Bootstrapping: Don't reinvent the wheel. Hack instead.

I'm a firm believer that perfection doesn't exist and even less so for a new startup. When it comes to startups, I think the "Done is better than perfect" mantra fits perfectly. And if a startup holds that mantra close to heart, it should result in something that resembles Mark Zuckerberg / Facebook's "The Hacker Way".


I can remember when we were working on WooThemes V1 (back when the mothership was still easy enough to handle & we could DIY everything), we had to create a membership & payment processing backend. This wasn't something that we could create from scratch (we didn't posess the skills), so luckily we weren't tempted to do so.

This meant that we had to look for alternatives, which lead us to using aMember instead (aMember wasn't so sexy back in 2008). We ended up hacking this into the rest of our installation and over the years, we kept the hacking going, adding more & more less-than-ideal code to it.

We kept this going for about 3 years, until we ripped aMember out completely in August last year and replaced it a brand new user dashboard (which we developed from scratch). The problem was that the new user dashboard took us 16 months to complete and as things stand now (6-odd months later), the dashboard isn't 100% what we'd like for it to be. Yet.

This is however already enough validation for our initial decision not to pursue a custom-built backend when we launched: it would've resulted in us delaying Woo's V1 launch by 16 months.

Don't reinvent the wheel, go open-source, hack & stop looking for perfection.

I guess the above line sums up perfectly. Here's some advice on bootstrapping the technical side of your new startup:

  • Stop searching for perfection and forget about being idealistic. It doesn't exist in startups. Getting to 99% is easy, but finding that last 1% somewhere is incredibly hard.
  • We live in an age where there are so many great open-source or cheap, paid alternatives available for everything: jQuery library, stock graphics, Twitter Bootstrap etc etc. Don't try to reinvent the wheel, when one of these solves 90% of your problem. You're wasting time & money (neither which a new startup can afford).
  • Hack stuff together. Your code doesn't need to be pretty and you can worry about scaling later on. It just needs to work for launch.

Looking back at the WooThemes journey, these are things that are still evident today. We're 4 years old, boast more than 150 000 users and have more than enough revenue to throw money at our imperfections. Yet somehow none of these imperfections have impeded our business significantly. And that's important.

Imperfections are just that and most things in a startup can be better. Imperfections are also mostly inefficiencies to an extent and that's probably where WooThemes have felt the pain of our imperfections most (it generally translates to an increased demand on support). But again: it hasn't prevented us from growing the business.

Would you rather have a perfect or profitable / growing business?


Bootstrapping: Spend money on seemingly unnecessary things

I guess this is likely the most obvious thing I can say about bootstrapping or running a lean startup: it seems that the obvious thing to do is to cut away all of the unnecessary expenses and only spend money on things that are needed in furthering the business.

Yet I don't think the principle is that clear. It makes sense in theory, but on the ground there's a whole different context to consider. I'll explain with the story of what is now the WooThemes office.

WooHQ: Then & Now

As you know by know, I conceptualized & released the product that lead to the creation of WooThemes, on my own and from my bedroom.

In the months thereafter, whilst my co-founders & I were building WooThemes V1, I decided that I had, had enough of working from home and I wanted to get a little office. The initial idea was to create some kind of co-working space (in hindsight, I was being too progressive & idealistic, as these are still not as popular in SA as they are abroad), but soon turned into Radiiate's (R.I.P) offices (which housed myself, FRESH01co & Foxinni). (This eventually became the WooThemes office when FRESH01 & Foxinni moved to Woo a couple of months later.)

We had humble beginnings: loads of empty space, a whole office we didn't use and nothing fancy otherwise. This was just the place - away from home - that we could use to get some work done.

But we also had a little bit more… We had a few awesome posters on the walls (cheap decor), we had a good coffee machine and had a Wii for some fun.

If I argued that we should've avoided all of the seemingly unnecessary expenses, I could've probably argued that: 1) we didn't actually need an office (we could work remotely / from home if we wanted); or 2) that we definitely didn't need decor, a coffee machine (can you say instant coffee?) and a Wii (wtf?).

Balance, Pride & Progression

For me the balance of my decisions (ito the office) is clear today. Back then I got the extra stuff, because I was sucked in with the romanticism attached to being a successful startup. I wanted to start at the same place that a 1- or 2-year-old startup was at. Luckily for me, I had a bit of spare cash around (the combo of Woo's growth at the time and still doing loads of consulting work on Radiiate), so I could afford (ito the cash) to invest those things in the office and managed to not sink the business due to semi-reckless spending.

Today I realize that there was pride involved: I wanted to go to an office that I could be proud about and a place where I could actually get some work done. If the office was a complete shithole, it would've been better to just stay home and work remotely. An office is generally the last thing an early-stage startup should spend money on, but when you reach the point where you do need office space, you need to find that balance between what's necessary and what isn't. In hindsight it feels like I would've undone the good spending (conservative lease agreement) if I didn't augment it with a few extra's.

Finding that balance doesn't change the bootstrapping ethos either. We spent 4 years in that office until we finally outgrew it; each year, we'd make small, incremental changes / additions to the office to make it better. And it was only after that 4 year lease period that when we moved office that we could afford to splash a little on something awesome.

I don't think there is a black-on-white, right & wrong formula in terms of what you should & shouldn't spend money on whilst bootstrapping. Every expense just needs to serve its purpose and accelerate you meeting your goals.

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