Rarely do I come across inspiring quotes from mathematicians, but this one, from the late Morris Kline, has been echoing in my brain for weeks:
“The most fertile source of insight is hindsight.”
Startups are often urged to keep driving forward; to hit new targets, build more, and grow faster, bigger, better. 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 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. We’ve added hundreds of staff, opened three offices on two continents, and built a product with 10 million users. And we still haven’t taken any outside funding.
I list these milestones not to brag, but to reinforce what’s possible when you take your time and pursue a single, evolving goal. No one would ever call Jotform an overnight success – and that’s the point. We’ve done it our way, and I’ve learned what feels like a thousand lessons over the years. So, I wanted to gather up my very best advice in one place. This is what I would tell myself as I prepared to launch the company. I hope it helps and reassures you, wherever you are on your startup journey.
It’s nearly impossible to conjure a great business idea from thin air. The most successful startups spring directly from need, frustration, incomplete experience, or the burning desire to do something better. When I worked for a media company, I was constantly coding forms for the editors – and it was boring, tedious work. One day I thought, “maybe I should build a product that makes this easy.” That’s how Jotform was born.
Experts often advise entrepreneurs to pair up, but there’s so much freedom in going it alone. If you’re worried that you don’t have all the necessary skills, read books, attend conferences, listen to podcasts, and do everything you can to patch those gaps. And if your business succeeds, you can hire brilliant people to fill in where you struggle.
Starting a company can be isolating, but know that this feeling is temporary. Don’t let loneliness knock you off course. Use quiet times to think and scheme and learn as much as you can. Eventually, you’ll have a team to keep you company – and there’s a good chance you’ll miss those quiet, distraction-free days.
It’s infinitely easier to start a business while you’re employed. The trade off? It takes longer to hit cruising altitude. I created my first product in 1998, while I was a college student. I continued to sell it while finishing my degree, serving in the military, and working full-time. By the time I left my job, that product replaced my salary and gave me an infinite runway to build Jotform. If you don’t have another revenue stream, build the free version of your offering while you’re still employed. Don’t quit until you release the paid version and establish a solid subscription base.
No one else can (or should) tell you what success looks like. Don’t waste time worrying about those media-darling founders or what your MBA classmates have done. If you’ve gained even a little traction, that’s success. A handful of customers or a few sales means you’re on the right track. Don’t rush. Get the core product right and keep going.
Get your work in front of real people as early as possible. It’s the best way to see if they’ll use and pay for what you’ve built. The longer you wait, the greater the chance you’re building in the wrong direction – and that can be dangerous. Release fast, ask questions, and apply the feedback to keep improving. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many founders are afraid to take this critical leap.
You can’t launch a business and wait for customers to show up, like trick-or-treaters on Halloween. They need a reason to care; something that’s unique, intriguing, fresh, or surprising. Jotform used drag-and-drop technology before it was a thing. That was our angle, and I applied it to pitch news sites, write blog posts, and develop PR plans. Consider what people care about most and emphasize how your startup supports their busy lives.
Treat these people like family. After all, they’ve taken a chance on you. Learn as much about them as you can: What do they want? What do they want to avoid? What features do they need? What’s confusing? Enterprise products may have smaller numbers, but the same logic applies. Provide exceptional support and earn their loyalty.
Building a product means creating something people want and need, and then continually making it better. Growth requires marketing and sales. In the early days, you need to switch back and forth between the two. Improve your work. Then share helpful, valuable content to grow your platform – whether that’s posting on social media, writing a blog, recording a podcast, or whatever works for you.
Even if you’re backed by VCs, angels, private equity, or your grandmother (no shame), every dollar you get from real customers is a dollar you’ve truly earned. Pursuing anything else can be a waste of time when you’re starting out, because it’s more important to get the basics right. Of course, there are exceptions. You may need financial support if you have fast-growing competitors, you’re in a land grab, or you need physical infrastructure. Almost everything else? You can start slowly and fund your growth with profits.
Every new stage brings different challenges – and growing a startup is like cell division. At first you have a big, amorphous company with overlapping roles and responsibilities. As you add more people, the work becomes increasingly granular. For example, HR splits into HR and recruiting, then recruiting splits to focus on different roles or geographical areas, and so on.
We track all kinds of data, but two targets matter more than anything: Are people using our product? Do our employees love (and feel proud of) working here? All the pageviews and bounce rates mean nothing if people aren’t actively using what you provide, and if your teams are loath to show up for work each day. Focus on what matters.
Signing your first employee is a big step. You might need an office. This right person should also be well-rounded, so they can handle lots of different tasks. But look for someone who can eliminate the biggest roadblocks in your business. And it has to be someone you actually like, because you’re going to spend a lot of time together. Would you enjoy having lunch with this person? No? It’s probably not going to work out. Choose wisely.
In 2021, do you need an office or can everyone work remotely? Your initial decision sets a course for the future. If you launch without a physical space, you’ll probably need to continue that way. I feel strongly about working from an office (assuming it’s safe), because startups are a group sport. Otherwise, it’s like assembling a basketball team that plays remotely. So much happens in the margins of a workday to deepen relationships and help people work together more effectively.
If you do have an office, make it feel like a second home. Don’t skimp. Give people ergonomic chairs, big tables, standing desk options, fresh air and natural light, and plants. These details show your employees that you care about their comfort and productivity. And make sure your teams have more than snack machines and stale coffee to stay fuelled.
The first five people on your team are essential. At Jotform, they created the prototype for our entire company. We had a designer, growth specialist, front-end and back-end developers, and a UX pro. That combination was so successful that we set the whole company up in similar, cross-functional teams. Watch for what works in your business and apply that model as you grow.
