Bootstrapping is when you find alternative ways to finance your startup without referring to investors or lenders.

The truth is, there are funding options. Many options. The reality is, we can’t use them all.

After all, the reason behind our efforts to find alternative sources of funding is to build a startup venture despite our limited resources.

I am not sure if you read my story about how I failed to bootstrap my first startup no matter how hard I worked. They say necessity is the mother of invention and long story short, that was exactly what happened. When I had no options, I found a way to pre-sell customers and then sell consulting services to raise funds for my startup.

All I needed was two sources of funding. In this post, I will share 15 plus two in the supplemental material package.

At the top of the list, there’s

1. Consulting

Before you rule this one out of your options, just give me a moment to clarify.

Consulting can sound too fancy for first time entrepreneurs especially for those who are starting in college or before gaining the needed knowledge and experience in their fields of interest. The truth is, consulting is very broad. Here’s how I consulted to raise funds when my sphere of knowledge about the startup world back then was a sum of a couple of books and few months into building my first venture.

Many small business owners and first-time startup founders are financially constrained went it comes to affording software development costs, even for a small website to gain web presence. When I answered people’s questions about minimizing those costs with: find freelancers that can help you do, their response was but how?

No matter how detailed I was in my guidance, they still needed help and they offered to pay. My consulting was in finding cheaper and effective ways for small business owners and entrepreneurs to 1) clearly define their requirements, 2) find the right fit (programmers/designers), and 3) create the right thing under budget.

It hadn’t taken me long to learn how to put the right team together through freelancing sites, divide project scope in ways that align freelancers’ interest with the client, monitor progress and deliver on time.

For that specific target group, my services were extremely valuable and they didn’t mind paying an extra $2,000 for someone to do it for them. Their alternative solution was five to ten thousand dollars more had they hired a local firm for the job.

Mailchimp and Basecamp, combined together, today are valued at over one billion dollars. They both started as a design and consulting agency. And the list continues. Neil Patel and his co-founder Hiten Shah funded their startups from their marketing consulting company, ACS. Intercom did the same thing and many others.

The reason why I asked that you don’t rule this one out is because the type of consulting that you provide is dependent on your target client and at its most basic level, almost anyone can consult. In fact, do you think those small mom and pop shops want to hire high profile consultants just to help them with a website? I am guessing not. They were specifically looking for people like me, and I didn’t mind making $2,000+ every time I helped someone solve the same problem.

I was fortunate that my interaction with people in the community opened my eyes to how I could leverage my relatively short experience to generate revenue that I could reinvest into my startup.

The consulting services you can sell don’t necessarily have to do anything with web or mobile development, it could be about social media management, writing content and managing a company blog, hiring, accounting, outsourcing, etc.

Long story short, when you know who needs your services, chances are someone needs your help regardless of how limited your experience is.

Someone once told me: but man, if I consult clients, how in the world will I have time for my startup?

To bootstrap a technology startup from scratch and beyond the initial customer interaction and understanding stages, you need at least one of these 3:

  • A stream of income
  • A technical background
  • A co-founder with a technical background

If you don’t have any of the last two, you need the first. In fact, most of the time, even if you have one of the last two, you still need a little bit of the first to pay for your living expenses, at least.

What this means, if you need to spend more time at the beginning on consulting until you raise enough funds for reinvestment, then that’s what needs to happen. But you should know your numbers.

You should know how much money you need to fund your startup for the next year or two. The way you’d know this is by projecting your expenses and investments simply by being proactive, by pretending as if you had the money and you’re now read to move to the next stage. Where will the money go?

Hiring: start recruiting and getting a feel of the investment needed.

Hosting: shop around.

Living expenses: project your current spending minus anything you can cut.

Do this until you have a range for 6, 12 and 18 months. With this, you’d know how much you need and how many projects this would be equivalent to.

However, you are certainly not going to be waiting to raise the whole amount until you move forward with your startup. Invest as you earn.

Before I unintentionally started consulting and reinvesting the money, I did something else, also unplanned. Something that, in some cases, can take over consulting and help you generate enough funds and kill two birds with one stone.

2. Creating a service out of your startup product

My concept back then when I was a Junior in college rewarded users for recycling. I partnered with recycling facilities in the region and local businesses which offered their free products to those who show up with recycling receipts.

