Saturday, October 24, 2009

Starting up? How is your bootstrapping coming along?

You are motivated. You are passionate. You have the idea. You are backed by science. Yet, neither are the VCs caring much for you, nor is the Gates Foundation interested in funding your idea.

What do you do?

Well, for one you can blame the Government, the stars and everything in between and give up.

Or, you can bootstrap! Now, bootstrapping is easier said than done. How does one actually achieve the act of bootstrapping?

A couple of interesting articles

Let us go from the lateral to the core. The first article came out of which talks about how software companies are bootstrapping. Apparently, some of them (or at least the one fielded in the article) have an intriguing way of doing things. The software company does not actually design the software, but spends a few hundred dollars designing websites that tout the "potential" features of a product and wait till a customer actually demonstrates interest in "buying" the product.

It is not possible to wait for a patient to complain of pain till you design a device, I know, but remember, we are looking at analogies of intrigue, to prove the point - "it can be done".

The article goes on to describe the nitties and the gritties of software development by bootstrapping. Have a read (and don't touch that remote, we are not done yet):

Bootstrapping a biotech startup

You would think that a biotech startup would take a lot of investment, and would be impossible to start without VC or angel backing. I gave up on a few ideas myself. But, to even find an angel or a VC, you need a prototype, or some licensed IP and so on. Unless you have this, a bit of luck, a few PhDs, good luck, right?

Well, according to the article from The Scientist, Johnny Stine is out to prove you wrong. I am not going to refurbish the article and steal from The Scientist, but he has proven that "it" can be done. With about $45,000, he got the whole thing going. You should read and find out more about what and how he has managed to pull it off.

Here is The Scientist Article:

Bootstrapping Resources

eBay is a great source, but be sure to take a look at the following:

I Shopping Resources

1.1 Craigslist

Regardless of cheap efforts by attorney generals and ambitious Sheriffs, craigslist remains the best place to pick up stuff for free, or for nearly free prices. I have seen everything from microscopes to lathes being given away. Getting a fixer-upper is not a bad idea when you are bootstrapping.

1.2 Tech Recovery

A couple of years ago, there was a plant closure going on and someone told me about this website. They apparently buy stuff from plants or companies that are moving or going out of business and sell it to start ups and others for a really low price:

1.3 Google Product Search (formerly Froogle)

I am not sure if Froogle has been formally retired, but I always thought it was a great idea. What if the stuff you are looking for is not available used on Craigslist? Even if it is available on eBay, among the hundreds of stores online, how do you know if you are paying the lowest possible price? How do you automate comparative shopping? Google Product Search, still in beta (like most of their other products are) can be put to use:

1.4. Others

Search locally for stores that sell used or heavily discounted items. For example, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, Halted Electronics on Central and Lawrence Expressways can get you some good bargains for electronics. Similarly, from March through October, there is the Electronics Flea Market:

II Software and Internet Tools

As an entrepreneur, you need to be professional, and so you should not get into situations where you use any kind of "cracked" software and such. You are about to go and try have customers buy your products. How would you like it if someone walked off with your molecule or the catheter.

There are legitimate software applications out there that are either completely free or come for cheap. How can companies "give away" their product and still plan to stay in business? Well, they are hoping that you would do one or two things - either upgrade to their paid version when you can, or pay for service and support, or both.

Let us take a look at some that you already be aware of:

2.1 Clinical Trial Software

Within clinical trial software, my experience is limited, however, recently, FierceBiotechIT mentioned OpenClinica 3.0, which is an Open Source application (alongside a commercial enterprise version), that can be downloaded and modified for free.

2.2 Project Management - Open Workbench

Ah, the holy grail for a start up, especially for medical device and biotechnology companies. Open Workbench is an Open Source tool, and can be quite useful if you want to use some good practices and start dividing up your work into Projects and start the PM process sooner, rather than bandage it together later:

2.3 Brainstorming and Mind Mapping

Be it a better mousetrap or a new out-of-the-friggin'-box treatment for a disease that you plan to hash out, you need to create and protect your intellectual property. How do you brainstorm if your colleagues are out there, or if you want to do them on a laptop and you don't have access to the envelope or napkin, but a laptop...?

You mind map. Mind mapping software come in various sizes and shapes. Some allow you to make fish-bone diagrams, other allow you to perform free forms in other ways. I am providing you with a page that has a whole host of links here, some open source and some proprietary.

2.4 Document Creation and Storage

2.4.1 Google

Google constantly keeps updating their products - and I am not even talking off the paid version. You can simply use the free tools and you have a set of portable documents that can be shared and distributed online. Google Documents are no substitute for the industry standard Microsoft Office, but they can serve as an excellent, online repository for data that you use every day, effectively allowing you to work from home or elsewhere.

