Special Contributor to Silicon Hills News
Bijoy Goswami has a strange role in Austin startups.
With his wild mop of hair and ubiquitous jeans and t-shirt, the bootstrapping guru has a rock star quality to him. He’s written a book used by Leadership Austin and made a movie. He’s known for his mental models of how the universe works. He incorporates his spiritual journey into everything he does and has officiated at the weddings of four of his friends as a member of the Universal Life Church.
People are usually inspired by his message and dazzling intellectual display, though some are disgruntled that among all the talk of journeys and anecdotes of successful bootstrapping was no concrete, five-point plan.
But Goswami isn’t about the five-point plan. He’s passionate about the bootstrap method of starting a business as a road to enlightenment. Greatly condensed, his bootstrap message is:
“I don’t know what your resources are. I don’t know what your idea is or who your customers are. I don’t know what obstacles you’re facing. But if you want to be an entrepreneur, you don’t have to wait for somebody to give you a lot of money. You can look for the right person to embark on the entrepreneurial adventure with you, build something with the resources you have, tweak it until customers are willing to buy it and begin the sometimes painful, arduous but exciting journey of birthing a business. Along the way, you will find answers, work out problems, experience emotions, grow immensely and discover yourself.”
Of course, when he says it, there’s a fugue involved, and Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, James Madison the fourth President of the United States, Apple’s Steve Wozniak and Southwest Airlines, just for starters. When he says it, many people leave feeling as if their struggles and fears are just part of the progression of something brave and exciting.
At the same time, Goswami doesn’t just pump people up with empty expectations. These days, he says, we’re moving into a period of “Entrepreneur Porn.”
“It’s like ‘I’m so cool, I’m an entrepreneur,’” he says, sucking in his cheeks and raising an eyebrow for effect. “But the truth is it’s hard fucking work. It’s a lifelong thing. And it’s even harder because most of the stories that are told are wrong. People are seduced by the story of entrepreneurship but entrepreneurship will destroy you. It will break you down. It will get you in touch with your false ego. You’re going to be transformed.”
Goswami was formally introduced to bootstrapping in the 1990s while a student at Stanford. But he was informally introduced to it long before.
He was born in Bangalore, Southern India, to a Hindu father and a Catholic mother, a duality he said set up a theme for his life. When he was in 4th grade, his parents moved to Taipei, Taiwan. He attended Catholic schools, then American schools–his mother’s idea. To afford it, she became a teacher at the school. His parents, he said, have always embraced the idea of adventure and possibility—from their intermarriage, to leaving India for Taipei, then Taipei for Hong Kong International School.
“My parents are fellow travelers on a journey… they travel all the time. Their life has been about an opening up of possibility rather than a closing down. That’s a great gift they gave us. From (my mother’s) perspective, Taiwanese schools were more rigid. They were about a stifling of creativity. She wanted her boys to get an American education. “
Goswami attended high school in Hong Kong where he met his “partner in crime” Desmond Chu, with whom he began bootstrapping. They’d get a shipment of Korean shoes and sell it to friends.
“Des was a total entrepreneur and we were living in the most free market in the world,” Goswami said. “I think that’s when I got the first inkling of the ‘Power of Two’” another model that explains the exponential growth in potential when you have two people working on the same goal. In school, Goswami served as president of the class, then president of the school, always with Chu as vice president.
From Hong Kong, he went to Stanford in the Silicon Valley when it was just emerging as the Silicon Valley.
That’s where he fell in love with bootstrapping as a path. By the time he’d arrived, venture capital had become the dominant story. But he would go out of his way to hear Scott Cook talk about the Valley’s bootstrapping history, including his own company, Intuit.
“They couldn’t get funding, so they didn’t get funding. They had to figure out how to make it work. For a while they sold printing paper for checks to survive. There was just something about that that resonated with me.”
When he finished school, he needed a sponsor to stay in the U.S. and found one with Trilogy, a company that had been bootstrapped by some people from Stanford. But they needed to send him to a town he’d never heard of called Austin, Texas.
