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I bootstrapped 2 companies for 10 years - AMA

Hey everyone,

I am Ching, co founder of Piktochart and Piktostory.

Piktochart (since 2011) is mostly known as an infographic maker, and we help professionals communicate impactful stories.

Piktostory (since 2021) is an easy video content creation tool, that focuses a lot on repurposing.

I've been quietly following the progress of a few startups here and thought I'll also share our 10-year journey on Piktochart and Piktostory.

We're a 4 day work week company, with a fully remote team of 40+, and have been bootstrapped for 10 years.

Ask me anything!

  1. 5

    Awesome, thanks for the AMA! I have a few...

    • How did you get your first few users?
    • Did you ever consider getting funding? If so, why didn't you go that route?
    • When did you know it was time to hire your first employee? What role did they play and how did you go about hiring them?
    • Was there ever a time you got discouraged and wanted to give up? If not, what has been the hardest part about running Piktochart over the last 10 years?
    • What advice do you have for early founders trying to get their product off the ground? (i.e. me building Removaly).
    1. 5

      Hey Kyle,

      Thanks for the questions.

      I'll answer them in parts too.

      • How did you get your first few users?
        Hustle, and a lot of it. Went by everything I knew, including previous contacts at agencies and friends working at different places to give it a try. Went to lots of startup competitions to get advice and a "feel" for what were the product's weakest points. I also did everything that was possible to come up with content (I learned SEO as I went along) but 10 years ago, I was just pumping content without much research.

      • Did you ever consider getting funding? If so, why didn't you go that route?
        Many times! Specifically, in 2014, we got term sheets. We ultimately decided not to go down that route because my co-founder, Andrea and I had no intent to build the next unicorn. Our intent was to scale the business in a profitable way and build products that we and others would love, while maintaining very sane lifestyles for everyone working in the company.

      • When did you know it was time to hire your first employee? What role did they play and how did you go about hiring them?
        We actually hired the first developer and graphic designers at the same time. We came off Demo Day, and knew that we had to keep building. We did the "normal" route of hiring by posting on job boards and interviewing them face to face. I now cringe when I think about the questions I used to ask :P

      • Was there ever a time you got discouraged and wanted to give up? If not, what has been the hardest part about running Piktochart over the last 10 years?
        Absolutely. I think the hardest parts were the latter half (from 6th to 9th years) of the company. I got to that point because we hired some questionable fits.

      We have been privileged to work with some of the most amazing people on the planet, but I wasn't very good at making it clear what the company was going to be and not going to be. That, my friend, is not a smart move. :-)

      As founders, we've got to keep reminding ourselves why we exist, and communicate that back to the rest of the team.

      • What advice do you have for early founders trying to get their product off the ground? (i.e. me building Removaly).
      1. Validate constantly - test your best ideas in the smallest way possible.
      2. Know exactly what you want to be (e.g. how big, how fast, what makes you unique from a team, product, brand perspective).
      3. Don't stop learning. Make time to keep growing yourself (reading, get a coach, etc.), even if it seems like you have a million things on your plate.
      1. 2

        That was suuuper helpful! Thank you so much!!!

        Especially thinking about funding as that's on our minds now. I love the idea of bootstrapping and making a stable, steady company that has happy employees and happy customers - without the need to sacrifice those things to please investors or scale too fast.

        I also appreciate the part about how important hiring is. That's definitely a good thing to tuck into the back pocket for later :P

        And a great reminder to hustle!

        I much appreciate the other thoughts and advice too! This is gold.

  2. 2

    Hi Ching, I'm curious about at what rate do you grow while bootstrapping? Are you happy with that or do you secretly want to get more growth? :D

    One more thing, who's your role model in building bootstrapped companies and why?

    Thanks!

    1. 1

      Hey Llia, thanks for your question.

      While I can't talk publicly about our current growth rate, I'll say that we're content with the lower double digits. It took me a while to get to that place of contentment because the earlier years of Piktochart were fueled by almost 100% growth year on year!

      Our "bootstrapped" role model is Wildbit - it's also a husband and wife team and they have been doing this for 20 years. They played the whole game well, rolling out products that people love, protected their niche in an increasingly competitive space, while also doing a 4 day work week and being people-first. 😍

      1. 1

        Thank you! Will check on WildBit

  3. 2

    Thanks for the AMA!

    I've been using Piktostory and loving how much time it saves me.

    Given that it's quite a different product from Piktochart, where did you get the inspiration to create it?

    Who's your demographic for Piktostory and does it overlap with Piktochart?

    Thank you!

    1. 2

      Hey Giulia, thanks for your question and for using and promoting Piktostory!

      We were looking into storytelling and trying to find another medium. The contenders were between no-code immersive websites and videos.

