How Socialfly Boot-Strapped Their Way to a Multi-Million Dollar Business
When Courtney and I decided to launch Socialfly in May of 2011, we knew we were taking a big risk. Neither of us had attended business school, neither of us had launched a company before, and we didn’t have a presence in the NYC entrepreneur bubble.
We were in our mid-twenties and, truthfully, we were naive – we didn’t even know that raising money for our business was an option. We built our now-multi-million-dollar social and digital marketing business entirely from scratch using our own money, strategic networking, and a handful of scrappy techniques that helped us fill in the gaps that we had in experience, resources, and know-how.
Here are 5 ways we grew our business without taking in any outside money:
We waded in cautiously and cut overhead as much as possible. Although Courtney and I were both 100 percent committed to launching Socialfly, we knew that we couldn’t quit our day jobs until we had invested the time in developing our brand and landing enough clients to keep us afloat. For the first 10 months, we kept our day jobs and spent our early mornings, evenings and weekends building Socialfly. We also knew that we needed to keep our operation as streamlined as possible – all we needed were our laptops, phones, and our apartments to get done what we needed to, so, at the beginning, the only money we spent was on web hosting services and an inexpensive web developer to build our site. When we needed extra people to help, we hired interns in exchange for college credit.
We bartered with other entrepreneurs for essential services we knew the business needed. Early on, we didn’t have the capital to invest in many services that we knew we would need in order to scale our business, so we had to get creative. We met a number of entrepreneurs through our networking groups who needed social and digital media help, and so we were able to exchange that for services including office space, legal consultation, and even public relations help. Over time, as we began to see success, we tapered off this practice. Eventually, the amount of time that we were spending on providing services in exchange for another person’s services became more valuable to us than the service itself, and we began paying providers outright.
When we did spend money, we spent it in ways that we knew would have a direct ROI for the business. We invested in networking groups and found that the monthly or yearly dues to join were well-worth the cost. We joined a group for under-30 founders called The Strategic Exchange, where we surrounded ourselves with other entrepreneurs who shared knowledge and resources and supported one another. Through that group, we not only developed a team of informal advisors who helped us immensely along the way when we had questions or needed guidance, but we also landed some of our first clients. We found significant value in Vistage and BNI, too, and today, shared workspaces like WeWork and Luminary offer office spaces, networking and learning opportunities as part of a membership
We invested in our personal brands as well as Socialfly’s brand. Early on, we realized that in today’s business environment, forging a memorable identity and brand for your company’s founders is just as important as building one for the company itself. Once we had enough income coming in from our clients, we were in a position to take stock of where we stood in the marketplace and where we wanted to be and invest in that. In 2014, we decided to invest in writing and self-publishing our book, “Like. Love. Follow. The Entrepreninsta’s Guide To Using Social Media To Grow Your Business.” This project was a massive undertaking for us in terms of woman-power hours as well as capital, but it had a huge impact on us almost immediately. Not only were we able to say that we literally wrote the book on social media and business, but it gave us immediate credibility and a news hook for business and technology reporters to grasp onto. Even today, we still give that book out to every potential client we meet with.
The reason that we share this story now is twofold; one, we want young women just like us to understand that you don’t need to have a ton of money or give away a portion of your business to an investor in order to succeed. When you get creative and stretch your resources as far as they’ll go, you can do it on your own.
Two, we live in a current business culture that celebrates the investor-investee relationship – perhaps too much so. Far too often we see entrepreneurs who trade their IP for a cash infusion and a board of directors, and while that may seem like an attractive thing at the time – in the end, you’re giving up a lot of your autonomy as a leader in your business, not to mention future income.
Instead, we believe that business culture should spend more time celebrating the self-made entrepreneurs, like us, who grind it out day in and day out to build the company of their dreams – without sacrificing their equity or control.
Since we launched nearly seven years ago, we’ve been approached many times by individuals and groups who have wanted to invest in our business, but it has never felt right for us. While the idea of raising money is definitely not off the table (we never say never to anything – you have to have options and have an open mind), the benefits to bootstrapping a business have, in our minds, outweighed the potential benefits of bringing in investors.
As a bootstrapped founder, you have all the control, you’re your own boss and you don’t have to report to anyone – three areas that are very important to Courtney and I. You also have the power to plan your own future and pivot the company whenever you need to without asking permission.
While we understand that many people want that extra cushion and want that direction from an investor, for us, we’ve enjoyed being able to lean on each other and build our business on our own terms.