I always tell our new interns, “we’re going to teach you how to work as a team.” In school, team projects are usually terrible, but we ensure our interns have a satisfying, collaborative experience. You can see it’s working when they form bonds. They go to lunch together, share credit for wins and losses, and thank each other for their contributions. You can’t fake genuine respect.
Massive hiring sprees lead to mass confusion. If you hire a whole team of people, all at once, you can’t spend time with them or get to know them. Even if your business is already established, adding too many people in one shot prevents current employees from sharing your systems and best practices – both formally and informally. Going slowly is the best way to avoid cultural breakdown.
If someone bad-mouths or divulges inside stories from their previous company, there’s a good chance they’ll eventually do the same to you. Look for people with character; people who don’t enter with their egos, and who truly want to collaborate.
Passionate, excited people are worth their weight in gold. Ensure they’re happy and help them grow. If someone is driven, listen closely to where they want to go and map a plan to help them get there. Check in regularly and track their progress – and don’t force creative people into a box. Stay open and let them change course, if necessary. Your whole business will be stronger for it.
If you can lead children, you can manage employees – and I say this without a hint of sarcasm or disrespect. We all need both security and independence. If kids don’t feel secure, they shut down and stop playing. With strong attachments, they’ll begin to thrive. Kids also need space to explore. When I need my kids to do something, like put on their shoes, I describe how they need shoes to go to the park. They choose the shoes they want and put them on independently; I just set the parameters. All these lessons scale to team members and employees.
You can’t design company culture. It’s not something you can write down and say, “this is our culture.” Instead, culture is simply a shorthand for how your company functions. For example, junior employees watch how senior team members work, and then follow their lead. If you want something done a certain way, clearly set those standards and expectations. Encode it in daily operations.
As a kid, I wasn’t a leader. I was a follower who observed and participated. Stirring people’s emotions doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s my responsibility. That’s why I give a short speech before each Friday’s Demo Day. Communicating your excitement about the work is contagious. People hear and feel it, and it strengthens your tribe.
You don’t have to be an extroverted salesperson to give good speeches. Clarify your thoughts, prepare what you want to say, and use notes instead of reading or memorizing. Every talk will help you improve, and all that practice adds up over time. If you feel a little jittery, remember that the point is to connect with people, not to impress them.
It’s an indisputable truth, like the law of gravity: You can be great at some things, but you can’t be great at everything. But if you delegate your less-proficient tasks to others, you can dedicate more time to your best work. Start with small projects. Let people learn and develop confidence, and don’t expect them to improve instantly.
Once you delegate, check back often and provide consistent feedback. That way, the other person (or team) has the information they need to succeed, and you’re free to focus, knowing the task is well underway. And give people time and space to find their rhythm – especially in the beginning.
Doing everything yourself will inevitably backfire. You may have to cover multiple roles in the early days of your startup, but that’s not sustainable for the long-term. It all comes down to trust: People who refuse to delegate don’t think someone else will do the job as well as they can. The fix lies in communicating vision and context along with the assignment. When someone understands why they’re undertaking a task, there’s a good chance they’ll do a great (and even better) job than you.
Whenever you write anything – a document, report, presentation, or even an important email – draft it and set it aside. Come back and read it later. Cut extra words, make it shorter, and get to the point faster. Clarity not only eliminates confusion, but it conveys confidence and momentum. It matters more than we think.
If you really want something, you’ll put in the necessary time and effort. Struggling to get motivated can indicate that you’re not on the right path – and that’s fine. Just be honest with yourself. If everything checks out, but you’re still struggling, try reading about successful companies in your industry. Work from an office instead of your home. Rest on the weekends to avoid burnout. Create systems and routines that replace the need for motivation.
Filters and automation can only take you so far. If you’re drowning in emails, communication, administrative tasks, and everyday details, it’s time to get some help. I just hired a fantastic personal assistant after 15 years in business. I probably should have taken this step 10 years ago. Don’t wait until you’re slipping further underwater.
Motivation is about meaning. When you believe in something, you have the drive to pursue that goal. As the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.”
Research shows that nothing boosts emotion, perception, and motivation more than making progress in meaningful work – no matter how small each step may be. If you’re working on five products or projects at once, it’s tough to get people excited about all of them. A singular focus ensures everyone’s on the same team; rowing toward the same destination. Each person can see how their direct contribution moves the whole group forward.
If you’re stuck in a slump or trying to untangle a head-throbbing problem, turn to books. Find the title that’s most applicable to your situation and start reading. After a few pages, the fog usually lifts and your head begins to clear. Soon enough, you’ll be reaching for a notepad and feeling excited again.
Errors, slipups, public mistakes, and disappointments can feel devastating. Do everything you can to address the problem and then let it go. Learn from the situation, prepare for next time, and create contingency plans to minimize your worries. For example, we just hired our first General Counsel. This step alone takes so much weight off my shoulders and helps me sleep better at night.
I don’t care about being a public figure. I never have. The thought of being recognized at the playground, while I’m swinging with my kids, seems bizarre. However, I’ve built a platform by writing about entrepreneurship. A platform enables you to authentically share and promote your business, while public notoriety is often quite empty – and it’s almost always temporary.
Hit the gym, play pickup basketball with your team, climb the monkey bars with your kids, or do whatever makes you feel alive and joyful. This matters just as much (or more) than the quarterly earnings report. Try not to work after 10 pm. Wind down before you go to bed and let go of anything unfinished. Tomorrow’s a new day.