Aytekin Tank, Founder, JotForm
Slow and Steady Wins
Why Aytekin Tank took his time building JotForm, and how that led to a wildly successful business.
When it comes to building a business, some entrepreneurs put the pedal to the floor. They throw themselves into the project, push for rapid growth above all else, burn through capital, and commit to living or dying by their company’s success.
Aytekin Tank takes his time.
“It took me 10 years , because I didn’t have the courage to start,” Tank says. “But I still had this belief that one day I would start it.”
And he did—gradually. Over the course of a decade, what began as a hobby in college steadily morphed into JotForm, a now-profitable, online form-building service with three offices on two continents (primary locations are San Francisco and Tank’s home country of Turkey). The product features over 100 integrations with the likes of PayPal, Salesforce, and Dropbox, and attracts 3.7 million users, for which JotForm hosts a whopping 12 million forms.
It took him a while to reach that financial success, and he suffered from a lot of uncertainty about his path along the way. But Tank is living proof that, while some might consider it an entrepreneurial weakness, taking the slow and steady approach can yield a rock-solid foundation and long-lasting success.
Biding His Time
As a computer science major in college, Tank joined a student organization and was charged with making its website. One part of that website involved filling out a membership profile, for which Tank single-handedly built the form. He thought it was good enough to share, so he put it online as a free, open-source product.
“People loved it,” he says. It didn’t take long for people to start asking for customizations—and sending Tank checks for his efforts. He saw an opportunity and created a paid version of the product during the winter break of his senior year. People started buying the premium product immediately, but Tank still didn’t feel sure about the validity of his idea.
“Even though I had some sales, I had no confidence,” he says. “I didn’t think that I could be an entrepreneur, that I could start my business. So I still continued to look for a job.”
After graduating, Tank took a job as a developer for an online media company in New York. Even as his own product began to take off, he didn’t think of this work as anything but a side gig. He’d get up early in the morning, work on his business for a few hours, and then at 9 a.m. he’d go to work. In the evenings, he’d continue working on his product and read blogs and books about entrepreneurship.
Tank kept up this routine for five years. “It took me a very long time,” he says. “I’m not a big risk-taker.”
But he finally made his move in 2005, when Tank realized his side business was earning him more than the salary from his full-time job. “I thought, ‘OK, now I am ready. … There’s no risk for me.”
So after half a decade, Tank finally quit his day job. He spent the next six months working on a new product that he hoped would have a larger growth curve than his earlier products. In February 2006, he released the first version of JotForm.
JotForm is fully profitable and doesn’t need to raise funds—which is exactly how Tank likes it.
“I actually prefer growing slowly, so I don’t actually look for any additional funding,” Tank says. “We are already a successful business. … I don’t want to take huge risks.”
While that mindset could be explained, in part, by his own prudence, it’s also strategic when it comes to crafting company culture.
“Slow growth actually allowed me to create this great culture inside my business and to be able to shape the way we work,” he says. “Because we had such slow growth, it allowed me to work together with those people to put my vision into the product and make sure we are doing something that we are proud of.”
Tank is so committed to the notion of slow growth that he doesn’t even think a big infusion of cash early on would have been a good thing for his business. “Let’s say instead of bootstrapping, I had $10 million and hired 100 employees,” he says. “It would be complete chaos.”
He points out that he had zero management experience when he first started JotForm. “I gained all that experience by learning—by making lots of mistakes,” he says. “But because we were small, our mistakes didn’t cost us big. But if I… hired 100 employees from the first stage, I wouldn’t even know how to manage those people. I wouldn’t know how to do it right.”
Building Company Culture
Not only would his management abilities have been compromised by fast growth, Tank says, but so would the team’s culture.
“You cannot create a culture by writing a document,” he says. “Culture is created day by day. What you do in your business, how you develop your product, how you talk to each other within your company, how your teams are working together, what you prioritize…all those things actually turn into a culture, and it takes a very long time to grow that culture. If you had to grow very fast, you would actually lose that culture.”
As things stand, Tank is proud that he’s on friendly terms with every one of his more than 100 employees. “When we hire someone, I will go to lunch with them and I will have this friendship with every employee,” he says. “I like having this warm culture. We have a great work environment, and that’s why people stay with us for a very long time.”
Sharing the Wealth
Tank and his team are able to grow slowly because of shared values in the culture, and because of Tank’s long-term mindset. “We don’t have any intent to sell the company,” he says.
