Last summer, I was cold-emailed by a PR firm in New York that claimed to represent a major news media outlet. The “offer” they presented was an opportunity to be featured by said media in “prominent placement” and “in perpetuity” for the bargain price of $8,000.
I was rounding the corner on course development for my design school, Path Unbound when I received this email. Although I was nowhere near ready to launch, I was tempted.
After all, it’s a media outlet that everybody has heard of. The presumed SEO “juice” would be tremendous in boosting my company’s search ranking, or so I thought.
However, 8k is still a big number for a small startup, especially a bootstrap one that’s yet to generate meaningful revenue.
Something didn’t quite sit well with me. That’s when I started to ask around my network and posted my questions on SEO-related Facebook groups.
After confirming the legitimacy of the PR firm by asking my friends working in the media industry in New York, I wanted to see if the return on investment is proportionate to the amount of money they required.
My mixed feelings towards Facebook aside, I was very thankful that it existed, especially for the active groups.
In a matter of minutes after posting, I was able to hear from SEO specialists that the paid feature was not going to boost my ratings in any way not to mention the fact that most of my target audience do not tend to consume media from that particular news outlet.
“I’m sorry — we are not interested.”
As I hit reply and send, I let out a sigh of relief. I just saved myself eight thousand dollars.
Being Resourceful vs. “You Gotta Spend Money To Make Money”
This incident was yet another reminder that bootstrap founders need to constantly be aware of how they are spending money. Without the “runway” that VC-funded startups enjoy, we have to be extremely resourceful.
But haven’t we all heard of this — you gotta spend money to make money?
It’s true — any business has expenses. Some can get away with fewer while others have bigger upfront cost.
If you want to create a complicated tech product, it’s almost inevitable that you will need VC funding to make development possible. If you are starting another type of business that you know you can do most of the work while delegating other tasks to contractors, bootstrap is not a bad option. After all, fundraising is a full-time job in itself, which you could spend your time developing and improving your product instead.
While expense is inevitable, there are ways, many ways to minimize them.
During the first few years of my entrepreneurship journey, I made it a point to have an evaluation system for expenses.
Here is how I decide on whether and how much I would spend on a business purchase:
The Essential Test
First and foremost, is this business expense essential? In my case, as I was building a school, a website and a learning management system is essential. There is no way of getting around that because without them, I have no bread and butter to support what I sell — knowledge.
Perhaps your company is in another field — let’s say you sell custom jewelry. Your essential business services would be a little different. You would need an e-commerce optimized website, your manufacturer or makers (or skip if yours is handmade by yourself) and your supply chain solutions.
Be very strict with your essential list because most of us have the tendency of adding on items that we want but don’t really need.
The Timing Test
Now that you know which expense is essential and which is good to have, you need to decide when you would really need these services or expenses.
Ideally, you have them all ready for you by the time you start your business. But life doesn’t work like that. So prioritizing expenses timed with the stages of your business will save you a lot of money.
In the case of my business, I know that I would need the learning management system by the time I was almost done with course development — not in the beginning because you can do that with your basic office applications.
I also know that later down the line, when I am about to launch, I would need to figure out how to provide student financing, but I didn’t worry about that in the beginning because it is not time for that yet without my actual program.
Perhaps your business sells uneaten restaurant left-overs to local customers. You would need to establish your restaurant partnerships as soon as possible. You would also need to have your delivery and pickup logistics in place. At a minimum, you would also need to have at least a website if not a mobile application ready before you launch.
However, you may not need a full-fletched PR firm yet. They can be helpful down the road to get your company featured by national media. But without reliable partnerships with restaurants and delivery operation, PR will result in only temporary boost in consumer interests.
The Replaceability Test
Knowing which expenses are essential and which to prioritize, you are now ready to further streamline your expenses even more.
Of the essential services you need for your business, can you find ways to replace some of them with cheaper or even free versions?
Can you find several free or low-cost tools in combination that could replace a costly all-in-one solution?
Very often you can, but you need to do a bit of digging.
In the case of my business, I found ways to get around with hiring a custom development company to create a learning management system.
I struggled for a long time to find ways to create a learning low that works exactly for the need of my school.
