The Silicon Valley startup playbook is fairly straightforward. Quit your job. Live on ramen noodles. Work day and night on your product while raising seed/VC money.
For me, this approach was a nonstarter. As a man with a family to support, quitting my job and eating Ramen for 6 months is a fast path to divorce court. But I really wanted to start my own company, so I needed options.
Around this time, I discovered @dhh’s talk at Startup School. Contrary to valley convention, he actually advocated charging money for your product. Ingenious! After digging further, I found out that there is an entire subculture in tech known as “bootstrapped” companies. Some are fairly large such as this one and this one. Instead of taking funding and growing quickly, a bootstrapped company keeps costs low and grows slowly.
So, it was settled. Instead of starting with a bang, my dream of becoming an entrepreneur would start small. I bought a Macbook Pro and an iPod touch, and started the long journey of creating a sustainable and profitable tech company.
Along the way, I’ve added my own wrinkles to dhh’s teachings. For lack of a better term, I’ve called it “moochstrapping”. If bootstrapping is meant to keep costs as low as possible, moochstrapping takes it to the next level by shamelessly mooching whenever possible.
Here are some ways I’ve moochstrapped my startup.
For many valley engineers, free meals are a given. Not worrying about food frees you up to think about more important things, like cat videos. Who says the free food has to stop when you do your own startup? Assuming you weren’t a total jerk, you at least have a few friends you can call for the occasional meal. Healthy food costs a lot of money, and your body will eventually break down with too much ramen noodles. So do yourself a favor and mooch food from your BigCo friends! I’ve been to the Google cafeterias at least 50 times. But why stop at Google? Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and many well funded startups also offer free food! I’ve had entire weeks eating from tech company cafeterias.
Many a engineer is fueled by a good cup of morning joe. Unfortunately, it’s an expensive habit. At $3.60 for a grande latte at Starbucks per day, you would have to spend $936/yr to replace the expresso bar in your company’s microkitchen. Good lord! That’s an entry level Macbook Air! What’s the solution? Well, you could make your own coffee. But that takes time. And time is money! My solution was the Starbucks refill hack. It’s a little known fact, but Starbucks will in fact refill your coffee in the afternoon if you bring your cup from the morning…FOR FREE. If you are Chinese, you see where I’m going with this. I figured, why not keep the cup as long as I can? There’s no hard and fast rule that you need to bring the cup from that same morning, right? The astute among you will note that Starbucks cups are made of cardboard, and thus do not last forever. And you would be correct. In fact, I’ve measured the lifespan of a Starbucks to-go cup at between 40 and 50 uses before the structural integrity of the cup makes storing hot liquids dangerous.
3. Wi-Fi / Electricity
When you’re making $250K/yr at Google, you don’t think much about your electric bill. When you’re moochstrapping, you can estimate your light bill to the cent! And don’t get me started on internet costs in the Valley! Thankfully, wi-fi and electricity are some of the easiest things to mooch! Along with the usual suspects, here are some suggestions of places to mooch: cafes, public libraries, religious institutions, tech companies, co-working spaces (all they require is a “donation” haha…suckers), neighboring backyards (most have outdoor plugs).
"Great!" You say. "How do I get started moochstrapping?" I’m glad you ask. Not everyone is cut out to be a moochstrapper. But then again, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. You’ve gotta think outside the box, baby!
That said, here are some tips to start you on the right (wrong?) track.
1. Be shameless
Shame is for losers. To get ahead in the moochstrapping game, you’ve got to have no shame whatsoever. Thankfully for me, I’ve never had any shame to get rid of! As a moochstrapper, you will have to admit embarrassing facts like “No officer, I was not breaking into my neighbors house. I just needed to use his wi-fi to push my code.” So get over it! Life is short, who cares what other people think? You’ve got a company to build! A world to change! A few puzzled glances from Starbucks employees never hurt anyone.
2. Be selfless
This may seem counterintuitive to the seemingly selfish nature of moochstrapping, but I assure you it’s not. I’m a win-win kind of guy. I would never mooch from my friend’s dinner table, that’s coming out of his own pocket! But enjoying a lunch at his Fortune 500 company’s free cafeteria? What’s selfish about that? You get free food, your friend gets the pleasure of your company, and BigCo gets cool points from the entrepreneurial crowd. Win all around! Still skeptical? This is a recent conversation with a friend at Google:
J: Hey B, I’m on campus. Wanna do lunch?
B: Lol, what? Ok sure where you wanna go?
J: You know what, let’s make it easy for you. I know you’re busy so let’s just eat at one of the Google cafeterias. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.
BOOM. It’s that simple. See what I did there? Let’s break it down, shall we?
- I was already on-campus. Most tech companies have free wi-fi for guests, so you can actually mooch their wi-fi without being signed in. There are also plugs in most lobbies, so as long as security doesn’t get suspicious you can actually work from the lobby of most tech company buildings. Should have added that to my list of mooching spots. In any case, make it harder for your friend to say no by already being there before making the ask!
- I positioned my mooching as doing him a favor. By reminding him that the Google cafeteria existed so that he wouldn’t have to drive elsewhere to meet me for lunch, it made it hard for him to say no.
- I was bold! It’s a fine line between bold and brash, and everyone needs to figure out a way to tip-toe that line effectively. But note that my friend B was pleasantly surprised I was already on campus, versus being mildly annoyed. At least, that’s what I tell myself at night.
Moochstrapping is great because it forces you to be creative. As a moochstrapped entrepreneur, you are operating under a set of constraints. While many dislike operating under constraints, I believe that entrepreneurs must embrace it. Human creativity is maximized when we are forced to make decisions under constraints. No money? No network? No investors? No programming skills? No worries! The moochstrapped entrepreneur laughs in the face of obstacles and mooches on!