Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.
Many entrepreneurial success stories involve angel investors, venture capital, and fundraising from friends and family. But what about those of us who don’t have a rich grandmother or access to boardrooms where people hand out big checks?
Enter the self-funded business owner. Also known as bootstrapping, many founders start their businesses with a modest amount of money they’ve saved up themselves and then reinvest any profits back into the business as they go. Here, six women explain how they could afford to bootstrap their businesses and how they support themselves while growing their companies.
When I started Yowie, I was still working full-time as a designer at American Eagle Outfitters. I had been there for almost nine years, so I had saved up some stock options, and I cashed out a chunk of them to fund the beginnings of Yowie. It was about $50,000. I covered my own expenses with my American Eagle job at first, and after I left, I took a freelance job at Urban Outfitters and continued to support myself through that paycheck for about 18 months.
I don’t have a ton of financial literacy in my family, and I had to learn it on my own through maxing out a credit card in my early 20’s and then seeing how hard it was to fix my credit. Asking a family friend if I can borrow money just isn’t a reality for me. I was the first person in my family to go to college. And then I got this great job with stock options. I didn’t even really know what that meant at first, but I knew I could make them into a little fund to start the business. I spread that money out over the first two years, top to bottom — product inventory, building our website, our branding, photo shoots.
Any money that came in, I just put right back into the business. I still do that, for the most part. If I got a little burst of funds through a pop-up, I would try to level us up in some small way, whether it was bringing on more artists or getting nicer shopping bags. I was always looking for baby steps to legitimize us more as a brand.
The first time I sought outside funding was summer of 2020. We did a very specific fundraise through IFundWomen to bring on my first full-time employee. That was the first time. Outside of that, I’ve never taken out loans. I’ve just been super-conservative with what we do. We don’t have a huge inventory. We don’t have a huge product line. As a brand, we live within our means.
Anyone who wants to quit their job and start a business, I always tell them, I would stay at your current job as long as possible, so you can do both and save money. In hindsight, I wish I’d kept my full-time job even three or six months longer and saved a little more. Because when you’re running your own business, the money just evaporates.
I never had a business plan. I just wanted to make some things that I had designed. A lot of people think they need funding to start a business — either from investors, or family money, or savings. And I really didn’t have any of that. I didn’t even have savings. I just had professional experience and some connections.
My background is in industrial design, and before I started my own company, I worked for a design studio. In 2018, I was invited to take part in a group show during New York Design Week, and I got the idea to make a set of glass vessels. I got a really good response from that, and people kept contacting me and asking if they could buy them. So I started thinking about how I could put those pieces into production.
It took another year to figure out the designs, find people who could produce them, and test them out. That process was all self-funded, but it wasn’t terribly expensive. I reached out to friends in the design world and asked them where they were getting their things made, and that’s how I found the factory that I’m working with. Creating prototypes was pretty affordable, about $1,000 total.
I brought my prototypes to a trade show called Shop Object and presented them as a collection. And I took wholesale orders from retailers who came to the show. I asked for 50 percent deposit on those wholesale orders, which gave me enough money to fund the first round of production. So I knew exactly how many I needed, how much money I had, and that I could afford it.
That first production order was about $12,000. I also did a friends-and-family preorder. I put pictures of the prototypes on my Instagram and sent it out to everybody I knew, saying, “If you want to place personal orders, you can get this at wholesale cost.” And I probably got about $4,000 from that. So it was small sums at the beginning, but it was enough to get things going.
About three months before I officially launched my business, in August 2019, I quit my full-time job and started freelancing part-time for interior designers. I charged $70 an hour, which is a healthy rate. But I had been working in design for ten years, so I was fairly experienced. And I only wanted to work on things that could help support my business at the same time.
Then the pandemic happened, and all my freelance work stopped. That was scary, but it also forced me to focus full-time on my business instead of doing it on the side. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to support myself without working part-time up until that point. But it was also a very specific moment when people were in lockdown and wanted to support small businesses and also buy things for their homes. So I was in the right space at the right time — a weird silver lining during that horrible period.
It was a very distinct tipping point, to go from making no money at all to being like, “Wow, I can actually support myself with this.” That’s where I am now, and I feel very lucky.
Initially, my partner and I had saved up to buy an apartment, but that fell through right before the pandemic. So we used the money to start our business instead. As an immigrant, it seemed more important to own a business than an apartment — a business is something I can grow. We spent about $15,000 to get the business off the ground in the first year. Photography and marketing were the biggest expenses.
