Posts Tagged ‘Joel Spolsky’

7 ways to raise money for your start-up

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

One of the biggest issues with starting a company – and keeping it running – is finding the cash to stay in business. Even if you work hard at saving money, only spending on the things that are necessary, it is fairly likely that there will be a time when you need more capital.

I am still in the early stages of my start-up, and only have first-hand experience with angel investments, but the following is a rundown of the common ways to raise money for your start-up. Once again, I’m drawing heavily on the stories of the entrepreneurs from Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston for the quotes included here.

SevenThe good news for anyone who has limited resources when starting a company is that entrepreneurs seem to agree that this can be a good thing. The need to conserve resources often leads to creativity, hard-work, and a drive to succeed that can be missing when money is available and things are easier and more comfortable. So the first piece of advice when you’re thinking about raising money is to make sure that you really need it before going after cash.

“One of the things we’re seeing that we really don’t care too much for is that way too many companies are taking money when they don’t need it. And the whole idea we had was that having too little money is a great way of getting great product because it’s a way to get focused.” – David Heinemeier Hansson, partner, 37signals

“The money was scarce, but I’m a big believer that constraints inspire creativity. The less money you have, the fewer people and resources you have, the more creative you have to become. I think that had a lot to do with why we were able to iterate and innovate so fast.” – Caterina Fake, cofounder, Flickr

“I really liked the discipline that came from a bootstrapped startup. I think that everybody that goes and does a startup – even if they don’t do a major startup that way – should start a business that is having to make people happy with them day one, through contracts, through small scale sales, whatever it is. How low can you go? How can you build something really inexpensively? How can you not spend money on furniture and matching carpet and those sorts of things?” – Brewster Kahle, founder, Internet Archive/Alexa Internet

“The advice I would give is to avoid [raising money]. I would say spend as little as you can, because every dollar of the investors’ money you get will be taken out of your ass – literally in the sense that it will take stock away from you, but also the process of raising money is so horrible compared to the other aspects of business. You can’t work your way out of it like you can with other problems. You’re at other people’s mercy.” – Paul Graham, cofounder Viaweb

“I think in general being overcapitalized is a path to failure. The VCs want you to spend. There are general ills with being overfunded.” – Joshua Schacter, founder, del.icio.us

1) Use your own money
In my opinion, this is the best way to fund a start-up if you have the capital to invest. Not only will this ensure that your decisions are not controlled by outsiders, it will also guarantee the highest percentage of profit if you sell. It’s also incredibly motivating if your own money is on the line every day. Of course, if you don’t have extra capital and you’re trying to self-fund, that can be a painful process of skimping and saving every dime – as well as living day-to-day with poverty and uncertainty. So this is probably only a viable option if you have significant personal wealth, or have put money aside in savings.

“There are pros and cons to taking money. The best kind of company is one where you don’t have to take any money…I funded the first few years myself. But eventually, I took some money from Mitch Kapor and then others. Not so much because I needed it at that point, but because I knew that, ultimately, you cannot accomplish something completely on your own. You really need to develop a network of people who win when you win.” – Ray Ozzie, founder, Groove Networks

2) Get a loan
There seems to be a general sentiment that small businesses and start-ups are not able to get bank loans. The truth is, there are loans that are earmarked for small businesses. Bank loans can require collateral to secure them, however, and the terms make all the difference in the world, so be sure to read the agreement closely.

“We lucked out and got an interest-free loan from the Canadian government. We’d applied for it, and gotten rejected, and then just sent the same application in again when it was open again, and much to our surprise, we got it.” – Caterina Fake, cofounder, Flickr

3) Apply for grants
From the research I’ve done, it appears that the United States government does not have any grants for small businesses owners, but there are state-based grants available. This list from About.com includes links to the state-based programs. If you’re based in Canada or elsewhere outside the U.S., you may have more luck finding government grants.

