Tracy Osborn

loves to chat about entrepreneurship, teaching, design, development, and more.

Allegory on bootstrapping

A long while ago I decided to build a train for fun. I didn’t know how to build a train, so I learned a tiny bit about trains and then I got down to it. I built a very very basic train that was inefficient and slow. But it went forward, and it was steady, so it was good enough.

As I learned more about trains, I updated mine: improvements to make it run a bit faster, more comfortably, and smoothly. I built an extremely basic car for paying customers. A very small number of passengers actually used the paying car, but it was enough since my train was small and didn’t take much money or time to run.

Others built trains around the same time I did. They raised a lot of money and built monumental train stations befitting their unending chains of glamorous carts. Shiny exteriors with soft leather seats, sliding with a whisper on perfect rails, fueled with the purest combustion.

They heralded their launches with press and gained a lot of attention. Immediately crowds swarmed to ‘Ooo’ and ‘Aah’ at the achievements, puzzled at how this could possibly be done in just one night.

A few of these trains went very far. Most of these trains were so ambitious that they quickly ran out of money once the excitement wore off and had to dismantle. Industrial giants absorbed some of the losses in exchange for parts, but most just wanted the conductors and engineers who could be repurposed to work on ovens and refrigerators.

I was given a small catalyst of capital to improve my train, with the promise of raising more money like the others. Foolishly, I hired workers for my train to improve it—a full-time worker on the engines to make it go faster, and another to make the train better for more types of customers. The train went faster, but not enough, and the money ran out. The workers needed to be laid off, and it was back to just me and my train.

Some would have dismantled their trains at this point and moved onto another hobby, but I couldn’t as long as my train was still moving people to and fro. So few, compared to other established trains. Not as swiftly, as some of the surviving new trains. But still, my train chugged along.

Improvements kept making my train more efficient. Better signage and ramps to bring more customers on my train. Better paying cars with more necessities and luxuries. More efficient engines to require less of the expensive fuel. Now the train runs better and farther without adding extra workers or increasing the amount of time I have to work on it.

Mind you, the train is still far from catching up to the established networks, and new trains continue to appear overnight who promise to go oh so very fast. But the new trains often disappear just as quickly, while the industrial giants move slowly with so much mass that changing tracks seems impossible. My humble train is small, but it’s running a little faster every day and keeps bringing more people to where they need to go.

I’m content to be on the slow and steady train.

Posted on September 18, 2013