My partner and I kept our full-time jobs, and I took on additional consulting work and used that income to fund the company. I don’t have kids, so I have the time to work on nights and weekends. I make about $110,000 as a designer for Kith, and my partner’s salary is similar. We used our regular incomes to cover our normal expenses and put any extra money into the business.
We applied for a few grants that were created to support small businesses, but we haven’t been successful with any of our applications yet. When we grow to the point that we need to hire a team, we will need to take out business loans, but right now we’re just trying to keep it self-funded.
I started out as a makeup artist when I was 18 years old, doing makeup for weddings and quinceañeras. At the beginning, I charged $30 a face, and went on to charge $80 to $100. I also had full-time jobs — I worked at MAC Cosmetics, Glam Squad, and a subscription-box company called Boxycharm. I used my nine to five money to fuel my everyday bills and then I would take all of my freelance money — my makeup money — and save it.
I always wanted to start my own brand, and by 2018, I decided that it was time. I had $19,000 saved, and a group of friends came up with an additional $3,000 between the five of them. That gave me enough to launch my first pilot. And after that, I’ve been able to roll over my profits into my next product. I’ve never had to take on an investor. I own 100 percent of the company. I’m also one of its three full-time employees, and I pay myself a biweekly salary now. It’s modest — I make less than $60,000 a year.
I did take out one loan from the small-business administration in 2021, to prepare for my collaboration with Disney. I did a line for Encanto, and I wanted to do 13 products at a time. So it was very ambitious and I didn’t want to disrupt my day-to-day operations and take money from my day-to-day products. So I qualified for a small-business-administration loan for over $100,000. That’s been great. The terms are good, and it’s given us all the right tools that we need to expand.
Before I started my own brand, I spent many years working at Sephora. I mentored and I advised a lot of young companies, and I know where many brands go wrong. The money I saved to start my brand came from three or four years of consulting, starting back in 2015. I still consult to this day, in addition to running the brand, which launched over a year ago. My consulting helps me fund my company and pay my bills.
I knew that I needed about $300,000 to start, because I was creating a luxury brand and I was going to have to invest in the formula and ingredients and special molds to create the product and packaging. So I saved $300,000 to launch and then I very quickly needed another $200,000 to keep things going.
I am totally self-financed, with a line of credit and a potential loan for half a million dollars to help me out as I think about retail expansion. I can potentially get angel investors. For now, I’ve chosen not to, because I haven’t wanted to feel that pressure. I probably will need them eventually. I have that on the back burner.
To save, I cut back on everything — travel, clothes, hair, anything extra. It’s not always glamorous. I’ve packed and shipped my own products to save on logistics. A luxury company just requires a lot more investment up front. It’s much higher risk, whereas, with some other smaller brands, there’s less investment up front. But I have a lot of experience in my industry, and I believe in what I’m doing, so I think the risk is worth it.
I always wanted to have my own beauty brand. When I got the idea to start my business, I set myself a budget of $10,000, to see what I could do with that. I started putting a little bit into savings every month. So when I was ready to go into production and pay for everything, I had the money there.
Most of us don’t have the option to have investors. If you do, great, but when you’re on your own, you have to rely on your own money. Setting myself a limit at the beginning was helpful because it’s so easy to just keep spending. But my attitude was, I’ll put $10,000 into the product, and if it sells, great. If it doesn’t, then at least we tried. Otherwise, if you put in your whole life savings and it doesn’t end up working out, what are you going to do?
My other job is my YouTube channel, and I make money doing sponsorships. I tried to put aside $2,000 to $3,000 every month, so it only took me a few months to hit the $10,000 target for the product. Then I realized that I needed a separate budget to hire professionals for video, photos, and other promotional stuff. And it took me almost a whole year to save up for that. I had no idea that the whole photo shoot was going to be so much more expensive than creating the actual product. And I had to pay to license photos, even of my own face. All in all, that probably cost about $100,000 total, and it took two years to save up the money and then launch.
I had to cut back on a lot. At the time, I was a new mom, and I wanted to buy everything for my children. But I had to tell myself that saving was worth it. Once we finally launched the product, we sold out within a week. We were able to make a little bit more than what we had invested, which I then re-invested so I could restock. We’re only a little more than a year old, so we’re still reinvesting the profits back into the business. Luckily, I’m still making money from YouTube and I can fund my business with it if I need to.