“We heard about these government programs, and we started applying for them. It was a lot of work to actually apply for these things, and then it was a lot of paperwork to maintain them. In the early days, they weren’t really big grants. They were rather small, and sometimes you wondered if it was worth all the trouble. But it was very helpful when we needed it. As you become experienced, and as the government agencies that we were working with became comfortable with what we were doing and recognized that we were onto something, the grants became more interesting.” – Mike Lazaridis, cofounder, Research In Motion

4)Put it on your credit card
While it can be difficult to get a bank loan or a government grant, most small business owners (depending on their personal credit histories) are able to obtain some kind of business credit card. The typical issues related to spending on credit apply, with the biggest concern being that the business will fail leaving the entrepreneur with a huge credit card bill to pay off. According to Joe Knight, co-author of the book Financial Intelligence, in a BusinessWeek article, “the worst thing in the world is to have your business fail and be stuck personally with $50,000 in debt at 21% interest.”

“There are more choices nowadays for people – angel money, for example. And many things are much less expensive to do now. You can go further on your credit card than you could before. I want entrepreneurs to make informed choices when it comes to financing. Understand what the impacts and implications are for different financing options.” – Mitchell Kapor, cofounder, Lotus Development 

5) Get consulting work or side jobs
This suggestion is something I covered in an earlier article about how to save money on your start-up. It’s a popular way for flexible start-ups to get some extra cash – money earned from side projects assigned to the company or one of the start-up founders can then be used as an infusion of cash for the business.

“The first year was entirely self-funded. It was just doing this work mostly for HP. HP basically funded Pyra for the first year, unbeknownst to them, because at the time you could charge a decent amount of money for doing pretty simple web application development. If one of us was working on that full-time, it would pay for three of us (not that we were paying ourselves much).” – Evan Williams, cofounder, Pyra Labs

6) Find angel investors
Angel investors are typically wealthy individuals who use their own money to fund a start-up in exchange for repayment of the investment (with interest), or a percentage of the company or both. Angel investors are often friends, family members or previous business partners or associates – or people who are in the start-up founders’ extended network. (This is a good reason to start networking now!)

Angel investments provided me with the initial funding for my business, and angel money has been an excellent way to make sure that I have the capital to fund my start-up, while at the same time having the flexibility to work on a variety of things in different markets without too much outside control. This is how Chris’ company is funded, as well, and it is an increasingly popular way to fund companies, especially in high-tech.

“We all tried to get $3,000 from each of our parents, and five of the six parents put up, so we had $15,000. After graduating, three of us lived in one house in Palo Alto, and three of us lived in another. We set up shop in the garage of the house that I was living in. It was the classic setup. My parents came up and they saw the garage and wound up buying us some nasty carpet. The tables were all Formica. I won a fax machine at Office Depot. We stole our chairs from Oracle Corp.” – Joe Kraus, cofounder, Excite

“We were very encouraged that the angel investors wanted to invest. We gave demos to two investors. We only wanted to raise $50,000, but both of the investors who saw the demos said yes. So we thought, ‘All right, we’ll raise $100,000 then, since they both said yes.'” – Paul Graham, cofounder, Viaweb

7) Take on venture capital
For me, and for most of the founders featured in the book, venture capital is the type of money that is surrounded in the most mystery. Typically, start-up founders don’t understand venture capital or how it works until they go through a funding round with the venture capitalists. There is also a great deal of fear surrounding the idea of working with venture capitalists, and often a great deal of resistance to taking money from them. However, for companies that need a lot of cash to see their idea come to life or to push them to the next stage of growth, venture capital can be a good option.

