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Bootstrapped my startup to 10 million users with $0 funding. AMA!

Hey everyone!

I’m Aytekin Tank, the founder of Jotform. Developer by trade and a storyteller by heart, I share my journey on my blog, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, TechCrunch.

I launched the company in 2006, driven by a vision to create simple web forms (and fuelled by gallons of Starbucks coffee). So much has changed since those early days.

Taking the bootstrapping path led me to build Jotform in one of the most competitive industries around: online forms. Even Google Forms stepped into the ring, and remains one of our toughest competitors.

But we persevered — for 15 years and counting. We’re still one of the leading players, with +10 million users and +300 employees, and we’ve done it without taking a single dime in outside funding.

As Jotform recently turned 15, and unveiled our first new brand in over a decade, I’ve been inspired to pause and look back in the rear-view mirror.

I believe that bootstrapping is a great approach for entrepreneurs. And in this AMA, I’d love to share everything I’ve learned from growing my startup to 10 million users without selling my soul to investors.

Got any questions for me? Ask away!

Over the next couple of days, I'll be answering them here.

  1. 13

    Hi Aytekin, thanks for the AMA. Congrats with Jotform reaching 10M users. Inspirational considering you have no funding and are in a massively competitive marketplace. Few standard questions you must get asked over and over ... At any point did you ever regret not tracking VC money? Did you ever have a point where you thought Jotform wasn't going to work? What is your most successful channel marketing channel? If you were back a square one would you do it again with another SaaS?  Thanks again :)

    1. 24

      Thank you for the questions! The great thing about bootstrapping is that there is no requirement for huge success. I previously had products that stagnated at $1K/month. I don't see them as failures. I learned a lot from them, and I moved on with new products. Jotform was probably my 5th product.

      So, Jotform was always a success to me. Just like all the startups in the Indie Hackers community are successful. If you don’t compare yourself to others, and if you keep your expenses within your limits, you are always a success. Big or small.

      The most successful marketing channel has always been organic search engine traffic for us. Because that’s the first place people who have a need search for a solution. But, without the virality of the forms we wouldn’t be able to grow to our scale. When people share a jotform with others, Jotform.com is on the domain name and on free accounts there is a powered by Jotform mention at the bottom.

      If I was back at square one, I'd build another No Code product. That's the future. We're all creators. Giving people the tools so that they can build stuff on their own really excites me.

      The great thing is I don't need to go back to square one to do that. We are developing features and products around Jotform so that people can build things on their own without coding.

      1. 7

        Sorry, just thought of another important question. What's the best strategy for IH's who are entering a market with established competitors?

        1. 17

          No problem, great question! Having tough competitors is a good thing. That makes you stronger. In the long run, even if they are very successful, many get acquired by big companies which then abandon them. A lot of our tough competitors were acquired by bigger companies or private equity and once the founders left, they stopped innovating.

          Also, don't look at the competition too much. If you look at them too much, you will start thinking like them, you will start talking like them and your product will look like their products. If you are missing something important, don't worry, your customers will let you know. So, you don't need to look at the competition. Keep your edge.

          1. 1

            Thank you for pointing this out, you're right. We should keep our strengths and keep improving on what we're good at!

      2. 2

        Thanks for the great responses. We have been working on content and SEO and have now been considering the ability for virality which we see as a great way for marketing.

        We will keep an eye out when you get your next 10M customers 😊

        1. 2

          You are most welcome, thank you for the questions once again!

  2. 9

    Were you ever approached by investors or people who wanted to buy your company? How do you say no to such approaches? What was your motivation while turning them down?

    1. 16

      Good question! I’ve been approached a couple of times, but the thing about VC especially, is that you’re trading control for financial support. Thankfully, by the time I decided to fully focus on Jotform, it already had some income and I had a lot saved up. My goal when quitting was to be my own boss, so I didn’t want to trade one boss for many by getting funded.

  3. 4

    What’s your advice on quitting the corporate job vs building on the side? Did you have a job while working on Jotform? Are you a risk taker?

