20 ways to fund your startup other than VCs
Can you imagine a world where startup VCs don’t exist anymore? It’s easier to do if you aren’t in the Silicon Valley startup bubble, because for you that option may never have existed. At least, not in a capacity that supports early-stage ventures by the hundreds.
For most other startup ecosystems, from Denver to Dubai, it can be a challenge to find the right investors or to find investors at all. That’s why we’ve seen a great migration over the past two decades into Silicon Valley where entrepreneurs are hoping to fuel their dreams. Although that migration may now be turning into an exodus from San Francisco and we’ll be back where we started: Looking for startup funding options wherever one chooses to live.
This is why I’ve put this comprehensive list together. You see a lot of lists that include 9 or 10 best ways to fund your startup (great clickbait numbers, but limited scope), but there are so many more ways, including new models popping up more recently (spoiler: Indie.vc). My hope is that startup founders can use this knowledge to grow their businesses without putting all their eggs in one basket. I think what more and more entrepreneurs will find is that they have many options to fund their startups. Not just VCs. Not just giving up all their equity. Real ways that give them the option to sell for the right price, or not sell at all.
2019 may just be proclaimed The Year of The Return of Stylish Lifestyle Startup (thanks to Tuft & Needle and other scrappy entrepreneurs like the founder of Gumroad). Or not, we’ll see. Either way, here are some ways you can fund your startup:
Passive Income — running multiple businesses or running lifestyle businesses has often been looked down in Silicon Valley, but that’s changing. Amid a lot of great content from the new book Parallel Entrepreneurship to the Gumroad founder’s expose on not building a unicorn, making money with a non-unicorn business has never been sexier. A part of this is looking at ways to build businesses or business tools that once live are mainly self-sufficient and you just reap the cash rewards. If you have one, two, or three of these passive income streams running then you can cover basic living costs or maybe more and be able to give yourself work and location flexibility.
Indie.vc model — A new “VC” model that focuses on revenue generating startups.
Revenue-based loans — think Lighter Capital or Clearbanc that allow you to borrow against your recurring revenue and pay the loan back on a revenue share.
ICO — although not as easy as it once was to raise money on a white paper, doing a cryptocurrency raise is still a possibility if you do it in a professional and responsible way.
Consulting — consulting in your area of expertise can not only get you cash but also mindshare and thought leadership when it comes to your industry. You can also try running your business manually as a consultant while you slowly automate the operations and eventually turn it into a tech business.
Side hustle — look at easy ways to make money that you can work on for a few hours of the day. Examples could be finding niche e-commerce businesses, doing Craigslist trading, or offering your expertise via online courses.
Traditional crowdfunding — the Kickstarter and Indiegogo models where you give perks for pre-orders is still alive and well. It works best for physical products, but there are ways to fund tech, too, if you get creative with the perks you give. Think exclusive access, founding member mentions, events, and other ways to give gifts and experiences.
Crowdfunding equity — only around since 2013, crowdfunding with equity in your company is still a new way to raise capital. AngelList pioneered Invest Online first that turned into AngelList Syndicates. WeFunder has passed $38 million to startups since its inception. Even Indiegogo has an equity crowdfunding component now. To get a grasp of the whole playing field, VentureBeat put together a data-forward ranking of crowdfunding equity sites here.
Donations — for-profit businesses take “donations” too. Think of tech tools you see online that suggest a Paypal donation for using their online tool. A nonprofit example would be Wikipedia and its yearly and monthly campaigns to raise funds to run the site.
Grants — governments from cities to regions are funding innovation. Look no further than the European Union’s HORIZON 2020 programme that has $3.1 billion purely for entrepreneurs and startups.
Contests — startup competitions and hackathons can take time to apply to, prepare for, and pitch, but often they are an accelerator demo day in disguise and, if done right, help you refine your pitch, practice it, and come out a much better public speaker regardless if you win the giant check or not. You may see reward money between X and Y. Here’s a list of startup competitions worldwide.
Angels — a lighter weight way to bring on educated investors who have been in your shoes before, or are just simply wealthy. What’s nice is usually an angel round gets you funding that comes with little to no requirements. You can raise angel money and still control majority of the company and grow it at the pace you see fit. One thing to look out for is uneducated angel investors who may try to control what you do with the company or be overly communicative and bothersome when it comes to your strategy and their money on the line. This often distracts you from the real goals of the business unless the angel is wise and understands your business well.
Family and friends — the age-old way to raise money and get loans before financial institutions existed. Be cautious to professionally handle these relationships even though you may be close. Taking money from loved ones can be easier, but you should treat them like investors and handle the dollars and oversight as you would a VC’s money.
