Nearly two decades of entrepreneurship have taught me many lessons, including this one:
All thoughts of startup growth or conversion rates slip away when you’re picking olives.
View from the top of an olive tree on my family’s hometown in Turkey.
Every year, I take at least a full week off from my company, JotForm, and head back to my hometown to help with the olive harvest.
I know that olive picking won’t land me at the top of TechCrunch, but it’s a personal measure of success.
I wouldn’t miss it for anything — and I’ve structured my business to ensure that I can be there. There’s nothing like standing high on a ladder, toiling next to people you love, to help you remember what matters most.
It’s meditative and calming. And it’s surprisingly hard work.
Last summer, my wife and I had a new baby. I spent most of those precious days at home, getting to know the little one and savoring the sunshine with my family.
I have an incredible team that also works SANE hours. No one is tearing their hair out or waking up in the night worrying about landing pages or A/B tests.
I slowly grew JotForm from a few hundred signups to over 3.2 million users, without any investment money. I wanted to ensure that I could have a successful company and a fulfilling life.
Most tech publications worship the 24/7 hustle, not a slow-and-steady growth plan, but the freedom I’ve earned along the way represents my dream of entrepreneurship: the dream of having control of my work and my life.
What happens when you fly under the radar
Bootstrapping your company is not a great way to get PR. It’s true. JotForm has many users, yet I suspect that few of those customers know my name. That’s okay.
I certainly wouldn’t refuse a magazine cover or two, but I know that’s not what matters most. I also wouldn’t take VC money just to get into the news.
After all, what does a day or two on the front page really do for your business — especially when most of your target customers don’t even read tech publications?
Does the attention boost your ego or show your mom that you’ve “made it,” even though the coverage probably won’t translate into real business?
Once the attention spike crashes, you’re still left with the need to build something amazing. You’re right back where you started.
Take our product, for instance. JotForm makes it easy for anyone to create web forms, whether they know about coding or the competitive world of digital startups.
Our customers don’t necessarily care about industry valuations. They just want the product to work seamlessly.
We do work with a PR agency sometimes, but I don’t believe in spending a fortune to pursue publicity. It feels like a distraction.
Every minute spent trying to attract eyeballs and attention could be better spent building a product that customers truly love. That’s always the most important thing we can do.
Still, it’s natural to feel some FOMO or to internalize aggressive growth pressures, especially when you’re facing fierce competition or your rivals are announcing one investment round or another.
When Google steps into your industry ring (like they did with Google Forms), that pressure can feel even more intense.
It’s also easy to assume that most founders are chasing fame (in addition to fortune), but at least several entrepreneurs have admitted that landing highly publicized funding rounds can put you under a microscope.
Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, for example, made headlines when her company (which raised $65 million over 10 years) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016.
Now that she’s raised money for a new venture, critics and fans alike are tracking her every move.
When well-funded startups go down, that’s big news, too. With serious money often comes serious scrutiny.
Most importantly, when a company grows too quickly, the founders often spend a good chunk of their time extinguishing fires. A slow burn, on the other hand, can be contained.
There are always challenges, but you’re rarely faced with an out-of-control blaze.
You can go to work, focus on making something great, and go home to live an equally great life. That matters to me. I know it matters to our team, as well.
I also believe that our customers can feel the difference. They know we’re stable. They know we’re always trying to improve and make their lives easier.
Slow growth can protect your sanity
So, you won’t be reading about our Series A round or the latest corporate valuation, at least any time soon.
I’m glad I don’t have investors to please, and I’m not worried about exponential profits. Bootstrapping isn’t always the easiest road. It also requires a lot of patience.
My advice? Take your time. Build your life and your business. Don’t get caught up in the roller-coaster news cycles and short-lived trends.
It worked for us, and I hope it can work for you, too. Just remember that the road to success can be winding. It took us 12 years to become a market leader. We earned our customers gradually, over days and weeks and months and years.
But whenever I’m knee-deep in olives, I know we’ve made the right decisions. I’m grateful to have a healthy business and a whole lot of freedom.
That’s what startup success looks like to me.
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Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com