a consulting business first. Spin up a simple LLC with Stripe Atlas and use recurring invoicing tools like Harvest or Freshbooks and you have yourself a side-hustle consulting business. From there you can test if there is true willingness to pay in this market and learn more about what kind of product your customers would pay for.
- Use no-code tools to stitch together a prototype of your product. You could use Makerpad to find the right combination of tools that let you build a software product without code. This could either be a duct taped version that actually does what it says on the label, or a “Wizard of Oz” version that looks and feels like software, but actually you are doing the heavy lifting by hand behind the scenes.
- You could learn enough code to build the first version. Depending on your learning style, budget, and time, you might prefer coding bootcamps or online tutorial repositories (like Pluralsight or Egghead) or both. Starting with a product to build is the best way I know to stay motivated while learning to code. Even if the product fails, you will have learned a valuable skill.
- You launch your MVP and get your first customers.
2/?$2-5k MRR (monthly recurring revenue): “rent money” and growing
Your product is live, people are paying for it. Those people stick around (retention) and more people continue signing up (growth). You’re in business now. Once you get to a few $1,000 in monthly revenue, “rent money” level, you have several options on how to proceed.
- Continue to bootstrap the business on the side. If you can continue to balance a job or freelance work, you can run your business on the side and keep it growing until it generates a full-time income for you.
- You could go “digital nomad” and move somewhere like Thailand, Bali or Budapest, with a very low cost of living and where your new product can support you full-time. This isn’t an option for many people with a mortgage or family to take care of, but for the right entrepreneur it can be a great way to cut your personal burn rate and keep your options open.
- With this traction you could raise $50k-150k on a Shared Earnings Agreement (or SEAL) which would allow you to go full-time 1 on your business. A SEAL is designed to bring on investors who will back you early on and let you decide later whether you want to build a profitable sustainable business or a high-growth rocketship.
- At this point you would likely have a great shot at joining your accelerator of choice. But know that most accelerators’ business model is predicated on getting as much of their cohort funded by VCs as possible. If pivoting the business to larger markets, focusing on short-term growth, and honing your pitch to maximize your raise on demo day isn’t what you want, either skip the accelerators or be very clear upfront that you aren’t sure you want to go down the VC path… yet or ever.
3/ ?$5-25k MRR: ramen profitable + team
You choose a path that gets you working on the business full-time. You start to get initial product-market-fit and feel like your product really solves a genuine pain point. You find a few channels of organic (ie free) growth and begin hiring your first team members. This gets you to “ramen profitable” where you can pay the founders a reasonable salary, at least to where you aren’t burning through your savings or the capital you raised. So what will you do to power the next phase of growth?
- As always, you can stay bootstrapped, grow organically, hire slowly, and run a Calm Company. This is particularly good path if you have a product with high retention, good free sources of new customers, and you are focused on a niche without too many direct competitors.
- But maybe you want to make a few key hires—a top tier marketer, the first person in outside sales, or a senior engineer to take the product to the next level—that current cashflow can’t support yet. New funds like Indie.vc and Earnest Capital 2 are ready to back companies at this stage that want to stay focused on building real, profitable, sustainable businesses. You could raise $100k-$500k to see if you can meaningfully change the growth of the business while still planning to return to profitability.
- You might run some growth experiments, either with your own cashflow or the capital you raised from Earnest or Indie, and discover that there are a ton of ways to turn cash into growth for your business. Now might be a great time to raise a few million in a Seed / Series A venture round on much better terms than before you had this traction.
4/ ?$25- 100k MRR: maximum optionality
You continue growing the business with several proven channels for customer acquisition. You have a minimum awesome team in place that can ensure the product is the best in its class. Somewhere in here you hit or have line of sight to a $1m/year business with a diversified customer base and likely some nice profits. If you’ve gotten here without taking too much outside capital, you have navigated the path to maximum optionality because the number of options for taking your business from here are numerous. You could:
- Keep funding your business with the most optimally formulated fuel that keeps you absolutely focused on building the best product you can: customer revenue.
- Somewhere in this range, the traditional banking system3 will finally become helpful. You’ll be able to fairly easily access a $100k line of credit or $50k+ in credit card limits to alleviate any short-term cashflow constraints.
- You may still want to bring on some more long-term aligned investors for a mix of patient capital, mentorship, and network. In which case the funds from #3 are still a good option, but you could also probably do a large enough raise that a priced equity round might make sense.
- A huge array of specialized revenue-based financing lenders are now interested in your company. Folks like Lighter Capital, SaaS Capital, Bigfoot Capital, TIMIA Capital, and RevUp will lend upfront capital in exchange for a percentage of your monthly revenue. Unlike traditional banks, these funds do not require a personal guarantee. They are debt instruments and typically become really viable around $50k MRR when the business has become fairly proven and predictable.