“Once you start down the treadmill of taking venture capital, it’s ‘How many rounds before people give up on your or you have a positive exit event?’ So you’re really setting yourself up. The best by far is to structure it so that you don’t have to take money.” – Ray Ozzie, founder, Groove Networks

“We took no investments because there were so many horror stories about what VCs would do to you. ArsDigita was the most public one, obviously, of kicking out the founders and then mismanaging the company and bringing in the so-called professional management.” – Joel Spolsky, cofounder, Fog Creek Software

“We didn’t have any desire to take money. We had heard all these horror stories about people receiving venture money, and even though we didn’t think we could have the aspirations to be something huge, we certainly didn’t want to crash and burn because we took money when we shouldn’t have. And we didn’t know anything about it. Are you supposed to pay them back? We didn’t understand that investors put money in and they own a part of your company. All we had heard were bad things that happened, and we didn’t know why.” – Mena Trott, cofounder, Six Apart (they eventually did take VC money)

“It’s one of those things where, if you look back now, when everyone walked away with a ton of money, everyone loves everyone. We had this great time, etc. It’s generally more complicated than that where, when the company is doing well, they’re happy and they think they’re great. The company’s not doing well; they’ve overpaid and they’ve been too nice. It’s half and half.” Max Levchin, cofounder, PayPal

“Then we found one venture capital firm, Brentwood Venture Capital. Jeff Brody, a VC there, saw it and he thought it was great. He said, ‘We want to invest.’ And they were prepared to put in $4.5 million…It was great, since we were plumb out of money. I would have lost everything; my house; I would have been deep in debt; the company would have folded; it would have been a bad scene.” – Steve Perlman, cofounder, Web TV

The next article in this series on start-ups will talk about one of the key attributes of an entrepreneur – the willingness and ability to change plans quickly, and to adapt to outside pressures and influences.

5 ways to save money on your start-up

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

After you’ve made the decision to start your own company, and have gotten past some of the early emotional hurdles, the next issue that comes up is usually money. Specifically, how you can you use the money that you have – which is usually limited – and make it last as long as possible. In fact, when Jessica Livingston asked the founders that she interviewed for the book, Founders at Work, about their advice for would-be entrepreneurs, it was often “spend as little as possible.” (All the quotes that are used here are from that book.)

Here are five great ways to save money with your start-up:

1) Take as little salary as possible. When I quit my job to start Pure Incubation, I took a huge pay cut. I didn’t go salary-free, but Chris and I came to an agreement about the lowest salary I could take so that we could still afford to live the lifestyle that we wanted. I still take trips, I still eat out, but we have cut back in a lot of areas. Some people are even able (and willing) to not take a salary at all. Obviously, if you can go this route it’s ideal. Overhead costs from salaries often are a huge burden to businesses, and the lower the salary you take, the longer your money will last.

Some people aren’t able to take such a huge pay cut, so they keep their day jobs. This works for some people, who either don’t work long hours, have a job that isn’t very demanding, or don’t need to put in a ton of hours to get their business off the ground, either because they’re patient, or their business/idea isn’t time-sensitive. This is a great way to keep your salary down if you can do it – essentially, you’re being paid by the company for which you’re working 9-5, which is helping to support your start-up.

“We were…both working, so we decided to spend all of the time on the weekends and evenings building this product. Then it came to a point that one of us had to quit our job to focus full-time on it, so I told Jack, ‘I’m single and don’t have a family. Why don’t you quit and start working on this and I’ll give you half of my salary?’ So at least he could support his family. I didn’t need that much money.” – Sabeer Bhatia, cofounder, Hotmail

“Initially we put in a little bit of money, I think $25,000 each. If you don’t take a salary, that can last you a long time.” – Arthur van Hoff, cofounder, Marimba

2) Don’t get traditional office space. I live in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s a great apartment, second floor, ocean view – and it’s plenty of space for me and Chris. When I first started thinking about starting a company, I was planning on setting up shop in our second bedroom, which is where Chris worked when he was starting his company. But as I looked at the space, I realized that I wouldn’t be happy in that room. So I got a new desk (from IKEA, definitely don’t spend a lot of money on office furniture!) and it matched the rest of the house well enough that I could set it up in our sunroom – the view from my office is of the ocean and I love “going to work” every day.

Front porch officeIf you have a space in your house that you use for your office, do it. After overhead, the next biggest cost of business is often office space – and renting office space is like throwing money out the window. If you work with other people, see if they can work from home, too. Use IM, email and phone calls to communicate, and have meetings at your local coffee shop or at your dining room table.

