4,443 words ~ 14 min read

Growing your team

Growing your team

Hire slowly, grow slowly: How we grew from 1 to +300 employees

I shut down my computer and glanced at my desk calendar.

It was January 23, 2011. My company, Jotform, was five years old.

We had six employees, including some terrific designers and developers who spent their days improving and evolving the product.

As the founder and CEO, you might think I was focused on strategic growth. Maybe you imagine spreadsheets and acquisition charts and high-level financial meetings.

The reality?

I was doing customer support — all day long.

From the moment I sat down at my computer until the end of the workday, I answered hundreds of emails and customer questions.

And it was just me. I was a support department of one.

As I locked up the office on that cold day in January, I knew something needed to change.

I had built Jotform without any funding or investments.

I took pride in our slow and steady climb, but this was getting ridiculous.

I placed a job ad the very next day.

By the end of 2011, I had replaced myself with nine customer support staff.

The benefits of a slow-burn startup

Hiring those employees was a good decision — and one that eventually helped us to attract +10 million users, but clearly, I didn’t rush it.

By the time I placed that ad, we not only needed the help, but I also had the resources, experience and wisdom to hire great people and nurture our culture.

Today, Jotform has +300 employees across the world. We’ve continued to grow slowly and consciously.

Many startup experts will tell you to hire fast and fire faster. This advice gets even louder when VC money is in the mix.

When you land a major investment, there’s pressure to grow exponentially and hire a full team — right this minute.

I believe that growing slowly is a great way for entrepreneurs to maintain their sanity and their personal lives, while creating a viable (and potentially more satisfying) business.

It can also help you to build a fantastic team. Here’s why.

1. You wear all the hats, and you learn how they fit

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.

2. You can learn and grow with your team

Back in 2006, I was a developer, not a leader.

You can learn and grow with your team

I had no idea how to manage or motivate people.

When it was just our first employee and I in the office, we ate lunch together every day. We talked and shared ideas, and I discovered what made him feel productive and engaged.

Slowly, I learned how to collaborate, while also serving as “the boss.” It was on-the-job leadership training.

To be clear, I’ve also made a ton of management mistakes. I’ve hired the wrong people. I’ve sometimes failed to provide what my employees needed.

And the first time I had to fire someone was incredibly scary. But, without investor pressure or an instant team of 60, my mistakes were small. They didn’t have huge repercussions.

When a majorly-funded company like Medium has to lay off a third of their staff, that’s an amplified mistake. It deeply affects lives and businesses. There’s real freedom in learning slowly and growing with your team.

3. You can develop an effective onboarding style

Every new Jotform hire goes through Bootcamp. I can’t take credit for this idea, because we stole it from Facebook and Zappos, but here’s how it works in our business:

In their first month, new employees handle at least 100 customer support requests.

It’s the best way to understand our users, their struggles, and their product needs. It also ensures that new hires know every nook and cranny of the software.

After all, you can’t help someone if you don’t understand the product’s inner workings — and most employees say that this hands-on support time proved to be invaluable.

New team members also serve as co-pilots. They spend at least two hours a day, for a couple weeks, working alongside another developer or designer or marketer.

They watch and ask questions. They see firsthand how our employees tackle their roles. Not only do new people learn important skills, but the process quietly strengthens our culture.

New team members (hopefully) absorb values like openness and honesty and a willingness to take risks.

Our Ankara office is on a local university campus. It’s a pretty beautiful place to work, so I also try to go for long walks with our new employees and take them to lunch. In San Francisco office, we take long walks on the Embarcadero taking in the relaxing bay view. I share stories about Jotform and we get to know each other.

Relating to people on a human level matters to me, and it uncovers what they’re hoping to achieve in our company.

Sometimes we’ll hire someone for one position and find they’re better suited to a different role.

I wouldn’t be able to spend this kind of one-on-one time with new employees if I had to go on a massive hiring spree.

4. You can establish deep cultural roots

Startup culture is such a hot topic.

Many successful entrepreneurs say that culture is the foundation of their companies. I didn’t always understand why, but I do now.

You can establish deep cultural roots

Jotform has a culture of continuous improvement. I’ve been heavily influenced by the lean startup philosophy and leaders like Eric Ries.