Instead, Tank is all about sharing the wealth. “Even during the first years, I this approach that I wouldn’t hire a new employee if I didn’t have the salary for that employee for an entire year… even today, I do that,” Tank says. “That’s why we grow slowly, but I never had to… lay off, because I had a risk-averse approach.”
In fact, instead of laying off employees, Tank frequently finds himself doling out surprise bonuses for jobs well done. He has a company policy of extending bonuses to all team members whenever the company experiences significant growth.
One Step at a Time
Don’t mistake the JotForm team’s familial culture, or Tank’s judicious approach, for a lack of ambition. Underneath that warm and fuzzy exterior, Tank and his team are wholly committed to forward progress.
“We try to innovate in every way possible,” Tank says. “I think the idea is, always improve yourself.”
That’s a lot easier to do when you’re surrounded by teammates who care about and support you. Relying on Tank’s slow growth philosophy, the team’s incremental improvements have generated huge impacts over the long term. They may grow slowly, but they are always growing.
“My approach is this,” Tank summarizes. “Every day, are we better than yesterday?”
Sidebar: 3 Steps Toward Slow, Sustainable Growth
- Create cross-functional teams. While JotForm employs over 100 people, the company doesn’t operate like one sprawling corporate entity. Instead, team members are grouped into cross-functional, independent teams of about five people each. These teams sit together in a closed-door office and are empowered to make decisions quickly without external approval.
- Prioritize product improvements. “Our priority is to always improve the product,” Tank says. At any given time, he estimates at least 70 people—including developers, data scientists, designers, and project managers—are engaged in product improvements. “Because we want to make sure people are really happy with the product of JotForm, we are always improving ourselves,” he says.
- Interview your customers. Sure, customer surveys can yield valuable insights. But Tank says live interviews are so much better. This year alone, JotForm’s user resource team has conducted more than 50 in-depth interviews with customers. In the process, they discovered that people use JotForm for productivity—even though the company hadn’t intentionally built productivity into its product. So now the team is focused on improving productivity for its users. “Our product is improving so much because of all the learning we have from those interviews,” Tank says.
- How Tank has been able to grow consistently even though he started with zero management experience
- The friendly company culture Tank built and why it has become so successful
- Why Tank believes his slow and steady approach to growth has led to so much success
- Tank’s three steps to slow and sustainable growth
Full Transcript of Podcast with Aytekin Tank
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Aytekin: Oh, that’s a good question. I took me several years to get this job. And my current job is Founder and CEO of JotForm, an online form builder.
And it took me several years because I didn’t have the courage to start my own business, but I still had this belief that one day I would start it. Let’s start from the beginning. When I was in college, and this is 1999, 1998, actually I was part of the student organization and I was making their websites.
And one part of the website was about this, you know, membership and profile within the website. And I thought, “Okay, I created something really good. Why don’t I put up this product as a free product, as an open-source product, online?” And that’s what I did. I did that and people actually started using the product, people loved the product.
And it wasn’t JotForm, it was something else, but it was my first product. And after a while people actually started sending me checks so that I can do customizations for them and I can help them. And I thought, “Okay, this might actually be…you know, I might… Why don’t I just create a paid version of this product? And I’m still in the college, I’m still a student, but, you know, I have so much free time, so why don’t I create a paid version and see if I can sell it?”
And that’s what I did. During my senior winter break, I actually slept during the day and worked on the premium version of my product. And it took me like three weeks and I completed the paid version, I released it, and people started buying it. But, again, even though I had some sales, I had no confidence.
Like, I didn’t think that I could be an entrepreneur, I could start my business. So I still continued to look for a job and I graduated and I found a job and I started working for this online media company in New York City. And I just started working as a developer because I was actually a computer science student.
And I worked there for five years, but during those five years I would actually wake up in the morning, like 6:00 a.m., and I would actually…you know, I would have these questions, presales questions or customer support questions, from my own customers. I would answer those questions for, like, two, three hours or, like, you know, work on my product, improve the SEO of my site, improve the marketing of my website.
And then at 9:00 a.m. I would go to work. And I would work eight hours and I’d come back to home, and then I would continue working on my product. And even though I did that for like five years, I still, you know, never… Like, it took me a very long time.
