Growing your team is probably the trickiest challenge for the bootstrapped businesses. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg paradoxes: you need a larger team to grow your revenue, but you can’t increase your revenue until you grow your team.
Bootstrappers, early-stage founders and solo entrepreneurs have to get creative to hire a team within their cash flow. Here are a few ways to do just that–and the ups and downs of each:
1. Hire a virtual assistant.
A virtual assistant (often called a VA) is where a lot of bootstrappers start. But there’s an inherent, expensive problem with hiring VAs–they run VA businesses.
What do I mean by that? A VA is a business owner just like you. Their goal, just like yours, is to grow their business and make more money. So there are a few inevitable outcomes that will happen every time you hire a VA:
- They’ll raise their rate
- They’ll get more clients and have less time for you
- They’ll pass you off to a different VA that they’ve hired.
The exception to this is working with an established VA company (I like Zirtual) that already has a team in place, so you’re basically skipping to the third option. But they’re employed by Zirtual, not you. No matter how great your VA is, it’s never quite the same as having someone on your team.
2. Start with an internal (but part-time) hire.
VAs can get expensive–you’ll often see them charging $30-$60/hour, way above market rates for hiring general office admin work. When I started my business, I needed help with customer service and administrative tasks like sending out email blasts and updating websites — jobs that didn’t merit $60/hour.
Instead, my first hire was an independent contractor working part-time, flexible hours. There are plenty of people are looking for jobs that can be done from home, so if you’re willing to work virtually (or if you have to work virtually because you don’t have an office), you’re actually at a big advantage. FlexJobs, Craigslist and oDesk are all great places to start looking.
Not sure you can afford either? Start by cutting your own pay (if you’re receiving any at all), or getting an additional client. If you’re a client-based business, hustle for a $1,000/month contract–that alone is enough to get a few hours of extra help. And if you’re not a service business, can you provide consulting?
3. Find inexpensive Web developers.
About 6 months later, I looked to grow my team with a person who could build websites and handle all the technical details of my online business. Developers are essential for an online business, but experienced devs are a pricey hire.
So I saved money by looking to the Philippines. I found M. on odesk.com, had her do a contract project, then hired her for 40 hours/week of ongoing work. In the Philippines the cost of living is much lower than the States, so you can get a bargain with U.S. dollars while still paying Filipino market rates.
4. Look to your own clients and subscribers for high-potential, low-cost talent.
Now that I had customer service and tech handled, my dream hire was a project manager. I realized that a huge roadblock in my business was me trying to both manage and execute. I wanted to be able to feed my team an idea and see a live project come out the other end. However, I just didn’t think I could afford one. I had maybe $1,000/month that I could squeeze out, and project manager is a high-salaried position.
So I got creative. About a year and a half after I started my business, I posted a project management internship to Craigslist, and also sent a link to the position out to our subscribers.
The response surprised me–turns out I had many people on my own list who would love to work for my company, and one stood out: A. was extremely qualified, and she had extensive experience running technical teams. But she had a young child and needed a position that allowed her to stretch her brain while still having plenty of time at home with her daughter. She explained that she wasn’t exactly your typical intern and college was long behind her, but she was interested anyway.
I was thrilled, and that relationship turned into a full-time position down the road as my company and revenues grew and her daughter got older.
Bottom line? Even if you start with low-paid, internship, or part-time positions, look for people who have the potential to stick with you. Situations change, and you can always find people who are looking for more hours and pay at the same rate that you’re able to give it to them.
Three years later, I have a team of four full-time employees. I’ve never raised any funding, either–they’ve each been hired one by one as my business has the cash. I’ll always be a bootstrapper at heart, building my team bit by bit. It’s an iterative process–grow and hire, grow and hire. Anyone can do it, but it does take some leaps of faith and some risk. You probably won’t be able to have a year’s overhead in the bank, but do it anyway. Hiring is the only way to grow.
–Laura Roeder is a social media marketing expert who teaches small businesses how to become known as #1 in their fields and claim their brands online. She is the creator of Creating Fame and Your Backstage Pass to Twitter.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.
[Image: Flickr user Mark Turnauckas]