If you must be in the same location, find as inexpensive a space as possible. When Chris got his first office, it was a tiny little space that cost about $400 per month in the Cummings Center, a converted shoe factory in Beverly, MA. But the great thing about that space is that there are hundreds of other office spaces in the building, so when he outgrew the space (which happened quickly), he was able to transfer the lease to a bigger office. The other great thing about the Cummings Center is that it’s close to the commuter rail, so when he needs to hire more people, he can look in Boston, as well as the outlying communities for talent.

“[We worked] in Robert’s apartment. His housemate was away that summer, and I moved into his room. Robert used to get up early, whereas I stayed up till four and got up at noon. So we would kind of work a 24-hour schedule.” – Paul Graham, cofounder, Viaweb

“We had a friend who was subletting a space, and he had a contract job that kept him out of the office all the time, so we sublet his subletted space. This was in 2002…there were failed dot-coms all over the place, so office space was cheap.” – Caterina Fake, cofounder, Flickr

3) Hire contractors vs. full-time employees. There are many reasons to start off hiring contractors vs. full-time employees. For one thing, contractors usually expect to work from home (allowing you to forgo the office space), and they often have their own equipment. Employers aren’t expected to pay for healthcare or 401k costs for contractors, and if you hire a contractor and they aren’t doing a good job, you can fire them without paying a severance or feeling completely terrible since contract work, by its nature, isn’t permanent. Chris’ first full-time hire didn’t end up working out, so he had to let her go, and it was one of the most traumatic things that he had to do in the early days of his business. He didn’t sleep for a week, and they ended up paying her a month’s salary in severance (mostly out of guilt, I think). Since then, he’s started hiring contractors and moving them to full-time when he’s ready.

I’m currently working with about 20 contractors. I’m the only full-time employee, but I am still able to get everything done, and I don’t have the worry about overhead depleting my bank account. And if there is a month when money is tight, I can cut back on contractors. Plus, often when you’re starting out, you don’t need 40 hours a week of a specific skill set – or if you do, it’s a temporary thing that will end after a project is complete. It is only when your business is at a point when it needs a dedicated 40 hours per week committed to a specific task or set of tasks that it’s time to hire a full-time employee.

“One of the things that I did…with Bloglines was rely upon an outsourcing site, in this case eLance, for a lot of things…So, if I wanted to put together a presentation and I needed a couple of graphics, I put up a proposal on eLance and ended up working with some lady in Australia who turned things around in 6 hours, for $50. So sites like that are so amazingly powerful, which is just one more reason why it’s really easy to do very small companies, because you don’t need a graphic designer necessarily.” – Mark Fletcher, founder, Bloglines

Save money sign4) Cut back on everything you possibly can. The other places where you can really save money will be different for every business. For me, I have kept expenses down by taking a chance on some less-experienced writers and designers who are working on building some of my sites and writing content. When I need a stellar design that only someone with vast experience can pull together, I’ll hire that person – but until then, I’m comfortable with getting my business cards designed professionally for $150 and printing them out at Staples (on high-quality card stock, of course). Other people find other areas to save.

“Do everything as cheaply as you possibly can.” – Paul Graham, cofounder, Viaweb

“Reduce. Do as little as possible to get what you have to get done. Do less of it; get it done.” – Joshua Schachter, founder, del.icio.us

“Even if you raise money, spend it as if it’s your own and you have none. Your organization has got to remain smart and lean. Be cheap. There’s no shame in being cheap. I still fly coach.” – James Hong, cofounder, HOT or NOT

“We basically sat in the garage coding for around 18 months. In retrospect, it was really fun…It got cold in the garage and we didn’t have a heater, so we would use the dryer for heat. We’d tape the little button down that made it run with the door open.” – Joe Kraus, cofounder, Excite

5) Take on some contract work. This isn’t exactly a money-saving strategy, but it is a way to build a little extra cash, which amounts to the same thing. I have been offered a number of contract projects since starting Pure Incubation, most of which I’ve turned down. But on a selective basis, I have taken on a few projects. The ones that I’ve chosen have either been in my power alley of experience (meaning that I didn’t have to work too hard to get them done and could charge a premium for my expertise), or have allowed me to be paid to extend my skill set in an area that I didn’t previously have experience.

