Success for a Bootstrapper

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Quotes, skmurphy, Startups

Brent Lamphier was wrestling with a good definition for success in a web startup

I’ve had bunches of conversations with entrepreneurs all over the success scale, from concept level to recently acquired, and all have different definitions of what ‘success’ is.

One founder I know regularly uses the world success, ‘we’ve built three successful web apps’ or ‘I’ve successfully launched my first company.’ Other people don’t even really consider acquisition a success, just a stepping stone for further growth.

So what is success in the web? 20,000 unique visitors? 10,000 active users? 1,000,000 page views? 1,000 page views? Revenue? [...] Successfully exited 3 companies certainly makes sense, but ‘successfully launched’ is just simply too hard to define.

Make your own definition of success, but most entrepreneurs I know never consider themselves successful anyways…they’re too busy thinking through their next great idea.

I like Christopher Morley‘s definition of success: “There is only one success–to be able to spend life in your own way.”

But putting my green eyeshades on for a minute, success in a bootstrapping startup is positive cash flow, ideally enough your you and your business partner to live on and continue to develop your firm. As Dave Stubenvoll observed at a Bootstrappers Breakfast earlier this year: “positive cash flow means infinite runway for a bootstrapping startup; it’s doesn’t mean that you are going to succeed, but it’s much less likely that you will fail.”

Instead of “exits” think about great product or services that are created that continue to serve customers. VC’s talk of exits because it’s how they pay off their investors (limited partners). It’s not the same as value created. Craigslist is certainly a case in point, SAS another.

“I think the purpose of life is to be useful, responsible, honorable, compassionate. It is, above all, to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have some difference that you have lived at all.” Leo Rosten

Not everything is meant to be monetized. Seth Godin, author of the Bootstrapper’s Bible, had a great post yesterday on “Thanks” He was asked by someone why he wasn’t running ads and trying to make a nickel off of each visitor

Every time you read something I write here, you’re giving me a gift… attention. It’s getting more precious all the time, you have more choices every day, and it’s harder and harder to find the time. I know. I’m grateful. I’m doing my best to make your attention worth it.

So, have a great Thanksgiving. And thanks.

I think there’s a danger in the last sentence that Brent wrote about “they’re too busy thinking through their next great idea.” When you start something you get early customers to invest their time in helping you make it better. You want to honor that by at least trying to find a “good home” for an application if you are bored with it, or cannot figure out how to get to break even. Persist a while, especially if you have happy customers. Consider charging them instead of trying to add advertising to your site. A niche product may be better supported by a subscription model than advertising. And Athleon, Brent’s startup, looks like an interesting application targeted at the high school and college coaches and players. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to succeed.

“Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our full powers.” Mignon McLaughlin

“Nothing ventured, something lost.” Neale Clapp

“Even cowards can endure hardship; only the brave can endure suspense.” Mignon McLaughlin

I also worry that success has to be public in our “social media” culture, and either financial or buzzworthy. I don’t mean to imply that those are Brent’s values, but it’s certainly swimming against the current of popular culture not to equate money with success.

“The work of an unknown good man is like a vein of water flowing hidden in the underground, secretly making the ground greener.” Thomas Carlyle

“The mature man lives quietly, does good privately,
assumes personal responsibility for his actions,
treats others with friendliness and courtesy,
finds mischief boring and keeps out of it.
Without this hidden conspiracy of good will,
society would not endure an hour.”
Kenneth Rexroth in his 1961 Introduction to Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You

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