Bootstrapping is a term, a construct, and a paradigm that has attracted substantial attention from both popular press writers and scholarly researchers. In the scholarly community bootstrapping research is concerned, broadly, with studying the phenomenon of startups in resource poor environments. While this would describe virtually all startups, bootstrapping is most focused upon those resource-starved startups that elected to use only the resources existing internally to the firm or founder(s). That is, in bootstrapped firms, no financing has been attained from individuals or entities outside the firm. In practice, bootstrapping is understood as (a) launching a business with no external debt or equity, and (b) finding creative ways to manage a business launched with no external debt or equity.
Most entrepreneurs bootstrap at founding. It is estimated that few (20%) take on external debt at startup; and far fewer (5%) launch with external equity. Examples of techniques employed because of the decision to bootstrap include using credit cards, drawing upon home equity and sweat equity, taking loans from family, and investing salary from one’s “day job.” There are fundamental reasons for this, both from a demand side and a supply side.
From the demand side entrepreneurs, on average, are autonomous and therefore have a preference for control and a general aversion to external forms of capital, both debt and equity. On the supply side, because of extreme asymmetric information that exists between financiers and entrepreneurs, financiers often cannot accurately gauge the underlying quality of the entrepreneur/venture and are therefore reluctant to provide capital to them.
With regard to outcomes of bootstrapping, though, the research is equivocal. Ceteris paribus, it appears that there is no significant difference in performance between bootstrappers and non-bootstrappers; however, contingencies likely exist. For example, non-bootstrappers are likely more prone to failure because they often take more risks. Therefore, while a few heavily financed ventures may achieve lofty success, many fail in dramatic fashion. By contrast, bootstrappers are often more cautious and therefore these firms demonstrate less variance in outcomes.
Understanding of both antecedents and outcomes of bootstrapping has grown since the introduction of the construct in the late 1980s. Because of this expanded understanding, the construct has evolved from phenomenological roots to one more grounded in theory. That said, there remain ambiguities around bootstrapping, not the least of which is the existence of myriad definitions and resultant operationalizations. Partially because of these varied conceptualizations, the scholarship on bootstrapping has been somewhat fragmented and challenging to decipher. This fragmented accumulation has led to not only a literature with vivid applications and examples, but also one with little universal logic. This fact has made it somewhat difficult for a field to advance.
However, insights from existing theory (e.g., signaling, cultural entrepreneurship) as well as the relatively recent development of closely related bases (e.g., effectuation, bricolage) can complement and advance bootstrapping by adding theoretical breadth and depth. When understood alongside these related lines of research in entrepreneurship, researchers are better equipped to create, catalog, and accumulate knowledge regarding bootstrapping. In turn, educators will be more effective in communicating how entrepreneurs are able to launch in resource poor environments, and ultimately achieve success.