All SaSS “off-the-shelves” learning management systems provide the bare minimum of what my school needs, but not everything we need. Notably, none of them provides a way for iterative assignment feedback, which is essential for design schools as we do not grade students with “A,B,C” nor will assignments ever be done with 1 attempt.
With custom development out of our budget, how do we make this work?
Days, weeks and months of digging yielded some promising results — I was able to creative “stack” several low-cost and free tools together to create the system that I need for my school to work.
I found a WordPress plugin that offers an affordable lifetime license with the exact scheduling function that I need.
I found Figma to be great at replacing the iterative assignment feedback function that I need but couldn’t afford to build custom.
I found that some SaSS learning management systems provide a free tier without student number limit. The other limits, such as no email-marketing integration, no course completion compliance or no drip campaign in the free tier didn’t matter yet to my business as we can either do them manually (in the case of email marketing) or not needing them at all (drip campaign).
A custom learning management system would cost between $50k to $100k to develop. My low-cost tech stack cost $250.
Is my tech stack ideal? No. The decentralized nature of the tech stacks sometimes create small frictions that can be resolved quickly by backend maintenance. But they work. That’s the bottom line.
When the business makes more money, then we can afford to upgrade on the tech stacks to reduce friction.
The Win-Win “Good-To-Haves” Exception
There is always an exception to any “rules”. In qualifying business expenses from a bootstrap perspective, this one exception that I always let “slip through the crack”.
At random points of my entrepreneurship journey, I would receive these pitch emails from all kinds of B2B providers. I am sure your business will as well.
If their services are relevant or will become relevant in the near future, I use this “rule” to qualify them: will we be able to partner up without upfront cost to help each other?
Sometimes, this is totally possible and that’s the exception you can let through even though your business may not need their services immediately.
For example, before I even finished my course development, another startup in the student financing space reached out. I was going to hold out until a few months later when I project I would be ready to launch, but since I found out they do not charge an upfront setup fee, I agreed to the meeting.
It turns out that we could partner up without any cost until we have students sign up for financing. The fees they take would be based on a percentage of the student’s repayment. This works perfectly for us — student financing options secured; no upfront cost; reasonable percentage of service fee once students paid.
The Tried-and-True Free or Low Cost Tech Tools for Founders
Now, I’m finally getting to the highlight of this article. From the past 3 years, I have tested a lot of softwares, services and applications for my business.
I wish there was a comprehensive list of free and low-cost tech tools specifically for founders when I first started. I didn’t find any, so I decided to make my own, which hopefully other bootstrap entrepreneurs like myself can benefit from.
I tested probably 20–30 calender and scheduling SaSS services. The big players like Calendly didn’t make the cut not even because the paid version was too expensive but because it didn’t offer a crucial function we needed — limited package services booking.
We need to limit the number of sessions student can book based on the program they enroll in. Almost no SaSS calendar service provides that which I am still baffled by.
The only one SaSS scheduling service that provides close to this feature is Acuity Scheduling, but there was one fatal flaw — they limit the seats of users severely even with paid plans. We need no limitation on the seat of users because we need to have as many instructors with access to it as we like. Meanwhile, we are not in the position of purchasing more seats in the custom enterprise plan.
That completely dashed my hope of relying on SaSS scheduling applications.
As a long-time WordPress user, I looked back into the ecosystem of it and dug deeper to see if I can find something there. After months and months of searching, I found one — Amelia. It provides a very affordable lifetime license, package scheduling functions, employee accounts and all the other good stuff in one place.
If you are not a WordPress user, this won’t work. The best alternatives could be a SaSS solution like Acuity Scheduling, which does allow package booking with number variants.
If you are a business that doesn’t need complete customization of your website, you can go ahead with a templated builder like Squarespace. If you have no design background, make sure you get a pair of eyes (or several) after you attempt to create your own websites using templates. Even with templates, design judgment is still important to make your site look as professional as possible.
If you need completely customized websites, then there are a few other options before you hire someone to design and build it for you.
As a designer and founder, I have a natural advantage in this area because design is my profession and I am tech savvy, which means I can use no-code custom building tools easily.
Note that WordPress is a bit like building your own custom PC and Webflow is more like buying an Apple computer. Both are great options but for different types of businesses and needs.
