I've bootstrapped for 15 years, here's what I know

December 10, 2022
Written by
Robert Cornish

I’ve bootstrapped for 15 years.

It’s unforgiving.

Payroll is demanding. Profitability can be tricky at times.

You have to reinvent yourself at each major milestone. Getting to $5M is one thing but growing to $10M or $20M+ means morphing the company. What got you to $5M is great but the company needs to shift beyond that to sort of grow up and change things to get bigger and better and more sophisticated.

Here’s a few things I know for sure:

  1. Lead with a customer-first strategy but in order to do that — you actually have to safeguard your own company first. You can’t serve customers at the highest level if your foundation is weak. Build and protect the foundation so you can actually be customer first
  2. Build a strong culture — this means that you have to live it and write down the values and reinforce them every day. After a while, it takes on a life of its own and sets. Culture is, in my view, one of the most important things to get right. What do you stand for? How do you handle work? Customers? Problems? People?
  3. Innovate on your products or services constantly — you recall the book Who Move My Cheese? You need to find ways to innovate to make the product better and have new products rather than rely on old ways. Ultimately your product (service) is the winning sales formula so invest in it daily and become the best.
  4. Marketing (brand and PR) — this is something most are anemic on and really, besides world-class products — it’s the number one thing you should be investing in to drive demand. You need to be known and you need customers coming to you. Does your audience know who you are? Are you well thought of? Are you in demand?
  5. Sales — you can't have a flimsy sales team that can't close. You need a great team that knows the product cold, knows the industry, and understands the customers. Beyond that, they need to know the sales process verbatim, be a customer advisor and advocate and care about the outcome while also being anchored by ambition. After all, marketing amounts to nothing if sales can't close.  
  6. People and talent — none of the above can happen without the right team. Build the best team possible. Train any stragglers to make them better and cull anyone who doesn't want to be better.
  7. Leadership — we screwed this up early days. We just kept building the team and failed to build leadership. But once we built leaders over each division — everything else ironed out.
  8. Finance — you have to ensure a few basic things — income is greater than outgo, build reserves and you've baked in a decent margin. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated.
  9. Training — invest in training your team and continuing to learn and improve. Build training content for each role to define A to B how to do that role, what the outcomes need to be, what stats to measure, and what's expected, and complement the training with debug checklists for when things go wrong so you can assess and improve it as well as drills that can be done at any time to get better. Don’t just chase new talent, train the people you have to make them the better talent.
  10. Love what you do and care about the work, the industry, and the customers. My dad was a chemist and helped build a global plastics company, if plastics was mentioned or asked about, he lit up and would just talk and talk… I'm similar in that way. I love and know what we do cold, I understand our customers and our work, campaigns, and strategies and I study this stuff constantly. It’s not a chore. Mastery requires dedication to a decided lane.
  11. Purpose and Vision -- lastly, where are you going and why? If your purpose and vision is authentic to you and you are irrationally driven by them, you will push through. Building for money or wealth isn't enough. It won't take you through the tough patches. Only purpose and vision can do that. It will pull you to the future. Define it and align everyone to it and then execute.

These are just a few of the pillars. But getting these right will dramatically help.

— Robert

About Robert Cornish: Robert Cornish founded Richter in early 2008 to build an agency focused on communication strategies that support sales growth for business-to-business technology-related companies. Bootstrapped with zero capital in the middle of the financial meltdown, Richter went on to make the Inc 5000 list comprised of the fastest-growing companies in America five times. Richter made the Silicon Valley Fast 50 four times and the Entrepreneur360 award two times. Robert has been featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Selling Power Magazine, Inc Magazine and IDEA magazine. He's been a guest speaker for ACG Los Angeles, IASA Summit, West Point and been interviewed for 33Voices, EnTRUEpreneurship Podcast and IDEA Magazine by Northwood University. In 2012 Wiley & Sons published his book, What Works, about the lessons he's learned while growing his agency from start-up navigating his way to a multi-million dollar agency. Robert currently owns five companies.

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