When I ran out of funding options, I thought to myself, these recycling facilities make money from recycling materials that they receive from factories and local businesses. What if I matched the two so recycling facilities can do more business while local businesses can generate revenue selling their recyclables which most threw away anyways.

I spoke with a few recycling companies and told them if I do this, would you pre-pay for Featured spot in my web app when it comes out? They all said Yes. They had nothing to lose. I was going to do the work before getting paid and I needed to provide value to those small businesses in the meanwhile I create the product anyways.

So, I went from business to business and with this, I was able to raise over $2,000 from 10 recycling companies.

What I did was create a service out of my upcoming startup product. And this is possible for virtually every concept even the most technologically reliant ones like machine learning and artificial intelligence. Here is why.

Every new technology or model, in general, is created to serve an old job. Think of any revolution like the telephone, electricity, cars, planes, etc. Eeach one of those innovations made existing tasks simpler. Before the telephone, we mailed letters, before electricity, we used fire, before cars and planes, we used horses and boats, etc.

So, no matter how complex and innovative the solution that you plan to create is, start by serving it the way it’s served today.

In the supplemental package for this post, I put examples of 10 different ideas to clarify how you can create a service out of your product. Scroll down, you can download it below.

When you create a service out of your startup product, you’re not only generating revenue early but also interacting with your future product users. If the amount generated from this service can get you to your target amount (what you projected you need to run your startup), then this will be your funding source. Consulting will be extra income or as we call it, a side hustle.

Bootstrapping, The Complete List Of Equity/Debt Free Funding Sources For Bootstrapped Founders (15+), Abdo Riani, Abdo Riani
Most people fall under the following category.

3. Keeping or finding a full/part-time job

If you’re job pays enough, then that’s all you need to bootstrap your startup.

By the way, although I mentioned this in several occasions before, it never hurts to write it gain. Building a startup, especially the initial stages, is cheap. If you’re doing the right things like following these steps in the case of a SaaS startup, you may need less than $5,000 to go from idea to traction and maybe even product/market fit. This is in the case you’re not a programmer. Much less if you write code.

And those are not my numbers. It was CB Insights that showed how the cost of building a startup went from $5 million in the year 2000 to less than $5,000 today.

If you can save $500 after expenses every month, seriously, you’re good to go. Combine this with the approach above (creating a service out of your startup product), which you are highly encouraged to do for customer understanding and path to market reasons, you should have enough funding to build a viable startup worth investors’ money and your full commitment.

So, first things first, if you have a job, do not quit. It’s going to be distracting, time consuming and sickening but essential. Work at nights, early in the mornings and over the weekends. It’s not going to be until you reach scaling stages that you won’t be physically able to do both (job and startup). At the beginning, it’s a lot of testing, building and iterating. And this doesn’t require 60 hours a week if you don’t have them.

If you don’t have a job, either get or create one.

4. Freelancing

What comes to mind when you hear freelancing?

The first thing I think about is applying to jobs through one of the freelancing marketplaces. But is that it?

Here’s an idea that can make you a thousand dollars this week or month if you’re taking your time.

  1. Go to Themeforest and search for the best company website templates. You’ll notice that the prices of good customizable range between $20 and $60.
  2. Now, head over to local businesses without a website or with an ugly one. Sell them on a company website for $25 a month for 12 months or $250 if they pay everything all at once. The least that any local development company would charge for a company website is $500, on average.
  3. Through sites like Upwork or Freelancer, hire a WordPress programmer (beginner level) for $300/month to customize the themes according to the needs of small businesses that you sell to.
  4. Meet with 100 local businesses and get back to me with the number of sales you make.

Here’s what’s going to happen. For every 10 qualified leads, you will sell 2 on average. For every 5 that you sell, one is going to ask for more and that $250 project is going to turn into a $1,000+ site.

This is exactly what I did to raise funds for my first startup. Remember when I explained how I pre-sold recycling facilities by connecting them with local businesses? What happened was, when I went to those businesses, many asked me how the startup is progressing and a few asked if I could help them with their website. So, I followed the exact same process above.

In addition to this, whatever you’re passionate about, do it for others. If you’re passionate for design, programming, writing, accounting, marketing, etc. sell your services and reinvest your gains.

