There’s a painting that resides in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Oil on burlap, the scene shows workers on a vineyard in Arles, France, the river running alongside reflecting the evening sun.
The original buyer paid 400 Belgian francs in 1890, about $2000 in today’s currency. Painted in a single day on November 5, 1888, it is the only painting Vincent van Gogh sold in his lifetime. He bartered other work for food or art supplies and spent most of his life impoverished.
In “The Red Vineyard,” van Gogh created a masterpiece. Sadly, he died before he received fame or recognition, but his posthumous legacy cements him as one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
Today, van Gogh’s paintings sell for north of $70 million. Is his work any more exquisite today than it was in 1890? Of course not. It’s the same painting no matter the price tag. The value always existed. It just needed the right customer.
There are more differences than similarities between artists and startup founders, but there is one critical likeness that is required: a foundational belief that the work they are doing is valuable. Van Gogh painted not because he expected to make a ton of money doing so, but because he believed in what he was creating.
I’m no van Gogh, but that same belief in what I’m creating is what’s gotten me up in the morning for the last fifteen years. It was the voice that reassured me that bootstrapping was the right call. And even now, after growing into a thriving product with 9.1 million users and over 300 employees, knowing in my bones that I am building something valuable motivates me every single day to be the best leader I can be.
What doesn’t do that? Money.
Money is great. It’s a powerful tool and can be an excellent motivator. Unfortunately, when building a business, chasing the money often means running down the wrong path. If Van Gogh had been a commercial artist, we probably wouldn’t know his name right now. Chasing value is an act of faith, in your work and in yourself.
It starts from day one.
When I started JotForm, I imagined an easier way to create web forms. The products in the market were built to make surveys, but I wanted something more flexible than that. Creating a company to solve your own problems is a risky proposition, but it meant that from day one, I knew I was creating value.
According to the Elements of Value, there are four different tiers of value you can provide to your customers: functional, emotional, life-changing, and social impact. The model was built around Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and includes thirty different types of value ranging from “avoiding hassle” to “self-transcendence.”
At JotForm, much of the value we provide our customers is functional. We save users time, simplify processes, and reduce the effort it takes to build what they need. That was the value we set out to deliver, and we’re proud to do that well. But, that’s only part of the value we provide for our customers.
Over time, we’ve realized that our purpose is to make people and organizations more productive. Providing that value is life-changing. By making people and organizations more productive, we are unlocking potential. We are giving people the tools to be the best they can at what they do. That self-actualization has farther reaching impact than we’d ever imagined our product could.
The Element of Value model shows that when companies lead with value, the money will follow. Companies that performed well across multiple values had more loyal customers and higher and more sustained revenue growth. Companies that add more value can even retain customers through high price increases. Adding value, in addition to increasing revenue, increases customer trust and loyalty.
Increasing value makes everything else easier.
At JotForm, I made early strategic decisions that have allowed us to focus on the customer over the competition. The decision with the biggest impact? Bootstrapping.
Bootstrapping has allowed us to innovate on our own terms, at our own pace. Investors, for obvious reasons, are more likely to chase money than value, and they themselves can be a value-add for companies.
But, focusing on increasing profits for shareholders is not the path to success. In their 50 year study of visionary companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that lasting companies were not committed to shareholder value or even maximizing growth. Rather, they were committed to having an impact on the world and understood their place in it.
Chasing value instead of money sets your company up for long term success in a way that strict cash plays don’t. In many ways, it actually makes everything else easier. It’s easier to find and retain top talent when they’re aligned with your purpose and values versus just in it for the paycheck. It’s easier to build for sustainability and keep focus instead of following the quick-money trend. And, it’s easier to market and sell your product when your “why” is increasing value for your customers instead of your shareholders.
For example, investors would likely think our decision to have no sales people and 24/7 customer support was not the right move. And if we were chasing money, it might not be. But, that staffing adds more value to our customers. We’re available to solve their problems quickly and give them a better customer experience. A byproduct of a better customer experience is better financial performance. We chase the value, and the money follows.
Ultimately, we’re able to make choices that empower our customers instead of trying to control them. We can keep an eye on the competition without spending time and resources responding to it immediately (they get it wrong sometimes, too). And, we can take our time building the right thing, not just the thing that would get us written up in TechCrunch.
Sustainability is rarely sexy — at least in the tech world — but focusing on the impact you’re having on your customers and the value you’re creating for them will last a lot longer than the trend that will come and go by this time next year. The money will not only follow; it will grow.