    1. 7

      Thank you for the question!

      My short answer: your day job doesn’t have to be a drag. I created my first software product in 1999, while I was at college studying computer science. It was a free, open-source membership program for a student organization website. As it became popular, people began paying me for customizations. I still remember the thrill of getting that first check — for a whopping $150. It felt like a huge milestone. I soon created a paid version that started racking up downloads when it was mentioned on a SitePoint newsletter.

      After graduation, I could have gone all-in and focused exclusively on my product, but I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have enough confidence. I’m a surprisingly risk-averse person. I don’t believe that every entrepreneur has to be a fearless dreamer who jumps in with both feet, consequences be damned. So, I worked as a programmer for a New York media company — but I didn’t let a full-time job stop me from improving my product. I’d wake up at 6 am, answer customer questions, and then go to work. It took me another five years to quit my job and start my own company — even though I already had some small successful products.

      Working at a medium-sized corporation out of school for 5 years taught me invaluable lessons about business, communication, and teams. I was also paid to immerse myself in new technologies and sharpen my programming skills. Your day job can actually fuel your business.

      In addition to learning critical skills, you might even stumble upon your BIG idea — which is exactly what happened to me.

  4. 4

    If you could go back to your twenties, what advice would you give yourself? :)

    1. 10

      Well, there is one regret that I have. I wish I had taken more photos and recorded more videos of our team in the early days. It’d have made it way easier to remember memories from 10-15 years back. Many people I used to work with back then are in great places in other companies. I still meet with many of them from time to time. But, I sometimes wish I could remember more of those first years. So, take a lot of pictures and videos of your team as you are growing your company.

      1. 1

        Heartfelt and modest. These suggestions are golden and not many founders will give such geniune responses.

      2. 1

        Thank you! This is great to note.

      3. 1

        This is really valuable, thank you sir!

  5. 4

    Hi Aytekin,

    Yours is a very inspirational story but my question is about the viability of bootstrapping in today's climate. I'm a co-founder at Uclusion and we've been told to take funding as soon as possible.

    The advice was that people will not trust using a B2B product that is not funded yet - particularly in a period when there is so much money available. It's taken us over 2 1/2 years full time effort to get to an MVP so I can understand their point. So many developers are pushing products that are not ready and up until recently we were also.

    We have not started selling our soul to investors yet but even launching on Product Hunt without funding seems going out of style. Ideally we would like more early adopters so that we can continue refining the offering with their guidance.

    Thank you,
    David

    1. 5

      I don't agree with the premise that people will not trust a B2B product that is unfunded. On the contrary, I'd be worried about buying a B2B product that is funded by VCs. They are under high expectation to produce X amount of revenue in Y amount of time. So, I'd be worried about them jacking up the prices.

      I'd prefer to depend on products made by businesses that don't have upcoming exit plans.

      1. 2

        I'm not sure our customers are concerned with jacking up prices - a startup like Trello went to exit while hardly charging anything.

        Also there is the appetite for risk to consider - does Jotform frequently early adopt?

        1. 4

          I am not really informed about what happened with Atlassian and Trello and why Atlassian has bought them. But, as a Trello user wouldn't have preferred if the founding team stayed on and continued to innovate?

          Yeah, we are not big risk takers. That's why we prefer products made by bootstrapped businesses.

          I also wouldn't call Jotform an early adopter. We have a strong engineering team so most of the time we prefer to implement our own tools in house unless there is a very strong product in the market.

          1. 1

            So our competition might be home grown project management software - that's very interesting.

            Can you give more detail about the level a "very strong product" has to reach before you would even consider it against your home grown solution? For instance does very strong mean word of mouth references? Or certain features beyond what can be reasonably built in house?

            Thank you very much for your patience - this is very useful.

            1. 2

              Word of mouth is very powerful. One way to get a lot of good word of mouth references is to have a fully functional free version of your product. A free version allows people start using your product and build confidence in it before they get serious about it and become a paid customer.