Many software companies have monthly or six-month release cycles, but we try to release product changes immediately.

It can be a source of culture shock for new employees, but they soon embrace the chance to directly affect our product.

It’s empowering. And it shows that their work will make a difference.

We’re so committed to continuous improvement that we ask new hires to release a product update on their very first day.

Sometimes they’re apprehensive, but we try to ensure everything is prepared and we’re ready for their input. We streamline their onboarding and provide a challenge that can lead to immediate changes.

The beaming smiles we see at the end of the day are an awesome reward.

I love the sense of pride that hands-on action can create. Even when we hit a roadblock, we want our team to know that they are here to innovate and learn.

They can make meaningful contributions. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but it’s a technique we’ve developed to nurture our culture, and it took some time to get here.

5. You can cultivate strong, productive teams

Our company works in cross-functional teams.

Instead of creating silos, we have 5–6-member teams comprised of a developer, designer, UI expert, data scientist, and any other roles the group needs.

You can cultivate strong, productive teams

Most new hires tell me that they haven’t worked this way before, but I think it promotes better collaboration.

Each project has multi-functional input from start to finish, which means that every angle is considered. Small bugs or mistakes don’t multiply into major challenges.

An agile workflow also brings everyone together in a large space to share our screens and demonstrate what we’re working on. Everyone contributes.

We encourage each team member to comment, ask questions, and suggest new ideas.

Slow team growth can be your competitive advantage

I’ve learned what works for Jotform, but what works best for you?

Developing the right style takes time.

Bootstrapping gives you the space and freedom to do it your way and grow on your schedule.

I’ve listened to my employees over the past 15 years and learned what they want and need. I can’t say I always deliver, but I try — and that has also helped us to attract amazing people in a competitive market.

We believe in providing an amazing product. We also believe that everyone deserves to live an amazing life. We work hard to make our customers happy, but our company doesn’t glorify the 24/7 hustle.

We make mistakes and we try to fix them. We’re always trying to improve.

Oh, and I still do some customer support now and then, but I usually leave that to the professionals on our team. They’re much better at it than me.

After 15 years in business, that’s a great feeling.

More success by doing less: The art of delegation

Napoleon Bonaparte knew a thing or two about leadership. From humble origins, he rose to become the emperor of France, and eventually brought most of Europe under his domain.

“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself,” Napoleon once quipped, with characteristic self-confidence.

Believing in our own abilities is important for success. But, unlike the diminutive emperor would have you believe, it’s impossible to do everything ourselves. We all need to delegate.

Delegating seems fairly straightforward, but it can be easier said than done. We’re often protective of our work. And sometimes we don’t trust our team members’ capabilities. Or, maybe we just love doing a certain task.

But in order to grow a business and become a more effective leader, delegation is crucial. It’s essential to free ourselves up to focus on higher-level issues — like growing the business itself.

In the early days of Jotform, I spent full days tackling support issues. Once I hired reliable people to share the workload, I could devote my attention to other things, like improving our product and developing new strategies.

I’ve also learned that proper delegation is an art. And once you strike the right balance, the result is usually happier employees, more satisfied customers, and a healthier company overall.

When you delegate, you empower

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
– Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

Both managers and employees benefit from delegation. Initially, managers have to invest some time in training and creating systems to monitor the tasks they offload.

If you’re delegating client intake, for example, you might carve out time to walk an employee through your process. Then, once the employee starts managing intake, you could create a reminder to review their work every few days, which can happen less frequently as time goes on.

After that initial investment, managers have more time to focus on improving the business. They can redirect their attention from rote tasks to things that really move the needle for a company.

As for employees, engagement typically increases as they take on more responsibility. Professional engagement is all about continually challenging staff, and giving them opportunities to grow and advance. 

You might even find that when given the chance, your team member knocks it out of the park (and outperforms you, too).

When I assign tasks to others, they often accomplish the desired result — and improve the underlying process itself. In this case, both the employee and our company benefit from that simple act of delegation.

