Kevin Koym has a degree in electrical engineering, a résumé that includes stints at IBM, Motorola, and NeXT Computer, and a two-person software company called Enterprise Teaming. But last summer, when a computer glitch at his bank kept him from paying one of his bills, Koym was flummoxed. He dashed off an e-mail asking for help, and within 45 minutes he had 20 referrals. The next day he changed banks. Koym has a secret weapon against the administrative irritations, management challenges, and everyday frustrations that plague entrepreneurs. Koym is a member of the Bootstrap Network, a group of business owners who linked up in 2003 in Austin, Tex., to trade advice about building companies. The title refers to the practice of bootstrapping a company, or building it without outside financing. Koym, 37, joined the group early on and is one of its most active members. "When I have to make a tactical decision, the first thing I do is send out a request to the Bootstrap Network," he says.
In an age of information overload, a new style of networking is getting entrepreneurs' attention. Unlike most business groups, Bootstrap Network emerged organically, starting with a few friends of an entrepreneur named Bijoy Goswami, who were running businesses on their own dimes. In less than three years, the network has grown to more than 500 members in Austin and spurred offshoots in 10 other cities. Perhaps that's because there's precious little bureaucracy or politics to slow it down, much less the meaningless small talk and business-card swaps that usually pass for networking.
The simple Yahoo! e-mail group that came to Koym's rescue is at the heart of the network. Members talk openly on the list, but mere chitchat is discouraged. Instead, discussion is limited to advice, ideas, and encouragement that will help bootstrappers take action. For those who typically toil in isolation and learn by making mistakes, it's invaluable support. "I've seen a lot of techniques for providing services to entrepreneurs," says Gary Hoover, founder of business information service Hoover's, who frequently weighs in with his input. "It's the most powerful thing I've ever seen."
If the e-mail list is the network's engine, its us-against-the-world ethos is its fuel. In a tech mecca like Austin, where most networking is geared toward winning the venture capital lottery, it's easy to forget that fewer than 1,000 of the half-million businesses started each year in the U.S. receive venture capital. As Goswami, the network's founder, constantly reminds the group: "Entrepreneurship is not one thing."
Goswami, a 32-year-old Stanford University grad, gets most of the credit for figuring out how self-funded entrepreneurs could support one another in the Information Age. The son of a textile company executive and a teacher, Goswami was born in India and lived in Taiwan and Hong Kong as a child. After postgraduate work at the University of Oxford, he landed at Austin's Trilogy Software in 1995. At the time Trilogy was a breeding ground for dot-com startups. Goswami quit in 2000 to strike out on his own, buoyed by a few hundred thousand dollars in seed money and lots of naive confidence. His software company, Aviri, landed Cisco Systems and Cirrus Logic as trial customers. But most of his pilot projects ended in the dot-com bust, and Goswami had to lay off his 12 employees.
Hoping to keep Aviri alive, Goswami started thinking about bootstrapping. He didn't have much choice, but he'd also soured on venture funding and didn't want to cede control to an outside investor again. In retrospect he decided that gobs of startup money had bloated his company and dampened the drive to innovate.
But when Goswami checked in with business networks around town such as the Chamber of Commerce, the technology associations, and even academic groups, he didn't think they had much to offer an entrepreneur who wanted to go it alone. Still, he wanted to share what he'd learned at Aviri. He soon became a resource for friends and friends of friends who wanted to know more about entrepreneurship and meet like-minded colleagues.
In July, 2003, Goswami gathered some of those acquaintances for the first official Bootstrap meeting at an Irish pub in Austin's warehouse district. Many were young refugees from the tech wreck. They agreed to meet monthly, with more focused brown bag lunches in between. And they immediately established the e-mail list, which fast became a useful tool for finding everything from cheap desk chairs to CPAs.
Soon, Goswami was attracting seasoned entrepreneurs such as Hoover to the monthly gatherings to share their advice. After each meeting he followed up on his blog at www.bootstrapnetwork.com/blog/ and suggested references for further study.
Meanwhile, the e-mail list was hopping. By late 2004 members were posting about 100 new messages a month, compared with fewer than 20 the year before. When Jonathan Davis, part-owner of human resources outsourcer Acadia HR, was at wits' end trying to communicate with an employee, he turned to the list for help. Within a few minutes he had four referrals to the same workplace consultant, who was able to iron out his problem. Others have found customers, job candidates, and software through the group. Says Valdis Krebs, an expert on social networking who has studied grassroots efforts to connect small business owners: "It works because the community always knows more than the individual."
That may sound simple, but building a community is anything but. Take the e-mail list, for starters. Who has time to read every e-mail? Yet for the list to be useful, Bootstrappers' e-mails must be answered quickly and honestly. So Goswami limits membership to company founders. VC-backed startups need not apply, nor should businesses wishing to sell Bootstrappers a product or service.
Goswami also encourages intramural activities to strengthen bonds among members. A year ago six Bootstrappers began gathering for monthly four-hour dives into each other's specific business problems. Tina Schweiger, founder of Yellow Fin, an 11-person graphic design and branding company, credits the sessions with getting her out of a cash-flow crisis caused by poor tracking of employees' time. Says Schweiger, who is also launching a line of yoga clothing: "It's like having a board of directors. We're helping each other grow and learn."
Instead of charging dues, Goswami asks each member for a commitment of time or an in-kind donation. Any bureaucracy that might distract from the mission -- think bylaws, officers, or committees -- is verboten. Goswami thinks even applying for nonprofit status would be a waste of the group's time.
As Bootstrap Austin took off, entrepreneurs in other cities began to approach Goswami about joining. Rather than expand the Austin group, Goswami asked the newbies to start their own networks, preserving the group's tradition of face-to-face gatherings. By last summer, Bootstrappers were organized in Dallas, Boston, Washington, and Houston, as well as Pune and Bangalore in India. "To have someone sitting there and saying 'I've been through that' is enormously helpful," says Sean Murphy, an entrepreneur who founded a software company called Groundbuzz and established Bootstrap D.C. in January, 2005.
Now Goswami is starting to attract notice from the very business groups he thought were ignoring entrepreneurs like him. "Bijoy's really good at the grass roots," says Alisha Ring, president of Austin Technology Council, a group of about 10,000 businesses. "He tapped into a real need." Ring hopes to work with Bootstrap Austin and other groups to link entrepreneurs with mentors who can help them expand their companies.
Meanwhile, Goswami is pushing ahead with his own bootstrapped company. Aviri 2.0, as he calls it, has but one client and one employee: himself. Headquarters is his Asian-themed condo overlooking a greenbelt. Armed with the software Aviri built before the bust, Goswami offers himself to corporations who want to build more effective internal teams. He has even self-published a book, The Human Fabric, outlining his ideas on linking people based on their talents and passions. He calls himself an evangelist for building models to connect people and get things done. Nothing seems to stifle his passion and enthusiasm. "Bijoy's personality is so magnetic," says Acadia HR's Davis. "He draws people in and gets them excited about entrepreneurship again." This guy might just have a future in networking.
By Andrew Park