Like, I’m not a big risk taker, it took me a long time. But it was a great journey because I always believed that one day I would actually start my business and I will become an entrepreneur. And I started reading everything I can find. Like I started reading the blogs and I started reading all the books I can find. Like, my favorite blogs were, like, Joel Spolsky had a blog about how he was starting his business at the time and his experience and what he was learning.
Also, Paul Graham was blogging at that time.
Nathan: Paul Graham, yeah.
Aytekin: He didn’t established the, yeah, Y Combinator yes, but he was actually a blogger at that time. He didn’t have Y Combinator yet. And I would read everything I could find about entrepreneurship. And, like, 2005 I thought, “Okay, now I’m ready. I have this great idea. My side business is actually earning more than my full-time salary, so there’s no risk for me. Even if the new product I’m going to work on, which actually turned out to be JotForm, even if it doesn’t turn out successful, I already have this business that earns more than my full-time salary. So I have no risk.”
So that’s what I did, I quit my job. And I had the same routine, I would wake up at 6:00 a.m. in the mornings and I would answer my customers for the existing products that I had. But here’s the thing, even though they were earning some money, they didn’t have the growth curve. So that’s why I thought, you know, I need to create something bigger.
But I would work on those existing customers, and then instead of going to the office, instead of going to my full-time job, I would actually work on my new product. And that’s what I did, for, like, more than six months I worked on JotForm, and in February 2006 I released the first version of JotForm.
And I guess, yeah, it took me seven years to create this job for myself. I hope it was a good answer about how I got my job.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s amazing, man. See, you know, a lot of people’s common misconception is you need to leave your day job and just go all in and burn all the boats. And that’s actually how I started Foundr, like, same as you, just started it on the side, bootstrapped until I could, you know, pay myself a small salary, like, you know, ramen salary, and then basically just left my job go full-time.
And I realized, you know, as time went on I was actually losing money not working in…you know, on the start-up versus actually, you know, working on it on the side and a day job. And what I’m really curious around is you guys are based in San Fran now, but, like, you have an accent, where are you from?
Aytekin: I am from Turkey. And we actually are headquartered in San Francisco, but we also have offices in Turkey, as well. So basically right now our company, we have like 100 employees, we have 3 offices in 2 continents. And, yeah, from, like, you know, the first year it was all me and…
Nathan: In Turkey?
Aytekin: Actually, I was in New York City when I first started JotForm. But then when I decided, “Okay, I’m going to grow this business,” again, I had this, “Okay, how can I grow this business? It’s just so expensive. Like, if I need to hire someone here, it’s so expensive.” And, you know, people actually work remotely, you know, they hire the workers from, like, Eastern Europe or India.
I thought, you know, “I don’t want to do that, but what I can do is I can go back to Turkey, and then I can actually open my office there so that, you know, I can actually hire people it’s much more cheaply.” And here’s the thing, even today, like, it’s just in San Francisco, like, you’re competing with companies like Facebook, Google, you know, Amazon is not in San Francisco, but, you know, all these companies.
And it’s so hard to…like, as a small company it’s just so harder to find, like, really good talent.
Nathan: Great talent. Yeah.
Aytekin: But countries like Turkey, it’s just now you are like this world-class business and people actually…like, you can actually hire the best developers in the country because you are this world-class. And we do everything, you know, similar to, you know, how Facebook works, it’s just so similar.
And it’s just we are so ahead of the businesses, at least in business in Turkey, so actually we can actually get the best talent. And I think it’s a great approach to have this kind of developing countries, or, like, countries which doesn’t have that huge amount of start-ups.
You have…you can actually reach talent that it’s not possible for you when you are in the U.S.
Nathan: Yeah. I’ve heard though it is difficult if you are not a developer though. Like you come from a development background, it might be difficult. So let’s say at Foundr we want… Like, we’re a media company and we produce, like, entrepreneurial content, but also educational courses.
And let’s say we wanted to launch a SaaS product, right? I think, like, we don’t have any developers in our team. We have a front-end dev, but not a back-end dev, we have no CTO. Like, if I wanted to go out and kind of start developing that SaaS product, like, how…like, I think it would be…personally, I would be intimidated by the process of looking and hiring overseas.
Like we have plenty of people remotely that work at Foundr, but they’re not developers. But, yeah, how do you ensure, like, really good quality and stuff like that if you’re not…you come from a non-technical background?
