By Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (Civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD[Please also refer to: Things Every Tech or Other Startup Needs to Know about Business Models]
In the five year period leading up to 2010, approximately 91.6% of all
tech startups in the US were self-funded or bootstrapped, 8.1% were
Angel-backed and just 0.3% were VC-funded. How to self-fund (self-capitalize or
bootstrap) new tech enterprises is the subject of this paper.
Self-funding objectives are primarily fourfold—improve speed to market,
retain a higher percentage of ownership of new enterprises in the hands of
their founders, increase returns on equity and improve survivorship rates.
Furthermore, self-capitalization results in more efficient use of a scarce
resource—startup funding—crucial to national economic development.
Self-capitalization is a different form of financial capital. Unlike
either debt or equity, self-capital is either ultra low cost or free (ignoring
opportunity costs). Sources are many and varied. It is an underexploited form
of capitalization. It is faster to raise than either equity or debt sourced
from conventional sources such as Angels, VCs, commercial banks or Government
Main sources of self-capitalization are trade credit (or supplier credit),
deposits/retainers/ advances/progress payments from customers or clients,
rights fees from and/or investment by strategic investors/sponsors/partners,
founder sweat equity, script, soft capital, home equity loans, micro capital
loans, crowd funded capital sourced via sites like Kickstarter.com or
Indiegogo.com, IP licensing, financial leasing, credit cards, receivable
factoring, accretive buying, accretive selling, seller take back financing,
trading and asset flipping, partner loans/contributions,
consulting/moonlighting, competitions, barter, borrowing physical assets like
office space/tools/furniture/personnel, co-branding and co-marketing. In
addition to speeding up the go-to-market process, self-capitalization improves
ROE, Return on Equity, as well as project IRR, Internal Rate of Return, causes
the cash conversion cycle to become negative and allows entrepreneurs to
control more of the equity of their own enterprises over a longer period.
Texts on financing new ventures tend to focus either on micro-finance
for tiny businesses mainly in Third World
nations or VC-track enterprises. Leach and Melicher (Entrepreneurial Finance, J
Chris Leach and Ronald W Melicher, South-Western College Publication, 2009)
refer to early stage financing as ‘seed funding’ whose ‘primary source of funds
at the development stage is the entrepreneur’s own assets.’
Schumpeter said in 1934, ‘Entrepreneurs are innovators who use a process of
shattering the status quo of existing products and services, to set up new
products, new services.’ Entrepreneurs are persons who efficiently
use scarce resources, most of which are not their own, to disrupt the status
quo. Hence, discussions of business valuation, first round financing, second
round, mezzanine financing, bridge financing and IPO are almost wholly
irrelevant to a vast majority of startups around the world today.
pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that,’
Norman Vincent Peale.
The role of investment banking firms, venture law firms, commercial
banks, public financial markets and securities firms is limited in the startup
process. In Fool’s Gold, The Truth
Behind Angel Investing in America (Oxford
University Press, 2008), Scott Shane estimates that approximately 600 (pre-revenue)
tech startups were funded in the US by VCs in 2004 while about 35.5% of all
Angel-backed startups were pre-revenue. This works out to approximately 16,000
startups funded by Angels each year during this period (J Basil Peters,https://www.angelblog.net/Angels_Finance_27_Times_More_Start-ups_Than_VCs.html).
The US Census Bureau’s BDS data base suggests that an average of 198,000
tech startups (defined as those with 100 employees or less) were created per
year in the five year period leading up to 2010 in the United States. Taken
together, these figures imply that 91.6% of all startups during this time were
self-funded or bootstrapped, 8.1% were Angel-backed and just 0.3% were
If an entrepreneur is someone who efficiently use scarce resources, most
of which are not their own, to disrupt the status quo, where does s/he get
those resources from? Often they receive funding from future customers/clients
and suppliers. Sources such as commercial banks and government support programs
play a lesser role than they once did. Commercial banks in Canada and most of the world tend
to lend money to people who already have significant collateral while
governments may take too long to make decisions and provide support.
