The Perils of Bootstrapping via Consulting

Since the last startup I was CTO of was acquired in 2009, I’ve been working for other startups and agencies as a consultant. While my main goal in life is to be building startups that I am the founder/co-founder of, consulting has been a great way to pay the bills while I iterate with different products, ideas, and people, figuring out the next big thing to throw myself into with all my heart. Everyone talks with great praise that taking on consulting projects while running a startup is a great thing – avoids outside financing and lengthens your runway.

There are real problems with consulting

  1. You only have a limited amount of time during the week. Consulting takes time out of your day. What is your most precious resource?
  2. When you’ve blocked a certain amount of time to work on your startup, when a client calls with a burning question or meeting, it’s a distraction.
  3. Consulting encourages jumping around. I can on some days be juggling 8 or 9 different consulting projects, and have learned how to switch quickly. That is the complete opposite of a startup – where a laser focus.
  4. The short-term opportunity cost of working on your own internal startup increases tremendously. When you’re being faced with the choice of “Do I work on my startup, with some chance of success in the future” vs “Do I make some good money right now” – and you’re being asked that every minute of every day, committing to your idea becomes even more challenging.
  5. The biggest flaw. When you hit a rough patch with your business (bad feedback, lack of interest, technical challenge) and that little seed of doubt starts to grow… it’s effortless to take a few more consulting gigs, and before you know it, it’s been months since you’ve cracked open the code base.

What I do to prevent it (and I’m not perfect)

  1. Break up both consulting work and internal startup work into manageable chunks. That way you can mix both together in a day.
  2. In true GTD style, write down what you need to accomplish before you start your day. It’s at that planning stage where you can put thought into how you want to balance your day.
  3. Don’t check email so often.
  4. Hire other people to work with you. Task one of you with with client work, and the other with internal product.
  5. Keep track of your financials. How much consulting work do you actually need to take in this month?

What I’ve seen other people do

  • Block off a certain part of the week/day for client work, and part that’s just for startup work. Don’t even think about picking up the phone, or having a meeting
  • As your team grows, you can have people focused entirely on internal projects, that will never touch client work.
  • Magically find a product idea that your clients can pay you to build, and be your first customer :-)

Don’t get me wrong, I love me clients. But we all know that consulting for an entrepreneur has to be treated as a means to an end.



Coder & Founder. Co-Founder & CEO of Contactually. Organizer of DC Tech Meetup & ProudlyMadeInDC. Always in search of the best breakfast burrito.


6 thoughts on “The Perils of Bootstrapping via Consulting

  1. If you’re doing consulting to buy time to do your own product development, then the question stands, are you really dedicated to your consulting work?

    Consulting is not as easy as it looks and it takes dedication that I think some “startup” entrepreneurs just don’t have the chops for.

    It is not easy to work in service for others as it is, and if you’re thinking about your own projects over your clients, then really how good of a consultant are ya?

    The reverse is true too, if you’re dedicated to consulting and you’re trying to pull a product out, how good is your product going to be when you’re haphazardly investing your free time in between everything else?

    In that case, maybe you should go for the investment partnerships that can free you to dedicate yourself to the product development and leave the consulting to someone else that’s 100% focused on growing a service business.


  2. @Ernesto –
    Great point! As I was making the decision to continue consulting while bootstrapping a product, I thought about the same thing. I absolutely do not treat my clients as second tier, and that’s a very important distinction. I never question when a client priority pops up, an emergency call comes in, or anything like that. Never miss a deadline, yada yada.

    You’re completely right, and that’s a point I should add. You have to be honest with yourself and your clients about your long term intentions. If it becomes obvious to the clients that they aren’t important to you… get out of the game.

  3. This is a challenge I too face, and it frequently sucks. Like Zvi, I don’t short shrift my clients… but they also don’t require 100% of my time. Sure, spending 100% of my time on my startup would be ideal, but like most I’m not financially independent enough to do so. We work with the resources we have and work to bring more resources to bear.

    Going into this I’ve been blessed w/ years of consulting experience and circles of great clients, so bizdev is minimal and client work manageable. Starting out as a consultant while doing a startup would probably not be wise.

    Good suggestions here Zvi. The three here that I’ve found to be very effective…and simple:

    1) Devote good chunks of time for different projects to receive your undivided attention. It’s too easy to fall into a trap of zipping back and forth and not getting anything accomplished.

    2) turn off email/socmed for longer periods of time… but devote a couple small chunks each day to diving into email/socmed.

    3) GTD… write your to do list every morning over coffee. It’s so simple, yet so damn effective at keeping the mind organized and allowing for focus.

  4. Thanks for the tips.

    I’ve just started my company. Because money is tight, I decided to take on a contracting job for 6 months, and weekend warrior the start up. Its going to be hard, but I’ve got to try.

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