The myth of bootstrapping, ramen, and a life of lack
Episode #7 of the course Mental exercises for beginner entrepreneurs by Genevieve LeMarchal
“Ramen profitability” is a popular term in the start-up world. Whether you are familiar with it or not doesn’t matter. It was coined by Paul Graham (founder of YCombinator) to describe what it means to run lean and get to minimum profitability. It means getting your business to a level where you are paying people something (under market, of course, and this includes yourself), and everything runs on incredibly minimal expenses. Your business is “eating ramen.”
But this doesn’t mean you actually have to live on ramen, or Taco Bell, or Costco hot dogs, or whatever. It does not mean you have to stop seeing friends and family, stop visiting the gym, stop getting enough sleep, stop eating healthy, and give up everything you love in life.
When I talk about ramen, I mean depriving yourself. There is a personal mindset risk to ramen.
What happens is your standards lower, and ramen starts to feel normal for you. You make excuses for ramen—“it’s all part of the greater good” or “a necessary means to an end.” There is a benefit to ramen too; you learn how to minimize your expenses and live very efficiently. (But I think this can also be learned by paying a little attention to your monthly cash flow habits and how and what you spend your money on.)
There is a huge difference between living within your means and living in a state of depravity.
Overcoming a feeling of lack and depravity doesn’t mean splashing out on expensive clothes, nights out, or vacations you truly can’t afford. It can be as simple as buying yourself a nice bar of chocolate at the grocery store, saying yes when a friend offers to pick up lunch, or getting the good kind of coffee or the fancy cheese at the market.
These small nice things are often well within your budget and will pay you dividends in happiness and combating the feeling of lack and depravity that can come from being in the grind of an early stage business. Often, these things help us realize that simple things are usually what make us happiest in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, the best businesses bootstrap in their early years. This is what builds strong foundations and practices. I would never condone businesses skipping bootstrapping.
“Don’t go too fast. People have to go to school, learn their craft, build a brand. That’s the right, healthy way to do things. If you’re an overnight sensation, you can be yesterday’s news in no time. Whereas building something slowly and carefully that has value and quality, that’s what’s going to have legs.” — Anna Wintour
But you can build a business and still have a nice life. Here’s my personal story about this:
In the early years of my business, I was absolutely miserable. I deprived myself of everything that made my life enjoyable and happy—from little luxuries to neglecting important relationships and my own well-being.
Once I decided to stop living this way, I couldn’t afford to actually live how I wanted, so I began to find small ways to have a nicer life. Things improved drastically. My nice life involved many simple things—fresh flowers for my home, a quiet moment to savor the first hot cup of coffee in the morning (the good coffee too), walking my dog in the neighborhood, a glass of wine in the evening, a conversation with a good friend, or an early night in with a good book.
These are the things that keep me happy and feeling “sane.” And implementing them was very easy. The most important thing was taking note that there were nice things in my daily life, that it was not all work, sacrifice, and lack. This changed the way I saw my life and the world around me, and I became happier.
Building a business is a marathon, not a sprint. And you have to find ways to take care of yourself along the way or you’ll burn out.
What small area are you currently depriving yourself of that you can splurge on a little today? If you need to pick up some shampoo, can you skip the drugstore and swing by the salon instead for the good stuff? Can you order a great cocktail at a nice bar? How about leaving your cell phone on your desk and going for a walk or calling a friend to catch up just because?
I wrote this popular post about How to Ask for What You Want. It pertains to sales and networking, of course. However, you can also reframe this mindset for yourself!
“Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days” by Jessica Livingston
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