A squarespace-like service, Tilda is a relatively new comer to the game but it’s very well-built with beautiful templates. What attracts a lot of users to this platform is that it offers a simple free tier without ugly watermark banners that Wix has. I recommend it to my students who are looking for a quick but beautiful solutions. At some point though, you should consider upgrading or migrating to another platform because you will need to start paying to get a custom domain, which is crucial for establishing credibility for your business.
For WordPress, you will have endless of ability to customize everything but the user interface is a bit daunting to get used to at first. There are endless plugins that can extend the functionality of your site, but you will have to stay on top of maintenance as some of these plugins can mess up your site due to a poorly tested update that conflicts with other plugins. Luckily, paid plugins have technical support and you can also reach out to your hosting support for further clarification. Don’t confuse WordPress.com with WordPress.org, which the latter is the recommended solution as it is the truly independent, open-sourced platform that you can take it with you to multiple different hosts. To learn more about the immense eco system of WordPress and how hosting and domain work with it, check out my school’s article.
Webflow is a more centralized and streamlines platform that allows you to create completely customized websites. The interface is much friendlier than WordPress, which makes it slightly easier to learn. It also offers hosting and domain all in one, which saves you a lot more hassle.
Their lowest tier of pricing is comparable to Squarespace but comes with a lot more customization.
The downside is that the pricing can add up quickly if you use a lot of entries in your CMS, which could be the case for business owners who need to store a lot of blog articles.
When my business started working with contractors and interns, we need to find an affordable way to do payroll.
Most payroll platforms are not considered affordable to bootstrap businesses. Even though there are platforms that are designed for small-to-medium size businesses such as JustWorks, and the cost is very reasonable for businesses that are already making a consistent, albeit modest income, but we were looking for something even more affordable.
As a remote-first company, we needed something that works across borders. After testing out many international payroll SaSS providers, we landed on OysterHR, which happens to also be a young startup.
At the time we joined, they provided a free for 2 contractor plan, which was perfect for getting us started. At this time, they seem to have updated their pricing to $29/per contractor/month, which is still much more affordable than other solutions.
At certain points in your startup career, you would find yourself needing at least some outsourced help even if you have not hired anyone full-time yet. The last thing a bootstrap entrepreneur needs is yet another hundred dollars per month platform that provides hiring and job posting functions.
Yes, you can always post manually to multiple platforms, which we still do. But if you need a job board that prospective candidates can easily apply to and the option to distribute job postings to hundreds of job search engines, a hiring platform could be right for you.
In this case, we found Homebase, which is a SaSS startup that provides a suite of hiring and employee management services. We were able to use the job posting function for free, which was what we needed.
When we received hundreds of applications for even an internship position, we needed to narrow down on candidates quickly. One of the best ways to do so is to screen resumes first online, pick 10–15 finalists and send them each a video virtual interview request. This allows companies to quickly eliminate anyone who is not serious in the application and those who cannot complete the virtual interview on time before investing time to interview them live.
This is yet another expense that can add up, not to mention if the business isn’t hiring regularly enough, there is no justification for purchasing a subscription. That’s why we were looking at low-cost or free options.
We narrowed down to several options, but found myInterview to have the best user experience and value. It limits to 10 interviews per month, which is pretty strict but doable if you are selective in who you send your invitation to do the asynchronous video interview.
Many businesses benefit from building an engaged online community. My business was especially focusing on building a community early on before we even launched our first product because we need to establish an audience and provide some values first as an education provider.
Through trial and error, I have established the following strategy for choosing a community platform:
Create a Facebook group if you plan on having admins who would spend a considerable amount of time moderating. Facebook is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is great for engaged conversations. If moderated well, it could be a free and productive platform for your business to generate leads.
If you do not have the resources to moderate, then consider Discord because there are so many automatic moderating functions you can set up there to help you reduce or eliminate spam for free. The downside is Discord does cater to a smaller group of users, which means the engagement could be less if your audience isn’t already familiar with the platform. It is free, anonymous and more user friendly than Slack.