In 2009, trade credit (or supplier credit) surpassed bank lending as a
source of finance for business in the US. TC amounted to $2.15 trillion
that year versus $1.5 trillion in bank lending (which was down more than 6.5%,
year over year) according to data from the US Federal Reserve.
For startups, trade credit or supplier credit is a key source of
funding. For tech startups, supplier inputs may include—software and hardware
(both off the shelf and custom), consulting services, office space,
fabricators, designers and developers (GUI, packaging, website, mobile app),
product managers, HR, law firms (corporate/commercial and IP advisors) and
accountants as well as IT and telecommunications infrastructure.
Some of these inputs may be contributed by suppliers on credit. Why
would they do that?
• First of all, they do it because they trust the business they are
providing credit to, to eventually pay them.
• Secondly, they want to expand the market and their market share—one of
their key weapons for doing this is to provide credit to firms that buy from
• Thirdly, this tends to lock clients into their business ecosystem—once
a client has been approved for trade credit, they tend to buy from the same
source over and over again using their approved credit facility on a revolving
basis. They also tend to be less price sensitive than retail buyers since they
are using credit instead of their own cash and they often have the ability to
pass on higher costs to their clients.
• Fourthly, once they establish good credit, they may apply for a higher
credit limit to expand their business further.
• Fifthly, suppliers expect to be paid not by their clients but by their
clients’ clients. So a supplier is actually funding (indirectly) credit
worthiness of their client’s clients.
• Sixthly, suppliers want their clients to survive for a long period.
They will often go out of their way to help out a loyal client who gets into
financial difficulties by giving them improved terms for their financing,
forgiving portions of their debt or trading debt for equity. Commercial banks
may call their loans if they learn a new business is experiencing cashflow
issues. Suppliers tend to remain supportive (to a point).
Customer Financing—Case Study
Tech companies can also source startup capital from their clients.
Game Tech, GT*, is an advergaming startup about five years old. They are
a top notch Ontario-based advergaming firm. They have—i. significant growth in
their order book, ii. a client list that includes Fortune 50 and Fortune 500
companies and iii. excellent technology and creative resources within their
business ecosystem. With each new order, they need to build a bigger ‘pipeline’
to deliver their products—i.e., hire more highly paid tech developers on
(* Company name and some of the data have been changed for this
GT asks for and receives ten percent of order price upon execution of
each new sales contract. They do not ask for nor receive any progress payments
even when they hit important project milestones. They wait until their complex
projects, many of which are multi-year, are completed plus 30 days to receive
the balance of the order price.
As a result, they require substantial amounts of capital from their Bank
to fund their growth. At one point, they exceed their approved $700,000 line of
credit by $11,000 and, as a result, their Bank calls their loan. Within ten
days, they will not be able to meet payroll.
However, in crisis, there is opportunity. Businesses experiencing
financial difficulties can turn to four other sources for assistance—their
Board, their shareholders, their suppliers and their clients. In GT’s case,
their Board and shareholders are one and the same—they are all entrepreneurs
with some personal resources but at this stage of their careers and
development, they are fully committed. Consequently, GT is forced to adopt a
different, bi-directional strategy—they ask their clients for advances on
signed contracts and they change their business model.
Their clients (all but one of them) come to their assistance and save
the firm. They do this because superb advergaming technology companies are
difficult to replace especially mid-contract.
Next, GT changes their model which now calls for 1/3 deposit/retainer
upfront with each new contract signed and then progress payments that always
put the firm ahead in terms of their cashflow. Only 10% is due upon final delivery
plus 30 days. Their Cash Conversion Cycle (CCC) changes from +274 days to -61
days and the firm goes on to open offices in New York,
Toronto and LA.
Total employment now exceeds 170.
CCC is an important tool for entrepreneurs to use—if it is 0 or negative,
then entrepreneurs can grow their businesses without need of outside funding.
Let’s examine GT’s current cashflow position using a simplified model.
Assume they do only one transaction in their financial year in the
amount of $3,000,000, their cost of goods sold is $2,000,000, they pay 1/3 up
front to their contract developers (i.e., $666,700) and they receive a deposit
of 50% from their client or $1,500,000.