How to hand over the reins

First, decide which tasks you can take off your plate. If you’re not sure what’s ripe for redirecting, try delegating when:

  • Someone on your team can do it better. At Jotform, there’s almost always someone who has more knowledge or niche experience than I do — and that’s a good thing. It means we’re hiring well. If you realize that someone else can deliver stronger results in less time, don’t hesitate to delegate.
  • You can regain precious time, energy, or focus. Instead of letting your days evaporate into busywork, delegate. Then you can apply that energy to activities that make a big-picture difference for the business; the kind of work that only you can do.
  • A task is time-consuming (and doesn’t generally require your knowledge or expertise). Tasks that demand lots of initial legwork, like research or data crunching, can often be broken down and reassigned. Once the initial stage is complete, you can easily step in to review and carry the task forward.
  • Time-sensitive tasks are competing with other priorities. Often, we find ourselves with several time-sensitive projects to complete at once. Rather than falling behind on one of them, decide which can be competently finished by someone else, and focus your energy on the remaining project(s).

I recommend starting small. 

When I was ready to delegate, I hired just one customer support employee. Once that person was trained, I built out a team. 

That way, there were no customer support disruptions, even when our first employee took a vacation or a sick day. Finally, I hired someone to manage the support team, and stepped in only to provide feedback when necessary.

Once the customer support system was fully established, I focused on building a maintenance team. Eventually, I reached the point where every part of the business that could be systematized was broken into individual elements.

Habits of great delegators

“When you delegate work to a member of the team, your job is to clearly frame success and describe the objectives.” 
– Steven Sinofsky, former Microsoft executive

Delegating is most effective when managers explain why the work is being reassigned. 

When we start by offering context — how a specific task fits into overall company goals and why the employee is the right person to do it — we increase the chances of effective follow-through.

Additionally, delegation doesn’t mean passing the ball and never looking back. When managers cede responsibility and lose control of team activities, the process has gone awry.

Successful delegators regularly measure results and provide feedback. Even when I’m no longer managing a team, I check in regularly and monitor their performance. Plus, it never hurts to have an outsider, who has fresh eyes, check to see whether the processes are working optimally.

Managers who know how to delegate effectively will assign the deliverable, then let the other person figure out how to get it done. Instead of feeling micromanaged, employees will feel challenged and valued. And when given ownership of a task, most employees are motivated to prove their capabilities.

Also, just because a task doesn’t fit anyone’s job description doesn’t mean it can’t be delegated. If someone demonstrates a high level of expertise and responsibility, give them the chance to shine.

And here’s the final frontier of delegation: asking employees to participate in critical decision-making tasks, like hiring and financial reviews.

For example, you could invite key employees to attend a round of interviews, then ask for their feedback afterward. Most people feel more deeply invested when they know they’re helping to build the team.

Sharing sensitive business tasks can make us feel vulnerable, but the payoff for opening these activities to (the right) employees can also be significant. Staff will be more engaged, and you can free up your time for higher-level projects.

In preparation for my three-month paternity leave, I decided to make my COO responsible for hiring. Delegating this and other tasks that were part of my daily workload allowed me to take a true paternity leave, rather than a chaotic, work-from-home sabbatical.

Be more essential, but less involved

“While it may seem difficult, elevating your impact requires you to embrace an unavoidable leadership paradox: You need to be more essential and less involved.” - Jesse Sostrin, author of The Manager’s Dilemma, Beyond the Job Description

Delegating can be challenging. As leaders and entrepreneurs, we love our businesses; that’s why we started them in the first place. 

Whether it’s coding or working with clients, we often enjoy the daily tasks that keep our companies running, too.

But if we fail to delegate, we hamper both employee and company growth. 

A chef-turned-restaurant-owner might love to cook, but in most cases, she needs to step out of the kitchen. Only then can she devote herself to big-picture goals like building a brand and elevating the business.

In the end, delegating means doing less so you can dig into the more essential parts of your company. 

It’s about enabling the most capable people to take on more responsibilities. 

It’s about building stronger teams and freeing yourself up to do the work that only you can do.

With more engaged employees and managers who are freed up to focus on the business, your entire organization will be positioned to thrive.

Focus on productivity, not efficiency

12 hours.

That’s how long it took to build a car before 1913.

Over the next several years, Henry Ford reduced the time-consuming process to an impressive 2.5 hours.

His goal was simple — make automobile ownership possible for every American by lowering the cost of production.

What wasn’t so simple?

Figuring out exactly how to do more with less.

