Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

Outside capital: do or die?

A gigantic percentage of startup literature concerns how to raise capital.  But before you start on that PowerPoint, let’s ask this: do you really have to? Or is it still possible to bootstrap and build a company organically?

Strategically, the advantage outside capital provides is obvious: you can go faster.  And since speed of iteration is often the factor that separates success from failure, access to adequate cash is indeed often critical.  But that is certainly not always the case, because: sometimes you have other insulating factors that will fend off competition, and allow you to only go as fast as you can afford with internal resources.

Let’s start at one extreme end of the spectrum, with my favorite startup: XKCD. Randall Munroe has managed to slowly create a real enterprise out of a free webcomic.  Of course, his defense was pretty simple: no one else was Randall Munroe.  But this just illustrates the point that all sorts of businesses built on personal expertise – design skills, niche knowledge, industry relationships, etc. — can indeed thrive without VCs ruining the party.

Many other kinds of defenses also allow you to join the venture version of the “slow food” movement: robust intellectual property rights (say, obtained from a university partnership program), exclusive contracts with key suppliers or distributors, a prime physical location. The list goes on, of course, but the key issue is the same: will your core advantage survive even if competitors move faster?

By the way, there’s a very beautiful thing about organic growth, aside from the absence of dilution: it usually forces you to try to monetize early.  There’s no better test of how well your idea works, nor any better way of iterating it to real market demand, than to watch how the checks come in.  Ventures with easy access to cash have the often-fatal luxury of setting the wrong priorities.

On the flip side, there are certain businesses in which raising capital is indeed critical.  Get those pitchbooks ready if your idea is not genuinely defensible except by being the first kid in the pool and creating a network effect, or dominant brand, before others do.  Similarly, start calling VCs if your customer acquisition costs can only be recaptured over a substantial period of time.  And if your value proposition is built on providing a secure, dependable long term relationship for the customer… well, you’re going to need a nice looking balance sheet and big backers to convince the buyer that you’ll still be around in a couple of years.

So: think deeply about the nature of your competitive advantage, your basic revenue vs. expense model, and whether the perception of a well-funded venture is important or not.  Then you’ll know whether you can safely bypass outside funding.




All opinions expressed are those of the author,  and do not necessarily represent those of Gust.

Written by Bob Rice

user Bob Rice Managing Partner,
Tangent Capital

Bob is Managing Partner of Tangent Capital, a registered broker-dealer and merchant bank focused on alternative assets and strategies. He is the resident industry expert on early stage and other private investments for Bloomberg TV, appearing daily as Contributing Editor on “Money Moves.” Bob is a Director of asset management companies with over $2 billion in AUM. Bob began his career as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and then became a partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, where his practice centered on financial products. He left the law in 1996 to found a 3D graphics technology startup that eventually became the publicly traded Viewpoint, provider of the web’s first “rich media” advertising platform. He has been an active angel investor and startup mentor since 2004. Along the way, Bob also served as the Commissioner of the Professional Chess Association and authored the business strategy book Three Moves Ahead.

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3 thoughts on “Outside capital: do or die?”

  1. Tim Berry says:

    Bob, thanks, I like the way you put this, and it’s an important message. 

  2. Al Jones says:

    It’s a very wise piece.   What I’ve noticed is with a lot of capital early on, the mistakes scale up and last far longer to the point of killing the venture.   When you live on sales revenue instead of capital it’s extremely focusing on what makes money now (novices aren’t gifted at knowing the future of a market, client, competitors, etc. so long-range guesses tend to be mostly bad.)
    Pricing that’s heavily and unsustainably subsidized by capital is almost universal while doing it without capital focuses one on profit margins in dollars as well as imagined percentages, that’s very useful to growing self-funding firms.   Investors kill more companies than they grow, it’s more like heroin than vitamins.

  3. Great Post. I was visiting with a young entrepreneur several weeks ago and mentioned several grant programs that she may be eligible for. She was amazed at all of the options that may be available without selling a single share of stock. The medtech community has done this for years. One device company that I helped raise $3 million for in ~2003 has gone on to get over $12 million in grant funding. Those are real dollars that have been a significant benefit to the business, and thus, shareholders.  Cheers, Patrick E. Donohue, CFA / founder / DealPen