Support for Bootstrappers?


I work on 20Skaters, ThreeFortyNine, Ontario Startup Train and a few others. My vanity site is

We have a lot of bootstrappers at ThreeFortyNine.¬†What’s a bootstrapper?

Wikipedia says “Bootstrapping or booting refers to a group of metaphors which refer to a self-sustaining process that proceeds without external help”.

The free dictionary says “To promote and develop by use of one’s own initiative and work without reliance on outside help”.

The majority (all?) of formal economic support for small to medium businesses focuses on T4’d employees and spending money. Generally these programs penalize you for not using T4’d employees. As well, the various ‘get started’ grant programs typically stipulate you can spend money on most everything except paying yourself.

The challenge for bootstrappers is that there is little, or no, support for them. They don’t want to hire staff until their new business has proved it can support them. They don’t want to spend money until the business can support that.

These support programs place no value on sweat. Bootstrappers are building their companies with their bare-hands, while¬†working full-time day jobs to pay their bills. We celebrate seemingly small events like the first dollar in and the first customer we don’t know. We can’t apply for SRED and other programs because we’re not spending money and hiring staff.

There’s also the practice of tying the support due diligence to investors. If you can find an investor to write you a cheque for your business/idea, then support will be piled on top of that. What this approach means is that my goal of building a thriving small team, seven figure business located in my hometown doesn’t count. I can guarantee no investor wants to hear that story. So I’m either left with little support or I have to ‘pivot’ to a gazillion dollar business.

What do our bootstrappers have? Most have a trickle of revenue, we have customers, we’re closing in on product/market fit. We’re starting lean, we’re starting sustainable.

how-to-bootstrap-a-business1I always prefer concrete examples. What about an economic development program for bootstrappers? What if you tied the due diligence to real customers? For every dollar we receive from a real customer, this program matches. One to two, one to ten, whatever. Tie the due diligence to the market, not government staff, paid mentors, banks or investors. Force entrepreneurs to find a market and build products which that market values and expresses that value by purchasing.

If you can find a customer, we’ll support you!

Should every business be focused on quick revenue? Of course not. Can a system like this be gamed? Sure but you’re not suggesting the current programs can’t be? Is this new business welfare?

I’m biased but at some point these support programs will start to support the hardworking bootstrappers. Shift these programs away from models that encourage and support hiring too early, spending money you don’t have, and towards creating sustainable, scalable ones that are validated by real customers.

This ‘Urban workers deserve better‘ campaign came across my desk recently. Programs like this need to start shedding light on the fact that employment, freelancing, entrepreneurship isn’t about the number of T4’d employees anymore. I’ve always said my goal here at ThreeFortyNine is to create the coolest tech company in Canada that has zero employees. I’m sure you can guess how much gov’t support we have.