Notice here, I didn’t say expert at X, I said “passionate” because, once again, no matter how basic your skills are in that particular field, someone out there must be needing your help.

I was discussing this with one of my team members the other day. He said, a while ago, he had been learning WordPress for 3 weeks when he decided to start applying for freelance jobs just to learn the application process. He was surprised that someone hired him. He struggled to get the job done but ended up doing a great job. If he wasn’t passionate for the field, he wouldn’t have worked day and night to complete the tasks despite his limited experience.

In the package, I included other ways to get started with freelancing as a startup funding channel.

  1. Checklist & Summary (+2)
  2. Creating a service out of a startup product (10 examples)
  3. Freelancing as a startup funding channel (3 ways)
  4. Attracting team members + 2 more examples
  5. 3 ways key stakeholders can help in funding a startup
  6. Contract template for exchanging products and services
Above all bootstrapping funding sources, customers’ money is the ultimate channel.

5. Customers

Your customers can fund you in two ways:

The indirect way. This is when you create a service out of your product juts like I matched recycling facilities with local businesses in the example I used above. As I said, I put many examples in the downloadable package.

The direct way is the real deal. This is when you’ve identified your target market’s pain points, clearly defined your value proposition and got people really excited about your upcoming product that they’ve decided to book their spot by pre-paying for it. As you know, this is very common especially for hardware startups through crowdfunding sites.

If you are working on a web/mobile app, you can still pre-sell your solution direct to the buyer. The easiest way to do this is by creating a funnel as follows:

  1. Create a list of 100 potential buyers.
  2. Meet with every person in the list and interview them to better understand their needs, pain points and expectations.
  3. Ask 10 people from the group to join you as part of a customer advisory board.
  4. With those 10, prototype and design the functionality of your application.
  5. With the designs, go back and meet the other 90, tell them you’re currently making good progress to create this product and you are pre-selling access to the first 100.
  6. If only 10 out of the 100 purchased and you need 100 buyers to fund your first version, scale your interviews by 10. So, meet with 1,000.

As you can see, the funnel will enable you to kill two birds with one stone: 1) customer interviews as part of your customer development efforts, and 2) pre-sell.

With 10, 20 or whatever X number of contracts you sold, take that and go to potential

6. Employees/Contractors

Here’s the deal about employees and contractors. They’re not just looking for the money.

When I started selling startup development services where I helped entrepreneurs execute on their ideas and create the initial versions of their products, my three main objectives were to generate revenue that I could reinvest into my venture, enhance my startup knowledge and gain experience, and finally, build credibility and proof in my value that will help me attract more entrepreneurs in the future.

For this, I was sold every time I found a passionate entrepreneur with an idea that I believed it can have a potential even if this entrepreneur has 3 times less money to invest than I would usually require. I was down to work with those entrepreneurs because they will help me accomplish 2 of my goals: experience and proof.

In fact, I still recall the first relatively big project I worked on with an entrepreneur who had some savings to invest but when his parents asked him not to use the money, he was prepared to get a bank loan and he actually asked me for an hour to apply for the loan online.  I called him few minutes later and asked him to not get the loan and that I would be willing to work with him regardless of how limited his resources are.

His gesture showed commitment and belief in what he was about to build and I was sold on that because I knew I could one day go to another entrepreneur and show him what I had done in the past. I knew that an entrepreneur like that would take me there. After all, my services would help but won’t do the work for him.

When interests are aligned, team members are always open to consider the opportunity if it makes sense.

There are two types:

  • Those who wouldn’t mind delaying compensation today because they know that when you get big, they can use your startup as a case study. My example above falls under this type.
  • Those who wouldn’t mind delaying compensation today because they know that they’d be well compensated in the future if your startup hits it big. Ryan Smith founder of Qualtrics started with his father. When they needed help and couldn’t afford hiring A* players, they found someone who truly believed in the vision and was prepared to work for free. He made a little over $8,000 the first year and $12,000 in the second.

In either case, you absolutely cannot get anyone to even listen if all you got is an idea written on a word document. That’s why I started this section with: “with 10, 20 or whatever X number of contracts you sold, take that and go to potential employees/contractors.”

