Bootstrapping a startup: lessons from growing rhubarb…(trust me, worth a read)

I’ve redesigned and replanted a garden over the 18 months since we moved to north Wales. As I’ve become more ecological aware and had time on my hands, I’m trying to restore my relationship with the land and also create a place for relaxation. I’ve also focused on restoring an orchard area, something I’ve never had experience of before. The promise of apples, pears, plums and cherries excites me for next year, and I’ve done my research for a beehive and a barrel pond, ready for actioning in the spring. As my wife says, I don’t do things by halves.

It’s good for the health of the earth and for my physical and mental health. Ignoring the Monty Don jibes of my kids, I’m really enjoying plodding around dressed as if I am the head gardener at Kew, cultivating a relationship with a little patch of earth. After a Spring of heavy graft, devoted planting and tending, Summer has seen encouraging results of my bootstrapping efforts.

Like startup bootstrapping, gardening is a great energiser, creating your own space for progress, little by little. The origin of bootstrapping comes from pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, a reference to C19th high-top boots that were pulled on by tugging at ankle straps. It generally means doing something on your own, without outside help, and in many cases, the hard way. Sums up gardening!

Bootstrapping is the minimalistic startup approach, characterised by simplicity, a process whereby an entrepreneur starts a business based on it being self-sustaining, and grows by using limited resources. It’s the real driver of entrepreneurship: founders should chase customers, not investors; they should chase revenue not rounds in my view.

To succeed as a bootstrapped startup, you have to persevere. Ultimately, bootstrapping is making an investment in yourself, by yourself, for yourself, hope is the fuel of progress. Focus your entrepreneurial endeavours based on your passion, ideas and ideals, not other people’s money.  Ditch the hustle mentality. Grow at a speed that works for you and your own circumstances.

Don’t obsess over competitors landing big investments. You are laying the groundwork for growth that is manageable and sustainable. Working solo or with a select few not only saves you money but allows you to refine your own vision for the business. Be eager to learn as you go, and DIY everything you can.

Likewise, something special happens when you are in a garden, a tactile experience that enables you to literally get back to nature sitting between the seeds and the stars touching time and the cycle of seasons. You find yourself rooted deeply into your own existence, transient and transcendent, fragile and resilient in your humanity, again parallels to the founder mindset. Perhaps because the life of a garden is also a vivid reminder that anything of purpose takes time to curate, effort to seed and sprout and bloom, just like a business startup, you need passion, curiosity and unwavering confidence.

Many of you won’t get the enthusiasm I have for this hobby, but for me this is happiness. I have all I want. My garden, my dog – and an unheated garden shed. Yes, I have an electric plug socket, so kettle and radio give access to a brew and test match cricket commentary. As I stare into the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb, the garden is like any startup incubator, a laboratory of complex relationships between numerous actors and their environment. I recall our dependence on the sun and the rain and the everyday leaf-by-leaf alchemy of photosynthesis.

Like any entrepreneur’s venture, the garden becomes a frame for a vision of life, nurturing dreams, both are extreme optimists believing passionately in the idea of growth. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually leads to success. This parallel came to me while picking early French beans. I was hunting among the spiralling vines that envelop my teepees of poles, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness. What a time to be alive!

Why do I do it? It’s really quite simple, there is nothing quite like a morning spent with soil under your fingernails. In the physical work, I find something truly cathartic. Enthuses. Uplifts. Invigorates. Like any startup, it is a constant work-in-progress. It never reaches anywhere other than the moment. There is always work to be done. I’ve come to understand some things work some don’t. Like a startup, your garden is your own space. It’s a mix of meditation, therapy, challenge and exercise.

I am filled with eternal optimism as any founder – there is anxiety and hope, peace and tranquillity from your efforts, until you wipe the sweat off your brow and put soil in your eyes. It’s a solitary effort, not like the founder community in an incubator where there is chatter and togetherness. Here there is beautiful silence, tranquillity of bird song apart from the sound of my grunting with effort as the spade enters the earth and the sound of Amazon delivery vans passing by.

There is a slight manic quality to all this. So much of my garden happens inside my head, just like a startup. I like the DIY aspect of my own efforts. I like its slightly solitary, independent spirit, the way no one can stop you doing what you want. These two pursuits have a lot in common that binds them together. Swap out ‘plants’ for ‘people’ or ‘projects’, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what working your startup is all about.

