[vc_empty_space height=”20px”]Bootstrapping is the process of getting yourself out of a situation or into one with only the resources you already have. The meaning of the term has evolved over generations, but it’s generally associated with self-made entrepreneurs today.
While this term is also used in other contexts, like programming language, machine learning, and statistics, we’ll be looking at the business side of things.
The History of the American Dream
In the 19th century, bootstrapping was a kind of mocking term or phrase, like “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” It referenced an impossible task, considering no matter how long you pull at the leather loop on the side of your boot, there’s no way you’d be able to lift yourself off the ground by the top of a boot. It took on a newer definition and use later on.
Early American Origins of Bootstrapping
Early settlers of the Americas had to be fiercely independent and resilient to survive. They really didn’t have any other choice. They came with the little supplies and tools they had and needed to live off the land.
This initial thrust into unknown territory and being cut off from the rest of Europe fostered the origins of America’s bootstrapping culture. In 1803, the great Westward expansion began after Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory for $15 million dollars.
Overnight, America essentially doubled in size, and the federal government encouraged people to expand into the newly acquired land. After all, it’s pretty difficult to defend land that you’re not occupying.
The only resources people took with them into the west were what they could carry. Infrastructure that facilitated goods and services, like railroads and towns, wouldn’t come until later. Everything from cultivation to construction was up to the individual to achieve.
These were the original bootstrappers of America, who built their new lives on self-reliance. Life on these trails was unforgiving and exceedingly dangerous.
Original Self-Made Men and Women
While his fellow aristocrats gained wealth through the slave trade, Benjamin Franklin made his own fortune through a very successful printing business.
At the age of 17, he ran away from home to Philadelphia to pursue a career in the printing business. In the 1730s, Franklin found success as an author. Many of his works were published under pseudonyms like “Mrs. Silence Dogood.”
Today, Franklin is probably best known for his work with electricity and inventions, like the bifocals. He filled his life with scientific studies, experiments, publications, and political work. He is arguably one of the most influential human beings of all time.
Madam C.J. Walker was the first black woman millionaire in America. She was born just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1867. Her parents were originally slaves but were later freed. Walker was, however, orphaned at just six years old.
She moved to St. Louis with her child, where she worked and attended night school. She was also active in the National Association of Colored Women.
She met and married her second husband, Charles J. Walker. The name would then inspire the name of her future empire. Walker began having hair loss problems, so she started working on her own hair growth routine and products.
She quickly found local success and eventually grew a following. In 1905, with just $1.05 in her pocket, she moved to Colorado. Afterwards, she and Mr. Walker expanded the business with new products, advertising, and mail orders.
Over the course of twenty years, her business expanded and included salons with branches across the country. At the height of her business, Walker employed over 3,000 people and promoted black female talent. She was also heavily involved in philanthropy.
In 1919, she died in her home and is remembered for being a pioneer in the world of black entrepreneurship.
Is Modern Bootstrapping a Myth?
Bootstrapping as a term is now often used sarcastically and has really taken back on the original meaning by younger generations. Upward socioeconomic mobility is becoming increasingly more difficult. Even people who are seen as “self-made” are claiming that it’s largely a myth—that mere hard work is not a replacement for having the resources you need.
However, one example of modern-day bootstrapping is Spanx, created by Sarah Blakely. She still owns 100% of her own company.
Today’s Successful Bootstrappers
Even today, there are tons of successful companies that got their start by bootstrapping. It may be uncommon, but it’s nowhere near impossible.
If you’ve ever tried to email a large group of people, there’s a good chance you’ve utilized Mailchimp’s services. Stemming from Atlanta, Georgia, this company provides email and marketing services for small businesses, and it just sold for $12 billion.
What started as a side project for its two founders has now made them billions.
This company makes small, personal cameras—you’ve likely seen videos taken with GoPros of people barreling down mountains on skis or racing over white water rapids. Believe it or not, the owner initially funded the company by selling homemade belts made from beads and shells out of his van.
Since then, GoPro has become remarkably successful and basically cornered the market.
A favorite of wilderness lovers everywhere, Patagonia actually started out of a store that founder Yvon Chouinard built in his parent’s backyard. He would sell climbing gear from there and the trunk of his car.
Flash forward to today, and Chouinard’s worth has reached over a billion, and Patagonia is a household name. Throughout all this, he’s maintained his commitment to doing what’s best for the environment.
How to Bootstrap Successfully
Upward mobility has become increasingly difficult in America over the last 50 years. College has become exponentially more expensive, and the idea of owning a home is becoming more like a fantasy than a reality.
That said, there are some things that you can do that will give you an advantage in life. There’s a reason that so many startups are considered prime examples of bootstrapping and why investors and employees alike will believe in them enough to go all in.
There are alternatives to a traditional college education that are much more affordable. Community colleges can provide quality education at a fraction of the cost and usually have more flexible class times for those that work.
If you’re dead set on going to a university for a Bachelor’s degree, community college will provide you the prerequisites necessary for a fraction of the cost. One of the biggest advantages to starting with junior college is the lower risk.
Failing or dropping out of a single class at a traditional university can cost thousands. Community college is far more forgiving to your wallet, and it allows you to experiment more with what you’d like to study.
Trade schools are another underrated alternative. Vocations like electrical work, plumbing, and welding are far more lucrative than many would imagine. And the work in those types of fields is very reliable. There will always be a need for those skills.
Other skills can be learned in your free time with free resources online. There are all kinds of tutorials and instructional videos on computer programs that many modern jobs require that you know, like Microsoft Office.
Start a Business From Scratch
Starting a self-sustaining business from nothing is possible. There are certainly challenges, but you can overcome them. One way to get funding is crowdfunding on sites like Kickstarter. And in the age of the internet, advertising is basically free with strategic use of social media platforms.
You can start an entire online business from the comfort of your home with skills in content creation and editing—or even by working with tools like Python. Big things have small beginnings. Your future business or employment plans are entirely based on your foundational experience and knowledge.
Starting small and building on smaller successes is how every self-made person has achieved success—it’s the most important component. It all starts with that first sale or first internship, and it’s important to ask for help along the way.
In terms of business, all of the financial risk of starting a business is on the founder when bootstrapping. A bootstrapped company will likely use the entrepreneur’s personal savings, which can be one of the advantages and disadvantages of bootstrapping.
While there’s more risk involved with the bootstrap method, the founder also maintains equity and full control over their company—which is obviously one of the advantages of bootstrapping. You can also funnel future investments back into the business. At a later stage, you might reach out for other resources like venture capital, but at the moment, it’s all on you, the bootstrap entrepreneur.
The Final Pull
Bootstrapping has had a checkered history between generations. It was first a joke, then an admirable pursuit. Some have used the resources available to them to achieve monumental success, and some claim that the very idea of bootstrapping is fictional.
No matter what, there are always ways to improve your situation regardless of how some may feel about the concept—a bootstrap operation may be well within your reach.