So, the question is, where do we find A* members who are willing to listen?

Start with freelancing sites like Upwork and Freelancer but since those potential team members will be investing in people (you), you’re much better off building a relationship first.

Some of you reading this may be thinking, why can’t I just focus on getting funded and skip all the hassle that this post is adding to my life?

The truth is, for the 99% of entrepreneurs who won’t get funded with just an idea and some app, this post is not just about how to self-fund your startup but also how to get funded by investors.

Overcoming lack of funding and progressing with your idea despite your limited resources, first, qualifies you as a target investment, and second, differentiate you from the thousands of entrepreneurs that are seeking funding just like you are.

Back to attracting high-quality team members under limited funds.

If you go on Upwork, you’ll find that 1 out of 30 proposals come under the title: seeking an experienced programmer/designer/marketer to join a startup (equity only).

If you were on the market for new projects, what would be your reaction to this subject?

Chances are you’re not going to apply.

When I needed someone to join me but I could only invest $300 a month, I approached one of the guys I had hired few months earlier and explained to him what I am working on and how together we can build something big. He was all over the opportunity. This person still works with me today. However, this was only possible because I had built a relationship with him and he knew I was truly committed and he wanted to be part of it.

I never posted a job that said: looking for an experienced user experience designer (Full-time $300/month). Nobody would have listened.

The keys to attracting the best team members despite your limited resources are:

  1. Maximize the use of your existing resources to build as much value as you can.
  2. Build relationships with potential members either by getting to know them in the community (like Ryan did with Qualtrics), helping them when needed, or hiring them for a small project or two.
  3. Make sure your offer is aligned with their short and especially long-term interests.

I’ve added the details about each one of the three steps above plus two more stories in the supplemental package for this post. Don’t forget to download it.

7. Suppliers/Manufacturers/Distributors

Think about these three stakeholders as the companies/people that are key to your operations. They don’t necessarily have to be suppliers, manufacturers and distributors in the traditional sense. They could be hosting companies, app/web development firms, partners, etc.

Will any of those key stakeholders give you cold, hard cash to fund your startup? probably not. Will they be willing to give you cash in the form of services and products? for sure.

And that’s the idea. If you could approach any of those stakeholders with a deal that benefits them and yet enables you to get the service or product you need from them, chance are they will listen.

Here’s my story.

Few years back when I started consulting and providing entrepreneurs with resources to execute on their ideas and before building my own team, I did the business development and marketing myself while outsourcing the development and design parts to a team. As you may have read the longer version of the story, the main reason behind this service I started providing was to generate funds that I could reinvest into my venture.

Not only was I making money from my own services (business development and marketing) but also charged a small premium for helping clients hire team members and managing product development. Add to this, I negotiated a deal with the development team to work on my own platform if I bring in 2 projects worth $5,000 each, every month. This way, I was saving the money I made until I reach the target amount I needed but also got free services in the meanwhile.

As a side note, what will happen is that you’ll find this back and forth process from startup to consulting very time consuming and distracting but when you have a target amount in mind, you’ll know when to stop. In other words, if you know that you need $20,000 to fund the next 8 months of your startup, you’ll know that after X number of projects, you can focus entirely on your venture. And that is extremely important for you, your startup and your potential investors. The good news is that you’re still be able to make significant progress in the meanwhile unlike spending those 8 months chasing investors’ money when the odds are not in your favor iwith just an idea.

Back to getting products and services for free.

When it comes to building win-win partnerships, always be asking and thinking about the goals of the other party. What is it that they want to accomplish?

If they want more contracts, see how you can get them more. If they want exposure and awareness, see how you could help them get it perhaps by writing about them, helping with marketing, connecting them to journalists, etc. That is worth money and most people don’t ask how they can pay with their skills.

Take the example of Richard Branson. Did you know he negotiated a deal with Boeing to return the planes he was bidding on within one year if Virgin Atlantic did not meet its projections?

Why would any company agree to these terms? Boeing agreed because it desperately needed a competitor to British Airways in the U.K. and it was willing to take this risk to avoid underpricing their planes everytime they sold one to British Airways since they were the only airline company in the U.K. and Boeing had to accept their terms if they wanted to do business there.

Boeing wanted competition and Branson got them what they needed but asked for help in exchange. And it worked well for both.