For example, I recently took on a marketing project that involved sending out a direct mail piece. I own an Internet-based company, I do everything online, typically. But I realize that I may need to do some direct mail at some point in the future. By taking on this project, I learned about the issues with the U.S. Postal Service, international mailing and made contact with local printers and marketing copywriters. The best part – I was paid to learn.

“The consulting company was a means to an end. It was to get cash flow, so that you could build a real software company.” – Joel Spolsky, cofounder, Fog Creek Software

“We were chosen under a Request for Proposal bid to build a student accounting system for a vocational school in the state of Minnesota, which helped us focus on what we were going to do…It was really a one-off. It also told us how we could underestimate a project, how we would manage a project, how we would manage engineers, how we would manage or own time. And we got paid for learning on the job.” – Ann Winblad, cofounder, Open Systems

Although it’s great to save as much as possible, there are times when you still need to spend. I’ll talk about those times tomorrow.

Front porch office photo by Daniel Morrison
Do it Yourself photo by colros

How to get over the fear and start your own business

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Starting a business all begins with the first step – the statement, which then turns into a belief, that later turns into a mantra  – that I AM STARTING A BUSINESS. This step happens differently for everyone, but this is my story of how I got over the fear and started a business, supplemented with the stories of friends and acquaintances and the entrepreneurs featured in the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. (All the quotes below are from that great book. If you are an entrepreneur, buy it today, it will inspire you.)

Start image

I’m convinced that in order to be able to get over the fear and start your own business, most people go through some combination of the following things:

You can’t keep doing what you have been doing. I am pretty sure that starting a business involves some level of desperation. For me, when I made the decision to start my own thing, it was early 2007, I was working for Ziff Davis Media, heading the product development team for the Web Buyer’s Guide. Things were going great with the division – we were one of the favorites in the company, making money hand over fist with a long list of the top clients in the industry. I was working with an amazing team of people, I truly liked and respected my bosses and the people who worked for me. But I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with my job. The problem was, with things going so well, I had little hope that they would ever change. The better things went with the group, the worse I felt about the job because I had to keep things going, to make sure that the clients stayed happy, to just do more and more and more and more of the same.

I love building new things. I like the creativity of it, the innovation of it, the challenge of trying to figure out how to solve problems. I enjoy gathering a team of people who can all collaborate to get something done. And I like the thrill of launching something new. I couldn’t possibly stand to stay still, the lack of creativity was sucking me dry. I had to do something else.

You realize that the only way to do what you want to do is to start your own thing.  Once I knew that I wanted to do something else, I knew that I wanted it to be related to using the Internet, and I knew that I wanted it to be creative. But the more that I thought about it, the more that I knew that going to just some other company wasn’t going to solve my problems. I already worked with really great, smart people. And another company would make me specialize, as well. I realized that what I really wanted to do was have the flexibility to do lots of different things, all the time, just the way that I wanted them done. There is no job description that reads that way.

“I think the hallmark of a really good entrepreneur is that you’re not really going to build one specific company. The goal – at least the way I think about entrepreneurship – is you realize one day that you can’t really work for anyone else. You have to start your own thing. It almost doesn’t matter what that thing is.” – Max Levchin, Cofounder PayPal

You understand the odds are against you, but you believe that you will beat the odds. The statistics for businesses to fail are staggering. It’s something like 8 out of 10 businesses don’t make it past the first year, and 8 out of 10 of those don’t make it past the second year. Something horrible like that. But, I believe I will be one of the successful ones. Why? Because I know I can do it, which is not a good reason, I’m sure. But if I didn’t believe that I would succeed, I would never have started in the first place. There has to be some level of (sometimes irrational) optimism in every business founder.

