At the end of 2022, Mainsail Partners surveyed hundreds of bootstrapped founders to capture their sentiments regarding their businesses as well as broader economic trends. At that time, the macroeconomic outlook was uncertain at best. Bootstrapped founders were operating their companies amidst a declining stock market, interest rate increases, tech industry layoffs, speculation about a prolonged recession and a continuing war in Ukraine. Many of these dynamics have continued in early 2023.
Not surprisingly given this backdrop, founder sentiment regarding the U.S. economy is at an all-time low with nearly 50% believing the economy will be worse in 2023 and only 20% believing it will be better. This represents the highest negative sentiment in the 12 years Mainsail has been conducting this survey.
At the same time, this year’s survey highlighted the resilience of these founders, with the majority suggesting they will be offensive and invest to take advantage of weakened competition and market conditions.
Areas of Investment
Product development remains a top priority — a lasting Bootstrapped Survey trend.
In the 12 years Mainsail has been conducting the Bootstrapped Survey, three areas of investment have consistently been the top priorities, regardless of shifts in broader economic sentiment: Product Development, Sales, and Marketing. Product has been the top priority in 10 of the last 12 years.
Going into 2023, that trend continues. Product Development remains the #1 area of investment with 56% planning to invest in it (down from 61% last year). This is followed by Marketing/PR (46%) and Sales Staff (45%). Despite being down, product development increased in prioritization on a relative basis. The increased importance of product-led growth may be driving this increased investment in product development relative to sales and marketing — a trend that Mainsail has seen across its portfolio.
What are your most important areas of investment?
(2022 vs. 2021)
Staying Focused on Growth
A growth mindset still reigns among bootstrapped entrepreneurs.
There are numerous data points that indicate technology company investors and buyers are no longer valuing growth the way they have over the past decade and are instead emphasizing profitability. While this year’s survey results show that 44% of respondents are still focused on growth over profitability, this is down from 53% when we asked the same question just two years ago. This indicates that the “growth at all costs” mindset is dimming as companies seek to strike a balance.
STRATEGIES FOR CONTINUED GROWTH
To drive growth during periods of economic uncertainty, founders highlighted Organic Growth Channels (30%), Product Led Growth (26%) and Prioritizing Cross-Sell and Upsell into their Customer Base (26%) as the top three strategies they would pursue. Increasing Customer Retention (22%), Tightening Selling Focus on the Ideal Customer Profile (21%) and Optimizing Pricing and Packaging (20%) also ranked high.
What are your top 3 strategies for continued growth during economic uncertainty?
OPTIMIZING PRICING TO SUPPORT GROWTH
Pricing has always been an important lever for growth for software companies, but in recent years, there has been more effort invested into optimizing pricing models to capture more value from customers. Companies are also updating pricing more frequently.
In this year’s survey, 67% of companies said they increased prices or made changes to their pricing model within the last year, and 53% said they intended to do so in 2023. By comparison, in 2019 when we asked founders a similar question, “Are you planning to raise prices of existing products in the coming year?” only 33% responded “Definitely.” A combination of evolving pricing models and inflation driving up costs are likely contributing to the increased focus on pricing optimization.
When was the last time you raised prices or changed your pricing model to capture more value from customers?
Do you plan on increasing prices or changing your pricing model to capture more value from customers in 2023?
What best describes your pricing model? (select all that apply)
Preparing for Uncertainty
Most companies are planning to take advantage of the uncertainty in the market.
Given the general uncertain outlook on the economy, Mainsail Partners asked companies how they were preparing for 2023. Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of respondents (59%) indicated they are planning to invest offensively to take advantage of the market opportunity while only 16% are managing or reducing costs to prepare for softening demand. The remaining quarter of respondents said they would not change their approach despite the uncertainty.
For companies stating they would invest offensively, the biggest areas of planned investment are Sales and Marketing (87%) and Striking New Partnerships (51%); Investments in R&D / Developing More Products was close behind at 48%.
59% plan to invest offensively in 2023
Where will you invest offensively in 2023?
16% plan to manage or reduce costs
Top 5 cost-reduction measures for 2023
Bottom 5 cost-reduction measures for 2023
Top Macro Factors Expected to Impact Businesses
This year, Mainsail wanted to better understand how founders were expecting macro dynamics to impact their businesses. Inflation (43%), Managing Remote Workforces (24%) and Rising Interest Rates (16%) all topped the list of macro factors that founders expected to impact their businesses.
What do you expect to have the biggest impact on your business in 2023?
Areas of Concern
“Lack of Capital” catapulted to the top of the list of challenges founders expect to impact growth in 2023.
This year’s survey saw some of the most dramatic one-year shifts when it comes to the challenges founders are expecting for growing their business in the coming year.
At the top of the list of challenges founders expect is “Lack of Capital”, which was cited as a top challenge by 42% of founders this year, up from 23% last year. The shift is likely driven by rising interest rates and fluctuating technology company valuations.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Finding Good People to Hire” declined as a concern, dropping from 63% of respondents last year to an all-time low of 37%. While Customer Retention increased as a concern (12% from 8% last year), it remained surprisingly low on the list of expected challenges given the uncertainty founders highlighted throughout the survey.
What do you expect to be the biggest challenge(s) for growing your business? (2022 vs 2021)
What do you expect to be the biggest challenge(s) for growing your business? (2015 – 2022)
More About the Survey and Respondents
This year’s Bootstrapped Survey highlighted the ways in which uncertainty is impacting the founder journey. The results showed companies shifting internal investment priorities, increasing emphasis on profitability, and focusing on pricing model optimization — all of which mark a shift in previous trends for bootstrapped founders participating in the survey. And still, the resilience and creativity of these founders remain a constant.
Do you expect the U.S. economy to be better or worse next year?
Founders, who are typically optimistic about their own businesses, were also less confident than usual, with only 60% believing their business will grow faster next year. While this represents the majority of respondents, it is a considerably smaller majority when compared to prior years’ average of 74% of founders expecting to grow faster in the coming year.
How do you expect your business to grow next year?
Additionally, the percentage of respondents planning to hire in 2023 was 51%, down from 68% a year ago, highlighting the impact of dramatic changes in the labor market in the past 12 months.
In short, uncertainty reigned as we headed into 2023.
Will you hire more or fewer people than last year?
ABOUT THIS SURVEY AND ITS RESPONDENTS
The survey was conducted in December 2022 and resulted in a total of 215 responses. This is the 12th annual Mainsail Bootstrapped Sentiment Survey and is intended to help us continue to understand the needs and perspectives of companies that Mainsail invests in and helps to grow. The survey was conducted via an online survey sent to software entrepreneurs and senior executives at U.S.-based companies. For the purposes of this survey, “bootstrapped companies” are defined as businesses which have taken no previous capital from venture capital firms, or other institutional investors. Qualification as a bootstrapped company was verified through a qualifying question.