Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I do interviews for real entrepreneurs who listen to my interviews and then they go out there, they build their companies and ideally, they come back here and do interviews themselves about how they built their businesses. Today’s guest has been through what I call the Mixergy circle.
Aytekin: Yes, big fan of Mixergy for a very long time. I’ve been watching your show for many, many years.
Andrew: Well, thanks.
Aytekin: I’m very happy to be here.
Andrew: I’m really excited to have you on here. You don’t understand. I got knee deep into your world. I’ve known your company. The person you’re listening to right now, his name is Aytekin Tank. He is the founder of JotForm. JotForm enables you to create online forms super easily. They’ll host it for you. You can put it on your website. It’s super simple and very functional. We’ll talk about that in the interview.
I’m excited to have him on here because he’s the kind of person who’s been on all those forums that I’ve been on forever, building his company in quiet and just making it into something really big without ever having that big TechCrunch moment where they say, “Look at me, I raised this much money.” In fact, for a long time, I’m going to say that TechCrunch would not want to cover you because if you did say, “Look at me,” it would be, “Look at me. I’m working at a company while building my company on the side and look at me, I continue to work for five years at my full-time job.”
No one gets excited about that. That’s not a sexy story, but it’s definitely a Mixergy story. I invited him here to talk about how he did it. This interview is sponsored by two companies. The first will host your website right. It’s called HostGator. The second is going to help you hire your next great developer. It’s called Toptal. First, it’s good to have you on here, Aytekin.
Aytekin: Thank you, great to be here.
Andrew: All right. Let me hit you with the question that I know you don’t want to answer, so we might as well get it out of the way here. Revenue, how much revenue are you guys producing?
Aytekin: The revenues, I feel like it’s similar to the salaries. We have never talked about our revenues in public. So kind of I will not be able to answer that.
Andrew: It’s definitely over $1 million, but that’s an easy mark to talk about, right?
Aytekin: Oh, yeah, it’s over that.
Andrew: Can we say over $10 million?
Aytekin: No, let’s just leave it . . .
Andrew: Just over $1 million. Are you profitable?
Aytekin: Yes, we are profitable. Yes.
Andrew: How many users do you have, both free and paid?
Aytekin: 2.5 million users. Most of them are free users. But the number of paid users also we don’t publicly announce.
Andrew: Okay. Can you give me a range of them? Paid users, more than 1,000?
Aytekin: Oh, yeah, definitely.
Andrew: More than 10,0000.
Aytekin: Yes, definitely.
Andrew: So you have a substantial number of paid users, substantial number of free users. We’ll talk about how you built up this business in a moment, the differences between paid and free. But that accent, where is it from?
Aytekin: I’m from Turkey.
Andrew: Okay. When you were growing up in Turkey, what was entrepreneurship like there?
Aytekin: That’s a good question. I feel like I haven’t had—when I was growing up, I haven’t had any entrepreneurship experiences. For some reason, many people who are entrepreneurs, they will say, “When I was a kid, I had a lemonade stand,” or stuff like that. I never had anything like that. In my case, my entrepreneurship story started when I was in college. I was in the U.S. at the time.
When I was in college, I was a member of a student organization. I was actually building their website. I was making—this is 1999, by the way—I was building their website. I made a membership section on their website and made some profile sections. This is like many, many years before Facebook. So profile is something interesting at the time.
Andrew: Why did they need profile in a membership section. We’re talking about Bridgeport University. Am I right?
Andrew: Okay, University of Bridgeport is how you say it. Why did they need that?
Aytekin: What’s that?
Andrew: Why did they need a membership and profile section?
Aytekin: So that members of the student organization can log in to their account and they can have a profile and they can browse each other. It’s kind of similar to how Facebook started.
Andrew: I see. You were enabling them to talk with each other online to communicate, so you wanted to create an account for them complete with profile, am I right?