  6. 3

    Merhaba Aytekin Abi :) Just wanted to say that you inspired three 18-year-old SaaS founders throughout their journey. Looking forward to meeting you someday!

    1. 1

      I'm glad my story has reached and inspired young people. There's so much to learn, and even I keep learning something every day. There's a long journey ahead of you and many good lessons and memories to make.

  7. 3

    This is a great story, congrats.

    My jaw hit the floor when I read 300 employees! Can you give a breakdown of what their roles are (not individually of course)?

    1. 4

      Thank you! Our employee growth really took off in the last few years. We have a unique team structure here. We have numerous small independent teams that are encouraged to act as their own small company.

      Most product-focused teams have their own developers, designers, product managers, and marketing professionals. This allows us to be very agile. A new product or trend doesn’t stunt our growth as a single team has the capacity to work on an MVP independently.

      On our marketing side, we have cross-functional teams that focus on certain aspects of our growth strategy but also complement each other without causing any friction.

      We did not hire a single salesperson during our first 12 years. Only recently we started growing a sales team as our Enterprise product came out and became popular.

  8. 3

    Merhaba Aytekin )

    My question would be - when starting, did you concentrate on some country/region first and then move to other regions? Or did you launch globally straight away?

    1. 15

      Thank you for the question Arstan! I did start globally. I think that's what's great about building an online product. You can reach the whole world.

      But, we were only in English until recently. Only when we had the resources to support other languages did we start localizing our product.

      Finding the Product Market Fit should be the first priority. So, I don’t think it is a good idea to worry about localization too early in the game. Even if you are from a non-English speaking country, I’d recommend starting with English. It is the language that has the biggest market and purchasing power.

  9. 2

    How was your experience as a solo founder? The current trend is that you always need a co-founder that would have a skill set that complements yours. Do you think finding "the co-founder" is a must for entrepreneurs?

    1. 1

      My short answer: You don’t have to give away a big chunk of your company. Investors often look for businesses run by co-founders with complementary skills. Maybe one person is a marketing genius and the other has deep technical experience. That’s why most business advisors tell people to pair up in order to get funding.

      Co-founders can be great, but many entrepreneurs waste their time searching for a perfect match, just because investors often favor these teams. This mentality can lead to ill-fated partnerships, ugly splits down the road, and lost revenues — instead of better products. I almost had a co-founder in Jotform. A friend and I talked seriously about it, but the partnership didn’t work out in the end. It’s fine. There are no hard feelings, and I’ve been happy to build the company on my own terms.

      By earning more than we spend, I can hire incredibly smart people to help me, without giving away half of the business. It’s a great way to work.

  10. 2

    Congratulations For Jotform reaching 10M users.

    1. 2

      Thank you! At every milestone I think like we're almost there, but there's always more to build, more problems to solve and more stories to write.

  11. 2

    When did you start hiring? What did you like (or hate) the most in those days?

    1. 2

      Thanks for the question! One thing I love about the hiring challenges when bootstrapping: you wear all the hats, and you learn how they fit. I launched Jotform in 2006 as a free product. When it was time to build a premium version, I hired my first employee. By that point, I knew exactly what kind of person I wanted to find. I knew what skills and attributes would complement my own. Almost a year later, I hired a full-time designer. I had been doing all the design work myself, so once again, I knew what skills we were seeking. The same scenario played out with our marketing team, accountants, and just about every other employee we’ve hired.

      As a bootstrapped founder, I’ve tackled design, development, support, marketing, HR, dishwashing and office cleaning. I’m not trying to present myself as some kind of martyr; it’s just the truth. And it means that I really understand each role. That’s a major advantage when it’s time to pass the baton.

  12. 1

    Hi Aytekin, many congratulations on this super inspiring and unique journey. I'm curious what motivated you to go in for a re-branding after so many years of being successful and a 10mn+ user base? Is it a new kind of audience that you're hoping to target, if yes, what?

    Also what is it about Jotforms that motivates users to go for the paid version when the free version also has so many features?