      We went for videos in the end because true to the reason of promoting storytelling, we felt that people were looking to connect in an authentic and real way, and nothing beats videos. This thought came pre-pandemic!

      Piktostory currently is geared for the individual video content creators - coaches, entrepreneurs, course creators, etc. Piktochart has a wider spectrum of users, but there is an overlap with Piktostory's users too!

  4. 1

    Thanks a lot for the AMA.

    • I would like to know about your journey to your first $1000 (absolute or MRR). How long it took, what kind of experimenting you did, etc.
    • And how long did it take to get your first 1000 paying customers, how did you and your team grow to handle them?
    1. 2

      Hi Srinivasan,

      Thanks for your question.

      It was pretty fast actually. We were in beta since Dec 2011 and already got some press coverage. When we launched around March 2012, there were free users who were waiting to pay as the Pro tier gave them more templates and assets. I remember that there were 3 paying customers on the first day we went live!

      The earlier days were filled with "growth hacking" before that term was even coined. I did a lot of content marketing, invested somewhat in SEO, PR, and basically went from blog to blog requesting that they reviewed our product. No special sauce, just the normal hustle.

      Our first 1,000 paying customers was a bit of a hack as well. At that time (June 2012), we were approached by Appsumo. We thought there was nothing to lose to get our product in front of 500,000 early adopters (at that time). We signed up and I believe we were one of the best selling products that year.

      We did not repeat any lifetime deals after 2012, so those were really the early adopters. It helped to do a few things for us:

      • Gave us the confidence to keep going.
      • We got a lot of feedback which ultimately led to a form of product-market fit.
      • The people who were using us also referred us to their friends, and word-of-mouth was the highest source of traffic we got in the first year.

      I think I single-handedly answered CS tickets all the way up til the end of 2012, which was great as I got a lot of feedback, digested it, and worked nimbly with a very small team. Around Nov-Dec, we hired the first CS person on the team.

      1. 1

        Follow up question about the Appsumo deal.

        What percentage of appsumo users are still using regularly even after 9 years?

        And would you recommend doing a lifetime deal for someone launching a product today?

  5. 1

    That's very impressive and your dedication for 10 years is commendable.

    My question for you is, How did you manage the marketing for both of the products? Did you do it parallely or one at a time?

    Thank you for doing this & congrats!

    1. 2

      Hey Vaibhav,

      Thanks for your question.

      The Piktostory team is pretty small for now. We have dedicated marketing resources for Piktostory, but we also share some expertise between the two teams. My time in general is quite divided between the two at the moment, e.g. I've decided to focus Q3 on Piktostory and may go on to focus on Q4 next on Piktochart.

  6. 1

    Hey! That's very impressive!
    We are slowly migrating to having remote software engineers! What kind of project management software/workflow would you consider the most efficient?

    1. 1

      Hey Philip,

      That's a great question. We were still figuring that out up til this year!

      In the beginning, I'll be honest that we had 0 process/workflow.

      We tried Asana, Trello (Kanban), and then moved on to Scrum and now, we're finally on our own version of a mix of several concepts including Shape Up https://basecamp.com/shapeup.

      Our planning is set by OKRs, and that works on a yearly >> quarterly >> monthly focus. Our teams typically work in one month sprints: 3 weeks of development, and 1 week of cooldown. We tried to remove the cooldown but it simply didn't work - the developers needed some "wiggle room" to debug, refactor and do whatever they deemed important without having the backlog in its way.

      The annual plan has a mid-term goal of what the company aspires to get to and the rough building blocks to help us get there. The quarterly OKRs have a lot more granularity, which the teams then estimate, discuss and prioritize what they want to build. There's even more granularity at their sprint planning every month - the developers and PMs use a mix of Confluence and Jira to prioritize their tickets.

      Let me know if you have any other question!

  7. 1

    How did you execute and how did you find a co-founder?

    1. 1

      Hey Ajai,

      Thanks for your question.

      I didn't have to find a co-founder as I'm married to my co-founder ;)

      In terms of execution, I did product and marketing in the earlier days, and outsourced as much HR/finance work as I could. While my co-founder took care of tech as well as development.

      To be honest, we did not have a playbook. I was immensely focused on both growth/marketing and product during the earlier 2-3 years. We listened to users, and built, validated as quickly as we could. The same was for marketing - I focused a lot on content marketing, as much PR and SEO as we could go.

  8. 1

    Thanks a lot for doing this! :)

    1. In your experience, how long should it take going from an idea to people paying for your product for 10-20 seats?
    2. When and how do you know it's taking you too long - so perhaps people don't need what you're building?
    3. Is it okay to still be at $0 revenue in 12 months after settling on the idea? When would be the line when it's time to change things up?
    4. Idea to $5k MRR - how long is too long?
    1. 1

      Hey, thanks for your question.