Another way to measure money is through time.

Key stakeholders can help you by buying you time. Countless are the cases where I requested to delay payment for a milestone(s). And I’m not talking about a month or two, I am talking 6, 8 or even 12 months. In my first startup, I built the first version of the web app by making small payments over 8 months. Over the years, I was surprised by how willing people and companies are to accept delaying payments to gain your business.

In the downloadable package, you will also find 3 different ways key stakeholders can help you fund your startup.

  1. Checklist & Summary (+2)
  2. Creating a service out of a startup product (10 examples)
  3. Freelancing as a startup funding channel (3 ways)
  4. Attracting team members + 2 more examples
  5. 3 ways key stakeholders can help in funding a startup
  6. Contract template for exchanging products and services

Even more cash value can be created by

8. Exchanging products and services

I have taken sales calls, written guides, recruited, advised, and more in exchange of design and product development services. The people I serviced were going to hire someone anyways but when I approached them with a proposal to do the work needed if they helped design a prototype or build a feature, things worked out even better.

I found that the key in building successful exchanging partnerships after approval from both parties is transparency. The specific tasks, expected duration and outcome must be clearly outlined and approved. I’ve had issues in the past where one of the two parties did not agree to the delivery and things kept going back and forth that made the deal a waste of time and energy but when things are transparent since day one, good things happen.

By the way, in the supplemental material package, I added the contract template I use when negotiating “trades”.

And this applies to any person with any background, not just non-technical founders needing development and design work. If you’re technical, you may need help in PR, finance, marketing in general and even complex coding part of your software that you couldn’t do or solve. Many experienced programmers would kill for someone to do the small tasks for them so they can focus on the bigger ones. These guys would benefit from your services and wouldn’t mind giving you some of their time to solve your problems. This is not relevant to exchanging services between two programmers but to use an example, Colin Chapman founder of Lotus Cars used to barter Lotus products for services like advertising.

Another reminder, this list of non-equity, debt free funding sources are for you to have startup funding options regardless of how limited resources can be. These are the true meaning of hustle. You hear motivators like Gary Vaynerchuck talk about working your 8 to 5 job then 9 to 2 am on your passion but not always do we hear what we should do during those hustling times. Combining many of the things in this post will enable you to proceed with your bare hands until you build fundable value, in this case you are seeking an investment.

Next, how is content marketing going to help you generate revenue for your startup venture?

9. Content Marketing

Remember when we discussed how customers can help fund your startup? Well, one of the most effective ways to attract those potential customers is through content marketing. The best proof for this statement if Buffer.

The founders of Buffer spent almost a year writing blog posts about online marketing in general and social media management specifically. 10 months later, they had almost 100,000 leads trusting their advice. Although the team already had the background to build the initial version(s) of their solution, they had no trouble selling it once the product was ready.

Had they needed funding to proceed to the next stage, they could have pre-sold access to their software to as little as 1% of the leads and they would have generated enough revenue to self-fund the initial phases of their startup.

Content marketing comes at a huge cost. Quality content is extremely time consuming but well worth the investment. If you don’t have time or the expertise to create detailed pieces of content that would provide tangible benefits to your audience, here’s what you can do:

Create a mail list through which subscribers get hand curated emails every week with some of the best articles and videos that were published in your specific space during that period. This way, all you have to do is hand pick the best content and share them with your audience over email.

I know many entrepreneurs who took this approach and as a result built a list of 10,000+ members to whom they can come back one day with a pre-sale offer or maybe just to get beta users to send them comments about their upcoming solution.

For example, a few months ago, I read a post about Machine Learning on Medium and in this post, Sam DeBrule talked about his initiative of hand curating the best content written about AI and ML during the week to send subscribers a summary every Sunday. I subscribed. A couple of weeks ago, they announced their startup among the usual curated articles they send.

This is simple and can help you build an audience quickly as long as you focus 95% of your service on providing value. It’s fine for most people if once in a while you share your updates with them.

Startup Watching and FoundersGrid are two other examples of such newsletters.

To differentiate your list from the rest, you can share interviews with experts, have a weekly live Slack Q&A with them to let subscribers ask their questions and get instant answers, encourage subscribers who leverage the knowledge they gained to create products by getting their startups featured in the newsletter, and many others depending on readers/members’ needs. You’ll only know what they want if you ask them.