Other Google products such as Google Sites can also help you come up with quick and dirty websites if they are necessary.


Google is not the only company with tools for online document storage and such. The biggest advantage is, if you are an addicted Gmail user, you can integrate the documents into your email system directly.

2.4.2 Zoho

When I was first introduced to Zoho, I was impressed by the simplicity of the tools. Take a look here:

They offer everything from document storage to web conferencing and CRM with a lot in between.

2.4.3 OpenOffice

With Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems, the future of OpenOffice is in question (as are the futures of MySQL, Java and several other products). However, for offline use, as a free office product, it is the best out there.

2.5 Free or Cheap Web Conferencing Tools

Through several helpful folks from my alumni list, I came across a handful of free to cheap web conferencing tools. Web conferencing allows you to work with folks across the globe and cuts down on meeting costs as well(remember, Zoho was already mentioned in the last section):

2.5.1 Dimdim

Dimdim is an open source tool, with a free basic web conferencing version and additional paid versions. I have not used this tool myself, so you will have to test this yourself.

2.5.2 Fuze Meeting

Again, a similar website, the free version does not appear to have as many features as Dimdim does, but it might be an alternative.

2.5.3 Vyview

This appears to be yet another elegantly designed, ostensibly free tool that PC World seems to have rated. The competition in this area must be truly high:

2.5.4 Open A Circle

Like Zoho, this company seems to offer a bundle that is not simply limited to web conferencing, but seems to extend to instant messaging, file storage, etc. They do recommend Internet Explorer or Firefox Mozilla, and a Windows Operating System (bootstrapping with expensive Apple computers would be paradoxical)

2.5.5 Jive

With so many free web conferencing tools, why bother mentioning something that is not free at a minimum? Because the base rate of $3 per user per month may be something you can think about if their product "suite" that seems to span across several verticals makes any kind of sense for you:

2.6 Other web collaboration

2.6.1 Zenbe

Zenbe appears to help teams collaborate over multiple projects without a bunch of different emails going back and forth. It appears to be a form of revision management without actual revision management:

2.6.2 Notaland

This is an interesting tool that allows multiple users to create and update web pages, chat etc., serving as an online whiteboard.

2.7 File Sharing and Storage

There are many file sharing and storage products out there, and many companies mentioned in prior sections also offer free storage, but just in case you need some more.

2.7.1 Yousendit

Yousendit Lite is a free file sharing mechanism for individuals that eliminates the need to buy online space or use an ftp application.

2.7.2 (free trial)

The company is offering a 30-day trial for what is otherwise a rather expensive proposition. However, the tool itself sounds like a very good idea - drop files worth 10OMB online and share them through multiple means.

2.7.3 SkyDrive

Obviously stung by competition (read Google), Microsoft is now trying to catch up. There could be some gold for you in the competition. SkyDrive offers 25GB of storage if you sign up with Windows Live!

2.8 CAD Tools

CAD Tools for medical device companies, should be chosen carefully. While there are free tools out there, CAD tends to be the backbone of product development and choices can affect you for a long time. CAD software do not play with each other all too nicely all the time, and if you choose the wrong application, you may have to spend a good deal of money on translation tools or simply, recreating your work.

That said, there are a couple of free tools worth mentioning with the above caution.

Google SketchUp

While this tool may not be very useful for the kind of serious CAD engineering typically requires, it is still a very easy one too use. So, take a look.

2.9 Free tools from Microsoft

I recently came across this at the Tech Republic, and I thought you might want to explore these and see if any may be of use to you:

III. Educational Tools

You have your start up. It feels great. But how about some "back to school" time? Well, here goes.

3.1 OpenCourseWare

MIT kept up with it's promise and revolutionized education with the OCW project. With this, you can now become an arm-chair and laptop MIT student!

3.2 Stanford Engineering Everywhere

My alma mater on the other hand has been standing around, with hands tied, fists clenched and more. Finally, they have opened up a few engineering courses and have had the gall to come out with a press release. For a left coast school alum, somewhat painful to sit and watch. In any case, the classes that are free, are excellent!

3.3 Entrepreneurship Thought Leaders Seminars

While I lament the fact that Stanford hasn't opened up as much as MIT has, the ETL seminars have been free forever, and they offer an entrepreneur with a treasure trove of speeches, revelations, do's, dont's and everything else.

