How I Bootstrapped my Startup’s Launch Party for under $200

At GiftOn, my team and I are building an online community and gift inspiration source that collects and curates real-life gift stories. We organize stories by circumstance, such as I-Just-Met-You gift stories and stories about Gifts for Parents who Already have Everything.

Earlier this month, we threw a soft launch party to celebrate our pilot community members who, as a whole, gave us feedback that an in-person event could most efficiently address. I’ve read that startups can expect to spend upwards of $3,000 on a launch party. We threw one for 60–80 guests with food, drinks, and even a photo booth — all for just $170.23. Here’s how:

Food: $0.00

60–80 appetizers & meals

The New York Times recently dubbed Chicago an ecosystem where startups help other startups. This is especially true for teams that are willing to ask for help. About a month before our party, we reached out to local food entrepreneurs to ask if they would be interested in sponsoring our party. I was honored, humbled, and completely blown away when not one, not two, but three said yes. I am eternally grateful to Eat Purely for providing each guest with a delicious (and healthy!) full dinner, Cooked Chicago for providing everyone with awesome quinoa appetizers, and Goddess & Grocer for providing tasty veggie snacks.

Booze: $45.78

150 wine servings

What’s a launch party without booze? We made sure that guests at our party could drink for free. As a bootstrapped, unfunded, and pre-revenue startup, we weren’t in a position to offer a professionally stocked and staffed open bar. This was no problem, thanks to the steep discounts at Binny’s! My local branch had Barefoot wine on sale for $4 per bottle along with a super-sale on 1.5L bottles of Foxhorn Shiraz for $3. In total, we spent about $70 for 6 gallons of wine. A GiftOn angel further offset our cost by reimbursing us for 6 bottles of wine. We didn’t have the world’s fanciest alcohol selection at our party, but our guests had a great time anyway.

In retrospect, I should have picked up a few more bottles. We came this close to committing the ultimate party foul of running out of booze. Though we still had an untouched bottle at the end of the night, I think next time I’ll plan for more of a buffer.

Space: $0.00

More than enough

Brad’s Deals, the Chicago-based company that’s helped shoppers save hundreds of millions of dollars since 2001, recently launched an in-house tech startup accelerator. We are honored to be one of three startups accepted into their first cohort. They lent us their beautiful, and extremely large, common area in their downtown Chicago office for our party.

When the folks at Brad’s Deals were searching for office space, they chose a location with a huge event space on purpose so that they could offer it not only to companies they’re accelerating, but also to the community at large. With an ecosystem like this, where it’s become a norm for successful post-startups to lift up new and scrappy startups, it’s easy to see how Chicago’s become one of the best cities to start a new business.

Party Fun & Games

Photo Booth: $8.65

We had a photo booth at our party. Aren’t we trendy? Ours was DIY. It was just as much fun as the real deal and cost less than $9. We made a backdrop out of tablecloths (by the way, the instructions we followed called for rope — we didn’t have any, so we borrowed an Ethernet cable), we made photo booth frames out of cardboard, and we made branded props out of cardboard and bamboo BBQ skewers. Combine all that with a pool of miscellaneous on-hand party props like hats and glasses plus a friend with an SLR camera, and you’ve got yourself an awesome photo booth!

Photo Booth Setup (plus Ethernet cable rope!)

Party Games & Signage: $40.21

Who doesn’t love games and prizes? To add to the fun, we gave everyone at our party a clothespin to play a version of “Taboo.” All night, it was taboo to say the word “gift” (our startup’s name, GiftOn, was the only exception to the rule). When guests caught each other saying the taboo word, they could steal a clothespin. A prize went out at the end of the night to the person who collected the most clothespins. We also had a “Suggest-A-Theme” board (the conversations in our online community are theme-based), a “Story Corps-ner”, and a “Gift ’n’ Gab” game where guests could win extra clothespins. Thanks to some strategic price shopping across Amazon and Staples, the materials and DIY signage for these games cost us only around $40, including tax and expedited shipping.

Price breakout for our Party Fun & Games

Prizes: $23.43

3 Lemon Sugar Hand Scrubs

At the end of the party, we gave out three prizes: one to reward the person who collected the most clothespins (see above), one to a lucky new follower on Twitter, and one to a lucky guest who followed the instructions to RSVP via Eventbrite. The hand scrubs we gave out were inspired by a gift story one of our users shared in our online community. We made the hand scrubs ourselves and printed the story details onto custom tags. The lemons, sugar, coconut oil, and mason jars required to triple this recipe cost less than $25.

DIY lemon scrub prizes that make hands feel reborn!

Miscellaneous Party Setup & Signage: $52.16

The largest chunk of our expenses was made up of the miscellaneous things we needed to put everything together: tape, glue, name tags, fancy plastic cups, forks, soft drinks, and parking for team members who made a special trip into downtown Chicago to help run the event. Strategic sale shopping plus some creativity (there’s no need to buy those plastic sign sleeves when you have extra cardboard on hand!) kept our costs reasonable.

Misc. Expense Breakout & Creative DIY Signage

Why Throw a Party?

Hard dollar amounts aside, putting on this event took so much time. The endless hours my team and I spent reaching out to potential sponsors, promoting the event, and planning the party were all hours that we could have spent coding, running UX tests, and engaging with our growing online community.

Not every startup should throw a launch party. We threw our soft launch party because we received user feedback that only an in-person event could efficiently address. At GiftOn, we’re cultivating an online-community around sharing real-life gift stories. Over the past few months, our existing pilot community members gave us feedback about the various barriers preventing them from sharing gift stories in our online community. We threw a party for them, so that afterwards they would be more active online.

The next time our Chicago-based community members share stories online, they will have an idea of who’s reading them, because they’ve met each other face-to-face. We also gave our members the chance to verbally share gift stories they had been wanting to share online, but were either too pressed for time to write down or had difficulty writing (p.s. we have editors that verbally beautify all stories contributed to GiftOn). Finally, our party gave us the opportunity to share in person both long and short gift stories about everything from generic gifts to one-of-a-kind gifts, proving to our users that we value all gift stories shared in our community.

A common goal for throwing a launch party is to grow an early user base, but that’s not always a goal that’s easily achieved in a party setting. Parties tend to attract mixed crowds where not everyone necessarily identifies with a startup’s target user profile. Instead, let’s throw parties for existing user bases, no matter how small, with the goal of cultivating super-users and brand ambassadors.

About GiftOn

GiftOn is an online community and gift inspiration source that answers the question, what did other people give? Join our exclusive pre-launch Let’s GiftOn Facebook group to get first access to gift idea inspiration from people’s real-life stories about everything from silly Shark Tank sponges to surprise magicians. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.