There are some “rules” of business success most entrepreneurs abide by. But many also have their own “secrets”—things they do or believe that helped them achieve success. In “Secrets of Success,” a weekly interview series here at Web.com’s Small Business Forum, I ask some of today’s smartest, most innovative, most successful business owners to share their insights and success secrets with you.
Meet: Aytekin Tank, founder and CEO of JotForm. While Aytekin was working for a large Internet media company in New York City, one of his tasks was to create tools for editors to build forms, surveys and polls. He noticed the low quality of the products in the form-building space. Forms were too hard, too tedious and required too much work on the front-end design as well as the back end.
In trying to find an easier solution, JotForm was born. Founded in 2006, JotForm was the first WYSIWYG form builder, enabling users with no technical expertise to build their own online surveys, applications, contact forms, order forms, event registrations and more; plus the ability to organize and store all of the collected information in the cloud.
Today, the company has over 1.8 million users. You can talk to Aytekin on Twitter @aytekintank.
Rieva Lesonsky: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Aytekin Tank: I always wanted to be a programmer. When I was in the middle school I joined a weekend programming class. This was still the ‘80s so I didn’t have [my own] computer. During the week, I counted days impatiently. I dreamed about code in my sleep. I planned what I wanted to do when I got back in front of the computer in detail. This passion shaped my career.
Today, I am back in the same place. My days are filled with managing our teams and sending countless emails. I sometimes wish I can find some time and just write code.
Lesonsky: Why did you start your own business?
Tank: I remember something my father once told me when I was small. I told him, “I am going to be a computer engineer and I will be rich.” He replied, “Engineers don’t get rich. Businessmen do.” That quote always stayed with me at the back of my mind.
Starting my own business was accidental. While in college, I developed a website for a student organization. I wrote an app similar to Facebook (this was five years before Facebook) to keep track of member profiles. I released it as an open source product and it became popular. People started begging me to take their money and make custom modifications for them, so I did. One winter semester break I slept during the day and programmed during the night and released a better version of the product with a price tag. That’s how I started my own business.
After I graduated, I didn’t believe in myself. I wasn’t really a serious businessperson. I didn’t know much. So I found a full time job as a programmer in a large, NYC-based media company. I worked there for five years and gained a good amount of experience. I was still full of passion about the great stuff I would accomplish. I left there and [started] working on my company, JotForm, [full time].
Lesonsky: Did you experience a pivotal moment on your way to success?
Tank: JotForm started as a completely free product. After the first year, we decided to release a paid premium version of it. We were doing new releases very early in the morning. We released the new version thinking everybody would be asleep and we wouldn’t see the first order for many hours. Unexpectedly, an order came in like a minute after we released the paid version. It was an order from Spain so it wasn’t early there. That was a pivotal moment—releasing the paid version of JotForm and our first customer paying us within a minute.
This story reminds me of another founder who also attended my alma mater, Fred DeLuca. He was the founder of Subway. When he opened his first store, the very first day, people formed a long line in front of the store. That’s when he knew it was going to be big.
Lesonsky: What’s the best small business advice you ever gave and/or received?
Tank: I have bootstrapped my business. I never took any debt from a bank or an investor. Cash is the lifeblood of any business. Having to earn what you spend teaches you all the good habits: Serve your customers well; keep your expenses low; don’t go overboard with hiring and grow your business slowly.
I advise other small businesses owners to take their time and enjoy the journey. Build great companies and products slowly. It takes 10 years to build a great company.
Lesonsky: What’s one “best practice” more entrepreneurs should be embracing?
Tank: Learn to take criticism well from customers. When customers get angry, it means they really need your product badly. Otherwise, they would have already moved on to greener pastures silently. Customers who complain are your best friends. They are telling you how to improve your product. You have a choice: You can either ignore them or you can take the opportunity to improve your product.
Lesonsky: Do you have a prediction for small business?
Tank: Blogging is back for small businesses. We started a Medium channel as a company and I blog there and I encourage every employee to blog openly about their work. Blogging candidly about your company earns trust [from] your existing customers and creates awareness about your products.
Lesonsky: What’s your favorite book?
Tank: My favorite book is The Goal. It is a business novel about creative problem solving. It tells the story of a factory manager who is in trouble and how he faces his problems. What the book really about is the “theory of constraints” and how to solve business problems using it.
Lesonsky: Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?
Tank: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”—Charles Darwin
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Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Google+ and Twitter.com/Rieva, and visit her website, SmallBizDaily.com, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.