Their Cash Conversion Cycle is calculated as follows:
CCC = ART + INVT – APT,
ART is Accounts Receivable at Year End,
INVT is Inventory at Year End,
APT is Accounts Payable at Year End.
We can determine Game Tech’s CCC thusly—
Accounts Receivable at Year End (AR) $1,500,000
Days Per Year 365.25 Days
AR x Days Per year $540,787,500 Dollar-Days/Annum
Annual Sales $3,000,000 Dollars/Annum
AR x Days Per year/Annual Sales 182.625 Days ART
Inventory at Year End (INV) $0
Days Per Year 365.25 Days
INV x Days Per Year $0.00 Dollar-Days/Annum
Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) $2,000,000 Dollars/Annum
INV x Days Per Year/Annual Sales 0 Days INVT
Accounts Payable at Year End (AP) $ 1,333,300
Days Per Year 365.25 Days
AP x Days Per year $480,700,000 Dollar-Days/Annum
Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) $2,000,000 Dollars/Annum
AP x Days Per year/Annual Sales 243.5 Days APT
CCC -60.875 Days
Notes: Payables Down 0.333333333 0.666667 In 30 days One Sales
Game Tech’s Cash Conversion Cycle is now a healthy -61 days which means
that the faster GT grows, the more cash they have on hand.
This is a non-trivial advantage for them. If they had tried to continue
to rely on their Bank to fund their AR and inventory then they are vulnerable
to changes in Bank policy because of, say, appointment of a new Account Manager
or an overall downturn in the economy. GT is relying instead on its customers
and suppliers to provide them with financing, a more stable form of
What if GT, instead of asking for half down from clients with each
order, only receive payment when each order is delivered? What happens to their
CCC? It becomes a significantly worse +122 days. So even though they are still
only providing suppliers with 1/3 down, waiting this long to be paid by
customers means that they will have to find outside financing for each new
order they take.
Of course, if they don’t pay anything to suppliers until they get paid,
their CCC will be exactly 0 which is an improvement on +122. However, clients
are not then a source of capital for their growing firm. Small changes in
company policies produce big changes in CCC.
One of the keys to self-capitalization is to reduce the need for startup
capital in the first place. This can be done by looking for financing in the
deal flow itself. If capital is available from clients and from suppliers, new
enterprises should try to source as much as they can (within reason) from both.
It is often low cost or no-cost capital.
One of the most overlooked sources of self-capitalization for new
enterprises is the strategic investor. What is a strategic investor? Someone
who has a strategic interest in your success.
How do you find them? Look through your value chain.
Why go to strategic partners? They will generally make investment
decisions faster than Angels, VCs, investors, banks or governments and they
will have more capital and better connections throughout your industry than
raising money from friends and family.
What will they ask for in return? Often much less than anyone
else—perhaps they will be satisfied with, say, an exclusive period during which
they can feature/market/use your products or services thereby keeping your
products or services away from their competition and further differentiating
themselves in the marketplace. The funding they provide may also come with
fewer strings attached.
When Apple launches a new product like the iPhone, iPad or iPad mini,
what is it worth to a third party app developer, say, to be included on their
home screens? Organizations pay significant rights fees simply to be featured
in product launches like these. What’s good for Apple is good for your next
startup as well.
Why do equity investors fund startups? It’s to improve their returns.
How do you convince anyone to invest in your startup without giving up
too much equity? One thing entrepreneurs often underestimate is the value of
their sweat equity. They focus all their time and brainpower on making a new
enterprise successful. Investors are passive; alternative investments such as
GICs provide minuscule returns—typically 1.7% p.a. or less. Entrepreneurs are
expected to generate returns greatly in excess of this and, consequently, they
have leverage which they can use to strengthen their negotiating position with
either financial investors or silent partners.
Value can be attributed to sweat equity in a number of ways—it can be
calculated as a product of number of hours worked times an hourly wage or the
difference between the cost of starting a new enterprise and its fair market
value. Entrepreneurs can use a financial model that provides an acceptable
return to outside investors and assume that the balance of value created is (or
should be) theirs.
An equity price is determined as most prices are—by what a willing,
knowledgeable buyer and seller agree to in a marketplace where no undue pressure
exists either to buy or to sell. The only rule that entrepreneurs need know in
this regard is that there are no rules.