Aytekin: I think this question, actually, you know, I have seen this question many times. I mentor some start-ups sometimes and some of them are not technical founders. And my biggest advice is if you’re not a developer, even if you are not a developer, sit side by side. Like sit through eight hours together with that developer, and then so that you can actually work through, like, solve the problems.
Basically you would be like a copilot for that developer. But I think it’s important because you have the vision and you have the experience, and that developer has the technical skills. But you cannot just leave…you cannot just write the spec and just give that spec to that person and expect them to do a good job. You have to be inside that development.
Even though you don’t write the code, you should be together with that person and work with that person day in and day out. And, for example, the way I work with designers, even though I was a developer, because I really care about the design of the product and, you know, the usability of the product, user experience, that’s exactly what I did with the designers.
Even though I wasn’t a designer, I would work, like… You know, I wouldn’t watch them work, but I would be so close to them, like we would talk throughout the day. And that’s actually one of the greatest things about bootstrapping because the first year it was only me. Like, the second year I hired my first developer, we were only two people.
So we would actually spend the whole day together, we would go to lunch together, we would talk all day long. And that person, like, my first employee, was learning everything from…everything I know he was learning from me and we were just exchanging these ideas. And then the next year I actually hired another person, so we had three employees…two employees.
And then the next year three employees. And so we…just because we had such a slow growth, it allowed me to actually work together with those people to actually put my vision into product and make sure that we are doing something that we are proud of. Another question is how to find a good developer.
Because you are not coming from the development background, it might be really hard. Okay, once you hire that person, you work all day together and you develop your ideas. But how do you find that right person? Again, this is a question that some of the people I mentor have, that’s why I know that it’s a really important question.
On that point my advice is don’t try to hire it yourself because it’s so hard. Even for me, like even I hire tons of developers, it’s just, I sometimes interview, sometimes I think, like, “This person is such a great developer,” and then I ask that person…like we always ask them to write code.
Like, you know, we give them the tools so they can actually…we give them a laptop and they can…we give them small tasks so that they can actually write code. And once they write code, we can see how good they are. And usually at this point, like, even if that person is a really great salesperson, you know, you think that that person will turn out such a great developer, it doesn’t turn out that way always.
So my advice is, like, find a friend or, like, even…you can even hire someone. Like, find a really good developer. And make sure that, you know, when you interview the developer, that person is with you. And make sure that that person actually asks the candidate to write some code and review that code.
Otherwise it’s just it’s so hard to find. Like it’s not like design, with design you can give them sample task and the output would really impress you, and then you’ll say, “Okay, this is great.” But with code it’s really hard to judge if you are not a developer yourself. So I would definitely recommend, like, hire a consultant or find a friend who will help you. You know, you can do other things for that friend, for them, and then they will help you interview the candidates.
And if you do that, you’ll find a good developer. And once you have that first good developer, everything else is much easier. Because the next time you need to hire a developer, you can always…you know, that person can help you interview them. And once you hire A players, you can continue to hire A players at this stage.
Just make sure that your first hire is really good.
Nathan: So you’re saying if you’re a non-technical founder, you should hire a developer locally, not internationally?
Aytekin: Yeah. I mean for your first developer. I mean we hire…we have remote developers, as well. But…
Nathan: But when getting started.
Aytekin: When you’re… Actually the core product is really important, like, your core product. And in JotForm our core product is created by local developers, like people who sit together in the office together and they discuss ideas and come up with solutions together. But for other things, like, you know, JotForm has like hundreds of integrations with other products.
So we have widgets that you can actually use within your product, within your forms. And those kind of, like, things that can be accomplished remotely, we actually have a remote team that help out with that. But the core product, we make sure that they are done by our teams. And we have this approach that instead of everyone working on different things, we have teams, we have cross-functional teams.
So they can actually make decisions quickly and execute those decisions and they don’t need any resources from outside because if they need design help, they have a designer in the office. And they sit together in an office that has, like, you know, a whiteboard, that has a door that can close. Which allows them to be…really work as a team, really work like a small company. And our core product is created by these product teams.
We currently have like five product teams like that. And they all work independently together, they sit together and come up with solutions and improve our core product.
Nathan: I see. So, but I thought JotForm’s just a form builder or you have other things, as well?
Aytekin: JotForm is actually… You know, a form builder is…it seems like just a form builder is like a small thing, but actually once you have, like, so many users… Like we have 3.7 million users right now, we host 12 million forms on JotForm.
