Bootstrapping the Münchhausen way

Looking at all opportunities that startup companies have everywhere around the world makes me feel envious. Very envious.

Starting our own company in Bulgaria back in 1995, only some six years after the fall of communism there, was quite an experience. I would love to make you actually “feel” the reality we had to deal with then, but I am having only words at hand. Anyway, I will try to make the best use of them.

Imagine a situation with no financial resources available. None, whatsoever. Banks would not lend us any private loan, due to our lack of personal assets then, that could have been used as collateral. It was a startup, after all! Bulgarian banks themselves faced huge problems at that period – they were going bankrupt one after another, drowning people’s savings. That was so popular at the time that it almost seemed like the period’s fashion trend.

The country featured no governmental or organizational funding for small and medium businesses, no private sector funding, no VC funding…. I believe you are getting my point, but I would like to go on just a little bit, for a deeper impact. Foreign investment funding was available only for large enterprises. And there was practically no governmental or local infrastructure to facilitate startups.

So, the moral of my story would probably sound like this: if young entrepreneurs did want to start a small business in that country, well, they were totally left on their own. So, we had to do it very much the Münchhausen way – we had to drag ourselves out of the financial swamp by pulling hard up our very own hair. Or our own bootstraps, if you prefer. And pray the hair/bootstraps were strong enough to sustain the huge effort.

So, provided we had no banks or other financial institutions to rely upon, our only way seemed to be the one used in old-old old times: borrowing money. Mainly: from parents and relatives. How contemporary...

We got really lucky with that, actually – maybe we were able to convey our ideas in the best possible way or our closest people just loved us too much, but they all took the risk to finance our venture and never regretted it. Amazing, isn’t it?
We even got our first laptop, a Mac, back in 1993, as quite a motivating present from my dad. Working at two places simultaneously also did help us a lot. That was how we managed to buy our first fax machine and were able to meet our Internet connection costs and utility bills.

The first bigger software development project we managed to get was actually able to cover just the rent of our small office, some expenses and the salaries of 2 people. As projects came and grew, we hired more developers. We saw miracles in action. People even started coming and asking for jobs with us, as we had slowly turned into a reputable company producing well and known for the friendly office atmosphere.

In the period 1995-1998 we were an entirely outsourcing company but that helped us pay back all the money we had borrowed. Then, in 1999, we decided we wanted to get to the next level – start developing our own products.

Only, don’t expect banks to be there for us. So, we did the same drill – relatives and friends lent us what we needed. That was what we called “our very private banking”. And the game of borrow-and-pay-back went on…

In 2000-2001 two large projects allowed us to increase the number of our employees to over 20, and to extend the number of our own products to 5 different ones – some in the financial sector, some online products.

Then, in 2003, we decided to buy our own office. Quite a brave decision, as the banking system was still pretty much where we have left it when starting in 1995 – well, a bit better for businesses like retail, construction, and the like – but that was not very much our field of business, though. This time the option with the “very private banking” was not an option for us any longer. Just a brief clarification: until around the year 2000  and a bit later, private property in Bulgaria used to be purchased mainly in cash only, no loans or mortgages had been available whatsoever….

So, we started our first banking odyssey at that point - buying a company property. It may take me years to explain to you what Bulgarian bankers and loan experts actually knew about software development business but let me summarize it in a few phrases: For them, software was considered to be “not a real business”, as your product was “not a real one”, i.e. you can not touch it, therefore it did not exist. That explained why they gave us the explanation that “no serious banking institution would ever give us any loans". Smart guys.

One credit expert even expressed his deep and friendly regrets that intelligent people like us had not started some reasonable retail business, like selling nails or tools, for instance. At that point, we were ready to smash some heads around….

It took us two long nightmare months to persuade one very brave bank “to take the crazy risk” to finance us with a mortgage – and, believe it or not, we did managed to buy our own 4000 sq.f. office space!!! A perfect investment it turned out to be, as only three months later real estate prices in the country sky-rocketed. Lucky us! So, we managed to buy our office facilities - but being a fixer-upper, no bank was in a great rush to lend us another loan for further improvements, such as remodeling, furnishing and the like.

Well, you must have learned our drill so far – everything had to be done the Münchhausen way.

So, in 2004 we decided to sell 15% of our company to an old friend, an attorney, which made it possible for us not only to turn our office into a contemporary and work-friendly space for all the people that worked there, but also allowed us to reserve the proper cash flow and breathe normally. Well, that investment also generated some legendary jokes that we must have been among the few companies in the world that actually managed to TAKE money OUT from an attorney... Today we have altogether 14 partners in the company (long-term employees) and we are proud to have each one of them around.

So, one way or another – we did manage to survive the hard start. Thanks to people who trusted us. And thanks to the really thick hair we must have had, which helped us pull ourselves out of too many dire-straits situations.

This article was originally written for MyVenturePad.com (published February 11, 2008)