Picture this: You’re lying on the couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon when it suddenly hits you: that fabled killer idea that every entrepreneur dreams of (or the best iteration of an original idea. Your choice.). Inspired, you sit up. Suddenly, the rest of the day doesn’t seem so hazy. Facebook wasn’t built in a day, and they sure didn’t get anything done while covered in a fine layer of Cheeto dust. This is your chance to frolic with the unicorns! Your cursor closes your Netflix tab for the first time in days, and you get ready to dial some numbers. Who to call first? You heard somewhere that the fellows over at True Ventures are pretty cool; maybe they’ll put up your seed round. But your finger just can’t quite push the call button. You recall some not-so-cherished memories of your last idea that flamed out in spectacular fashion. Investors just didn’t see the growth potential in your dog massage-sharing platform like you did (you’ll prove them wrong one day!). Down goes the phone. Who needs funding? You’ll grow this business alone, and in your mind, you know that it’s the best decision for your company. Right?
And in many cases, you wouldn’t be alone. While venture funding gets all the press, the reality is that only 0.05 percent of all startups are venture-backed (and 0.91 percent are angel-backed). The rest of the crowd makes do with funding from family & friends, bank loans, crowdfunding, and personal savings. The term “bootstrapping” refers to a self-sustaining process sans external input, or, in startup terms, operating with no outside investment. The virtues of bootstrapping are tempting:
All equity remains within the company.
No outside investment means no outside ownership. Sure, if you set aside an employee option pool (which you should, you cheap bastard), you could own 80-90 percent of your company depending on how many employees you have when you exit. Case in point: of the $575 million Match Group just paid for dating site Plenty of Fish, founder Markus Frind will walk away with $525 million, or 91 percent. While distribution of equity will vary across industries, investors can receive 15% to 35% in a typical seed round with that number jumping to 50% in a typical Series A. Bootstrapping eliminates that outside share, keeping ownership within company lines.
Take the business where you want to go.
If you do raise venture capital money, you are no longer alone in your business pursuits. Your VC’s views of your company’s future may not align with yours; they may want to take the company in a new direction that might be more profitable, but you may want to stay the course and work on what originally inspired you. It’s also not uncommon for founding CEOs to be ousted from the leadership of their own companies in favor of bringing in a “professional” or “growth stage” CEO. Granted, founder CEOs are usually only replaced if they have lost the confidence of their employees or if they are truly failing at their job. Regardless, most founders would probably prefer to avoid this.
Prevent money from taking over.
Now that outside money is involved, the success of your business is beholden not only to you but also your VCs. And those VCs have to answer to their LPs who, in the end, are seeking worthwhile returns from their capital commitments. The harsh truth is: it is about the money. Venture capital is already by nature a very illiquid asset class. Funds have lifetimes of around 10 years during which LPs cannot access any investments that they have made. And after 10 years of being locked out, it’s fair for LPs to expect a reasonable ROI from funds (the average ROI for venture capital over 10 years was 10 percent in 2014). For VCs to achieve acceptable returns, they need their portfolio companies to have exits, and big ones too, since the bulk of VC returns are usually generated by a minority of investments (I’m generalizing here, but the numbers are in line with this). By accepting funding, you also accept the obligation to return money to your VCs and their LPs through an eventual exit, even if an exit may not be the best choice for your company in the long run.
Stay hungry and stay focused.
Yes, raising a round will get you the money to move into that hip office space and finally get those exalted free meals the peeps over at Google talk about in every news article. But do you really need those? There’s a difference between running a company on your own dime vs. a VC’s checkbook. When you’re operating alone, every penny matters, and everything else counts as a luxury. An entrepreneur should focus on his or her product, plain and simple. Through board meetings and investor calls, venture money can take away from time that would have been devoted to development and production. A group of two people usually chooses where to eat quicker than a group of nine, and when you take on funding, your company becomes that group of nine that can’t move as fast or adapt as quickly as everyone else.
Bootstrapping is nothing new. Well-documented success stories that include MailChimp, WooThemes (acquired by Automattic), Github, and the aforementioned Plenty of Fish are a testament to the viability of bootstrapping. But as survivorship bias dictates, we tend to overlook the stories of failures, those who bootstrapped and didn’t make it. For many startups, VC support and funding is a necessity. Funding offers the opportunity to scale a company orders of magnitude faster than bootstrapping does, reducing the possibility that a competitor steals the market before you’ve even begun to enter. For startups chasing billion-dollar markets, the boost offered by venture capital will often outweigh the lost ownership percentage. Rest assured that no one sympathized with Jack Ma for owning “only” 8.9 percent of Alibaba.
This post is not meant to portray VCs as greedy, controlling company killers. Venture capital has been an important factor behind a long string of successes, and the numbers validate that venture capital as an investment model is here to stay. VCs do provide immense benefit to the entrepreneurs they work with. The best VCs will value an alignment of interest with founders and many adopt a hands-off approach when managing their investments, allowing entrepreneurs to work as they please, while the value of their professional connections cannot be understated. All things considered, maybe you should pick up the phone and give True Ventures a call after all. Or not.