20 tips we learnt bootstrapping our business to thousands of customers
Posted: Mon 9th Aug 2021
My fiance Diana Muendo and I set up M.Y.O in 2017, a creative studio for adults in central London.
We’ve helped tens of thousands of customers get creative whilst learning 14-plus arts and craft classes in our studio and we've helped millions more online.
With no external investment, we've been on quite the journey of being nimble with money and strategic with marketing.
We have a team of six full-time and four part-time staff, along with three interns who are joining this month.
Here are some top tips to help your start-up grow.
How we brought the idea to life with no external investment
In short, we got this far by partnering, adding lots of value, leveraging our customers (we call them “guests”) and not jumping all in straight away.
Here’s how you can apply those lessons to your start-up.
1. Start as a side hustle
We re-invested all our M.Y.O income into the business for the first 12 months, relying on our other income to pay our bills.
At the start of the M.Y.O journey, I had gone freelance part-time, so I had time to focus on the idea, but funds to pay my bills. Diana continued to work full-time and do M.Y.O things in the evening and weekends until we knew we were on to something and went all in!
2. Build partnerships
We partnered with a creative venue that focused on children’s arts and crafts, so we didn’t have to shell out lots of cash for equipment and a space. It also ensured we weren’t competing for the same people in the space and it was a true collaboration.
3. Start small and listen to your customers
Start small and move quickly. Our first session was with friends well before we felt ready, we then evolved from there.
We had feedback forms at the end of every session for the first 12 months, so we constantly got new ideas from our guests and email addresses to develop the business and grow our community.
4. Turn your community into advocates
We shared lots of pictures of our amazing guests and invited people – press, influencers, friends, family etc. – along to things for free. They have all turned into M.Y.O champions. We essentially used our class tickets as currency as we had limited funds to pay for marketing!
Can you do something similar?
5. Get staff and partners bought into our mission
We ensured anyone that taught a class or worked for us was over trained, comfortable in our studio (there were regular team socials) and believed in our mission. Once the team is happy, guests are happy and more inclined to refer people to us, which has been huge in helping us grow.
6. Say “yes” a lot in the beginning
We said “yes” to far too many things, but all things considered, it helped, was fun and we now know more about when to say “yes” or “no”!
7. Build a newsletter and shout about your achievements
We set up a regular newsletter, had monthly competitions and worked hard to create a buzz about what we were doing to make people care about M.Y.O; you need to be your own champion as it will help make people care.
Any milestone or good new client, we shouted about them and stuck them on our website, including testimonials or reviews.
You want people, especially when they land on your website, to trust you as soon as possible, so who you are associated with and feedback and reviews are key. If they see others have been happy, they will be more inclined to think they will be happy buying your product or service.
8. Obsess about your customer experience
It’s helpful to regularly go through your guests' potential journey. You should do that every month or two because it will spark ideas and you can identify improvements.
There will always be new and better things you can do, which is good! So don’t worry. We have bucket loads of things right now we need to make better (it will be the same in one and five years time too!).
Regularly (monthly) think, “what more can I do for or with my existing customers?”.
We’re always thankful and grateful for every customer and never take them for granted – it still amazes us that people pay us money for a little idea we are pursuing. That’s magical right?
9. Create value for your online community
Add value to your followers and community (inspirational posts, freebies, competitions, advice etc.), but also say what you do fairly regularly.
Every five to six Instagram posts, for example, say what you do. The rest can be about adding value to your community, building trust (eg. sharing a nice review) or giving them a snapshot of your entrepreneurial journey.
It may spark a decision to buy or enquire when you lay out in plain English what you do every now and then.
10. Pick your platforms and re-use content
Pick your battles in terms of social media platforms. We used Facebook and Instagram at the start, now it’s more Instagram and LinkedIn. You can’t be on every platform all the time, so figure out where your most engaged audience hangs out and work that one more than the rest.
Recycle and reuse content across platforms in the correct format where you can too. Canva is great for that (see Take advantage of low-cost marketing tools below).
11. Piggyback on bigger communities
We partnered or listed what we did with companies and platforms that had far, far bigger budgets than us, so we could leverage their reach and grow. For example, experience platforms like Airbnb.
Is there a website many of your customers use? Get involved with it and try to list on there as cheaply as possible or piggyback on an event they may be doing.
12. Become a sponge
Learn, learn, learn as you go. Read books, speak with mentors, hang out with people a few steps ahead from you and absorb everything.
Creating something totally new (every start-up is different), means you need to learn as you go. Never feel like you know it all, because you don’t (and never will). This may feel humbling, but it’s also comforting to keep in mind if you feel overwhelmed.
13. Think about your partners’ pain points
Always keep in mind and project how you can make partners' lives better with what you do, especially if you work with corporations. It may take some probing to figure out what problems or pain points they have, but then you can see if it’s a match for your product or service.
14. Trust is key!
“See, like, know, trust” is Diana’s motto.
15. Work with in-house ad experts
We learned that without talking to in-house experts about Facebook, Instagram and Google, paying for ads can suck money from your company. Speaking directly with them helped us set up a structure for tracking ads, improving conversions and launching campaigns.
We continue to spend very little on digital marketing (£200-300 per month) and it isn’t as effective as we would like.They want you to succeed, so you keep using their service. We’ve just never devoted enough time to it.
16. Referrals and word of mouth are the best advertising
Put yourself out there and chat with your customers. When you don't have money to spend on tonnes of ads, you have to rely on people knowing you and your products, so go to events and shows, speak on Instagram and share on LinkedIn. Your personal network is stronger than you realise and that friend of a friend may end up being a big customer!
Referrals and word of mouth are huge and the most effective free advertising! Really think hard about how you can nurture that to happen more frequently with every touchpoint a customer may have with you.
An 11/10 experience is a given these days. What else can you do and how can you build in personal touches to make interactions more memorable, especially at the start of your start-ups journey?
17. Ask your customers for help
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your customers – they want to be part of your journey and help you succeed – provided they believe in your mission of course. It’s your job to make them believe.
18. Take advantage of low-cost marketing tools
There are loads, but if you nail the below, it will help you grow massively and with limited cost.
Canva: We design all our marketing assets (social media posts, brochures, stickers, videos etc.) using Canva, it’s brilliant and super cheap
Later: For scheduling posts on Facebook and Instagram
Buffer: Good for scheduling to the above, but also LinkedIn
HubSpot: A CRM system for tracking customers and guests, there are others, but it’s crucial to capture potential and existing clients
Calendly: Helps take the back and forth out of arranging meetings
Slack: As your team grows, it’s key to communicating remotely
Mailchimp: For newsletters
19. Keep in mind it can take longer than you think!
One thing to keep in mind is that it can take longer to grow when you do it this way (bootstrapped) and it brings its own unique stresses, but ultimately you have more control over what you do. It depends what your priority is with your business.
20. Always be selling
And, finally, always be selling!
Learn more about marketing for bootstrapped start-ups
Hear me and Diana about how you can get more marketing for your money by watching our recent Lunch and Learn.
More about M.Y.O
Thanks for reading, I hope it helps you on your start-up journey!
Want to be a part of our creative journey? Be sure to check out www.MYO.Place. We’d love you to come to one of our regular creative classes with M.Y.O or buy a creative kit from Creative Jungle Co. On either site, use the code MYOCJCEN for 15% off your purchase and let the creativity flow!