And once you have so many users, it’s actually the requirements also change. And forms, the forms business is kind of similar… It’s just horizontal, it’s not verticals. It’s kind of like, you know, Excel or email or Word, or Microsoft Word. Everybody uses it. If you work in an office, you probably need forms.
You might not know that you need forms, but forms would probably improve your productivity if you use them. And for us… So because of that, we worked on the product… Like our priority is to always improve the product, that’s why we have such a big product. We have like 70, at least 70, people who actually work on improving our product, like developing our product.
It’s not only developers, like, it includes, like, data scientists or you know, designers and, like, product managers. But because we want to make sure that, you know, people are really happy with the product, with JotForm, that we are always improving ourselves. How we accomplish that. We usually have these yearly strategic plans.
And so, for example, two years ago our strategic plan was to improve our form builder. So we actually remade our form builder, completely redone our form builder, design and how it works and everything.
Nathan: How long did that take?
Aytekin: It took actually like one and a half years. Yeah. And last year we decided, “Okay, what if we reinvented forms? What would it take to reinvent forms?” So we worked for a year to actually come up with this new design for forms, we called it JotForm Cards. And our users loved it, it’s, like, one of the most popular features in JotForm right now.
And so we came up with this new form design that’s kind of like one question per page, like, questions look like cards, it’s much larger. So we came up with this innovative way to fill forms and be… What’s great about it, about JotForm Cards, is it just increasing the conversion rates, increases the… They are very friendly, it allows users to fill their forms easily and improve your conversion rates when people fill your forms.
And this year we are actually working on improving the productivity of our users.
Aytekin: We actually have done, like, about more than 50 interviews with our customers. And during those interviews we found out that people actually use JotForm for productivity. JotForm improves the productivity of the users. Because sometimes they can accomplish their task without using forms, but once they use forms just they can save so much time.
For example, let me give you an example. One company that…one product manager that uses JotForm from, like, a security company that we interviewed and he was actually spending so much time, like, trying to communicate with salespeople.
And what he was doing was he would actually…salespeople would get all these custom requirements from the customers, and then they would send it to this product manager and the product manager would come up with answers or prices, the cost estimates, stuff like that. And they would spend so much time and they had all these different kind of products and the products actually had this dependency to each other.
So once he actually started using forms for the salespeople, so instead of salespeople sending him emails, they would fill the forms. But what’s great about this is JotForm has all this, you know, validation, like conditional logic, different kind of features that allow someone to actually make sure the data you received is valid.
So that you’ll save time instead of spending so much time with communication. So he started doing these conditional logics, like, “If you select this product, you have to also select this product.” Even in his form he would actually do some of the estimates. And so he would receive everything he needs in this form exactly as he needs it.
And he would save so much time, and then he would go back to the salesperson with the estimates, with additional, like if they missed something, he would tell them. It saves him so much time and so much headache. So once we saw this after interviewing so many customers, we decided, okay, people use JotForm as a productivity tool, but we are not improving their productivity.
We are just giving them the data, we are not helping them become more productive. So we learned so much from these interviews, “This year how can we improve our features so that people can actually use JotForm more productively and they can save more time?” And so once I decided on this strategy and asked it to our product teams, and we now have five product teams, and we decided on, like, what kind of projects we should have.
Like one of the projects we have is called PDF Designer, so people actually can create these custom PDFs from the data they collect from their forms. And they can completely customize these PDFs, like they can put their logo, they can have multiple columns, stuff like that. And so one of the teams are currently working on this, working on the PDF Designer feature.
So it looks like, you know, we are only doing, like, forms. But once you get into forms, you see that we are…what we are dealing with is productivity. We are dealing with data and productivity of our users. And we want to make sure that they are happy, our customers are happy.
And that’s why we are…you know, we are so much product-oriented today.
Nathan: Yeah, that makes sense. I think it’s just amazing, like, how you can take… Like, it seems like such a simple product, but, like you said, you guys are taking it in so many different directions to keep disrupting the marketplace and staying on the cutting edge. So it sounds like you guys are quite good with customer development, hey?
Aytekin: Yeah. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned during this 12-year journey, like JotForm is a 12-year journey for me. And this is just, you know, listening to customers is really important. And you cannot just listen to your customers by looking at the support questions, you have to be…you have to take charge kind of.