We did also experiment with a standalone community for a short period of time but found it to be unproductive because most people forget to log back in to engage. It rarely works unless you already have a very engaged community somewhere else before and you would like to move them there. Most people prefer to stay on social platforms they are already on anyway.
There are many big players in the chatbot space that offers advanced functions, which are amazing and great for bigger businesses.
For smaller businesses, we need the chatbot to connect with our customers and provide them with an easy way to reach out to us.
Over 80% of prospective students reached out to us via the chatbot we have on our website, which is a very high percentage.
With Tidio, it’s great to enjoy a free tier while getting some automated chatbot functions to eliminate unnecessary live conversations. However, the monthly quota runs out very quickly and the chatbot design flow was a bit frustrating, which made us look elsewhere.
We went back to our “essentials-only” mindset — why do we need the chat? We need it to get customers to talk to use no matter which page they are on our site. That’s it. Would it be great to have the bot function? Yes, but we don’t need it. Not now.
With Hubspot, we have reliable customer instant messaging integration that we could respond to either in real-time or shortly after. This ability is provided for free and never runs out. The downside is if a less engaged customer asks a question and doesn’t bother to leave their email, there is no way to capture that with the free plan. From experience, we found that the vast majority of serious customers do leave their emails because they read that if they do not, they may not receive a response. This is not ideal of course, but it covers the basis.
We struggled a lot with live events platforms. With Zoom being ubiquitous, it seems to be the no brainer for live events. However, Zoom’s pricing is not really affordable for a small business that wants to host events.
We have tried more than 20 live events platform and found that if a business does not have regular events and prefers to minimize its cost in this area, there are few options. Few, but they still exist:
Jitsi is open-sourced and completely free. It allows anyone to hop on and off a meeting as they wish without an account. The downside is obviously that it is not secured. You cannot control spammers with bad intentions who might join your call and cause problems. But surprisingly it does offer recording functions which most free tiers of event platforms lock for paid tiers.
So if you are just hosting small events and willing to risk someone potentially unwelcome to join, Jitsi is not a bad option.
They do offer a paid tier with secured features, but it’s not clear how much it costs due to its non-transparent marketing.
We are currently trying out Hopin, which has evolved to be very robust in the past few years. We were unable to find a free tier at first but it seems like they have added a free tier that is relatively generous — 100 attendees per event and 2 hour limit.
Remote Podcast Production
As an education business, we need to produce content on a regular basis. When it comes to podcast, it is mostly remote these days. How do we provide a great guest speaker experience without breaking the bank? We did use Zoom but the video recording quality isn’t always ideal. It also reduces the ability we can talk for free to 40-minutes within the past few months.
We found Zencastr, which is a remote podcast production platform that’s pretty capable and easy to use, with a generous free tier with very few limits. You can record audio and video and download your tracks separately.
The downside is, the tech still needs time to mature because several times, we experienced guests’ video or audio not uploading fully to the cloud and their internet connection got disrupted. We even learned it the hard way to ask guests to wait until a few minutes after the recording before they exit out of their browsers because the recording will be gone if they leave before it finishes uploading.
To be safe, I would say record with a camera and mic as a secondary source of recording.
Learning Management System
This tool won’t apply to every business, but if you happen to be an education business as well or if your business has a course component, our experience may help you decide on a system that works for you.
After experimenting with many learning management systems, we landed on Teachable, which happens to have a pretty robust free plan at the time. They changed it to be more restricted recently but you can still launch 1 course for free at this moment without enrollment number restrictions.
Teachable is very user-friendly and the interface is beautifully designed. The downside is that it charges a significant amount of fees for free users — so be prepared to hand in 10% of your earnings to them if you are using it for free, which is hefty but fair since you are not paying a monthly subscription.
We recently discovered a potential second solution that could work out if you are also a WordPress user. Surecart is a very well-built, albeit new, payment platform that you can integrate with WordPress to build your learning business. But you do need a learning management system in addition to it, which can be Learndash if you are comfortable with WordPress. We have had no-so-great experience with Learndash since it is very resource-heavy on hosting and the process of customization has been painful — it also messed up the styling of our website, which was a nightmare to restore. But if you are able to make it work, adding Surecart to your techstack will make checkout very pleasant for the customer, which is crucial to their retention.
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