There’s no shortage of articles and videos providing inside looks at successful entrepreneurs and their startups. You can learn about the founder’s vespa of choice, what discipline of yoga is provided to align employee’s qi, and the kind of free beer that can disrupt that qi.
This is not one of these accounts. Instead, it’s a bootstrapper’s survival guide, strategies for getting your startup off the ground on as little money as possible. In other words, these are things my co-founder Paul and I couldn’t live without as we build our startup, Treatings.
In this series I’ve exhausted the stairway to heaven, AKA the bunk bed Paul and I share. But, for anyone considering following in our cheap footsteps, I do have one housekeeping note: at Bed, Bath & Beyond they only sell Twin XL bedsheets at the beginning of college semesters. If you try to purchase them off-cycle you’re in for an embarrassing conversation. When I asked, “I didn’t see any Twin XL sheets, where do you keep those?“ the well-meaning employee replied, “No, I don’t think you’re looking for Twin XL sheets, those are only for dorm room furniture.”
Savings from my previous apartment: $1,100/month (admittedly, I was overspending on my last apartment), plus Paul, my cofounder/roommate’s savings: also $1,100, for a grand total of $2,200.
The days of black cars sponsored by Wall Street clients are a distant memory. Whereas two years ago, when I worked at an investment bank, I might have been the guy shaking his head disapprovingly behind tinted windows as skittish bikers wove in and out of traffic, dodging cars, doors and pedestrians, now I’m the scared asshole on the bike. If you rely on a bike in NYC, make sure to have Yelp at the ready for when your bike is “relieved” of its front tire, so you can find the cheapest replacement within a 5-mile radius.
Savings over monthly subway pass: $1,000/year.
With a team of two and no funding, it’s difficult to justify (afford) office space. Instead, we use a library. New York University Bobst Library to be exact. We discovered we could leverage an old apartment address to get “Friends of the Library” passes. Advantages: an annual pass costs less than one month’s rent at a standard coworking space. Disadvantages: even a whisper can often elicit passive aggressive stares from sleep-deprived students, and when exam time comes around finding vacant seats is a lost cause. In addition, we have no private space where we can invite people over for meetings.
Savings over co-working space: $5,000/year.
So, where do we receive in-person feedback? The nice thing about creating a professional networking platform to connect peers over coffee is that we have an excuse to schedule our own meetings in coffee shops. If you’ve received an “In the spirit of Treatings, let’s meet at [coffee shop x],” it’s because the NYU Library doesn’t take kindly to those who aren’t students, financial donors or Paul and me. We’ve mapped out an Oregon Trail of coffee shops to frequent, with the requirements being reliable Wi-Fi, cheap refills and a lax policy on camping out.
Savings: -$750/year (we’ll chalk this one up as a loss, given the exorbitant amount of money we spend on coffee.)
“Thank You For Your Criticism. I Appreciate It and Am Not At All Defensive” Smile
When soliciting feedback on Treatings, we always need this smile in our back pockets. Naysayers and criticism are in no short supply. I’ve realized that you can never appeal to everyone, and if you do that can even be a negative signal. As others have said, if you’re building a product for everyone, you’re building it for no one. I’ve experimented with the “interrupt and defend” approach, with no success, so my new resolution is to slap a smile on my face andjust listen.
Savings: Face (Don’t look like a defensive prick)
We’ve conducted due diligence on establishments near our apartment and the library, crunching the numbers on the protein-to-dollar math. On more than one occasion, Paul has sheepishly asked an employee of a restaurant, “How many shrimp, if you were to guess, come in this dish?” Lunch is often at a takeout spot that offers a discount for those who arrive on bike. We’ve even pinpointed the server who is most generous with portions, forgoing the store altogether if he isn’t around. Dinner is a toss-up, as it often depends on the 20 percent off Seamless rotation. If we’re desperate to get out of the library, there’s a nearby bar that has an extended happy hour and lets us order delivery food.
Savings: I’m netting even on this one, since dinner and weekend work meals were paid for in my previous job but I was eating out more often.
When we were looking to incorporate, founders warned us that the one area where we shouldn’t cut corners is legal help. We were fortunate to find capable lawyers who don’t care about that whole payment thing, or at least collecting on the billable hours we’ve been accruing. There are numerous startup-friendly law firms that will defer payment until after the startup raises funding.
Savings: Your company. One of many things we were alerted to by our lawyers was 83(b) elections. Failure to file proper paperwork at the outset can result in company-jeopardizing tax and legal consequences.
Explicable Domain Name
We failed the “explicable” test. When meeting people, whether at pre-arranged meetings or accosting them in Washington Square Park, an elementary question we’ll receive is “So, where do I find you, is it just treatings dot com?” The .com domain was taken by someone ringfencing a similar-sounding site name, so we settled on treatin.gs. God, this was a bad decision. We’ve burned an embarrassing amount of time trying to communicate this domain. Most people have never visited a site with a .gs domain, so our poor choice has wasted us time (a lot of arm-moving and gesturing to paint in the air where the dot is in the name) and cost our visitors. Last week we switched the domain to treatings.co. This still isn’t ideal, but at least we won’t receive any more e-mails ending with, “I’ll be sure to check out treatings.gs.”
Savings: Time and legitimacy
Maybe one day we’ll be featured in one of those office video tours, with Paul and I pontificating on our culture while in the background the Customer Experience Ninja can be seen pulling the trigger of her quadruple barrel NERF gun aimed at the barrel-rolling Chief Happiness Officer.
Until then, we’ll make do with the bare necessities.
This is the 16th installment of a PandoDaily weekly series that chronicles the experiences of a young entrepreneur as he bootstraps his startup.
Part 14, “A bootstrapped startup’s freelancer dilemma.“
Come back next Sunday to read the next installment.
[Image Credit: keith ellwood on Flickr]