Startups on a shoestring budget

Get used to this feeling, because this is what a startup feels like.

Get used to this feeling, because this is what a startup feels like.

I will be the first to admit that starting Insanitek is quite possibly the hardest thing I’ve done. I have read a lot, worked a lot, went to (free) meetings, and filled out countless worksheets and questionnaires regarding my business plans and ideals for the company. Lots of people have given me their two cents, and sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t. One thing that comes up quite often is finances. Without finances, your company can’t take form because you can’t do anything. Or can you?

I am a member of the working poor class. Between my fiancé and I, we make merely $49 over the limit to get food stamps. If we lived like everyone else, going out to eat, drying clothes in a dryer, etc. we would lose money every month just to survive. Instead, we dry clothes on a line or the clothes horse, never go out to eat, grow a tiny garden and can or freeze what we grow, and live in slight discomfort to save money on the electric bill among other things. We live as if we were displaced from the 1940s in war time and dropped into 2013. Despite of all this, we don’t have enough money to actually pay all our student loans or health insurance, let alone start a high tech company.

There are many ways to go about a startup, and none are particular better than the other. It all depends on your goals. For instance, if you want to work at a faster pace, you need money, and usually lots of it. For that, you’ll want to take a look at Penelope Trunk’s post on what starting up a startup is like. I will not say she’s wrong, even from my perspective. You do have a lot of “nervous breakdown” days and nearly freak out. It’s not a pretty sight. I prefer more of a lean approach, though. This is partly because I’ve always believed in not going into debt. I also didn’t want to relinquish my control in the company in order to share it with others. I wanted to crash through my own way to make my dreams come to life — even when it’s against the standard system.

In the last year I have learnt several lessons about starting a company on this non-existent budget. Here are 5 lessons I’ve learnt from my life and applied to business. I hope they help you see a different perspective on starting up a company.

1.) Living within your means — then cut something out.

My fiancé and I sit down with our budget often and review it. We meticulously compare our incoming money with our expenditures. We then look at what we can cut out on day to day basis. For instance, do we really need that frozen pizza once every two weeks? Can we replace it with something just as tasty, but cheaper? Will making it at home be cheaper? Making them at home is cheaper in our case. Do we need that bottle of wine with our anniversary dinner? No, we can get by with sparkling water to feel more special. Then, we look at other things that are more challenging, like how to lower our electric bill. We often leave the temperatures in the apartment at slightly uncomfortable levels to save a few dollars. It works.

During the start up process with Insanitek I have taken the same approach. I started with nothing, so I had a balance of zero. I used free software (WordPress and OpenCart), did everything myself, and where I didn’t have the ability, I found people that believed in the concept of Insanitek so much that they worked for free just to see it take off the ground. It wasn’t perfect, but we didn’t ask for it to be. We worked on the kinks, invited friends to give us feedback and plodded on. It may be a constant work in progress, but at least it’s crawling and still within our budget.

2.) When you get a dollar, save 10% of it.

I was raised to save money, not spend it. As a general rule of thumb, 10% as a minimum is a good starting point. It’s literally $0.10 for every dollar. It’s not much, but it builds up quickly. When I first started Insanitek, I took that 10% and put it into a jar and saved it up. Seeing the money physically building up in the jar gave me motivation and encouragement to keep going.

On the flip side of this, by purchasing in cash I can also see the level of money in the jar diminish reminding me to be mindful to only spend money on things that will either prove really useful or give back to the business.

3.) Every minute counts.

Being in business for yourself is never easy, and there isn’t any downtime if you want it to truly succeed. Successful people practically live, breathe, and dream of their company’s next step and how to push forward. This is twice as hard when you are working for a paycheck to put food on the table. I learnt that while doing odds and ends jobs if I had a minute on the bus to read, then I read. I read books I borrowed from the library, read the newspaper of the fellow across the isle (and once worked up the courage to ask for a section), read magazines that I borrowed from friends or the library…  You get the point.

I would also daydream — really, I was plotting and planning what I would do with my first step. I’d scheme about the next steps after that. I’d think my way through each scenario while helping customers during my seasonal jobs or scanning help wanted ads for a more permanent job. Every minute I spent on the company was a minute less work I had to do on my days off, which I used to implement the ideas I came up with in those little off moments. It saved me a lot of time.

4.) Go with your gut.

While reading advice from various people and various types of business, I went practically mad trying to figure out which avenue was the best for Insanitek. It’s supposed to be high tech in the future, but not all high tech. There is to be a low tech element to it. Do I pay for a professional looking website, or should I lead by example to my target market? Do I go for a certification or snub the system and follow my instincts? I forged my own path, leading by example, and snubbing the system. It’s not only more “me”, but it’s also cheaper.

In the end, you should follow your passion and your gut. If you have an idea that you’re passionate about like I do, it doesn’t matter what amount of advice you read and follow. The object is your dream, and obtaining it is your goal. Mix and match from the advice with what fits with your unique business model. (If it’s not a unique business model, why should you even want to start it?) In the end you’ll forge your own path and have no regrets on how you got there.

5.) Don’t lose hope

As a member of the working poor class, I’m at a disadvantage. I don’t know all the right people. My network is small and refined to those that I come in contact with every day. As I read all those advice articles, it seemed like I was running in the wrong circles to get things done. I’m a small nobody, and nobody cares about what happens to me or my dreams. Although it’s unpleasant, it’s a reality. Whatever you do, don’t sugar coat the truth — that would be delusional.

No matter how hard it gets, do not lose hope. When you know the shortcoming that you have to overcome, you can see them as merely obstacles and work around them. For example, I take free Coursera classes. I get to sharpen skills, learn new things, and meet people that may be interested in working with Insanitek some day. Being a nobody only matters  to those that are too busy hearing themselves talk to take notice of others.

Don’t compete with them, you’ll never come out ahead if you’re starting out where I am. Instead, compete with yourself. State your goal. State your obstacles. Find creative ways around your obstacles, and keep your head high. You can and will work your way up from nothing to build something you can be proud of.