Raising Capital by ‘Issuing’ Script
There’s nothing new about raising money by issuing script. The Reynolds
Brothers ran a sawmill (established in 1870 by Orson L Reynolds) in the Adirondacks. In addition to logging and operating a local
mill, they also ran a company store and developed other sources of income
including catering to boarders as well as selling merchandise to loggers in
logging camps (Reynoldston, New York History of a Mill Town).
When they needed to raise money, they issued script such as a $5
promissory note to pay their bills and to fund new ventures or additions to
existing ones. The script says it is, ‘Due to the Bearer… In Trade At…’ What
this means is that the bearer of the script cannot redeem it for cash, i.e., a
sovereign banknote of the nation (the United States of America). The fact
that it is redeemable only ‘In Trade’ is key.
Reynolds had a margin on each trade so a $5 note with a GPM (Gross
Profit Margin of say 40%) only costs them $5/(1 + .4) or $3.57. It’s a good
deal for Reynolds but is it a good deal for a supplier, equipment maker or
labourer who accepts script instead of banknotes?
The answer is, it depends. If you can’t get any other work, $5 in credit
at a Reynolds Company Store, $5 in cigarettes or candy from a Reynolds vendor
(which could then be traded for other resources) or $5 in Reynolds products
(milled lumber) might be better than watching your family starve circa 1876
even if you know that it’s only really worth $3.57.
Tech startups can learn from this. They can issue script to employees,
contractors, suppliers and clients redeemable in the form of company products
If you think that bootstrap capital is something only startups use,
think again. Large firms including the Disney Company use Bootstrap Capital,
They did this when then CEO Mike Eisner acquired the Mighty Ducks of
Anaheim expansion franchise from the National Hockey League in 1993/94. The
franchise fee of $50 million was paid as follows—$25 million to the League and
$25 million to the LA Kings (then owned by Bruce McNall). But the Kings were
paid $5 million per year for five years, a form of Seller Take Back (STB)
financing (or Vendor financing), a prime source of capital for startups.
In addition, Disney got a $20 million leasing inducement from Ogden
Corp. (then owner of the Pond, now called the Honda Center where the Ducks
play) to sign a longterm building lease. Next, Disney put in place a $30
million line of credit secured by their newest asset (i.e., the franchise
itself). Hence, Disney acquired the team for a negative$20 million in cash.
This demonstrates that Bootstrap Capital is often ‘free’ capital. The
$20 million dollar leasing inducement that Disney received from Ogden did not require any
interest payments and, in fact, there were no principal repayments either.
Vendor financing Disney got from the Kings was also, in effect, an
interest-free loan for five years.
Free or ultra low cost capital can radically change your IRR (Internal
Rate of Return) on a project and your ROE (Return on Equity) too. The two most
important influencers on a project’s rate of return are—upfront costs and the
passage of time. If you can reduce or even turn your upfront costs negative,
impacts are substantial.
This can really help an intrapreneur inside an established organization
stand out from her/his peers. Say you work at Cisco and you are an intrapreneur
who knows how to use these types of self-funding techniques. Suppose you go to
your supervisor and say, ‘I have a project that will take two years of R&D
at a cost of $10 million but I have three launch clients each willing to pickup
$2.5 million of that cost and take the first six months of production.’ It is
likely that your idea will get an enthusiastic hearing. More enthusiastic than
a colleague who has a competing project that takes the same amount of time to
develop and costs as much to bring to market but they haven’t lined up any
launch clients or received any hard commitments not only to buy the product
once it’s ready for market but to contribute some (bootstrap and free) capital
to help develop it as well.
Whatever you are selling, you will almost always sell more of it if you
provide financing for your clients and customers. If you are selling $10 per
month software seat licenses, you are probably going to sell more than if you
sell one-time $1,000 software installs instead. Most tech entrepreneurs are
familiar with those ‘Don’t-Pay-A-Cent-Events’ (OAC) that furniture and
appliance stores promote but may not be aware that, before clients have even
left the building, their sales contracts have. As a result, those retailers
have more cash on hand after selling you a new home theater system than before
because they sell these contracts to third party financiers for cash.
