This post is part of a series in which Influencers go behind the scenes to explain in detail one aspect of their work. Read all the stories here and write your own (please include the hashtag #BehindTheScenes in the body of your post).
I made the decision to start my company in late 2008.
I saw the Great Recession on the horizon and knew a huge opportunity to help millions of professionals and companies was forming. Many years in the HR/Staffing industry taught me changes in the employment market would create opportunities to breakthrough the status quo for both employers and job seekers. Furthermore, I had left the corporate world in 2001 and launched a private career coaching and workplace consulting practice. By 2008, I was so overloaded with clients, I could no longer run it as a one-woman show. I needed to expand.
I had a vision for disrupting both career coaching and recruiting.
Based on my private practice’s steady growth, I knew a cutting-edge set of digital tools and resources would eliminate the geographic and financial limitations of traditional in-person career coaching. First, I planned to launch the free career advice site, CAREEREALISM, with the tagline, “Because EVERY Job is Temporary.” The intent was to create a loyal readership I could teach to understand and embrace the ‘new rules’ to job search and career development. Through this free educational content, I intended to earn the trust of professionals in need of more personalized, one-on-one help, and subsequently, introduce them to affordable online career coaching via the sister site, CareerHMO. At the same time, I could help employers better market themselves to job seekers by having them sponsor career content that encouraged top talent to check out their Employment Brand. Together, these services would help job seekers and employees get better at connecting with each other.
Succeeding was never a surprise – it was something else that shocked me…
Fast forward to today and we have 800,000+ unique monthly visitors and several million pageviews/month to the CAREEREALISM free advice site. We have also served over 4,000 career coaching clients in CareerHMO and have completed successful content partnerships with 100+ businesses. The vision is a reality and continues to grow steadily. I always knew it would. The need was there and we care deeply about serving our customers.
However, there’s one thing that amazes me about our success: managing to bootstrap the business to profitability while watching all my competitors get funding for their ideas.
VC funding made me jealous. Here’s why…
In the early days, I would feel the pangs of jealously as I saw the announcements in my inbox regarding the rounds of funding companies in my space were landing. Next thing you knew, they were celebrating big partnerships and fancy new programs. They soon had gorgeous websites and were showing up on radio and TV shows. As a scrappy little upstart, it was hard to watch. At one point, I even contemplated putting a pitch deck together and hitting the road. But, there was one thing that always held me back – a fear of losing control.
This business has always been about practicing what I preach.
I believe in a customized approach to career success and I knew I needed to walk-the-walk as an entrepreneur. Thus, I didn’t want to accelerate the pace of growth beyond what I felt I could handle. I wanted to build the business model on my own terms so that I could course-correct as needed, while maintaining the career satisfaction I teach others to strive for.
Here’s what got me to the next level:
1) Did other work to pay the bills and fund the start-up. In the beginning, I did a lot of consulting work to help me fund the development of the website and business model. Every penny I made went back into the business.
2) Built a profitable service model as quickly as possible. I didn’t have cash to burn through while I tested a hundred ideas. I put pressure on myself to focus on a scalable revenue stream from day one.
3) Sold first, marketed second. As much as I wanted to create a slick brand and marketing materials, the reality was pounding the virtual pavement to get customers was my full-time job until we had money to spend on developing those tools. That time selling directly to our customers helped shape and improve our service offering which lead us to profitability faster.
4) Used off-the-shelf products and services whenever possible. Instead of investing in expensive, customized business solutions, I always looked for the less-expensive yet functional version I knew we could leverage effectively. Even though the tools we chose often didn’t have all the functionality we wanted, they were easier to A) implement, B) get tech support on, and C) migrate to an upgraded platform if necessary without spending big $$$ on specialists. This kept us agile and allowed us to course correct quickly with our technology.
5) Watched every penny and always asked, “Do we REALLY need it?” I had to make sure that every expense was going to payoff. If we couldn’t justify the cost, it was put on the “someday” list.
6) Reminded myself daily of how lucky I was. I would wake up every morning (and still do!) to meditate on what I wanted to accomplish. I would remind myself of all the little victories that were helping us move the business forward. But most importantly, I would review in my head what a wonderful situation I had. I was my own boss, focused on solving a problem I cared deeply about, and building a meaningful business that was helping people with a very important aspect of their lives. This was the motivation I had to create for myself to keep going. Why? I knew nobody was going to do it for me.
Bootstrapping to profitability has been a hard, powerful learning experience.
When you bootstrap a business, it’s not just an approach, it’s a way of working. My whole staff knows being resourceful and thinking like an owner are two of the most valued skills they can bring to their jobs. But, most of all, you have to have the confidence and tenacity to keep moving forward. Especially, when it seems like your business is far behind your VC-funded peers.
Today, most are gone… or, held hostage by their funding choice.
Just last week, I was on the phone with the founder of one of the start-ups in my space who got early funding. Many of those other companies I watched blow by me early on are either A) out of business, or B) took so much funding that the founders lost controlling share and now the company they started doesn’t look anything like the original business. My colleague falls into the latter. He said to me, “If I ever start another company again, I will bootstrap.” He currently owns less than 5% of the company and is working 60 hours/week trying to make it succeed with a business model that his heart isn’t into. But, he can’t walk away and give it all up because he still has stake in it. He’s got a serious case of Golden Handcuffs.
BUT, the daydreaming never fully stops…because funding is a future reality.
Trust me, I still feel that slight hint of longing when I hear a company in my space received millions in funding. Like any business owner, I have daydreams about how I would immediately hire more staff and build new revenues streams. Particularly, now that we have a proven business model. In fact, I’m exploring some strategic partnerships and starting to structure the company to be acquired in years to come so (if we desire), we can become part of a larger organization with more resources. And, I’m even considering crowd-funding the expansion of our career coaching services platform. Thus, in spite of all my efforts not to get funding, the reality is that I’m headed there. It’s all part of the natural growing up process of the business. That being said…
Bootstrapping taught me well – and Frank Sinatra sings my reality.
As soon as I’m done with the daydreaming, I always come back to reality and remember what I’ve learned from bootstrapping: it isn’t the size or status of the company that matters – it’s how you are changing the world for your customers and employees AND whether you are profitable doing it. While we may not be the largest or most well-known company in our space, based on those benchmarks, we’re doing just fine. That’s usually when the famous song by Frank Sinatra starts to play in my head, “I did it MY way…”