Last year, my company crossed an important threshold: We reached 5 million total users. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your brain around such large numbers, and 5 million is a huge one. So, to put that number in perspective, think about Madison Square Garden, which holds around 20,000 people. It would take 250 Madison Square Gardens to hold all the users our company serves!
We are deeply grateful for every single one of our users. Achieving such a prominent milestone prompts personal reflection: How did we get so many users without VC funding and without experiencing the stereotypical startup drama? Unfortunately, there’s no “one weird trick,” because every business is unique. That said, I used some simple principles that you can also follow to put you on the path to startup success.
The Hollywood version of the startup story usually focuses on a heroic figure who has a “eureka” moment, quits a steady job to start a company, and hustles non-stop, risking everything to win and overcoming all obstacles as the credits roll on the triumphant closing scene. Real-life startup failure rates tell another story. Here are five tips on bootstrapping to help you avoid becoming a statistic (and avoid the drama too):
- Solve a problem: In the movie version of entrepreneurship, the founder follows their passion, and their intense devotion to a shining ideal drives the company’s success. Maybe that happens in real life, but most startups succeed if they can simply solve a real-world problem. For inspiration, look at your industry and try to identify a product or service that doesn’t exist but should and one you have the skills to address.
When you find that problem, consider hanging onto your day job while developing your business on the side. This will relieve the pressure to generate income immediately. Apple, Craigslist, and Twitter all started as side hustles. And if you can’t find or don’t want a startup partner, don’t sweat that either — cofounder conflicts kill many high-potential startups anyway.
- Grow your user base with freebies and smart marketing: I know from experience that it’s possible to build a user base without VC cash. Offering a free version of your product can be an incredibly effective way to grow your user base: Just make sure you’re offering a high-quality product that delivers a great user experience, then communicate the value of the premium version.
You can also effectively market your company on the cheap by creating authentic content that’s genuinely helpful to your audience (and not overly salesy). Join industry groups and become a thought leader. Create a blog or video channel — whatever works with your natural talents. If you can’t hire an SEO expert, ensure your site is simple, clear, and easy to find.
- Listen to your customers: It’s tempting to eagle-eye every move your competitors make and try to mirror them. My company is in the web forms business, and we compete with household names like Google. I think the best way to carve out a space for yourself is to stop worrying about your competition and listen to your customers. It’s important to observe industry trends but prioritize your customers.
Take customer feedback seriously, both negative and positive. Conduct A/B testing to learn your customers’ preferences and consider rolling out the larger new releases to a small test group to see how they’re received in the wild before committing to a broader release. Set success metrics so you can gauge your progress and make course corrections as needed.
- Create an ambition-driven company culture: Startups are all about ambition, but that doesn’t mean you have to hire quickly and burn through employees along the way. I’ve found that slower, thoughtful hiring is a better strategy. It gives you time to figure out which personality types work best for your fledgling business — and time to develop your leadership skills.
Look for people who are excited about the work you’re doing and passionate about making customers happy. Give them the tools to do their jobs well. It’s also important to practice what you preach about cultural issues like work-life balance. The leader sets the tone, and that’s even truer in a small business. Model the behavior you want your employees to emulate.
- Keep refining your product or service: I’m a believer in the continuous improvement model; in fact, I think the modern economy demands it. That means product development is always a work in progress. Sometimes, you’ll tinker with smaller improvements behind the scenes. Other times, you’ll have a big release or major new feature to roll out. In the latter case, careful planning is the key to success. It’s a good idea for strategic objectives to guide near and long-term projects, and success metrics to monitor progress along the way. Depending on your product, internal hackathons can be a great way to move projects forward and work out bugs. As in everything you do, keep customer needs top of mind.
So, in honor of JotForm’s 5 million users, I’m happy to share the secret sauce of our success. If there’s one common theme in all five tips, it’s this: customers are everything. It’s their problem you’re trying to solve with your product or service, their needs to keep in mind as you grow your user base, their feedback you seek as you refine and tweak, their interests you serve as you build a culture, and it’s their evolving requirements you’ll need to meet as you refine and improve what you offer.
The thing to remember about bootstrapping a company is that you absolutely can do it. You don’t have to live the Hollywood script or endure the startup drama. I am living proof — regular people start off small in their garages without VC funding and go on to build great companies. So if you’re ready to bootstrap your startup, keep these five tips — and your customers — in mind, and go make it happen.
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