Tech firms can also turn each monthly service contract or seat license
into cash if they pledge them in much the same way.
Alternatively, they can provide financing to clients who buy expensive
installations—whether the contract price is $1,000 or $100,000, they can often
find third party funders so that their clients pay a monthly fee instead of a
one time upfront amount.
Bootstrapping is becoming more common for projects that are wholly
original or appear to be. Craft businesses are being funded in increasing
amounts on sites such as Kickstarter.com or Indiegogo.com. Without giving up
any equity, entrepreneurs and artpreneurs acquire significant amounts of ‘free’
capital by pledging unusual experiences including first-in-line-to-buy,
customized/personalized products or services, signed copies, dinner with the
Founders, personal thank yous, lower prices for products, event tickets,
special memberships, invitations to a house party, off-beat t-shirts and so
It seems only a matter of time before crowd funding merges with/begins
to compete with the equity finance industry but only after regulatory hurdles
make this legal. Crowd funding sites are only permitted to operate on a reward
or donation basis but President Obama’s JOBS Act of April 2012 may make it
possible to trade equity for investment on these sites (Inside The JOBS Act:
Equity Crowdfunding, Forbes, June 2012) after the SEC provides a set of rules
for this expected to occur sometime in 2013.
The Last Word
We keep adding to our list of sources of Bootstrap Capital. We hope that
it will continue to be helpful to entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs) as they
build new services, products and enterprises of all types. Self capitalization
techniques are useful not only to for-profits businesses but also non-profits,
charities and NGOs. No list can be complete and ours certainly is not. To view
the entire list of self capitalization techniques, please visit,
https://www.eqjournal.org/?p=1171. Here are some of the primary sources of
bootstrap capital for tech startups—
capital—money from family and friends
equity loans—ultra low cost debt secured by the value of your primary residence
customers—acquiring cash from launch clients in advance, securing
deposits/retainers/progress payments from customers earlier in the deal flow.
suppliers—getting credit from trade contractors, paying later in the deal flow
partners—organizations providing various forms of support (cash, credit, office
space, tools, personnel) because they stand to benefit from your offering
capital lending—programs that quickly provide small amounts of capital with few
support programs—such as the SBL (Small Business Loan) program in Canada that
only requires founders to personally guarantee a small percentage of the loan
or SR&ED Tax Credits and NRC-IRAP grants
fees—upfront payments to be included in a product launch
placement—fees paid to be featured in a product launch
fees—royalty payments on patents and other IP
services—moonlighting to support a startup
cash and valuable skills
leasing—pledging fixed assets
receivables for cash
Stock Ownership Plans
sponsors who want to be associated with your new product or service
low and selling high/asset flipping
buying—having more cash on hand after buying a company than before
selling—providing customers with 3rd party financing
redeemable in trade by suppliers, customers, employees
funding—non monetary compensation for supporters who supply cash
Take Back financing—low cost financing provided by Vendors
equity—supplied by founders.
Financings have been done for a long time using two basic types of
capital—equity and debt. However, if we ask the question, ‘What is cheaper—debt
or equity?’ with a follow up question, ‘What is cheaper than debt and equity?’
we may conclude that self capital is a new form of funding. Debt is usually
cheaper than equity and bootstrap capital is usually cheaper than both because,
essentially, it’s free.
Supplier credit is often extended to startups without cost (that is,
without interest or other fees usually associated with financings) because, if
the startup is successful, a supplier has helped to create a new client for
itself, often a very loyal new client.
Clients can also be induced to extend credit to a new enterprise (in the
form of deposits/retainers/progress payments) without cost because, again, if
the startup is successful, the client has helped to create a new supplier for
itself, often a very loyal new supplier.
Self-capitalization methods are tremendously varied. It subsumes sweat
equity which is, of course, a form of human capital—capital contributed by
startup founders in the form of free or low cost labour.
Financial capital can be broken down in business models and plans into
three categories—debt, equity and self capital. Other forms of capital include
social capital, intellectual capital, cultural capital and environmental
capital, all of which are beyond the scope of this article.
