Our shop is 2 technical founders and a business guy. We don't have a bit of design talent between us but we have bootstrap! Our software is a utility for viewing and codifying large sets of data.
Anyone who tells you that the branding and design isn't important is smoking meth.
Your brand is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT things related to your company and product. It is the firs thing someone sees and it is your FIRST impression. Because of that, your prospects will make a slew of initial judgements based solely on your branding and design. They will decide whether you are reliable or not. They will decide whether you are an authority. They will decide whether you are honest and telling the truth about your skills.
If you are trying to position yourself as an authority (I hope you are), do you think that having a website that, hypothetically, looks like it was made by a 10 year old will help or hurt?
How many times have you gone to a company's site, or looked at their brochure, etc. and laughed and IMMEDIATELY discounted them as being full of cr*p? I'm sure you can remember doing that-- we all have.
It's the equivalent of me setting up a meeting with a new client after they have heard about all my awards and walking in dressed in a windbreaker from the 90s, a torn up (and not in a good way) pair of jeans, and with dirt all over my face.
You know what they'd do? Pretend they weren't in.
The same goes for you. Your marketing is an INVESTMENT, not an expense. You are investing in your company and hoping to build an empire for yourself.
You know what separates McDonalds from the local burger joint? It isn't their great food-- the local place is leagues better. It is marketing-- that is why McDonalds is worth BILLIONS and the burger joint is about to shut down.
McDonalds treats marketing as an investment. The burger joint treats it like an expense.
Who ends up losing more money?
You can either pay 10 bucks and make back 100, or "save money" to pay 5 and end up making nothing.
Cut costs on things that don't matter-- not on your marketing.
If you are ok dealing with my slightly abrasive, no-BS attitude, you're welcome to set up a 10 minute call with me so I can tell you exactly what you need to do to build an empire. You can't get better advice than from a Forbes-listed marketer of the year.
Lee, Ali, and Daniel have it right. These days, your branding is part-and-parcel with the perceived quality of your whole outfit, and for that reason, I think great design is a non-negotiable.
But if you're bootstrapping, then you must face the very real concern of budget constraints. The blanket doesn't stretch.
So perhaps the real question is how to get great design without gutting your bank account?
If I were in your shoes, I'd start with a 99Designs contest: http://99designs.com/how-it-works. That way, you're forced to write a design brief, and you can see a variety of different color palettes, typeface/mark combinations, and even interesting examples of lateral thinking based on the connections that each designer was forced to make between your words and the visual representation of your brand.
From there, I'd take the results of the contest and either do a few Clarity calls with branding experts to get their feedback or reach out to a couple of top-notch designers you already know.
Then I'd add all of the designs to your creative brief, pick a winner, pay that person, and either hire him or her to finish or go explore Dribbble or your own network.
Spend as much money as you reasonably can on the best designer you can afford. You won't regret it.
Key takeaway: great design sharpens how you think about your own product.
As soon as you can reasonably afford it ( if you can't pay, go get another cofounder ). The web has evolved from simply working to working seamlessly. Consumers expect a certain level of aesthetic and usability.
Design is one more element of your product, just like solving a real problem and doing what it's supposed to do.
I would prioritize a designer as much as an engineer. I have seen a huge difference I product adoption when the product is complemented with visually pleasing aesthetic and good usability principles.
All good points from Austin, Ali, Daniel and Lee, and I agree: branding is one of the most important elements of your business, even (especially) as a startup. Investing in it is simply a requirement, like getting a bank account.
But, that investment doesn't necessarily have to take a form of cold cash. Bringing on board a design-minded co-founder is an excellent idea brought up already, as with using crowd-sourced design services like 99designs.
Here's another way to think about it: your brand is more than your logo, or even the look and feel of your product. It's not a product or result; it's a process. Invest *your time* on thinking about what makes your product unique, who will be using it and why, and why it excites you guys (among other such questions). The results of your thinking about these questions deeply and having dialogues among you and with your constituencies become the basis of your brand. In fact, without this part of branding "process," whatever look you will come up will surely not be as effective as it can be.
The Brand Gap and Zag, by Marty Neumeier, are the two books I recommend every business owner read, regardless of their "design" expertise. There are lots of questions in them that you can ponder for a long time to come, and I am sure it will pay off in the long run.