3.4 Community Colleges

This may not pertain to entrepreneurs everywhere, but if you live in the US, there is probably a community college (or two) near where you live. If you are more of a hands-on learner, then your community college may be the one for you. Cheap and effective, enrolling can give you access to their classes, labs and libraries (be careful about software - licensing agreements will restrict you from using most educational software for commercial work).

3.5 Your Local Library

There have never been resources more useful than your local library. Your local library can be a city library, or even a library in a community college of University near where you live. With several ways to access materials from these libraries, you will save yourself a good chunk of change simply visiting and reading stuff off of libraries. You can also save on the lattes if you simply work from a library in case you are the kind of a person in need of "office space" (Moi, je suis flop myself in front of the TV tojours).

Local libraries may offer other benefits as well. For example, a local library belonging to the City of Menlo Park has a "free" bin of books donated by readers. If you are persistent enough, you could even pick up a copy of Science or the NEJM!

Friends of the Library

The Friends of City of Palo Alto Library, near where I live has a monthly book sales, where I have found several excellent books at throwaway prices.

City Libraries have "Friends" clubs that are usually registered as non-profits, which means you don't have to pay taxes when you buy from them. Recently, I found out that some of them also sell books at dirt prices online on!

3.6 Do-It-Yourself!

Hmmm, no, it's not late in the night or anything. Doing your own work can of course save you a lot of money and give you unparalleled insights into your ideas, it's pluses and minuses. A great starting point is the DIYBIO website. Ever since I joined the site, I have picked up so much! To be honest, I find their Google Group easier to use (I am an email jockey) than the forums that I rarely visit.

3.7 Blogs and Newsletters

Depending on how much time you have, blogs and newsletters can help you quite a bit. I am constantly accessing them and listing them here seems impractical. Please browse to the right hand side of this blog's home page, for a full list.

Shameless plug it is, but I have kept it updated pretty well, even with some that I don't agree with!

IV. Tech Shop and Make Co-Operatives

Alright, how about machine tools for prototyping? Do you need to buy a whole new lathe or milling machine? Not if you live in certain areas. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area (okay, I am not showing off, I truly live here), there is the Tech Shop, where you can take classes and sign up for the use of machine time:

They also have locations in Oregon and North Carolina. There are also make shops and community workspaces probably coming up in an area where you live!

IV. Give me more - Market Research, researching and some more

This is a tail ender, but I am going to introduce you to a very nifty tool - "Google Alerts". Google Alerts constitutes the sharpest tool in my collection of online research tools. Do you need to keep tabs on your competitors, or just know what is being written about your own company or your disease area?

Go to

Set up an alert for say "Endometriosis" or "Medtronic", say what type of results you want - I usually choose "Comprehensive" to make sure I get everything on a topic. Then, you also want to say whether you want news items offered as they happen, or once a day. I tend to want to read things as they happen.

However, "as-it-happens" can overload your inbox. So, you might want to choose the digest form. You could also create filters and make sure the Google Alerts don't land on your inbox.

There, you now have your own, free of cost market research and competitive research tool!

V. Network, network, network

Yeah, what is "networking" doing in a post on bootstrapping? It is the old barn-raising again. You never know who has the answers to your problems and who may help you out. Bootstrapping means going beyond looking stuff up on Google and simply buying or renting them. There are dozens of companies and consultants who will offer free advice, solutions and products to make sure you give them a good hand and get to understand or buy them when you can or need them.

Most of the tools I have listed up here, I know of, only because I spend a lot of time on several odd networks, signing up for various types of blogs and constantly skimming and flipping through materials.

So, the next time you hear someone questioning the LinkedIns and the Facebooks of the world, you know what to say. Apart from the DIYBio, I have found the "sfmedengineers" Yahoo! Group to be quite useful:

If you are a young entrepreneur, especially looking for ideas, you may want to network and participate and/or volunteer in events. You will get to meet a number of terrific people and learn quite a bit. Trust me, networking can never be wasteful.


I wrote this list keeping a medical device/biotechnology company in mind. Most of the tools pertain to start-ups in other areas as well. I have not tested all of the tools in here, but I have tried my hand on many of them. If you have specifically liked any, or have had problems with any, please leave a note.

I am also certain that I left out a lot of tools in here. If you know of tools that may help, please let me know. I realize that a blog post is hard to update, and I thought of a wiki - I have been planning a medical devices wiki but it will have to wait. In the meanwhile, I will release all these tools in the form of a concise eBook that will make it easy for me to revision manage and update. So, please let me know of tools and gaps in tools that you may want to see here.

For my next few releases of this type, I plan to write about other useful resources such as specific books and such.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Srihari,

This is a good useful collection. You could add the following:

1. I use it at work and it is quite good

2. Skype :) of course, you know further about it.