Bootstrap Boogie

In honor of Leap Day, we’re featuring a local entrepreneur who took the leap, pursued his passion and started his own business.

Guest Blog by Mike Dragosavich, CEO of Spotlight Media

If there was a song called “Bootstrap Boogie”, I would have been line dancing to it for the last six years.

Definition of a Bootstrap Entrepreneur:

adjective

(of a person or project) using one’s own resources rather than external help.

The fact that I started a company with little capital was both the most frustrating and fulfilling situation that I could have ever imagined. I am extremely happy I decided to take that path in business and, while I know this might not be the best path for every business, it was important for me personally and for my business model.

With no money to operate outside of paying essential bills, my focus was always on finding ways to execute and grow without investing financially. The one resource I had on my side was time. I was willing to work 16 hour days and seven days a week. I think, if this wasn’t the case, there is no way I would still be in business. As I was getting kicked out of coffee shops at closing time because they were the only source of Internet I had, I found many ways to execute daily tasks and tactics for minimal cost.

Here are some alternatives I found.

  1. Free alternatives: Instead of using a software design program to design the magazines, I found free alternatives that offered design solutions but maybe not for print. I improvised with their tools and created a workflow that I needed to design print magazines. The software I used was wix.com, which is intended for website design. I used it to design a magazine. I’m pretty sure out of the millions who have used Wix, no one used it like me!
  2. Favors: In my free time I learned how to develop WordPress blogs and websites by watching tutorials on the web. I needed a website for my company so this was a way to save money. But, I figured I could use some of my free time to develop websites as a favor to some established business owners that allowed me to gain some great relationships. Some of these business owners became mentors to me. I did not expect anything in return but maybe advice and support in any way to my mission of providing a magazine with resources to the community.
  3. Reports: A situation I am in now is that I have come to a point in business where I rely heavily on spreadsheets. Unfortunately I never took the path in the past that promoted education in Excel or other spreadsheets.  With knowing that my future as a CEO will rely heavily on my knowledge base and execution of metrics in a spreadsheet I immediately went into search mode.  Meaning I showered the internet for spreadsheet solutions with more user friendly features and possibly direct connected features geared towards my specific reports.   Just weeks ago I found a free solution that has the exact technology I was looking for.  I was able to immediately input information and generate reports without spending hours just trying to figure out how to organize cells.  Annoying!  Check out Airtable.com or smartsheet.com
  4. Trade goods or services: Now this is a slippery one.  When we trade something with another company we need to be very careful to report everything (Mike’s right. Learn more here).  If we execute it correctly it is one of the best ways to save money.
  5. Tutorials: Today, you can basically have a college degree level education by watching videos online.  It’s amazing.  Example:  Instead of paying two designers to take on the extra design work I watched 120 hours of tutorials on Adobe InDesign (Magazine Design Program).  This allowed me to not only help fill the gaps where design was needed but I also took on an incredible understanding of the program and process.  This understanding has helped with understanding how to hire the right designers and where we can save money and become more efficient by utilizing the software to it’s full potential.

Some tools and tricks I use to get results without large investments:

  • CouponMate: This Chrome Extension searches for coupons on a site and gives you the best possible matches. I’ve used it on sites like Mailchimp and GoDaddy.
  • Calling the companies: It’s amazing what a simple phone call can do, even to some of the biggest companies. When I sign up for a service or product, I usually get on the phone with customer service and see if there are ways to drive the price down or find some hidden promos. Also, I sometimes ask if they have any “beta” programs out there that I could try for free. (Bonus: I always ask if companies would be willing to write on their blog about how my company uses their products or services. The value there is obviously free publicity but also you can get quality backlinks to your website, which Google really likes for ranking your site on search engines.)
  • Join perk based organizations: I recently joined founderscard.com.  It’s about $300 a year.  The program caters to founders of companies and provides over 200 discounts on popular goods and services geared towards helping companies start and grow.  I estimate that I have saved over $3,000.00 with this on travel, technology programs and office equipment.  Example: Founderscard.com members receive 25% off all Avis rental cars.

While I tried to bootstrap as much as I could, there were some tools and resources that were worth the investment right away:

  • Chamber of Commerce: I remember cashing in quarters to pay for a $25 entrance fee to Business After Hours. I ended up bringing on two new clients that night. Since then, my company partakes in most of the events and programs they provide. I can safely say the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce has been one of the best reasons for our success and growth.
  • Quality Products: I am a huge believer in quality over quantity in my business. I spent a majority of my profits in the first five years improving the quality of my products. I travel the country attending and speaking at niche magazine conferences and nobody can believe the quality in our products for free local publications. There were hundreds of times I could have sacrificed quality and stuck that money in my pocket. I’m glad I didn’t.

As with any journey, there are always lessons learned the hard way. Here are two that I really should not have bootstrapped:

  1. Accounting: In the beginning I underestimated bookkeeping and accounting. I thought I should find the mom and pop firm that was the cheapest to help out because I thought my books were basic and simple. I didn’t realize I could have been using my numbers to make decisions, or setting my books up for success as I grow the business. I performed and learned every other aspect of my business but the numbers. BAD IDEA!
  2. Human Resources: I underestimated the complexity of human resources and frankly thought I didn’t need to worry about it with only a couple employees. For a few years I was guessing on important decisions involving employees.

Overall, I don’t believe I had the perfect recipe for success and growth, but I think I found a good balance of street and book smarts. I chose to be patient in growth. Now I’m at the stage of business where if I want to grow any further I need to rely on book smarts and professionals.

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