Remember the game Oregon Trail?
I think it may have been one of the few educational computer games that virtually everyone loved. Even with primitive graphics, there was something about fending off attacks from native populations and dealing with dead oxen that appealed to a lot of us at 10 years old.
Being a bootstrapping entrepreneur and growing a company on limited funds is a bit like trying to make it West before there were cars and roads and airplanes and air conditioning: you don’t always know where the road will take you and there’s a good chance you won’t make it but you keep pushing through with the limited resources you have and hope that the payoff is worth it.
But what if you come to a fork in the road?
How do you decide which direction to travel in? You don’t want to end up like the Donner party. (Look it up, it’s horrifying.) The pioneers that paid attention found alternate routes and that’s exactly what you have to do if your startup is going to become more than just a great idea.
Joy Gendusa took it one step further and used those roadblocks to her advantage when she started PostcardMania with seriously limited funds and even more limited resources.
Gendusa was a freelancer who wanted to advertise her business but when she went to get postcards made she was floored by how expensive it was just to print them. Instead of despairing over the cost or finding other ways to advertise, Gendusa took matters into her own hands. She found an entrepreneur willing to pay her to make postcards and used the money from that first transaction to pay the printer.
She repeated that process until she started making a little profit; that profit grew, and now PostcardMania is worth $20 million per year.
Obviously PostcardMania didn’t go from zero to twenty million overnight. The key to Gendusa’s success is the same thing that got her business off the ground in the first place: flexibility. As Gendusa picked up more customers, she realized that most people didn’t have the marketing skills to truly utilize their bulk mailings. If the product being printed wasn’t well produced, what good would those mailings ultimately do?
Gendusa’s customers started asking her about graphic design, websites, marketing, and other forms of advertising and she listened. She realized that there was another gap in the market and that was for affordable marketing advice. At first she offered those services for free, giving her another leg up on the competition, and eventually she figured out how to monetize her knowledge without charging more than her customer base could afford.
Could Gendusa have had a really successful business if she stuck to only printing?
Sure. There was a hole in the market for affordable bulk mail printing and she filled it. However, her ability to pay attention to what her customers were asking for and shift gears accordingly is ultimately what led to her success.
Like the pioneers on the Oregon Trail, you have to be open to alternate routes if you’re going to make it to the payoff. Luckily your roadblocks are more likely to be a website that isn’t drawing as much traffic as it should or an investor who pulls out last minute. Isn’t that a whole lot easier to deal with than a dead oxen?