On Bootstrapping

On Friday, Dave Winer released a terrific thought-piece-of-a-podcast on how journalists need to learn about bootstraps. In his most recent podcast with NYU's Jay Rosen, he and Jay discussed the topic, as well, but I want to focus on bootstrapping, the metaphor.

bootstrapDave offered the well-worn phrase "haul yourself up by your bootstraps" as the mental image we should have when we use the bootstrapping metaphor. Imagine that you're wearing your boots, you grab your bootstraps and pull on them. Well, the best outcome I can imagine is that you'd fail to accomplish anything. If you could accomplish anything, I think all you'd do is pull your feet out from under yourself. But the phrase is supposed to connote (I think) strength by self-determination and self-motivation. That's why MBA-types say they're going to "bootstrap" their start-ups when what they really mean is that their start-ups will be self-funded at the outset.

But I recall learning that before bootstraps became merely decorative, they actually served a useful purpose: namely, to strap your boots to the top of heavy items so you could carry them. Maybe it's apocryphal, but here's MY mental image of bootstrapping: a person on a horse, laden with a pack on its rump, and a heavy wooden storage box strapped to each of the rider's boots.

And that more closely matches what bootstrapping means to me: taking advantage of what's already up-and-running and using that existing momentum to get something else moving.