Even if you decide to build your audience by curating content for list subscribers, I strongly believe you should not rule out content even if you post once a month. Here’s how I started looking at content and changed my approach completely.

First, treat a piece of content like a post or a video like a product. The most successful products are created to solve a problem or address a need. Therefore, before you start typing or recording, you should identify this problem/need and know what would solve it for the customer (reader).

If you don’t treat content as a product, you’ll end up in the 99% of bloggers who write for the purpose of filling a blog and not to achieve a goal (awareness, interest, trial, purchase, trust).

Second, when you identify the problem/need and its respective solution, create content as if you are addressing your most loved ones. If you are writing for your spouse, best friend, siblings, parents or any loved one that needed help to solve a problem, how would you explain the solution to them? Wouldn’t you go above and beyond to help them? That’s exactly what you should do and it doesn’t matter if you can do it on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, as long as when you write, you do it for them.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is what happened every since I started adopting this approach to content not too long ago.

Bootstrapping, The Complete List Of Equity/Debt Free Funding Sources For Bootstrapped Founders (15+), Abdo Riani, Abdo Riani
So, if this takes a month, then write a valuable piece of content every month. Because this monthly piece is likely to be 10X more valuable than a daily 500-700 words that replicates existing advice and wastes people’s time.

Bootstrapping, The Complete List Of Equity/Debt Free Funding Sources For Bootstrapped Founders (15+), Abdo Riani, Abdo Riani
And this brings us to

10. Affiliate Marketing

I know what you may be thinking: I’m not an affiliate marketers/I’ve never liked affiliate marketing/I don’t want to promote other companies’ products when I can promote mine/I don’t have time to represent other companies, etc. And you’re not going to.

If you’re against affiliate marketing, you’re probably thinking about it from what you’ve been seeing full time affiliates do: ads everywhere on their sites, links to the products in every paragraph or so, etc. You almost feel uncomfortable reading their posts, watching their videos or listening to their podcasts.

What I’m suggesting is another form of affiliate marketing that can only be done if you have nailed the “content marketing” funding channel above. It takes two forms:

  • Every week, sell a company or two on a mention in the newsletter among the curated list of content that you share. Depending on the size of the list, you’d be able to charge between $50 and $500. If the promoted company is relevant, believe me subscribers wouldn’t mind learning about a new trending tool or service. As long as it is relevant so make that a rule of thumb.
  • Instead of just mentioning their product in your emails, offer it for sale on a webinar. This could be just an interview that provides value to the audience but ends with an interesting offer.

And then there’s the traditional approach to affiliate marketing. What I did was partner with a few relevant companies in our space. Although I rarely link to the companies inside the posts unless it makes sense, I add a small banner at the end with their logos. Passive income that’s enough to pay for hosting, for example, is worth the consideration.

And keep in mind that this is another opportunity to exchange products and services. For instance, instead of a commission for each sale or a fee for a mention, you can request to use their services for free for a predetermined period.

11. Selling Courses

For young first-time entrepreneurs out there, let me ask your question: I’m barely starting to learn, how can I possibly teach a course?

Few years back when I started my first startup, I never thought 8 months of startup hustle could turn into a consulting service. It wasn’t me who acquired clients, it was them who approached me for help. Things like where to begin, how to execute on an idea, what are the first steps, how to build a team, how to find good freelancers, what to build and when, etc. Questions that seemed a bit basic but obviously needed answers.

Long story short, there’s always someone earlier in the process who would benefit greatly from your support and guidance. To put a number on it, all you need is 100 people who love and trust you.

We often get discouraged when we see experts with tens and hundreds of thousands of subscribers in their list. Many of us believe providing value through a course, in this case, requires building a huge network when all we need is as little as 100 or even 50 people we can help.

Think about it, to use an example, would you invest $20 to learn exactly what you need to do from the time you decide to pursue your venture until the time you build the initial version of the product including the mistakes you need to avoid making, where to find and how to hire quality team members, etc.? Chances are you wouldn’t mind investing if you trust you’ll learn something of value.

And this brings us to a very important point: building trust.