Like you have to actually go to the customers and find out. What we do is, like, we have this user research team, they will actually go to…you know, they will actually visit customers in their offices sometimes. Sometimes they will talk on Skype or phone, but sometimes they will go to their offices. And then they will see how these users use the product and they will interview them for hours.
And then they will actually come back and they will usually create these books every time. Like, once they complete, like, 10 interviews with customers, they will creates these books for our product teams. And they will…once a month the user research team meets with, like, every product team. They will spend a whole day discussing what they learned during those interviews.
And they will give these books to every, you know, employee who are working on the product and they will, you know, open the books and they will look at the first case study. And then look at, you know, one page of the case study is just, you know, describing the person of…describing the exact person who is interviewed and what does that person do and how does…you know, how does he spend his day, or her day.
And the next page is about all these flow charts about how they use JotForm, like, you know, how they create their forms, how they use their data. You know, and they try to find out exactly what people do step… Even if they do stuff outside of JotForm. For example, they will just download their data as an Excel file, and then they will do something else.
They find out what else they do. If they need to create a PDF, for example, from the same example. If they are creating this PDF of an old Word document, then the user research team and product teams, when they discuss, they come up with this idea, “Why don’t we create the PDF Designer?” So that, you know, instead of spending so much time doing it themselves for every new form submission they receive, they could actually use the PDF Designer.
Once they design the PDF Designer, every time they receive a form submission we can actually send that PDF file as an e-mail every time right away. Like as soon as the form submission is received, we can send them a PDF file by e-mail, and then they can use that. You know, usually they will just send a PDF file to other people in their company.
So all these details, you cannot learn them from customer support questions because in customer support, people will not actually tell you that. They will tell you, you know, ideas like, you know, “Can you make it so I can more easily download the Excel?,” or, you know, improve the Excel file. But they will not tell you what else they do outside of your product.
And the only way you’ll learn is by doing interviews with customers, doing usability tests with, like, watching your customers use your product. And we also do lots of usability tests with our users. We also do surveys. But the interviews are really big for us, like they really…
That’s, like… That’s the most effective way to improve your product. The best way to find out how people use your product is by talking to them. And it’s very obvious, but we haven’t done it for many, many years. And we learned once we started interviewing them, we saw, okay, we should have been done this before.
Like, you know, now our product is improving so much because of the…all the learning we have from those interviews.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. So one thing I always find interesting is, I agree, you need to be doing surveys, flat out. I think customer development is very, very key. We’re very, very big proponents of it here at Foundr, as well. But one thing that people always say is, and this is, like, you know, what Steve Jobs says, you know, like, “people don’t always know what they want.”
So, you know, like what they say, like a horse and cart, people would have said that, you know, they want it faster, or, you know? But they come up with the car. You know, so what are your thoughts on that?
Aytekin: Yes. I mean if you think about it, if you were… Like, let’s say you were actually, you know, doing horse and cart, and you had a business with horses. And then you had a customer support forum. It doesn’t make sense, but if you had that. You know, people would actually write stuff like, you know, “I need my horses to go faster.”
And if you only listen to that, you know, you wouldn’t come up with the idea to, you know, build a car. But if you actually interviewed them and find out what they do, and you could find out, like, they need to go from one place to another really fast. And once you see that, it doesn’t matter if they use horses.
You then figure out a way for them to go from one place to another instead of just improving the horses. So that’s exactly why interviews makes… customer development makes a big difference.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. Yeah, that makes sense. So I’m curious, are you guys still bootstrapped or did you raise capital, that’s why you’re in San Fran, or?
Aytekin: No, we are still bootstrapped. And, I mean, we are profitable. We don’t actually need to raise funds, we are already a successful business. We have over 100 employees. And I actually prefer growing slowly. So I don’t actually look for any, you know, additional funding.
And, you know, I receive lots of e-mails from, you know, different companies who are actually asking about those, you know, “Would you take money?,” you know, stuff like that. And I don’t consider that at all. I think one of the reasons is because I prefer growing slowly.
You know, as I mentioned in the beginning, like, I’m a risk…I’m not a big risk taker, I don’t want to take huge risks. And I prefer growing slowly. You know, because it takes time to grow, it takes a very long time to learn things, but you’re actually learning those things. And, for example, in the beginning it was only me, and then I hired my first employee.