You figure out your biggest points of fear and try to work around them. For me, the prospect of starting a company led to three major fears. One, I didn’t know how to do the stuff related to starting a business because I hadn’t done it before. So I found some mentors and a business partner who have vast experience in this area and who can help me when I have questions. Two, I was concerned about putting Chris (my husband) and I in debt because of the business. I overcame that fear by taking a very small salary out of the initial seed money. I took a fairly substantial pay cut, but having just a small monthly income gives me the peace of mind that I am at least not going backward in my financial situation. Three, I was concerned that everyone I knew would think I was crazy. That issue was not something I could fix, but it was a personality flaw anyway, so I decided that being faced with that type of opposition would help me to grow as a person so it was worth facing the fear. The fears will be different for everyone, but all business owners will have to figure out how to face them.

“About the next day after I said no to starting Apple…my friend Allen Baum called me in the afternoon and he said, ‘Look, you can start Apple and go into management and get rich, or you can start Apple and stay an engineer and get rich.’ As soon as he said it was OK to do engineering, that really freed me up. My psychological block was really that I didn’t want to start a company. Because I was just afraid. In business and politics, I wasn’t going to be a real strong participant. I wasn’t going to tell other people how to do things. I wasn’t going to run things ever in my life…I just couldn’t run a company. But then one person said I could be an engineer. That was all I needed to know, that ‘OK, I’ll start this company and I’ll just be an engineer.’ To this day, I’m still on the org chart, on the bottom of the org chart – never once been anything but an engineer who works.” -Steve Wozniak, Cofounder, Apple Computer

You realize that other people do this all the time. The other thing that really helped me was to realize that other people start companies all the time, which led to the feeling that if they could do it, I could do it too. Chris started a business in 2006, and it was doing well, so that was encouraging. I was part of a company that was a start-up that was acquired by Ziff Davis, so I had seen how it was done firsthand. Although starting a company was daunting, just knowing that other people had started companies in the past was helpful.

“We both had parents who were entrepreneurs, so the idea of running your own business was a normal thing. There are people who come from backgrounds where they’re used to working for a company, and they couldn’t dream of doing it themselves and not having that safety net. When your parents and family are entrepreneurs, you know it’s nothing special. I worked at big businesses and I worked at small businesses beforehand, so the idea of starting your own business was just a normal thing.” – Dan Bricklin, cofounder, Software Arts

You weigh the benefits vs. the risks and responsibilities. For me, the timing was right to start a business. I was married, with an income-producing husband (who is also an entrepreneur, but his company, which builds medical devices for spine surgeries, had four submissions into the FDA for approval and it looked good that they were going to make it). I didn’t have any kids, no mortgage, no debt. My risk was very low because my responsibility was light. This is one of the reasons that so many young people are starting companies, because it doesn’t hurt them too much to do it. If things fail, they can always put on their resumes that they were the founder of a company. People who have a lot of responsibility have a harder time making this jump, and it is really important that they carefully weigh the risks before starting anything.

You jump in, even if it’s stupid. At some point, after you consider all these things, you just take the plunge. For me, that involved going to my bosses, thanking them for everything they had done for me, and resigning from my job. I was lucky because I was able to make a slow transition, I gave them a lot of notice, and I took some time off between Ziff Davis and my new business. Not everyone will have the luxury, but at some point, that statement has to be made: “I’m going to start a company.”

“There are a lot of programmers that are very tentative about starting their own companies. There are a lot of working programmers doing something they hate, with some company that they hate, but they need money to pay the mortgage. So they figure, ‘I’ll develop something in my spare time. I’ll put in 1 hour every night and 2 hours on the weekends and I’ll start selling it by downloads.’…But because they never really take the leap and quit their job, they can give up their dream at any time. And 99.9% of them will actually give up their dream. If they take the leap, quit their job, go do it full-time – no matter how much it sucks – and convince one other person to do the same thing with them, they are going to have a much, much higher chance of actually getting somewhere. Because they either have to succeed or get a job. Sometimes ‘succeed’ seems like the easier path than actually getting a job, which is depressing. So quit your day job.” – Joel Spolsky, cofounder, Fog Creek Software

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what happens after you make the leap.