My company, JotForm, recently hit an exciting milestone: We reached 5 million total users for our web forms. That’s equivalent to the population of New Zealand — if you don’t count sheep, of course. I’m thrilled, but mostly, I’m grateful, and I want to share what we’ve learned along the way.
Here’s how we grew the company from a simple idea to a product that now serves millions worldwide.
1. Focus on your customer (not the competition)
Our business is web forms—everything from surveys and feedback forms to performance appraisals and inspection forms—and we operate in a tough market where even Google is nipping at our heels.
Many of our competitors want to “elevate” forms. They write posts about artificial intelligence (AI) and provoking conversations. Some claim that forms are dead, while others try to coin new terms and jargon.
Let them fight for the “cool-kid” badge. Our customers want flexible solutions that support their businesses. They don’t care if we’re on the bleeding edge. We know because we asked, and we continue to listen to them.
A strong customer focus also enabled us to log over one million new signups in a single year. How did this happen? It all starts with data.
First, don’t assume you know what customers want. Listen to qualitative feedback—especially if you continue to hear similar ideas—but collect and review hard data.
For example, if you update a product, process, or system, release the changes first to a small test group. Set clear metrics to measure user reactions and adjust accordingly. In our experience, making sudden, unrequested shifts can undermine customer trust and loyalty.
Next, invest in customer support. Some people question the wisdom of companies that employ more support reps than salespeople, but these are the businesses that achieve great things.
Customer support is critical for growth—and it can also drive innovation. Support staff should be empowered to speak up, contribute ideas, and explore real customer needs, instead of robotically resolving a stream of tickets.
2. Ambitious companies attract ambitious people
I have a deep respect for culture-driven companies like Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and Warby Parker. They understand that their employees determine their future. You can dream up wildly creative marketing strategies and try to growth-hack your way to success, but a healthy company starts with hiring talented people and ensuring they’re challenged and happy.
A great product lays the foundation for growth, whether you’re selling shoes, airline tickets, or glasses. Standout people want to work in organizations that make an impact—and there are many ways to shine. That impact doesn’t have to be as laudable as solving world hunger. However, if your employees support customer creativity, joy, productivity, or even create a fantastic workplace, they’re making an impact.
We create web forms, which may not seem that exciting at first glance. But we support entrepreneurs and help them trim hundreds of hours from their workload by automating things like appointment scheduling, model release forms for photography sessions, and user surveys.
Internally, we also practice continuous improvement by investing in training and conferences. Our teams are empowered to achieve their goals and have unparalleled independence. We provide challenging work and don’t micromanage.
Our hack weeks, five-day sprints during which teams focus on a single challenge, encourage innovation and creativity, and let our star employees shine.
We’ve created an atmosphere of growth—and that fuels the company’s growth.
3. Boost productivity for exponential results
It’s important to distinguish between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency means doing more with less, while productivity means doing more with the same resources. The world’s most successful organizations understand that growth demands productivity, and they nurture it carefully.
As JotForm grew from my New York City apartment to a company of over 150 employees, I’ve learned that team productivity always tops individual efficiency. That’s why we divide our product-side employees into cross-functional teams of four to five people.
Each team includes a lead designer, developers, UX experts, data scientists and any other applicable roles. The groups are diverse, independent, and empowered to make their own decisions. They also tackle one project at a time, which creates significant momentum.
We also work hard to slash red tape. Minimizing bureaucracy can enhance growth, and as you expand, it becomes increasingly important to get out of the way. According to research from Bain & Company, the average firm loses more than 20 percent of its productive capacity to “organizational drag,” which includes noncritical activities, rules, and regulations upheld by management.
As Bain’s Michael Mankins and Eric Garton write in their book, Time, Talent, Energy, “a sluggish organization, one that can’t make quick decisions and take quick actions, leaves itself unusually vulnerable, at risk of being left in the dust, outpaced by leaner, fitter, and more innovative competitors.”
Get to know your employees, too. Learn what they love and what makes them tick. In my experience, few people are genuinely unproductive; they just feel unchallenged, underutilized, or unfulfilled. But when people work in their sweet spot, everyone has the potential to supercharge their productivity.
4. Don’t rush to hire or fire
Business experts often advise founders to hire fast and fire even faster. That advice usually gets louder when companies take venture capital. Securing a big investment often adds pressure to grow exponentially and hire a full team immediately. However, slow growth is still growth, and it’s often more sustainable and more satisfying.
Starting a business typically means wearing every hat, especially in the beginning. The juggle isn’t easy, but you will know each role intimately. When it’s time to hire, you know which skills and attributes to seek.
Slow growth also gives you time to learn. I was a developer when I started JotForm, not a skilled leader. A steady pace allowed me to make my worst errors before the stakes were high.
Taking time to develop your onboarding style is equally essential. For example, every new employee at our company handles at least 100 customer service requests in their first month. This step ensures the staff knows the product inside and out—regardless of which team they eventually join.
New hires also serve as copilots with more senior staff. They can ask questions, learn skills, and observe how seasoned employees function in their roles. In turn, this process reinforces our culture.
5. Protect your downtime
When the standard response to “How are you?” has become “Busy!” something has clearly shifted in our culture. We now measure people’s worth—even subconsciously—by how much they work.
When someone is too frazzled to eat or sleep, we applaud their commitment. Yet, do you want to be the busiest, or do you want to have the greatest impact? If we look at the habits of the world’s greatest thinkers and entrepreneurs, they all take time to reflect and do nothing.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates first developed “Think Weeks,” which have since been adopted by Skillshare’s Mike Karnjanaprakorn, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss. Gates attributes much of Microsoft’s growth to the big ideas he conjured up during these weeklong retreats.
If a quiet, work-free week by the ocean is out of the question, there are other ways to harness the power of downtime. Try a weekend break from your smartphone or other devices. Schedule a real vacation and don’t work during it.
One of the biggest misconceptions about growth is that we need to gut it out, but we’re better off taking time to fully recharge. Then we can return to work refreshed and ready to go.
Research shows that overworking not only depletes our mental and physical resources; it also lowers our productivity. I view quality time off as a measure of success. It’s a core principle across our company, and I believe it helped us to hit that 5-million-user mark. Creating a sustainable, growing business means learning to balance your passion and drive with personal wellbeing.
Still not convinced? Explore strategic rest periods. Leave your desk after 90 minutes of focused work and take a screen-free break. Go for a walk, ideally in nature. It’s not always easy to build in rest, but try scheduling some personal time in your calendar and make it a priority. Hit the gym and consider how muscles grow: We need to stress the body, then let it recover. It’s the only way to get stronger.
It certainly wasn’t easy growing to 5 million users, but it’s not rocket science, either. Don’t worry about what your competitors are doing. Make your customers your priority.
If your company is ambitious, you’ll attract the best employees, who will, in turn, make the organization more productive. Focus on productivity, not efficiency.
Take your time to hire employees and grow your business. And don’t relinquish your downtime. It’s necessary for you to be productive and to produce quality work.