I spent the first year…we spent the first year together all day long. And then, you know, this slow growth actually allowed me to create this great culture inside my business and be able to actually shape the way we work. And let’s say, you know, instead of bootstrapping I had, like, $10 million or something, and then I hired 100 employees.
It will be a complete cost. The other thing is when I started my business I had no management experience. I had no… I was a web developer for five years. And because… I gained all that experience by learning, by making lots of mistakes. But because we were small, our mistakes didn’t cost us big.
And if I had $10 million and if I hired like, you know, 100 employees from the first day, you know, I wouldn’t even know how to manage those people, I wouldn’t know, you know, what to do right. And I wouldn’t even know, like…you know, even today, like, if I have to hire 100 people, you know, and just in one day, I wouldn’t know what to do because it’s just…it’s a terrible way to grow a business.
It’s just there’s no way you can create a culture. Because you cannot create a culture by writing a document, you cannot write…you know, you cannot open Google Docs and write, “Here’s our culture.” Culture is created day by day, like what you do in your business, how you develop your product, how you talk to each other within your company, how your teams are working together.
You know, what is your priorities, what is your…what do you care about most? All those things actually turn into a culture and it takes a very long time to create that culture. And if you had to grow really fast, you would actually lose that culture. And most of the time, like, lots of…like, all these big companies who receive seed funding, they actually turn the company quickly.
So their goal is not usually, like, to create this…you know, this 20-year or 50-year company, their goal is to, you know, sell the company quickly. And, you know, that could be a goal for many people, but even if… You know, it took me like seven years to have the courage to start my business, so I don’t have that kind of mindset.
I prefer, you know, having a long-term mindset. And I actually enjoy it, it’s a journey and I enjoy working with… You know, we are a 100-person company and I know everyone, I am very friendly. I am a friend with every employee, like I… You know, I will go to lunch with every employee. You know, when we hire someone, I will go to lunch with them and I will have this friendship with every employee.
And just I like this, having this warm culture.
Nathan: Yeah. Amazing, man. And, yeah, I really like the way you think about building things. I’m curious, do you still…do you do employee stock options though or do you have an intent of selling maybe one day, or?
Aytekin: No, we don’t actually have options or anything like that. And, yeah, that’s because we don’t have any intent to sell the company. And because of that we don’t…you know, we don’t offer any options. But, you know, our salaries are… wherever we are we try to have a salary that’s higher than the…environment, yeah.
And we have a great work environment and that’s why people actually stay with us for a very long time. You know, people don’t leave and stay with us for many, many years.
Nathan: Yeah, that makes sense. And then, like, are you fine, like, maybe to do profit share or something like that, right?
Aytekin: We’ll sometimes have bonuses. And here’s the thing, we have a different approach, I don’t think I have seen it in another company. If you have a great, like, niche, like we have, something big happens, and we will actually have…we will have a bonus. You know, additional one month’s salary for everyone, something like that. And we did that last…twice last year.
And the first one was… Here’s the thing, we have these yearly sales. And our growth team was able to actually triple our… We have a sale every once a year, like, you know, in December, end-of-year sale. And they made a change in our sale and that tripled our sales for that month. And then I said…you know, I sent an e-mail to everyone, “Okay, we had such a… You know, thank growth team for what they accomplished, you know, we have a bonus this month.”
And we do things like that. You know, if you have good , we have a bonus. And I will actually give the credit for that bonus to the team that actually accomplished that goal. I don’t want teams to actually compete with each other, I want them to be friendly with each other.
So instead of, you know, trying to be the winning team, once someone…a team wins, actually everyone enjoys the reward. So it’s an interesting approach, I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else. But we started doing that and it…you know, it actually worked really well for our business.
Nathan: Yeah. That’s really cool, thank you so much for sharing, Aytekin. So, look, we’ll work towards wrapping up because I’m mindful of your time, but, look, you’ve shared a lot around developers, hiring, growth, culture. So is there any kind of…like, what’s…
Two last questions. What’s the next challenge, like what’s the hard stuff that’s happening at JotForm? Because you are quite risk-adverse. So I’m going to assume that you would have, like, decent cash flow reserves and, you know, you’re really mitigating risk however you can. What’s the challenge right now, what’s the hard part?
You know, what’s the struggles that you guys are going through? And then where’s the… And then the last question is where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work?