As a child, Ford stayed awake at night on his family’s farm, taking watches apart and putting them back together again.

His father didn’t support his ambitions, so young Ford ran away to apprentice at a machine shop when he was 16 years old.

Nearing the age of 40, Ford was often looked upon as a daydreamer by acquaintances; they criticized him for preferring to “tinker with odd machines” than work a steady job.

Lucky for us, some of Ford’s friends did believe in him. The future icon started his company with an initial investment of $28,000 and never looked back.

Ford studied the continuous-flow manufacturing processes of breweries, flour-mills and meat-packing plants, before borrowing their ideas to increase efficiency in his factories.

One of his earliest moves? Breaking the company’s Model T automobile assembly into 84 distinct steps.

Each worker was trained in one step and was only responsible for completing that individual task. While this enhanced efficiency to a degree, it wasn’t until Ford implemented power-driven machinery that production really skyrocketed.

The man went on to develop the industry’s first moving assembly line, manufacture more than 29 million automobiles and amass a net worth of $200 billion.

Doing more with less vs. doing more with the same

While Ford’s story is inspiring, his accomplishments weren’t entirely unique. The modern machinery spawned by the Industrial Revolution ushered an era of unprecedented wealth and success for several of his contemporaries.

Interestingly, the “efficiency mindset” embraced by Ford dominated the marketplace all the way into the early 2000s.

Industry leaders like General Electric, Honeywell and HP have all showcased their efficiency programs and associated bottom-line results.

As reported by Harvard Business Review, earnings growth for the S&P 500 ran at nearly three times the rate of inflation during this time period, despite several years of mild growth.

However, the tide began to change in 2015:

“S&P 500 earnings began falling, and earnings growth has remained negative ever since,” said HBR contributor Michael Mankins,

“Without top-line growth, continuing to wring out greater profits through efficiency has become the managerial equivalent of attempting to squeeze blood from a stone.”

Mankin argued that today’s business environment requires a different worldview — one focused on productivity over efficiency.

And I mostly agree.

While efficiency is about doing more with less, productivity is about doing more with the same.

As suggested by a recent survey of more than 300 senior executives — conducted by Bain & Company and the Economist Intelligence Unit:

Today’s most successful organizations are the ones that nurture productivity in the workplace.

Over the last 15 years, focusing on productivity (not efficiency) has helped me significantly to grow Jotform.

I wanted to share some of the productivity practices we have found success utilizing, as well as some of the ones we hope to embrace in the future:

How to lead with productivity

1. Team productivity > individual efficiency

We could get all our designers to sit in one room and developers in another.

Similar to how Ford did it, we could ask each person to take on one job at a time and move on to the next right after.

This way, we could get them to work 100% of the time and become a super efficient organization.

But we don’t. At Jotform, our +300 employees work in cross-functional groups of 5–6 people instead.

Each team includes a lead designer, who works side-by-side with UI and CSS developers, full stack developers, plus UX specialists, data scientists, and any other necessary functions.

And instead of getting each person to work on one task at a time, our cross-functional teams work on one project at a time.

Each team operates like a little company.

They are independent and empowered to make their own decisions.

They come up with great ideas, execute and test them quickly, and constantly build new ideas on top of others.

They work beautifully. No one tries to solve a problem in isolation, so each project benefits from a variety of voices, skills, backgrounds and strategies.

In our offices, each cross-functional team has its own room, with whiteboards, big desks, space to stretch out, and doors that close. It’s amazing how much these rooms have increased their productivity.

Do we utilize our resources more efficiently? No.

But we do utilize them more productively. We boost creativity.

And we would have lost that team dynamic, product ownership and all the ideas generated from the discussion of people from different fields.

2. Get out of the way

During the early days of scaling a business, “bureaucratic red tape” rarely exists. An amazing amount of progress can be achieved in a short amount of time with the right combination of team members.

It’s the steady creep of complexity — coinciding with business growth — that slowly hampers productivity, progress and revenue.

Interestingly, most employees want to be productive. However, the larger their organizations become the less productive they often feel.

According to research conducted by Bain & Company, the average company loses more than 20 percent of its productive capacity to something called organizational drag.

The term refers to unnecessary workplace activities, requirements and regulations pushed by upper-management.

As managers or founders, our job is to question how we can get out of the way and reduce organizational drag.