Yourself — self-funding is the easiest first option for a lot of founders to a certain point. Doing small things for your company like paying for marketing assets, hiring first employees, and other early-stage activities can make sense, but also be aware what your personal investment cap is. It is not worth racking up credit card debt and running yourself bankrupt. It’s not just the financial side either. There’s an emotional side to spending your own (or shared) money, especially if you spend too much of it. Know your limits and set them ahead of time. Treat yourself like an investor and stay true to your hypothesis that you are testing with the business. If it isn’t working, be flexible to try new things.
Loans — it isn’t always easy to get a loan for a startup without assets, but there are borrowing options you can consider. Small business loans, personal business loans, some government grants, credit cards, wealthy family members, and microfinancing via Kiva’s entrepreneur program are all plausible options to consider if you can manage the interest and payback timeline. NerdWallet has a slick little quiz to direct you to options here.
Convertible debt — it’s common in Silicon Valley to use the YC SAFE convertible note or a 500 Startups KISS document, but convertible debt can be a tool not as familiar with investors outside of a few the bigger startup ecosystems. The main benefits are that this investment tool makes it easy for founders to raise money quickly and easily with options for future equity that convert at the next funding round. The expectation is usually based on a VC’s unicorn goal and if you don’t make it there it’s assumed investors don’t expect to be paid back in the stipulated period. That mentality can vary drastically from ecosystem to ecosystem and you should be cautious and communicate clearly with your investors to make sure you are on the same page when talking about payback periods, interest rate, and your vision to grow the company.
Relocation plans — some cities will pay you to relocate. Take Vermont for example and it’s campaign to get remote workers to live in Vermont. They offered $10,000 amidst other perks for location independent workers to immigrate.
Making revenue — bootstrapping to profitability has never been in more vogue in Silicon Valley, but entrepreneurs around the world have been doing this for centuries. Keep your costs low, give equity instead of salaries, work with friends, hire low-cost development, use a technical and business founder split, or use a dozen or more other ways to be a lean startup through the early days.
Startup perks — okay, so this may not put money in the bank account, but it will keep you lean. AWS, Google, Microsoft, Sendgrid, and all of the big tech services companies want to attract startups at an early age, so they offer competitive packages with free credit. Take advantage of these offers and you won’t be spending an arm and a leg on running your business from the outset.
Accelerators & Incubators — once there were only a few select programs and now there are over a thousand. That means you can segment accelerator programs into tiers. There are long-standing programs like YC, 500 Startups, TechStars, and AngelPad. There is the second generation of accelerators when the creation of programs exploded. Then there are niche programs that focus on specific industries, target specific types of founders, or are based in specific geographies. There’s also the difference between an accelerator (growth and speed focus) and incubator (pre-product ideas and MVPs). You just need to find where you fit the best. Check Quora and F6S for some good lists of all the programs globally.
Trade equity for services — when we first started building version 1.0 of my last startup, we gave a small amount of equity to a developer friend to create our MVP. We did this again at Series A to our branding agency who did a complete wipe on our product and design. You don’t have cash, so use the tools you do have: equity stakes in the business. Manage dilution no doubt, but be scrappy and elongate your runway whenever possible.
VCs — there are times when you want to look to VCs to fund your business. It is no easy process to fundraise though and the odds are against you. If you talk to 100 investors, 5 may say yes, and that’s what success looks like. If you want to build a unicorn, then you are probably looking at an industry that’s highly competitive (i.e. ridesharing), fast growing, and in order to scale quickly and compete on a global scale, you need millions of dollars to build your team and pump up growth. For this instance, you are probably looking at VC. The thing to remember is that taking on VC money drastically increases your exit price.
Strategics & Corporates — in the industry we often call corporate investors ‘strategics.’ They take that name because they can be strategically helpful to your business and often operate in the same industry. There are dangers to taking strategic money too early as a startup. It can cause distrust from competitive customers, limit exit opportunities, and stunt growth to be too focused on one customer. On the other hand, a strategic investor or partnership can give your business an edge that other competitors won’t be able to reach and it’s defensible as long as you keep that strategic partner happy. There are also corporate accelerators that operate in conjunction with TechStars or 500 Startups and corporate VCs that keep a separation of church and state (i.e. Google Ventures and Google operate autonomously) and are safe to interact with like a normal investor.
At the end of the day, it’s your business. You choose how to run it. You choose how to fund it. Think about what your goals for the business are, but also the lifestyle you want to live. They are very much interrelated despite what work-life balance rhetoric you may hear, or whoever tells you, “it’s just business, it’s not personal.” In my experience, it’s always both when you are talking about startups and it’s okay to consider your health, family, and life before your startup or alongside it. Take that into account as you consider how to fund your business.
Tristan Pollock is a startup fundraising advisor who has bootstrapped, raised $10M in venture capital, and invested $30M through his time as a Venture Partner at 500 Startups. If you need help raising money or deciding how to fund your growth, drop him a line at email@example.com or say hello at @pollock on Twitter.