The Internal Rate of Return on a project as a whole is made up of a type
of weighted average of the returns on equity, debt and self capital. If the
cost of bootstrap capital is small or zero (ignoring opportunity costs), it
improves overall returns on equity which explains why many entrepreneurs see
IRRs on their own investments much higher than passive investors. It also
explains why issuing equity to employees, partners or other stakeholders as a
form of payment can be expensive. If a new enterprise is successful, this is
likely the most expensive way to source funding. Entrepreneurs must exercise
caution in this area if they are to retain longterm control over their new
enterprises—additional debt or bootstrap capital is an antidote to losing
control to partners, employees, VCs or Angels with one proviso—the enterprise
must be successful.
Internet tools are abundant and many are available for free or
practically no cost. These let you bootstrap a website, online store, blog,
social media presence, do basic accounting, make and receive payments, process
credit cards, backup your data, share data and transfer data for no money or
very little money. It is much easier to start a business in the 21st Century
than at any other time in recorded history.
Accounts Receivable Factoring Guide, Curt Matsen, CPA, 2012.
Entrepreneurial Finance, J. Chris Leach, Ronald W. Melicher, South-Western College Pub, 2011.
Entrepreneurial Finance: A Casebook, Paul A. Gompers, William Sahlman,
John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
Entrepreneurial Finance: Finance and Business Strategies for the Serious
Entrepreneur, Edition 2, Steven Rogers, Roza Makonnen, McGraw-Hill Companies,
Equity Valuation for Analysts and Investors, James Kelleher,
How to Get the Financing For Your New Small Business: Innovative Solutions
From the Experts Who Do It
Every Day, Sharon Fullen, Atlantic Publishing Group Inc, 2006.
Optimizing Company Cash: A Guide for Financial Professionals, Michele
Allman-Ward, American Institute of Certified Public Accounting,2007.
Strategic Trade Credit, Salima
Yassia Paul, 2010.
The Kickstarter Handbook: Real-Life Success Stories of Artists,
Inventors, and Entrepreneurs, Don Steinberg, Quirk Books, Original edition,
The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to
Create Radically Successful Businesses, Eric Ries, Crown Business, 2011.
Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (Civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD
Bruce M Firestone is best known as a professor, entrepreneur and founder of NHL hockey team, the Ottawa Senators and their home arena, Scotiabank Place, as well as Author, Quantum Entity Trilogy, Entrepreneurs Handbook II and Urban Nirvana (2015).
Firestone is Executive Director of Exploriem.org, a Canadian registered Not-For-Profit corporation focused on educating and mentoring entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and artpreneurs in Canada and around the world. He is also coaching and teaching via Learn By Doing School, an organization dedicated to providing student entrepreneurs with access to research, education and a network of high achievers not available elsewhere. Prof Bruce is also an effective keynote speaker for organizations with a positive focus on creating opportunity for their stakeholder group.
Prof Bruce has launched or helped launch more than 172 startups in fields including tech, real estate, design, art and services. He advises clients on business modeling, self-financing, smart marketing, social media, differentiated value, strategic selling and business development, market channel development, harnessing the Internet and mobile web, urban design, real estate development, design economics, product management, sponsorship, fundraising and development economics as well as issues related to entrepreneurial organizations including not-for-profits, NGOs and charities.
In May of 2006, Dr Firestone joined the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management at as its first Entrepreneur-in-Residence. He previously taught or studied at McGill University (Bachelor of Civil Engineering), Laval University, Harvard University, University of Western Ontario, University of New South Wales (Master of Engineering-Science, Traffic and Transportation), Australian National University (PhD in Urban Economics) and Carleton University. Prof Bruce is now Entrepreneurship Ambassador for the Telfer School.
Dr Firestone has been an operations research engineer, real estate developer, hockey executive, professor of architecture, engineering, business and entrepreneurship, real estate broker (with Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc), writer, researcher, columnist and novelist. He is a peerless husband and father of five great kids and one fine grandson.
His motto is: “Making Each Day Count”.
Dr Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (Civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD. Founder, Ottawa Senators; Broker, Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc; firstname.lastname@example.org, real estate and business coach, 613-762-8884
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