      1. In your experience, how long should it take going from an idea to people paying for your product for 10-20 seats?

      Do you mean how long it takes to go from idea to at least 1 paying team of 10-20 seats? We added on collaboration pretty late in our journey. Collaboration only came into the picture in 2018. So that's like 6 years into the journey?

      Our experience is atypical - most SAAS products these days come built-in with collaboration.

      1. When and how do you know it's taking you too long - so perhaps people don't need what you're building?

      I recommend listening to users as much as possible. We're currently sending the questions of "How disappointed would you be if this product did not exist?" as well as "What would you use if Product A no longer existed today?" Both help to understand whether we're solving a much-needed pain in the market and also gage the substitutability factor. The other thing is also looking at the acquisition, conversion, and retention numbers.

      There should be some amount of word of mouth/organic referral if the product has found a product-market fit of some sort. Conversion is to look at whether or not the product has the ability to be monetized properly, and retention is the obvious holy grail metric that every SAAS product has to track from the beginning.

      I would give it about 1-2 years for a bootstrapped company (with limited resources) to find product-market fit.

      Before building, understand as much as possible through mockups and general interviews to save yourselves time iterating and iterating again, which creates an overhead the second you've hired multiple people on the team.

      1. Is it okay to still be at $0 revenue in 12 months after settling on the idea? When would be the line when it's time to change things up?

      In #2, I mentioned that looking at acquisition and retention numbers as well. There are several products that do not focus on conversions or paid customers until later on. Given I have no context about your space, I cannot comment too much.

      But would recommend talking to users to find out why they're not paying as well as making tweaks immediately to the business model/pricing. I'm assuming there's traction in the freemium?

      1. Idea to $5k MRR - how long is too long?

      I don't know if there's a standard answer to this. I can tell you when that goal was for Piktostory. It was one quarter after launch (not considering the time we're in beta).

      Hope that helps!

  9. 1

    Super inspirational! My question - how do you make sure that you attract high quality talents and how to vet the candidates throughout the hiring process? Is salary the main factor in doing ensuring good talent?

    I also feel that interviewing candidates remotely makes this even tougher! Hope to hear your thoughts on how to navigate through these challenges.

    1. 1

      Hey Yong Ling,

      Thanks for the question.

      How do you make sure that you attract high quality?
      Every year, we said to ourselves that we are going to get people better than us, and an even better cultural fit than the year before.

      This is tough, because that means that we have gone on for 24 months on a vacancy before! It takes a lot of discipline to say "no."

      ** Is salary the main factor in doing ensuring good talent?**
      Compensation plays a part, but shouldn't be the only factor. Talents are often looking at the challenge and how this role helps them progress in their career. Any smart talent would be happier with a lower compensation knowing that they can grow together with the company in the future.

      How to vet the candidates throughout the hiring process?
      The first thing we do is to ensure a good pipeline (and my HR does this part of prospecting in various channels). I'll then reach out, have the first conversation to explain role, challenges, be brutally honest about what's ugly in the company... followed by a few more team interviews, allowing them a good view into the company.

      I don't think there are any special techniques in the hiring process. I usually "bare all" in the interviews and see how the candidate responds to the challenge. I also tend to ask for their opinion on a problem I'm wrestling with. These answers usually give a good understanding of their line of thinking and if we would be able to work well together.

  10. 1

    Hi Ching! Thanks for doing this.

    10 years is a very long time in "startup years". Congratulations!!

    • What's a common piece of startup advice that you think founders should ignore?
    • What advice would you give to a founder that wants to make it to year 10? (I'm on year 2, and it's crazy hard!)
    • Do you have an exit plan or do you want to keep doing what you're doing for 10 more years?
    1. 1

      Hey France,

      Yes, 10 years in a long time indeed ;)

      • What's a common piece of startup advice that you think founders should ignore?
        If you don't hustle, you're not going to make it.

      • What advice would you give to a founder that wants to make it to year 10? (I'm on year 2, and it's crazy hard!)
        It is important probably to dig deep and think about a "reason to be" - what made you be an entrepreneur in the first place?

      It may be money, "fun", a problem you saw in the world and you wanted to fix it, or a combination of it ;)

      For us, it was people. Andrea and I became unplanned entrepreneurs because we both didn't fit into the companies we worked at. We were misfits, and we dreamed of building a workplace that would have "no Monday blues." It sounds cheesy now, but being surrounded by a team that we do not deserve kept me going during the darker days.

      • Do you have an exit plan or do you want to keep doing what you're doing for 10 more years?
        "I will proactively evacuate my position as CEO if I am no longer useful to this company ;)" is what I wrote in my user guide manual.
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