- You might also find that your business has a few “money machines” where you can plug money in and get more money out. Specialized funds like Clearbanc, which will finance your paid marketing budget (ie Facebook or Google ads), or Braavo, which will finance your receivables from app stores, are available.
- ☝️All the options to this point are not mutually exclusive and can be layered on one another in whatever way makes the most sense for your business.
- But also, at this point you could likely sell your business for a life-changing amount of money. You’ve kept most or all of the equity in the business. You likely don’t have a board that can block a sale or giant liquidation preferences that make a sale for a few million unattractive. Even if you don’t sell, knowing that you could at any time is a powerful source of freedom.
- Or, you could look at your $1m/year business and realize at this point you are in or adjacent to a $1B market. You are a proven founder. Your product, sales, support teams are well-oiled and scaleable. You talk it over with the team and decide to shove all your chips in and raise a monster round of VC on far more attractive terms than you could have at the beginning of this process. You could, but you absolutely do not have to.
5/ ?To Rocket or Not
The beauty of all of these options is that most of them can be mixed and matched. Entrepreneurs now have far more choices and paths that allow them to test the market, grow their business and move forward with or without funding. The choice is up to you.
This is the entrepreneurs new path of maximum optionality.
Ira Glass, the creator of the radio program This American Life, has this famous quote that’s worth reading in its entirety:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
It’s such a useful insight for creative work. It’s also a broader lesson that the thing that will be your ultimate strength can be, during a transition phase, a weakness that you have to overcome. Having great taste is ultimately something that will make your work great, but in the short-term, when you are beginning to learn a craft, that same taste tells you that your work is worthless. Your taste makes it hard to persevere through the practice and master the craft to a level a worthy of your own taste. To make it through that phase, you have to let some bad work happen—your own—and have faith that the process will improve it over time.
Something similar happens often when making the transition from a maker to a manager. Credit to Paul Graham for pointing out some important differences between makers and managers in the modern workplace. Although in this instance I’m not talking about scheduling, but taste or something like it.
Most of the people I know who are now managers, didn’t go to business school and train to be a manager, they started as makers. They started as founders, doing all the making at a company they created from nothing, or they started as key individual contributors, the first marketer/designer/developer at a small organization. Over time the organization grows, to hit its goals it needs a design team and an engineering team, and so talented individual contributors start hiring, resourcing, planning and managing.
And here is the most important skill I know for making this transition smoothly and effectively:
Let bad work happen.
Five years ago I built and launched the first version of a SaaS app on a single flight from San Francisco to Buenos Aires. Slowly and steadily, Storemapper grew into a healthy location-independent business for one person and then later a small dedicated remote team. At parties, I would describe it as, “not a startup; a healthy growing internet small business.” This year, almost exactly five years after launching, I sold the business for what, to someone growing up middle class in Florida, is a life-changing amount of money that will enable all kinds of exciting new projects and adventures. From start to finish, it has been an exciting ride, much of which I have documented here on the blog. With the sale concluded, I wanted to share as much as I could about the process of building a business that can be sold and how I sold it.
There’s always a risk that these posts turn into a 5,000-word humblebrag. But I really do think it’s worth a read because, unlike most business acquisition stories, which often feel like an out of the blue stroke of good luck, the way that I sold Storemapper feels very replicable for other entrepreneurs. When I spoke to someone two years ago about what it would look like if I ever sold the business I would say, “I’m not trying to sell it now, but if I ever did it would probably look this…” And six months ago I would tell a few folks privately, “I think that one of the people I met recently might be the one to buy Storemapper and if they do it will probably go like this…” And, then basically when it all went down it looked more or less like… that. There wasn’t some single huge stroke of good luck, though of course, I got lucky in the little ways that every successful business has to. An excellent outcome, but also a perfectly reasonable and achievable one that I think can serve as something of a template for other bootstrapped entrepreneurs.
This is a long and detailed post. I had so many questions going into this process and I didn’t find a ton of good posts from the founders perspective on selling bootstrapped businesses. So I thought I would just throw everything I could think of into a post and let you skip around or save it for reference when you’re considering selling your own business. Grab a pot of coffee and let’s get started.
First the obvious: why sell your software business?
I never set out to build a robot army. But today, there are at least a dozen little robots who do my bidding on a daily basis. Between managing my personal life and running my Micro-SaaS Business (Storemapper), my robot army does drudgery while I sleep and makes my life a little easier and more productive. Here’s how you can build one yourself. In Part 1 I’m just going to look at the robots that required no coding to set up, later I’ll do a post about all the little custom scripts I’ve got running on Heroku Scheduler.