Motivating Employees to Grow a Bootstrapped Business

by / ⠀Entrepreneurship Startup Advice / December 4, 2013


Here is the dilemma: I have a business structure that requires about 17 full-time workers to be sustainable. However, I lack the capital to go out and hire the people I need for the job cold turkey. I have to build up to it. I am also limited by one thing I can’t do, and two things I won’t do (for now) to get this capital.

First, my over-conservative bank isn’t willing to give me a loan until my business has been making over $250k/ year for two years, (I think they should read Bill Clinton’s new book, Back to Work, but that’s a different topic). Second, due to past experiences, having investment partners isn’t a direction I’m willing to go. I’ve worked with enough Venture Capitalists to comfortably call them ‘vulture capitalists’ to their face over beers and laughs. They know they’re the dark side of the Force.

So how do I build a team of experts that can move my business forward, without the a large infusion or through a loan or investment? The truth is, I have winged it. But looking back on the past 28 months of my company’s existence I’ve boiled it down to 7 things.

1. Have an idea people can believe in.

Forget everything you’ll hear from Wall Street. When you’re this small, business is not about making money (yet). Business is about creating something that you, your employees, clients or customers, and everyone else can believe in. It is so important that people understand more than what you’re doing, but also why and how your business is going to make the world a little bit better.

The first guy I hired, I couldn’t pay near what he was worth. However, he joined my team because I was able to articulate what I was trying to do, and his imagination started to run wild with the different ways he could apply his expertise to do things people hadn’t done before. I knew he caught the bug when he showed up to work one morning with a manifesto he had stayed up all night preparing. It outlined the entire framework he later built his department on, and has made a world of difference for our nearly 100 (and quickly growing) small business clients.

2. Have cash flow.

Ok, fine; maybe it IS about making money, at least a little bit. Seattle is expensive, not San Francisco or New York expensive, but your guys have still got to pay for their studio apartment and their Friday night ragers. Make sure that you are making enough to pay them what you can, and grow that to a marketable rate as you grow.

Don’t ever expect someone to work for free on the promise they might get paid, or get a percentage of the company. The kind of people who go for this are rookies, so you won’t really want them on your team in the first place. My advice is to have enough clients to pay yourself. Then when you’re ready, hire someone part time, and scale up their hours over time as you bring in more clients.

3. Give them a vision for their future.

Be open and honest about your business model, revenue flow and how the business is going to succeed. Discuss a road map for what they need to accomplish and what the business needs to accomplish to bring them to a market-rate salary. Don’t worry about letting them look up your skirt. When you’re this small, a healthy dose of humility isn’t just unavoidable, it’s mandatory. If they’re already on board, they will begin to realize that they are contributing to building themselves a job.

Let’s face it, in 2008 those of us under 30 were called the “no job, no credit, no asset” generation. That doesn’t just mean you, it means that your employees are probably there too. We’ve never had a 401k with actual money in it, or even heath care benefits at most of the places we’ve worked. So if you map out for your people a true future to a place they can actually afford that white picket fence they won’t admit they want because it’s cliché, they’ll follow you.

4. Build loyalty.

I’m a Heath Ledger fan. I love the version of “The Four Feathers” that stars him. It’s that line that gets me, “we fight for the man on our left, and we fight for the man on our right.” A startup is a team fighting a battle and your people are your soldiers. Build loyalty by letting them know you’re fighting for them, then they’ll fight for you and for each other.

People have an amazing sense of pride and ownership when they know that they’ve been entrusted and other people are counting on them. Make sure they know that their hard work doesn’t just build a future for them, but also for their friends and co-workers. There can be no lone wolves in a startup.

5. Create a culture that requires and rewards innovation.

I have some perfectionists, and that’s great. But sometimes it takes too much time to get things ‘just right’ and I have to kick people in the pants. Cliché alert: Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. The good thing is that we don’t have the need to manufacture necessity for doing things better, faster and smarter. Working in a bootstrapped startup does that on its own. However, the culture for how to deal with and approach innovation has to be cultivated.

As a small business owner, I swear my title should actually be Problem Solver in Chief. When I was a kid, my dad was a VP at AT&T Wireless. He used to make me do homework in his office. I’ll never forget something I heard his boss tell him: “Never come to me with a problem you don’t already have three solutions to.” I tell everyone that story. Not to stress them out, but to encourage them to think of possible solutions not excuses.

Sometimes the solution isn’t in solving a problem. Sometimes it involves backing up and going around it. Once my team takes a step back, looks at the problem objectively, and boils any issue down to the real goal, that is where innovation truly comes from.

6. Have fun.

People have to enjoy work. Whatever floats your boat; make sure your team is having a good time, while still being productive. The best way to do this is get to know your employees’ interests, and let them feel free to express those in the office. While for some people (referring to a particular person in my office) like Zelda waaay too much, it’s important to let him show us the latest fan graphic or video he found.

Oh yes, and thou shalt remember beer o’clock and keep it holy.

7. Keep your promises.

At the end of the day, everything is about your integrity. You’re the leader and your ability to lead your employees is entirely reliant upon how much they trust you. Never give anyone a reason to doubt your integrity.

If you promise someone a raise by a certain time, you’d better make sure you follow through. If you promise resources, you’d better deliver on them, otherwise your people will begin to think you’re just full of it. Once people stop trusting their boss,  that is when their job becomes just another 9-to-5 they have to tolerate until something better comes along. As a bootstrapped startup, and with the economic upswing, it won’t take long until you start to lose your most valuable players.

Oh, and one last thing. Be nice, no bootstrapped startup can ever succeed when the boss is a jerk to his people. They have to more than just respect you, they have to kind of like you too.

Danny Done is the CEO of Marketeering Group. He founded the company at age 24 in 2011, to serve as digital ambassadors for small business owners. His background is in digital marketing and tech companies, and has worked with hundreds of small, local businesses in Seattle.

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About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.