Aytekin: Yes. When I created that software, I thought I’m going to put this as an open source product out there. I had no expectations. I put it out there. And suddenly people actually started downloading it and they started sending me checks. I would customize it for them. I would make new features for them. It’s actually how I started on entrepreneurship because people were actually calling me inside in the [inaudible 00:05:23].
Andrew: [no audio 00:05:24]
Aytekin: I lost your voice.
Andrew: Sorry. We’ve been having tech issues here today, the two of us. But what you were doing was building it for free, giving it away for free and they kept coming to you and saying, “Give us this feature. We’ll pay you.” What’s an example of a feature that someone back then was willing to pay for?
Aytekin: I think one example would be seeing other members who are online. This is kind of a membership software. It was actually a [inaudible 00:05:54] software that you could actually install in your website. It wasn’t like today’s SaaS software that you actually use it from a website. You actually download the code and run it on your own server. So people would actually run it and they would say, “Okay, I need to be able to see online users. I need to be able to search users. I need filters.”
People kept coming back to me. What happened was this was the last winter break of my senior year. I actually didn’t take a break. I actually worked during the night and slept during the day, and I actually created the premium version of my product. It was the paid version of my product. I released that at the end of my senior year. I started selling the software at that time. That’s how I jumped into entrepreneurship.
Andrew: Why work at night and sleep during the day?
Aytekin: I don’t know. I don’t do anything like that anymore. I think I was just young and it was so silent and I could work for hours and hours without any disruptions and during the day, I could just sleep. I think it’s about being young and different.
Andrew: Okay. You started adding more features. You started selling it. How did it sell?
Aytekin: It didn’t sell a lot. It was only selling $1,000 a month or something like that. It was just answering all those custom questions, doing marketing for my product, all those things. I was making so many mistakes, but I was also at the same time learning how to produce software, how to actually answer customers, how to sell.
Even my English wasn’t that great. How to write correct emails, stuff like that, I was learning all that stuff. But I had no confidence in myself. So I never thought I would ever start my business. I was also looking for a job. This product actually helped me find a job. Because I was already writing software, I found a job and I worked there for five years until I actually quit and started my own business.
Andrew: You worked as a senior web developer for Internet.com.
Andrew: Internet.com owned a bunch of different brands, right?
Aytekin: Yeah. Internet.com, we had like over 100 websites. I was one of the developers. Especially after those internet bubble burst times, we were like a really small team and were doing lots of different things. I was handling SaaS products. I was handling websites, all those things, I gained so much experience there. Here’s the thing. While I was working there, I was still working on my membership software.
Andrew: I’m sorry to interrupt, but I want to talk more in depth about that membership software. It was called Profile Manager. You sold it for what, $150? It was a downloadable piece of software, am I right about that? The company name—the reason I saw this is I went back and looked at old SitePoint posts from people about it. I looked to see what customers thought back then of it. I looked to see what your old website looked like.
The site was Interology because it was internet technology, right? You were selling it—you know what? It seemed like it made a lot of sense back then. The one thing that was strange is I go back and see all the companies in their About page said nothing. It was, “We’re a company who cares about people.” Nothing. There’s no mention of the founder or the founding story. Today it’s the opposite. It’s all about the founding story and the team and cool looking photos, but it worked, right?
Aytekin: It actually worked, but it wasn’t—it didn’t have like big growth. It was kind of just selling little bits. By the time it was 2005, when I actually quit my job, it was equal to my full-time salary. So it was only selling $3,000 per month. It wasn’t that big. It was linear. There wasn’t any growth in it. That’s why I didn’t actually continue with that product.
Andrew: Meanwhile, in your full-time day job, people are coming to you with the same problem over and over again, which was what led you to create JotForm and that problem was what?
Aytekin: Basically, what was happening was one of my duties as a developer was to actually create forms. Our editors needed forms for like questioning, surveys, polls, quizzes, stuff like that, like 100 different kinds of forms. I would always build these forms, but I would think this was just too boring. I wish there was a product I could use so I don’t have to spend time on it. I had all the other more interesting problems to field.
