Bootstrapping Products with Services

5/13/13Follow @sramana

Because it’s often so difficult for entrepreneurs to obtain seed funding for their startups, bootstrapping is one of the best methods to self-fund their projects. And offering a service is one of the best ways to go. This, by the way, remains a controversial point of view, and most industry observers will take the position that companies get distracted if they try to bootstrap a product with a service. At 1M/1M, we take a pragmatic and contrarian position, and back it up with numerous case studies. From where we sit, bootstrapping products with services is a tried and true method.

RailsFactory, a consulting and app development company that provides solutions for the web application framework Ruby on Rails, was co-founded by Senthil Nayagam and Dinesh Kumar in 2006. RailsFactory provides numerous services—primarily focusing on app development for the Ruby on Rails platform, but also including Rails version migration, e-commerce solutions, e-mail campaign system implementation, and iPhone and Android app development.

Senthil and Dinesh bootstrapped RailsFactory themselves, starting with about $1,250 in seed money. When they needed to, they each utilized other personal resources: Senthil reached into his savings, and Dinesh turned to his parents. But they started generating revenues fast—thanks to the services they offered, they were generating revenue by their second month, and they’ve been growing since. To date, RailsFactory has executed over 100 projects and has worked with clients in the US, Canada, India, Australia, Singapore, and the UK. Their services revenues have crossed a couple of million dollars, and the company has recently built a product that they have started validating with those 100 services customers. The productized offering enables them to offer a support package to the small- to medium-sized enterprise segment based on packs of trouble tickets.

Similarly, Mansa Systems is a SaaS-based IT company, founded by Siva Devaki in San Francisco in 2006. Siva founded Mansa Systems to focus specifically on cloud computing. Currently, Mansa publishes a number of apps to be used in conjunction with Salesforce.com through Salesforce’s AppExchange app marketplace.

AppExchange allows partners to create apps to enhance Salesforce for business, and Mansa Systems currently offers eight different apps for Salesforce. Each of the apps is designed to address a limitation with Salesforce; for example, cloud storage app Cloud Drop gives users additional cloud storage space, MassMailer allows users to circumvent Salesforce’s bulk e-mail limitations, and EaglEye provides Salesforce users with secure, trackable document filesharing. Mansa Systems remains entirely self-funded via the company’s service business, and there are currently no plans to use outside funding. The company already has achieved $2 million in annual revenue, and enough profitability to be able to develop and launch its apps at a steady clip.

AgilOne, a company that provides cloud-based predictive customer analytics, was founded by Omer Artun in 2006. Initially, the company relied entirely on services to get close to customers, understand and address their problems, and in the process generate revenues. Today, AgilOne’s product is a software-as-a-service platform. Much of what the company learnt about its customers in the services mode has been productized, although a percentage of revenues still comes from services.

AgilOne’s platform is designed to make it easier for companies to see how their customers are interacting with their products. For example, a company’s online retail customers can be broken into different “clusters” based on their search and shopping preferences. These clusters then enable the company’s marketing department to more accurately target those users with specific promotions.

Omer bootstrapped his company from no revenue or employees in 2005 to about 45 employees and over $15 million in revenue by the time AgilOne partnered with Sequoia Capital in 2011. Silicon Valley’s top venture firm made a sizable investment at a high valuation in a company that was bootstrapped using services.

I have often heard that capital intensive businesses are difficult to bootstrap. There is some truth to this observation. However, Finisar offers the counterpoint.

Finisar produces optical communications components and subsystems and was founded 25 years ago by Jerry Rawls and Frank Levinson. Jerry and Frank bootstrapped Finisar by first providing consulting services while doing product development in high-speed fiber optics for computer networks. They searched for a need in the computer industry that wasn’t filled, and discovered that need in the early 1990s when they … Next Page »

Sramana Mitra is the founder of One Million by One Million (1M/1M), a global virtual incubator that aims to help one million entrepreneurs globally to reach $1 million in revenue and beyond. She is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and strategy consultant, she writes the blog Sramana Mitra On Strategy, and is author of the Entrepreneur Journeys book series and Vision India 2020. From 2008 to 2010, Mitra was a columnist for Forbes. As an entrepreneur CEO, she ran three companies: DAIS, Intarka, and Uuma. Sramana has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Follow @sramana

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jtstine Johnny T Stine

    Biotechs can do this too. For example…. North Coast Biologics discovers therapeutic antibodies for out license, but provides the technology as a service for antibody discovery and generation to pay the bills. I wish I had $15M in revenue by now, but a few hiccups here and there in our growth since ’08 slowed that trajectory a bit……but we are getting closer to that.