New York City's economy was turbulent in 2009, to say the least: the finance industry was imploding, jobs were being lost by the tens of thousands, consumer confidence was nearing an all-time low and unemployment was at its highest rate in decades. Being somewhat naive to the implications of these macro-level factors on businesses, I chose to forgo my six-figure salary and invest my life savings into a startup idea called Entrepreneur Week.
As a digital media and events company, we had a simple thesis: the economic downturn created opportunities for early-stage entrepreneurs, resulting in a need for actionable, high quality and relevant content—panels, keynotes, roundtables, mentoring sessions, educational resources and networking events—from a trustworthy forum. The more locally targeted the content is, the easier it will be to build an anchored and engaged entrepreneurial ecosystem.
It was a bull’s eye...or so we thought; we neglected to account for the lack of access to capital to scale our vision. We may have had the talent, timing and value proposition, but it still wasn't enough—as far as investors were concerned.
So we bootstrapped Entrepreneur Week, to the tune of at least $350,000, to mitigate the variable marketing and infrastructure costs. We accomplished our goal using three strategies:
Get a Buy-In
The first thing I did as CEO was get a buy-in from the rest of the senior management team that, for one year, none of us would take a salary. If money was an issue for any of us, we’d loan it to one another in the short-term or beg our family and friends. We were all fairly young with no families or mortgage payments to worry about. This decision saved Entrepreneur Week roughly $160,000 its first year.
We developed a multifaceted 90-day action plan that interwove a focused approach to online and offline networking. If we focused on connecting with strategic partners, advisors and mentors, we could create 10:1 leverage with access to in-kind donations of PR and marketing materials, printing, web design, event space and more. This strategy saved Entrepreneur Week over $200,000 our first year.
The toughest decision as a company was when we decided to go virtual for one year—a logistical and communication nightmare. The 15-person team worked remotely; I housed interns on living room couches and managers in spare bedrooms, and held strategy sessions on the patio weekly. It was insane, but a strong team commitment made all the difference, and we saved roughly $65,000 that first year without expenses such as office space, heating, computers, desks, etc.
This is just one example of a framework on how to bootstrap, think outside the box and cut costs. Every situation is different and every CEO faces unique and complex challenges. Entrepreneur Week was first a small idea with a big vision, with forty speakers and six hundred attendees. Today, Entrepreneur Week hosts hundreds of speakers and thousands of attendees around America and launched a global expansion into 25 cities around the world.
Gary Whitehill is the founder of New York Entrepreneur Week (NYEW), The Relentless Foundation and Whitehill International, each of which reflect his entrepreneurial drive and relentless energy. He is also a member of The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC promotes entrepreneurship as a solution to unemployment and underemployment and provides entrepreneurs with access to tools, mentorship, and resources that support each stage of their business’s development and growth.