    1. 2

      Thank you! The rebranding has been a long time coming actually. Jotform started as an online form builder but we’ve expanded so much on the functionality by adding features, new products, integrations over the years, it was time to adjust our branding to fit the direction we’re going.

      Our audience is already quite big but the new branding helps us solidify our messaging and reach more people.

      So, our free plan doesn’t restrict based on features but based on usage limits. This has two advantages. Firstly, people aren’t forced to take part in free trials or aren’t greeted with an immediate paywall. Secondly, the more people use our products, the better for us. User feedback has been the driving force behind our innovation.

      1. 1

        Thanks, must say that's quite an innovative approach when everyone is so focused on monetization. Doesn't it create challenges to convert your free users to paying users - how do you balance both, a good free product and still create value for paying users?

        Also when you say "reach more people", geographically is your focus going to continue to be the US market or you would focus on large new markets like India as well?

  13. 1

    No questions. Just want to say I'm a paying customer and really like JotForm :-)

  14. 1

    Merhaba Aytekin Bey, I am very happy to see you. I love following Jotform. I wish you continued success :)

    1. 1

      Thanks for the nice wishes!

  15. 1

    If you could pick only ONE method of marketing/growing a new startup - what would it be?

    1. 3

      Content Marketing.

      If no one is coming to your website, no one is aware of you. The great thing about content marketing is that once you build good content, you will receive traffic to them for many many years.

  16. 1

    Ahhh 2006. Those were the days..

  17. 1

    Thanks a lot for sharing your story Aytekin.

    My question is "What no-code development platform will you recommend to me?"

    I am currently building a product that helps underserved community learn online without internet.

    1. 1

      JotForm. :)

      Congratulations on building such an amazing idea.

  18. 1

    Great to see you here 👋

    Any plans to take the company public? Can we expect to see Jotform's IPO down the line?

    1. 1

      No, we don’t have any plans for an IPO.

  19. 1

    Congratulations on building a great company, Aytekin. Here are my questions.

    1. Curious what your mindset was, while working on the 4 projects before?
    2. How did you get through tough days with your team in the initial days?
    1. 2

      Thank you! I’ll answer them one by one.

      1. I made the first project when I was a student. I was making a website for a student organization. I also built a profile and membership management system for them. I then posted it online as a open source product and it was picked up by Sitepoint newsletter and I started getting custom development jobs from clients who used my free product. I then built a paid version of my product, and as people asked for related products I created other similar products over the years.

      I graduated and started working full time at a corporate job, but I continued developing and marketing my own small products on the side. I learned tremendously from them. I didn’t care how much I earned, I appreciated the chance to get people to use my products.

      1. There weren't many tough days. We had a lot of fun during first years. We had a vision. We had users. We stayed small so I didn't have to worry about paying the salaries of my employees. We did what we can accomplish with a small team. That's what's great about bootstrapping. You can choose to go slowly and enjoy the ride. :)
  20. 1

    Do you think there still is an underserved market that needs another forms SaaS?

    1. 1

      Yeah, I see so many opportunities with forms. But, I am not going to share them here. Since we are building those features and products at Jotform. :)

      We are going to launch one amazing idea on November 15th. We don’t announce the product updates beforehand so I can’t share the details.

  21. 1

    Hi Aytekin, Congrats on 10M users without VC! What routes (if any) do you see a for founders who have already taken VC early on ($1-2M) be able to break free from VC and become either bootstrapped or seek capital from other non-dilutive sources?

    I'm super inspired by your story. I have been following your medium posts for years and have been using Jotform for 6 years.

    1. 3

      Unfortunately, that's an area I have no experience in. You should probably seek advice from a lawyer on this. I have seen founders who have returned money back (or what’s left of it) to their investors, but it was because they failed and they wanted to close the shop in good terms with their investors.

      1. 1

        Thanks! I've mostly seen where companies buy the investors out, but those are usually much later stage companies. Just wondering what earlier companies do for non-dilutive funding.

  22. 1

    Hey Aytekin, great job and congrats!