There are countless courses, books, mentors, articles, sites, products, why would you trust one person, source or product and not the others?

Well, quality, uniqueness and value are some of the main reasons why we choose one over the other but in the case of two similar products, say courses with similar topics, why the first and not the second or vice versa?

We often go with the one we trust more. And in the case you believe you don’t have much to show yet to build the trust you need with your audience, do what I did: build a relationship with each and everyone of your potential buyers (students).

When I started getting involved in the entrepreneurial community back when I was pursuing my first startup, I got approached by many for help with their startups and that turned into AspireIT. Few were able to afford investing $2,000+ to get my help in executing on their ideas and building their products. Looking back, at least 50 of them would have been down to invest $20 for a 2-day workshop to learn everything there is to learn about taking an idea to market. Unfortunately, I didn’t create such initiative.

The irony to me was that part of my suggestions to these entrepreneurs was to read the books I recommended, to start with X, to enroll in online programs and more but they always came back to ask for my help despite my limited experience compared to the experts I recommended they listen to.

I concluded that people are looking for the help of a human and not the presentation of an expert. Someone once actually told me something along the lines of, information is not a problem. I can find lots of it with a click of button. But who’s going to help me connect the dots? answer my specific questions? address me personally and not every reader, student or subscriber?

They trusted me because I had built a relationship with them and as a result, wanted to work with me. So, here’s what to do:

  1. Find where your audience hangs out. It could be a combination of online (Slack, Reddit, Facebook, etc.) and offline (Meetups, school entrepreneurship groups, city entrepreneurship events, etc.) communities.
  2. Go an introduce yourself as if you’re networking in a conference. Ask them what they’re working on and learn about their challenges. Keep the contact information of everyone you meet especially “qualified leads,” those you can help.
  3. Follow up and make sure they know you’re available to help.
  4. A couple of weeks later, once you’ve built a relationship with a big enough sample of 10, 20 or 50, tell them you’re thinking of creating a 2-day workshop or online course.
  5. Create, sell and provide as much personalized value as you can.

This is an excellent way to not only generate funds for reinvestment into your venture but also build an audience that you can go back for feedback about your product, launch and promotion by asking for shares and recommendations.

Here’s the supplemental package if you haven’t downloaded it yet.

  1. Checklist & Summary (+2)
  2. Creating a service out of a startup product (10 examples)
  3. Freelancing as a startup funding channel (3 ways)
  4. Attracting team members + 2 more examples
  5. 3 ways key stakeholders can help in funding a startup
  6. Contract template for exchanging products and services

In case you’ve decided to build a curated newsletter like we discussed in the Content Marketing section above, a good idea after you’ve built an audience, say 2000 subscribers, is to create a course about building the same thing: How to create a newsletter with hand curated content. Chances are a percentage of the members would be interested in learning what you did and would invest to get the information.

In conclusion, experience, skill and knowledge are not roadblocks when it comes to creating and selling courses because there’s always someone out there who would benefit from what you’ve done so far even if it’s small. What’s more important is the distribution. How you reach your target students is what matters because if you’re planning to compete with all the experts on the market by launching a video, writing an article or advertising on Facebook, rarely will someone listen. But when you go and meet with them in person (online or offline), build a relationship and offer to help, people will respond.

And let’s not forget about

12. Equity free competitions

Because those competitions aren’t just going to get you funding when won but also two other very important outcomes: mentors and investors.

Competitions are judged by experts who are usually connected to other experts and as a result, just being part of the competition is a great way to network with people that can help you in many ways like invest in you or put you in touch with potential investors.

I think this funding and networking channel should be on top of every entrepreneur’s list especially first-time founders who need guidance and mentoring as much as they need the money.

Besides applying to your school’s business plan competitions and others in the region like ones organized by chambers of commerce, check Your First Investor. You’ll find a list of competitions all over the world and the good news is that most of the competitions you qualify to, require the same information for the application. This way, all you have to do is invest a few hours to create your package and then apply to as many as you can.

Even if you don’t win, email the organizers and judges to introduce yourself and build relationships. As I mentioned earlier, those could be your ticket to an investment and even acquisition.