Your best product ideas can fall flat, new people don’t work out, and unexpected things happen and throw a spanner in your flow. Sheep get into the garden and voraciously eat everything – gladioli, tomatoes, buddleia, and peas. On the other hand, sometimes the straggling climbing rose can turn into a star if given some nurturing and room to grow.

So, grow, baby, grow – either your rhubarb or your startup – here are ten things to keep an eye on.

1. First, plant the seeds If you want customers for your business, you have to start by planting and nurturing reasons for them to come to you. Those seeds include networking, creating content to get your brand out there, blogs, and podcasts, getting to meetups. Some seeds will sprout quickly, others need time to germinate. It’s all part of the startup process. You can’t just scatter a bunch of seeds around and then sit around expecting a garden to appear. It takes time and effort.

2. Keep an open mind My first year was trial and error, working out what grew well in the conditions. Anyone who has launched a startup understands this embryonic process of trial and error. Your venture is all about learning and testing, figuring out which services resonate in your chosen market.   Whether it’s plants or people, you’re dealing with living things that tend to have minds of their own, so stay flexible. You may think something’s going to turn out one way, but that doesn’t mean it will. Equally, just because something isn’t exactly where you want it doesn’t mean you have to yank it out, either. Plants can be dug up and relocated if you think they’d do better in a different location. Good employees can be moved to a different role if you think they’d excel there.

3. Be patient You can’t grow a garden in one season and despite what many businesses claim, there’s no such thing as ‘overnight success’. Things take time, and you probably won’t see results for a while. That doesn’t mean you need to constantly work frantically or give up on your startup immediately. Just so you know: Things aren’t going to turn out the way you originally planned. They just aren’t. You can’t completely control how things grow, and you have to be okay with that. Some plants (and products) are slow starters, and it takes years before they reach their full potential.

4. Timing is everything To everything, there is a season in a garden, and you have to be organised to ensure you do the things when they need doing. There is a cycle of growth in nature, just as there is in business. Inevitably there will be times when it’s all planning and nothing to harvest – just like your startup, when you’re working hard but not generating revenue. Make a note of projects to do in these down times, like reviewing your value proposition, don’t stand still, there are always jobs to be done.

5. Pruning and cutting back is important Often unproductive, wandering, spindly offshoots can sap food and water, just as some customers take up your time, detracting from your ability to service genuine, higher-value customers. You know them, they always want to ‘pick your brain over a cup of coffee’ when all they really want is just free advice. They make work for you that won’t move your business forward, so prune back to give yourself the best chance of success. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and you have to be willing to make hard decisions.

6. Get a routine A productive garden needs structure and process, and you need to get out there when you’re not in the mood.  Maintenance is a year-round project. Seeing a project through from start to finish, from planting to harvesting, is extremely rewarding, so ensure you have the required processes in your startup. Successful entrepreneurs have discipline in that they are relentlessly focused on moving forward in some way everyday, and making sure they make it happen.

7. You have to get your hands dirty It’s obvious for the garden, but metaphorically for your startup, you have to do some things you don’t want to do to reap the harvest later. Not every project or customer will be fun, but the rewards should be worth it. If not, go back and prune and cut. And if your hands get dirty, clean them before you shake hands with your next customer.

8. There will be pests Invasive pests in the garden are a nuisance to say the least. If they become established and make communities for themselves, munching your produce, they can take up a lot of your time. It’s the same in your startup. If you make a bad hire, they can kill projects. The longer a pest is given free reign, the harder it will be to regain control, so prevent them or stop them early in their tracks before they do damage.

9. There will be failures Fennel is the failure I’m most upset about, I would love to grow it successfully. I think I put it in too early, a victim of my ‘seed straight away’ approach. I also lost 50% of my carrot crop to rabbits. I took the net up thinking they were strong enough – and carnage. An absolute massacre. What I am learning is the best gardeners do not build a garden simply to prosper from its produce, they do so to continually learn from the process so they may become better over time. Take this lesson into your startup.

10. Grow, baby, grow The simplicity of gardening is the same as a startup: Dig. Plant. Weed. Watch. Enjoy. Ok, there won’t be the bloody brambles and pesky nettles enjoying speeds faster than my rural broadband, but I can honestly say I’m so chuffed seeing the profuse rhubarb flourish. So just like your startup, make investments today and enjoy some of the most peaceful and profitable times of your life.

This ragged patch of land, complete with a shambolic, old dusty shed is my sanctuary. It’s the same for startups – anyone can have a go, so try it!

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