    What were some early hurdles you had to get over when initially launching? Also, what kinds of strategies did you use for growing your user base (organic/seo, ads, talking to people on the street, etc...)?

    Thanks!

    1. 5

      The biggest early hurdle was to get word out about Jotform. That's always the hardest part: How to create buzz about a product.

      I have done a few things to solve this problem. I had been blogging on my personal blog and contributing on some forums like Business of Software. So, when I launched I posted on my blog and I also posted on some online communities.

      I also emailed a lot of tech news sites. I tried to find a good angle. News sites need a reason to care; something that’s unique, intriguing, fresh, or surprising. Jotform was one of the first single page web apps, and had a drag-and-drop WYSIWYG form editor that saved changes using AJAX. This was pretty innovative in 2006. That was my angle, and I applied it to pitch news sites, write blog posts, and develop PR plans. So, you need to find an angle that’s unique to you. PR is all about “what’s new”.

      I already answered the second question above so I will just copy it from there: The most successful marketing channel has always been organic search engine traffic for us. Because that’s the first place people who have a need search for a solution. But, without the virality of the forms we wouldn’t be able to grow to our scale. When people share a jotform with others, Jotform.com is on the domain name and on free accounts there is a powered by Jotform mention at the bottom.

      1. 1

        Thanks for the response! I like the idea of emailing tech news sites, definitely something I haven't thought of before.

  23. 1

    Hi Aytekin,first of all Happy birthday to Jotforms and Congratulations 🎉 to you.Can you tell us that what you do when you lost focus.

    1. 4

      I did other things.

      When I got tired of building the product, I focused on growth. When I got tired of marketing, I focused back on the product. A great solution for procrastination is to do different things. In a startup there are so many things that need to be done, just work on something else.

      What if you don’t feel like doing anything at all? In times like that, I just launch Kindle and start reading a book that inspires me. That really works for me. After reading 5-10 pages, I am fired up again, and I am ready to tackle anything.

      Also, make sure to rest well. I don’t work on weekends and I take a lot of vacations.

      One book I can recommend to help you find your focus is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

      1. 1

        Oh Thanks 😊 for your reply and also for the amazing book 📚 recommended by you.

  24. 1

    What hack did you use to manage your time amongst all the things that needed attention before you knew you had Product Market Fit? Corollary at 10M users and 300 employees what motivated you to find time for an AMA on IH?
    Amazing growth and wish you continued success ahead!

    1. 2

      I spent half of my time improving the product, and the other half growing and supporting my user base.

      I took great pleasure in providing support for a small number of users I had. Because I knew that they were taking a risk by using a product made by one person. I fixed any problems they reported and implemented any features they requested quickly. And, I did this in a public forum. So, everyone could see a track record. They could see how quickly problems were fixed and features were implemented.

      Keeping the product completely free in the first year allowed me to grow this user base more quickly. I was able to do that because of my savings from working a corporate job and because I had a revenue stream from other small products. That’s also why I was able to spend most of my time building, growing, and supporting Jotform even before we had a Product Market Fit.

      What motivated me to find time to do an AMA on IH? As a bootstrapped founder, I have been reading all the books, blogs, and forums I could find over many many years, but I still learn from communities like Indie Hackers. I wish I could contribute more.

      1. 1

        Amazing and truly inspiring!👏 Thank you for sharing!!!
        Needs tremendous discipline to stay on that course... great to see all the hard work pay off! Wish you continued growth! 📈

  25. 1

    Given the current funding environment and "easy money" - wouldn't it make sense to raise $100s millions with minimal dilution?

    1. 6

      Thank you for the question.

      The answer is no.

      Getting funding for hundreds of millions of dollars does not automatically bring success. In fact, I’d argue that most often than not, getting funded can have a huge restrictive effect on your business.

      You’re handing over the reins of your business to your investors, and there are many projects that failed because they weren’t able to adjust fast enough or pivot when they needed to. You’re in charge of building your product but you no longer have control over the vision of the company.

  26. 1

    Good to see you on Indiehackers after a while Aytekin! Reserving my place.

  27. 1

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