Take meetings. As Mankins told Sarah Green Carmichael of HBR IdeaCast, the biggest opportunity for enhancing organizational productivity is both reducing the number of unnecessary meetings and meeting participants.

I explained in “Should you walk out of that bad meeting, even if it’s rude?” that not all meetings are created equal. They’re not necessarily a “scourge” on your company.

But it doesn’t mean we should:

  • Stop interrupting the workflow of team members with meetings that don’t necessarily require their presence.
  • And ask ourselves: Do we need a meeting at all? Does this issue warrant taking up someone else’s precious time?

Because the old maxim that “time is money” simply isn’t true. One can always earn more money, but time itself? That is irreplaceable.

Meetings are part of our lives. Ultimately, every founder needs to set their own boundaries and create a meeting strategy that fits their organization.

3. Maximize your MVPs

Most companies have a handful of what I would call all-star MVPs.

You can find them in sales departments, IT departments, customer service departments and sitting behind admin desks.

They come from all backgrounds, educational credentials and job descriptions. And, for whatever reason, they have a disproportionate impact on company success.

Unfortunately, these talented individuals are often placed in organizational roles that limit their effectiveness.

Despite the countless millions that have been spent fighting ‘the war for talent,’ our research suggests that relatively little has been devoted to safeguarding the spoils,” said Mankins,

“Fifteen percent of most companies’ workforce are star players, employees with exceptional performance and the potential to have an outsize effect on strategy execution.”

The truth is every hire can be an MVP given the right circumstances, training and support. This is why I prioritize getting to know each and every new hire at Jotform.

Besides wanting everyone to feel welcome, I want to know what makes each person unique.

I accomplish this objective by asking questions like:

  • What kind of impact do you want to make?
  • Is there anything you would change if you were in charge?
  • Is there anything you think you would excel at doing, but have never gotten the opportunity to try?

The more employees I have working in their “sweet spot,” the more naturally productive the organization will be as a whole.

From what I’ve seen across 15 years of building Jotform, there is NO such thing as an unproductive person. More often than not, there is a person who feels unchallenged, underutilized or unfulfilled.

A recent study referenced in HBR supports this observation:

Inspired employees are 125 percent more productive than employees who are “merely satisfied.”

Translation: The output of one inspired employee is more than double that of a satisfied employee.

4. Lose the “more is better” mentality

We’ve grown to subconsciously measure a person’s worth based off how many hours they work, how much is on their plate and put simply — whether or not they are running around like a chicken with their head cut off.

But, sooner or later, all of us have to ask ourselves what our mission is — is it to be the busiest or is it to make the most impact?

The 40-hour work week became standard in 1940.

The U.S. Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to include the number after a long period of back-and-forth negotiations.

Considering how much the nature of work has since evolved, we must ask ourselves: Why are we enforcing work practices that were developed nearly 78 years ago?

Countries like New Zealand are now experimenting with 4-day work weeks after several studies have suggested zero correlation between productivity gains and hours logged.

As reported by the Guardian, Luxembourg is the most productive country in the world, despite its workers averaging 29 hours a week.

While Jotform has yet to experiment with shorter workweeks, we have experienced significant boosts in productivity due to flexible work hours.

Every person has different peak hours of performance.

Those who prefer to sleep in are welcome to start their day a little later. And those who prefer a traditional schedule can come in early.

Additionally, we encourage team members to take frequent breaks to recharge their batteries. Studies indicate that the average person cannot engage in critical thinking for longer than four hours at a time; anything after that is wasted effort.

And it makes sense — the more mentally refreshed employees feel, the more high-quality work they are likely to achieve.

I try to practice what I preach as well. Every year, I take at least a full week off from my company and head back to my hometown to help my parents with the olive harvest.

All thoughts of startup growth or conversion rates slip away when you’re picking olives. It’s meditative and calming.

I know that olive picking won’t land me at the top of TechCrunch, but it’s a personal measure of success. And somehow, some of my best ideas come to me during this period.

Switching from an efficiency mindset to a productivity mindset hasn’t happened overnight, but it’s been worth it.

Each change has produced significant gains in terms of happier employees, higher performance and increased profits.

And isn’t that what we all want?

Announcing the new Jotform