Lace up your Allbirds, finish that keto smoothie, and grab an electric scooter. It’s time to rise and grind and hustle until the haters ask if you’re hiring. You need to pivot, scale, disrupt, and change the world, one user at a time. After all, if you dare to follow your dreams, the money will soon follow.
I apologize for this tossed salad of Silicon Valley clichés. Over the last few years, it’s become impossible to scroll Instagram or LinkedIn without tripping over a motivational startup quote. I get it; we all want to feel excited about our work. Perseverance often delivers impressive results, and quitting your job to follow a dream can be a seductive idea.
We also amplify motivational messages by putting successful founders on a pedestal. People begin to think that if they log 80 hours a week and follow in the footsteps of their idols, they’ll be able to create the next Slack. Of course, it could happen, but more often than not, this narrative leads smart people into starting businesses before they’re truly ready.
I believe there’s another way. Bootstrapping enabled me to build my company, JotForm, in a competitive industry where even Google is vying for market share. We launched 13 years ago and now have five million users and over 140 employees. I didn’t get there by “following my dreams.” Instead, I chose to bootstrap, which allowed me to create a business I love while maintaining my freedom and my personal life. Here are six lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Your day job can fuel your business
Work is far more than a paycheck. As an employee, you’ll learn and refine critical skills that can make or break your own venture. Working inside a company also provides eye-opening lessons about communication, teamwork, management, and business. You might even come up with your next big idea, which is what happened to me.
After college, I spent five years working as a developer for a media company. Our editors always needed custom web forms for surveys, polls, contests, and questionnaires. Building these forms was tedious, repetitive work, so I began to think about automating the process. This insight eventually led me to JotForm.
2. Rather than chasing your passion, you need to find a way to solve problems
The word “passion” has become as pervasive as startup clichés. Everyone from coders to roofers wax on about their passion, but ultimately, the world’s most successful companies solve problems.
Entrepreneur and Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham says the best startup ideas represent something the founder wants. It should be something that people want and that the founder can build themselves (even as a prototype). Starting with something people already want and need puts you miles ahead of passion.
3. Organic growth is underrated
Following your dreams often means scaling before the funding—or your savings account—runs dry. The moment you hand in your resignation in your day job, the clock is ticking. It’s much smarter (and more sensible) to test your idea as a side project and work on it until it can sustain you. Without funders or artificially inflated targets, no one will be pushing for hypergrowth.
I won’t sugarcoat it. It’s hard work, and it can take a long time to build a business with real customers instead of venture capital. But money doesn’t lie. Paying users are voting “yes” for your company.
4. There’s only one metric that matter
We often celebrate vanity metrics, like user acquisitions, and highlight entrepreneurs who land substantial funding rounds. But when you bootstrap, only one thing matters—profitability. That means earning more money than you spend. Of course, there are exceptions. A restaurant or retail store, or another inventory-based type of company, might require funding. No two businesses are the same. So, do it your way, but aim to be profitable from the start, even if your balance sheet begins with modest entries.
5. You can fly solo
Last summer, the California-based home essentials brand Parachute raised $30 million in Series C funding. It was a big moment for founder and CEO Ariel Kaye. The company has grown 400% year-over-year since its 2014 launch, and Kaye is the sole founder.
Most VCs and business advisers tell entrepreneurs to pair up, to find a cofounder with complementary skills. Many of today’s biggest startups do have more than one founder. But unless you’re both on board from the start, an exhaustive search can waste time and money. And partnering with someone who’s not the right fit can create serious legal, personal, and financial issues down the road.
6. Bootstrapping often forces you to focus
Running a business requires you to split your time, energy, and attention. You have to weigh high-level strategy against operational details, often in a matter of minutes. If you have investors, you may also spend hours building presentation decks or preparing for board meetings.
Bootstrapped companies answer to their customers and clients, not shareholders or VCs. As a result, you can channel your most valuable resources into what matters most—to build a better product or service.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.