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Fatima Zaidi, founder and CEO of Toronto-based podcast agency Quill, opted to bootstrap her business instead of seeking VC funding.Tijana Martin

Fatima Zaidi knew she had a smart business idea when she decided to launch a company that produced and hosted podcasts for well-known brands. She had been a fan of the ultra-popular podcast Serial in 2014 and recognized how powerful it was to be able to reach an audience while they were cleaning the house or doing the dishes.

Ms. Zaidi, who came to Canada from Oman to attend school, had worked in marketing at Toronto’s Eighty-Eight agency as VP of business development, specializing in developing campaigns for Fortune 500 companies.

“While I was there, I started noticing a huge influx [in] audio media. I thought it was such a unique way for brands to reach audiences,” she says.

Ms. Zaidi decided to leave her job and launch podcast agency Quill with an aim to develop, produce and grow podcasts for corporate clients. However, she didn’t fully recognize the challenges she would face coming up with the funding to launch a tech company as a BIPOC woman.

She spoke to numerous investors but found that they, perhaps subconsciously, had preconceived notions about what constitutes a successful entrepreneur. When she met with them, she felt she was filling a diversity quota, “or I was diluting the opportunity for someone who looked more the part, a Silicon Valley [type] who fit the portfolio.”

So, she bootstrapped Quill instead, using personal savings and building the company from the ground up with $10,000. Despite launching just as the pandemic hit, the company grew exponentially. Since landing their second client, RBC, they haven’t looked back. Ms. Zaidi went on to launch CoHost, a podcasting analytics company in 2022.

Ms. Zaidi says that although she didn’t have much of a choice, she’s glad she went the bootstrapping route. While many of her fellow female tech founders spent large amounts of time pitching to investors and VCs, she spent that time pitching customers so the company could be capital positive from the start. Plus, she retained complete autonomy as a CEO.

Bootstrapping can mean that companies grow more slowly, but that worked for her, Ms. Zaidi says.

“You do have to get scrappy and you make less money, but being cash flow positive from day one allows you to recognize right away if the market is responding the way you had [anticipated],” she says. “You have to prioritize how you are going to spend your limited funds.”

Opening doors for women founders

Women founders face difficulty accessing venture capital, with female-owned businesses in Canada receiving only four per cent of venture capital (VC) funding available and 2.8 per cent globally.

Cherry Rose Tan, entrepreneur in residence at York University’s Schulich School of Business, notes that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in the tech industry usually involve events and conference programming.

“However, just because organizations are busy with DEI activities does not mean those activities make a meaningful difference in the lives of women founders, who are often worried about the survival of their startup,” she says.

Despite the current economic climate, there is some positive news when it comes to equity in tech. One in four leadership positions at large global tech firms are expected to be held by women this year. What will help create real transformation, says Ms. Tan, is “calling people forward” in the industry.

“Calling people forward is an intentional use of language instead of calling people out, where the latter is focused on blame,” she says. “Calling people forward means all of us in the industry – women and our allies, which includes men – doing our part to help open doors for women founders.”

Ms. Tan says that means leaders in power making introductions, advising and investing in women founders.

“The more successful you are in your career, the more opportunities and influence you have available [to] remove those barriers.”

Learning to manage cash flow and shift gears quickly

Toronto founder Sarah Stockdale bootstrapped her company Growclass, a series of online marketing courses taught by experts. She says that engaging an accounting firm on retainer can be helpful when launching a business.

“I wanted to make sure we were always being careful and smart with our money, and I had people I could go to who were in the business with me who could give me advice every month,” says Ms. Stockdale, host of The Growth Effect podcast.

A huge part of bootstrapping is managing cash flow and ensuring you are spending intentionally on things like marketing, Ms. Stockdale notes. For example, she launched her business with a partner and took a long time to add just two more employees, she says.

Another key is being able to shift gears quickly. Growclass was tested with in-person classes, with a plan to move to online classes gradually. However, Ms. Stockdale launched the company right around the beginning of the pandemic and quickly realized they needed to shift to 100 per cent online classes quickly.

Bootstrapping can mean “being incredibly experimental and trying things out in a very lean way, and if you are wrong, changing direction really quickly,” she says.

Seeking money that is available to you as a tech founder is also key, says Ms. Zaidi. Part of her team’s “scrappiness” was applying for every grant, pitch competition and hiring subsidy they could find, some of which included The National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) and support from Futurpreneur and CanExport.

“In the early days, this amounted to a few hundred thousand dollars which really kept our runway going and allowed us to keep growing,” she says. “This country will give business owners an incredible opportunity to bootstrap, you just have to be willing to put in the hard work and time.”

Ms. Zaidi notes that founders who bootstrap need to be comfortable making less money than they are accustomed to, at least in the beginning.

“In my case, I walked away from a six-figure salary and went to making no salary for the first one-and-a-half years of Quill’s existence, which was very difficult.”

While the bootstrapping journey can be challenging, Ms. Zaidi says she is heartened to see more women and BIPOC founders taking credit and promoting themselves.

“I always say to women, ‘Advocate for yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you.’”

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