Aytekin: Yeah. Even during the first years I would have this approach that, you know, I wouldn’t hire any employee if I don’t have the salary for that employee for a year. So I continue doing that, like even today I do that. So, you know, that’s why we grow slowly, but, you know, I never had to, like, you know, tell someone, “Okay, I hired you, but I have to lay you off.”
We never had a layoff, we never had to do something like that, and because I had that risk-averse approach. And we still continue to do that, as you said. For JotForm we are always product-focused and we continue to be product-focused. My approach is this, “Are we better than yesterday?”
Like every day, “Are we better than yesterday? Are we doing things to make sure that we are better than yesterday?” That’s why we have these yearly strategies, as I mentioned. And we continue to learn from our customers by interviewing them, by listening to them, and use these learnings to improve our products every day. And I love Steve Jobs. And one of the things he said was like, “My biggest success is not the product. You know, it’s not MacBook Pro or, you know, iPhone or anything like that. It’s the company Apple.”
And I have the same approach. Like we are not only developing a good product, we are also actually building this company and we are making sure that every day we are not only improving our product every day, we are also improving the way we work so that we can actually work better. For example, one of the things we do is hack weeks.
Last year we did eight hack weeks. All of our product teams, they spend like…you know, the spend a week… It’s kind of like a hackathon, but it takes a week. And during those hack weeks they will actually develop a prototype. And sometimes we make these completely free, like they can just do whatever they want.
And sometimes we have a focus, we have a topic that we want them to work on. And, you know, four or five product teams, at the end of that week when we have the demo day on Friday, they show what they accomplished. And they show it to the whole company and they demo the prototype to everyone. And our best ideas, our most innovative ideas actually came from the hack week.
And we continue to do those. And to give you an example to how we always improve the way we work, so we developed hack week and they became really successful, this year we actually made another change. Okay, we said, “It’s really hard for designers to be ready in the beginning of the hack week, and then…and so that they can work with the developers. Why don’t we have a design week before the hack week?”
So now every time we have a hack week we will actually have a design week. And during the design week only the designers, they will actually work on it, the idea, the user experience, the design of the prototype that’s going to be created during the hack week, so that during the hack week they don’t actually…they can actually improve on their idea.
And from now when we have a hack week, we have a design week. So this is an example to how we try to innovate in every way possible, how we try to always work faster. Like, “How can we work faster?How can we create the product better?” For example, one of the things we recently did was we started working with this crowd bug-testing platform. And what they do is…like, this is a product and they’re from Germany.
And what they will do is, like, you give them, like, “Okay, here’s the link.” And they have all these people, like, you know, some of them are from Russia, from different countries, and they will just try to find bug on the product you sent or the demo or whatever product you send. And they will just…they will come back with…you know, within a day they will come up with 100 different bugs and from 100 different people.
So it’s called crowd bug finding.
Aytekin: Or something like that.
Aytekin: And so it’s just I think the idea is that always improve yourself, continuous improvement. And one of my biggest, like, idols is Eric Ries and his Lean Startup approach. And I read every blog post he wrote, like, probably like three times. And I applied everything I learned from his blog to my company and our biggest improvements came from adopting this Agile, this lean approach to our business.
Nathan: Yeah. Yeah, love it, man. We’re really big on Lean Startup methodology, too. It’s where it’s at, this customer development-centric focus. Awesome. So, man, it’s been incredible chatting with you, you’ve shared so much, you’ve been so open with everyone. So where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and JotForm?
Aytekin: I have a Twitter account. I will share…you know, I will sometimes write tweets and I will share the blog posts that I write. So it’s @aytekintank is my Twitter account. I’m also on Medium, I write a lot.
I write like, you know, three posts a week on Medium. I have all these blog posts that really I share every experience, like my experiences I learned in these 12 years. And JotForm, obviously JotForm is at www.jotform.com. And I think, you know, just try JotForm, that everyone can actually use forms to improve their productivity.
So give it a try, you will love the product. And thank you, Nathan, it’s a great show. I listen to your other episodes, as well. I love your show, I’m one of your listeners now, and I appreciate being on the show.
Nathan: Oh, wow, thank you so much, mate, it’s an absolute pleasure to know that, I guess, founders that are playing a really big game, as well, quite often, like yourself, listen to the show, as well. So I really appreciate your time, Aytekin, and it was a pleasure speaking with you, mate.
Aytekin: It was my pleasure.