“Austin is the city of self discovery,” he said. “It’s all about letting go of what you were holding on to before and picking up new things. No one judges you here. It’s like, ‘I can love yoga and do two-stepping?’”
The rest of his story is a merging of many things. First, his spirituality.
By the time he was 20, he was an agnostic if not an atheist, which meant “a separation from my mother on the one issue that mattered to her.” This was the beginning of a model he constructed about the way people live. First, they receive ideas about the world from the external—parents, school, a mentor, an employer. Some people stop there.
Others wind up releasing everything they’ve been taught. Laying it all down, deconstructing it. That’s the next phase.
Finally you begin to build a new idea for yourself and of yourself, incorporating as you choose, bits from your past. This could go on forever.
Bootstrapping, especially in Austin, is the same process, Bijoy said. You separate from the security of someone else’s ideas and funds and build something based on your passion, using your own ability to navigate the questions and the issues.
Austin is the best place to do that because it invites people to create not for money or power—both of which are iffy when you start a business—but for the joy of creating a business. For the journey and what you learn from it.
When you’re looking for venture capital, he said, the question is “are you going to build the next big thing?” But in bootstrapping, especially in Austin, it’s “Did you express the thing you wanted to express?”
“It’s not about getting rich…. for bootstraps, getting rich is incidental to getting to do what you’re passionate about.”
Goswami left Trilogy and started his own company, Aviri, but it didn’t take off. A half a million dollars was spent and his cofounder left. So he carried on for awhile on his own, bootstrapping, in that phase of spiritual development like Gotama Buddha when he goes to the forest. No money, no food. The hard part of enlightenment.
He kept it going for awhile and found that other people who were bootstrapping companies kept asking him to have coffee, lunch, breakfast, to talk about their challenges, discoveries and anxieties about bootstrapping. It was then that he started Bootstrap Austin. He thought it would be one meeting. It turned into a regular meetup group.
And he met…everyone.
“He is so well networked,” said Bjorn Billhardt, CEO of Enspire which was a new company with three or four people when Billhardt met Goswami. The two became fast friends and Goswami officiated at Billhardt’s wedding. “He is like the glue that pulls people together. I would say a vast network of my professional friends came through connections initially made by Bijoy. Professional recruiters charge an arm and a leg for just one connection….”
But it wasn’t only his connections that made a difference. It was the bootstrap mental model.
“I was thinking about seeking funding when I met Bijoy and he changed the way I thought about it,” said Billhardt, whose company has grown to more than 50 employees with an office in Berlin and global fortune 500 companies as clients. “It wouldn’t have been possible without Bijoy,” he said. “He lets you just talk it out and that is what a lot of entrepreneurs need. That’s one thing a lot of VC companies provide and professional coaches charge $400 an hour for. Bijoy does a lot of that work for free. He gave me advice to release a product even if it has bugs in it. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas…a lot of entrepreneurs are terribly afraid to do that. But then, Bijoy points out, if you keep a product under wraps, people don’t know about it and they don’t join your company.”
A lot of the work Goswami does—such as helping with RISE—he does for free. He does have a few clients, including Leadership Austin who use his book “The Human Fabric” with each new class of Austin leaders. The book, written with David Wolpert, focuses on identifying your ‘core energy’ and how you can use it to build something—a business or a community. Goswami also leads groups with Leadership Austin and is a cofounder with the organization’s CEO Heather McKissick, of the Austin Equation Initiative which was created to answer the question “What Makes Austin, Austin?”
“Running a small nonprofit is often like bootstrapping a startup,” McKissick said. “Bijoy’s expertise helps us understand how to do that well. In a down fundraising environment, it’s very helpful to have his unique skills and advice.”
He is everywhere. And he knows everyone. But if you ask him what his goal in life is, he’ll tell you, “It’s learning to Be Joy.”
And that’s a whole other story.