For 10 years after I launched JotForm, we tracked just two numbers:
- 1. New signups
- 2. Total active users
I didn’t care about any other statistics — and I definitely didn’t watch vanity metrics like weekly growth rates and website visits.
Obviously, new signups are a good thing. Attracting more subscribers means we’re on the right track with our product. It also keeps us profitable.
Measuring total active users is even more important. Those numbers show whether or not people are logging in and creating web forms.
If you’re focused on short-term cash, it would be easy to say, “who cares if they’re actually using the product?”
After all, a paying customer is a paying customer. A gym still makes money if well-meaning people buy memberships but never hit the treadmill. A magazine doesn’t know if subscribers read past the front cover.
User engagement is the wrinkle in this argument — and it’s not just a feel-good policy.
JotForm now has 3.2 million users, but it took us 12 years to get here. We’ve never had any outside funding — and if we’d gone deep into growth hacking, vanity metrics and tiny optimizations, I believe we’d still be spinning our startup wheels.
Caring about your customers is good for business.
It’s not a tagline; it’s an effective way to bootstrap your company.
Instead of obsessing about button colours or newsletter open rates, here’s what I believe will move the needle.
1. Listen (with an open mind) to what your customers are saying
I’ve been sharing the benefits of slow growth for a while now. I believe in step-by-step progress, because it takes time to build something worthwhile.
JotForm began as a free product, and my only goal was to get people using the software. I thought, “if I can get someone to try it, then I can talk to them.”
Luckily, the 15,000 people who signed up in 2006 did just that. They shared requests, problems, feature ideas and frustrations. They didn’t hold back.
The message wasn’t always easy to hear, but we did our best to listen and respond. When we released the premium version a year later, 500 people upgraded.
I don’t think we could have hit even those modest numbers without gathering so much feedback.
How did we get all this information? Usability testing.
The UX field has become increasingly sophisticated, but even 12 years ago, we recorded participants as they used the product for the very first time.
We conducted 20 or 30 of these tests per day. We hired people to watch the videos and report back to our tiny team. Then, we applied what we learned and made changes, both big and small.
Your customers always have opinions. Ask about their experiences, watch how they use your products or services, and listen closely. There’s so much to learn.
2. Allocate resources to reducing customer churn
The web is packed with growth hacking tips, but few people talk about the resources required to make these little shifts.
For example, it takes time and energy to re-design landing pages and shopping carts. Who is A/B testing every headline in your customer email — and what else could they be doing?
Every hour that you spend obsessing about a banner photo could be spent improving your core product or service.
Split testing a font might bring you 0.00003% improvement, but at the end of the day, do customers really care?
Serve them instead.
Make their lives easier.
Help them get better at what they do.
Dedicate the bulk of your time to growing their businesses.
You don’t have unlimited resources, especially if you’re bootstrapping. Make your work count.
What does that mean, in a tactical way? I’ve learned, for example, that SaaS products thrive when customer churn is low.
If people sign up, then cancel, your bucket is leaking. You’re always looking for new people to fill the holes. So, the only way to reduce your churn is by improving the product itself.
Sure, you could hide the “unsubscribe” button and find tricky ways to prevent people from leaving, but if they don’t like what you’re selling, they’ll do it anyway.
Dedicate those precious resources to product improvements that truly satisfy your customers.
3. Solidify your offering, then you can optimize
Growth hacking is all about tiny optimizations, like shifting a button. Changing banner colors. Using a different word in your CTA.
Small changes can be helpful, but think about what the word optimization actually means: “to make something as perfect, effective or functional as possible.”
Optimization can’t start at the bottom. You need a solid foundation before you can even dream of perfecting what you do — whether it’s improving a sales page or running a faster mile.
You also can’t design or build by A/B testing. Define your problem and find a solution, then optimize your approach. Apply those growth strategies after you’ve got a great product.
4. Blend team functions and encourage real transparency
In 2014, we hired a marketing team and a growth team. They work together to spread the word about JotForm and engage with our customers.
In essence, our growth team executes the marketing department’s plans, like preparing and coding a promotional email blast.
To be clear, we use the term “growth team,” but this group is not obsessed with A/B tests or miniscule optimizations.
Instead, they collaborate with all our other teams to encourage product-driven growth — and the key words here are “product-driven.”
Ultimately, team labels don’t matter. What’s more important is that your employees understand as many elements of the business as possible.
They should know what drives customers and what numbers you’re tracking. What does success look like in your startup? Make sure everyone can see the goal line.
Never stop stretching and innovating
When you clear the growth hacking mentality and put the customer on a pedestal, it changes everything you do — and how you do it.
For example, we’re preparing to launch a new product, called JotForm Cards, in just a couple weeks.
The idea emerged about a year ago, when our team sat down to talk about taking web forms to the next level.
What could (and should) we change? How could we better serve our users? Everyone got fired up to tackle this meaty challenge.
Three product teams completed seven intensive hack weeks, giving us 21 innovations to choose from. We picked the best option and we’ve been working on it ever since.
I won’t go into detail (and I’m not trying to sell you anything), but I wanted to share how our team thought about this new product, in case it inspires you to approach your offerings with fresh eyes.
Making cards better also meant collaborating with our customers. Some people in the test group, for example, wanted to stick with basic forms.
They weren’t interested in change. We listened closely and worked hard to address their concerns.
Even when you’re trying to grow and innovate, customer feedback, usability testing and candid conversations are a daily priority. Feedback should never be an afterthought.
Unlike those little optimizations, innovation is so satisfying.
There’s nothing like consistently sculpting your idea into something more beautiful, more useful, and more relevant.
That’s the ultimate reward of entrepreneurship.
So, give yourself the gift of focus.
Step back and look at where your business is heading.
Then stay fixed on what you’re trying to bring into the world — not whether your “buy now” button should be 10% bigger.