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The Front Page of Global Fintech

The largest fintech community in the world. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on the latest in news opinions, and all things financial technology.

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Signals: The lost art of “F*ck around and find out”

Signals: The lost art of “F*ck around and find out”

In its first year in 2009, NerdWallet made $75. The second year, that rose to about $60,000. In the first nine months of 2023, the company generated $465.7 million in revenue.

That exponential rise in fortunes was a direct result of those first lean years, when my co-founder Tim Chen and I lived on Subway sandwiches. We couldn’t afford to hire until 2012, almost three years after founding NerdWallet. We didn’t take outside funding until 2015, when we raised $64 million in our Series A.

By then, NerdWallet already had a 200-employee workforce, built on the back of profits from those lean early-year experiments that paid off. Capital wasn’t being used to determine proof of concept, but to scale a business that we already knew had a broad market fit. As noted in the first article in our series, the greatest challenge I see for the current class of aspiring entrepreneurs is dependence on the recent era of easy funding, which fell off a cliff once interest rates began to rise in early 2022. 

While bootstrapping like this won’t be for every company and doesn’t work for every business model, I do believe it’s possible to do a lot more with a lot less than is typically assumed. This is why we started The Mint pre-seed program at Better Tomorrow Ventures (BTV), to help founders raise just enough money to get started and hyper-focus on what matters, with all the resources they need to run those early experiments.

We want to bring back what our friend, Will Quist at Slow, calls the “f*ck around and find out” round. 

Eating what you kill

Some of the greatest losses for entrepreneurs during the recent era of easy funding were the passion, healthy paranoia, and obsession required when your business lives or dies by your own effort. If you don’t build and ship, you don’t eat. That has a deeply clarifying impact on how to prioritize your efforts, when to double down on an idea, and when to cut bait.

When you can feel the clock ticking, how you spend every minute of your day and how many minutes each day you dedicate to the cause become existential questions. Everything you do has to have an impact. You have no choice but to figure out what the right inputs are, and hyperfocus on driving them forward, or you die.

There’s no time for “playing business.” When money was raining from the sky, I saw a lot of early-stage founders waste cycles on things like refactoring code bases, paying for coaches, hiring experienced salespeople, changing their company name, or rebranding. But guess what? If no one’s ever heard of you, no one cares what your name is. 

If you don’t have any revenue, I promise you that moving around some pixels or changing some colors isn’t going to change that. Your codebase doesn’t matter when no one is using your product. You don’t need a coach, you need a therapist. And you don’t need salespeople if no one wants to buy your product anyway.

When you're operating in conditions of scarcity – you don't have time, you don't have bodies, you can’t just throw money at the problem – you have to get really creative and really resourceful. This is what ultimately led to the SEO and content marketing strategies that NerdWallet is famous for. We couldn’t afford to pay for advertising or do any marketing, but we realized that Google could be the largest free billboard in the world if we did it right.