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Monday, May 18, 2009

Panel on bootstrapping tech companies

Not surprisingly given the membership pool, the MIT Club of Northern California has four activities related to technical entrepreneurship. This includes separate speaker series on semiconductors and clean technology, as well the Venture Mentoring Series for alumni (more at a later date).

One that I didn’t know about is the C3 group (Convergence, Community and Commerce), which put on a panel last month called “The Art and Science of Bootstrapping.” The four bootstrapping panelists wereAlthough I didn’t make it, there is a long report in the Spring 2009 edition of the MITCNC newsletter.

Not surprisingly, the interest in bootstrapping is motivated by the increasing risk aversion of VCs, making it difficult to get seed funding. Entrepreneurs are having to bootstrap off of personal (or 3F) money to grow the business to a point where it’s interesting to VCs.

There are two paragraphs that caught my attention:
All panelists agreed that a company cannot always remain bootstrapped and there are circumstances when the founder should be open to accepting outside financing. Paul Kochar further elaborated that if a company is in a market that is poised to takeoff and there are no barriers to entry for other competitors to come in, moving fast is key to capturing market share. In such circumstances when a company can grow very quickly, it is imperative to look for the type of financing that can facilitate such growth, for example, to develop customer support and sales organizations or to invest in user experience. On the other hand, if a company is in a niche market with no competitors, then one can afford to bootstrap and slow the growth to maintain financial control.
I am guessing from the report that all of the entrepreneurs had high growth aspirations — and hence their concern about growing quickly before the window of opportunity closed. Here is the other paragraph:
Regarding how long a company can be bootstrapped, Michelle said that it is easy to bootstrap in the first two years of a company’s life, but beyond that it was less clear because the window of opportunity remains open only for so long. Sridhar said that if one does not have a big idea and no big discontinuity, it is better to be bootstrapped. Only 1% of new businesses are venture financed. Paul pointed out that some arenas, such as clean tech or semiconductors, are not generally good candidates for bootstrapping.
Actually, 1% is much too generous a number. By my own calculation, funding peaked in 1999 (during the dot com bubble) at about 0.15%, but in the early 2000s averaged about 0.037% — one company out of 2,700.

Obviously some of the other 2,699 companies are those (like my own) that are high-tech startups or have a strong technology component. Many of these are bootstrapped forever, but this normally consigns the venture to slow growth niches.

This is how I would have summarized the event if I’d attended:
Bootstrapping is a way of getting launched and proving viability to outsiders. However, if you are pursuing a rapid growth opportunity, then you will soon need sizable outside funding — either VC or corporate VC. If your competitors have it and you don’t, you will be left behind.

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