Furthermore, keep in mind that winning a competition is a proof and that could get investors interested in you and your venture. At a certain point in your startup, most likely you’ll need funding to scale even if you’ve deliberately chosen the bootstrapping path. Building a network of potential investors will make fundraising easier later when you need their support. So, whether you want to get funded or not, always be looking for opportunities to meet and get to know people from the startup investment community.

In the same non-equity funding category, don’t rule out

13. Grants

A few months ago, I hand collected data about startup funding sources. It was then when I saw the number of entrepreneurs who used grants to not only fund the early days of their startups but also to boost growth.

Grants are also competitions. If you meet the required criteria, you’d be competing with other applicants and it can get very competitive especially for large amounts. I recommend considering and applying to relevant grants but certainly not hoping it would be the main and only source of funding.

Just with a quick search, I found the following $10,000 grant:

Grants to USA Women-Led Startups to Launch a High-Growth Technology Project.

You can check Grant Watch and or others.

Bootstrapping, The Complete List Of Equity/Debt Free Funding Sources For Bootstrapped Founders (15+), Abdo Riani, Abdo Riani

14. Scholarships

I went to college on a sports scholarship. When I graduated, I got a research assistant position that paid for my masters and living expenses. When I graduated, I got a doctoral research assistantship that paid for school and monthly expenses. Besides the athletic scholarship which went directly to tuition, fees and books, I was receiving a small salary in masters and PhD. Long story short, I learned to live under $500 to save an equal amount that I reinvested into my businesses.

First and foremost, if you’re in that position right now, manage to save and reinvest the spread between your living plus school expenses. And if it’s not enough or like most people, don’t have a scholarship, just like business plan competitions and grants, there are countless scholarship opportunities that you should qualify to and can get.

Ramit Sethi wrote a post about how he got over $100,000 in scholarships. Check it out.

15. Crowdfunding

One of the funding sources that we discussed above is pre-selling your potential customers. Crowdfunding falls under the same category and yet deserves its own section. The truth is, crowdfunding is not cheap. You need money to create the prototype, demonstrate the product through a video and designs, network and promote the campaign, start production to fulfill orders on time, etc.

I remember calling an entrepreneur in the middle of her campaign to ask about her experience from start up until then. She mentioned that ever since she and her co-founder started the campaign, it felt like a full-time job for them.

The point is, the crowdfunding model did a great job at connecting inventors with early adopters but at the end of the day, it’s still pre-selling which requires proof, networking, distribution and now, you can no longer pass the approval criteria of most crowdfunding platforms with just an idea or design prototype. You’ll need to prove that you have a product. Here’s straight from Kickstarter’s rule: “at some point, the creator should be able to say: ‘It’s finished. Here’s what we created. Enjoy!’.”

If crowdfunding is the right channel for you, commit to it. Get informed, don’t hesitate to contact previous successes and failures, and hire an expert if needed.

To fund your crowdfunding campaign, use any or a combination of other funding channels we discussed in this post plus don’t hesitate to ask for help or volunteering. During my involvement in local entrepreneurship events, I get approached by many with an interest to volunteer and help with different projects. Crowdfunding could be one of them so don’t hesitate to look for people who share your passion and want to learn before building theirs or joining startups including yours potentially.

To conclude, I think the main lesson learned from this list is that no matter how limited resources can be, passionate hardworking entrepreneurs can overcome lack of funding by bootstrapping their startup ventures through a combination of funding channels and perseverance. Those who associate their failure to execute on their ideas to a limitation in resources are not entrepreneurs, they’re wantrepreneurs. Did you know Colin Chapman bootstrapped a car company (Lotus Cars)?

I added two more funding channels to the summary and checklist in the supplemental material package that you can download here.

Now, I’d like to hear from you. Which ones of the funding channels above can you use to fund your startup? Also, if you’ve tried other equity/debt free funding channels that we should add to the list, let me know by leaving a comment below right now.


If you haven’t yet, download the diagram with a step by step process for launching and growing profitable startup ventures with higher success predictability.

If you haven’t yet, download the diagram with a step by step process for launching and growing profitable startup ventures with higher success predictability.

The diagram will come with summaries to help you implement the steps to move your ideas or startup forward whether your current focus is validating your ideas quickly, acquiring the first or next 100 paying customers, building an MVP or the next versions of the product. You’ll find examples and case studies. 

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