1,566 words ~ 5 min read
The six principles of the undistracted entrepreneur
The party is underway. You’ve invited friends, colleagues, and a few intriguing strangers. But instead of welcoming your guests at the door, everyone has to climb in through a window and immediately join the conversation. There are no warm greetings. No time for people to catch their breath, or brush the raindrops from their coats. And there’s nowhere to stash purses and bags.
For 10 years, that was Jotform.
When I started the company in 2006, we had a website, but not a homepage. Visitors were launched directly into the product, without orientation or explanation. This is how Jotform looked like back in those days:
It wasn’t until 2016 that we added a virtual front door.
My goal wasn’t to force people in through the window; I just wanted to demonstrate that the product is incredibly easy to use — and that anyone can get started in minutes.
Most importantly, I thought designing and building a homepage was a distraction.
Studies show that people who are easily distracted and crave new experiences are more likely to start businesses. And in the early stages, fun diversions like picking website fonts and finding illustrators on Instagram can mimic real progress. These activities feel important, and they give you tangible “things” to show friends and family members who wonder what you’re doing all day.
Yet, staying focused is the single most important way to build and grow your startup. Avoiding distractions has enabled us to build Jotform to where it is today. We’re still laser-focused on the work that matters to our users and customers.
At the same time, I know that diversions are everywhere. No matter where you are in your startup journey, there’s always a shiny, new object ready to derail your progress. But after 15 years of trial and error, I’ve learned how to dodge disruptions of every kind.
Every stumble and misstep led me to develop what I call the Principles of the Undistracted Entrepreneur. So, if you’re spinning your wheels, here are six ways to ensure you’re working on what matters most for your business — each and every day.
1. Don’t follow the leader
Founders who dive into the startup world face a barrage of ideas and opinions about how to do it “right” (including mine). Instead of struggling to fit a constrictive mold, break free and do it your way.
Don’t hire or raise funds just for the sake of it. Don’t waste your time on PR just to get clicks from people who will never return to your site again. Don’t rebrand because you think you need to keep things fresh.
Since 2006, Jotform has had one logo. We’ve tweaked it a little along the way, but we've just launched our first major rebrand. Why did we wait so long? We needed to get the product right. Branding is also one of those fun distractions that can quickly lead you down a rabbit hole. Before long, you’ve spent precious time and money creating a stellar logo — but you don’t have any paying customers, and your product is still full of glitches.
Real progress means developing your first version, releasing it to users, and gathering continuous feedback. This has always been our priority. Even after 10 years, ensuring more people would fall in love with the product remained our mission-critical task.
Jotform is finally rebranding because we’ve undergone a significant evolution. We still make easy-to-use forms, but we’ve become a home for powerful products that boost productivity. In the same vein, you’ll know it’s time to act when the market and your customers demand it. For example, if you’re bogged down in admin work and you can afford to hire, it’s time to post that job. Or if you need a cash infusion to unlock a signed distribution deal, book those VC meetings. Do it when you need to, not because you’re trying to follow the so-called rules or keep up with your peers.
2. Fixate on real people, not customer prospects
Today’s startups all seem to fly the “customer-obsessed” flag. It sounds impressive (and honestly, kind of intense). But cut through the jargon and this simply means listening and responding. Listen to users and customers by asking questions, doing UX tests, running surveys, and gathering timely feedback. Probe deeper into any issues that emerge and develop creative ways to address them. Keep asking and improving. It’s not flashy, but it works.
Remember: you’ll still hear about competitors who spend a fortune on branding agencies. You’ll read breathless headlines about startup darlings who raise one record-setting investment round after another. Don’t worry about it. Tighten your blinders and get back to work — listening, responding, improving.
And speaking of other founders, it’s never been more important to focus on customers, instead of the competition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the pace of new business applications since mid-2020 reached its highest level on record. The Kauffman Foundation also reported that the rate of new entrepreneurship was “substantially higher in 2020 than in 2019 or in previous years.”
Whether newly-unemployed founders launched a business during the pandemic, or people who saved extra money during lockdown or re-defined their priorities chose to chase a dream, there’s more competition than ever before. How many of these businesses will make it? In my experience, it depends who can avoid distraction and serve real customer needs.
3. Create your own motivation
Staying focused requires motivation — and here’s the not-so-secret truth: you have to create it for yourself. Getting positive feedback is one of the quickest ways to infuse a little motivation into your day. Look at how many people are buying and actively using your product. That’s what matters, not vanity metrics like user acquisitions or website visitors. Even one paying customer is a vote for your product, and now you have a responsibility to serve that customer well.
Most entrepreneurs are especially distraction-prone in the early days of their startup. But even as you get further down the road, diversions continue to pop up like a game of whack-a-mole. From chasing venture capital to going on a hiring spree, these activities often feel good, but they don’t necessarily advance your business.
Avoidance can be another source of distraction. Many entrepreneurs don’t want to face their core numbers. I’ve had peers who know things aren’t going well, but they don’t dig in and do the math. They believe that if they keep their heads down and work even harder, the ship will magically turn itself around. Unfortunately, that’s rarely how it happens.
Take a deep breath and analyze the foundation of your business. Know what’s most important: for people to use the product or service, to provide real value, and to make even a small difference in someone’s life. Seeing that in action can inspire you to work through challenges, big and small.
4. Avoid getting stuck in the weeds
I often mentor young entrepreneurs who want to add every feature imaginable before releasing their product to the world. My response is always the same: “get it in front of people.” Dreaming up new features can be a major distraction — especially before you know how real users will respond to what you’ve created.
What can you do to make your product or service useful right now? If you can’t create an MVP that people will use immediately, you’re not providing real value. Some founders also think that exceptional branding will attract a big following. They look at companies like Apple, with its crisp, clean visual identity, and think that’s how Steve Jobs launched the world’s largest technology company. But no one would care about the branding if the products didn’t work beautifully and solve sticky problems.
5. Know you can’t eliminate distractions, but you can manage them
Peek into my office on any given Tuesday, and I’m probably calling our UK bank to activate a credit card, meeting with an employee who needs support, and doing a video chat with our marketing team. As a leader, I’m always pulled in a hundred different directions. That never goes away, but you can learn how to deal with ongoing distractions.
For example, I recently hired an executive assistant. It’s the first time I’ve had this kind of personal support in 16 years. Delegation, in whatever form that takes for you, can be a powerful way to complete tasks that move the needle for your business. Time-boxing is another good strategy. Decide on your most important activity for the day, week, month, or year, and put it in a non-negotiable box. Everything else should remain outside your field of view.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I planned an offsite with our marketing manager. We spent a full day in Berkeley walking, talking, and tackling critical topics. We didn’t slip in any calls or emails; we concentrated on our time together and made incredible progress. That was another form of time-boxing.
6. Go back to the basics, again and again
Staying focused is truly a founder’s superpower. Even if you’re an easily-distracted entrepreneur who loves to chase the next big thing, it’s essential to remember why you started in the first place:
What are you really trying to build?
Why does it matter?
Who will it support?
These questions can get you back on track, whether you’re struggling to finish important tasks or you’re feeling tempted to start a side hustle.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to go a decade without a homepage, but carving away the excess is always the right move. I have no regrets about our stark digital presence, because polishing our website and brand identity was a distraction we couldn’t afford — until now.