So I decided I will just research and find the product and give it to them and instead of building these forms, I will let them build their forms. I looked around. I saw SurveyMonkey, but it was only for surveys. Our editors needed—a survey was only like 1% of their needs. So I looked around and there was not any good alternatives. There were some products, but they were really terrible. This was in the back of my mind that one day, if I quit my job and start my business full-time, this could be one of the products that I would work on.
Andrew: Okay. You said, “I might, if I quit my job do it.” But at some point, you said, “You know what? Maybe I don’t even have to quit my job to do it.” What made you decide finally, “I’ve got to just start this thing?”
Aytekin: So, basically, what was happening was I was waking up 6:00 a.m. in the morning. I would answer [inaudible 00:12:22] questions from my own business, the membership software business and I would do customer support, sometimes installations for them on their own service and then 8:00 a.m., I would go to work, work full-time and then come back home, do the same thing again.
So what was happening was I had no time to actually work on my new ideas or anything like that. The products I had weren’t growing. So I decided, “Here’s my plan—I’m going to quit my job and replace the job with working on JotForm, my new product.” So, in the summer of 2005, I quit my job and every morning, I woke up again.
I did all that stuff, answer sales questions, answered customer support questions, did the installations, everything, and then I started working on JotForm. Instead of going to the office, I would just sit at home and sometimes I would just walk around. I was living in Brooklyn. I would just walk the Brooklyn Bridge, walk around in Manhattan, sit in a Starbucks, sit in a nice coffee in West Village or East Village and I would continue working on it.
Andrew: Just hammer away at your code. The reason you could afford to do this is by then, Profile Manager, this company that you told me and product that you told me was not doing gang buster business was still producing enough to cover your salary. So you said, “I’ve got enough of a salary.” Let me ask you this. This is a personal question, but I think it’s important. Were you in a relationship at the time? I don’t know how you’d have time to be with someone when you’re working nonstop like this.
Aytekin: Yeah. I was in a relationship at the time. I actually didn’t work Sundays, for example. I actually had like one free day. Saturdays, I wouldn’t work too much neither. So I would work in the day and go out at night. So I wasn’t that strict, but during the weekdays, I would actually do this because—
Andrew: This was just like a job. It seems obsessive because you’re kind of running two different products, but you’re saying, “Look, I had a thing I was doing before work and then work, which was JotForm, and then a little bit of that thing I was doing after work.”
Andrew: Let me take a moment to talk about my sponsor and then we’ll talk about what you did next to get people to pay attention to the software and how long it took you to build the software and then the horrible thing that happened to you that I still see tons of posts on Hacker News about. I don’t know how you recovered from that. But first, the company I want to talk about is Toptal. Have you ever used Toptal to hire developers?
Andrew: But meanwhile, you hire developers from—and we’ll talk about this in a little bit—from Europe, even though you live where?
Aytekin: Basically, I live both in San Francisco and in Turkey.
Aytekin: So I actually move between those two places.
Andrew: Got it. Here’s the thing that happens. In San Francisco, you do have phenomenally talented developers. I can see it, these guys are so freaking brilliant, but I also know what some of them make because they talk to me about their salary. You don’t feel comfortable talking about what you make.
I don’t know what it is, but these people in the Bay Area have no problem talking about their freaking salary and about the benefits and the benefits that they’re working to get. And they’re super smart. I get that if the market allows it, they should absolutely go for that. They should get as many benefits as they can. The problem is if you’re building a business, you don’t want someone who’s obsessed with their benefits.
You know there are shuttles coming in from San Francisco, but there are no shuttles coming in from Half Moon Bay. So they’re working to get a shuttle to come from Half Moon Bay so they don’t have to drive in to the shuttle stop from Half Moon Bay. This is the way people are thinking. If you’re Google, good luck. Everyone should be thinking this way. Everyone should be thinking that.
If you’re a company that’s bootstrapped like JotForm or a company that cares about the bottom line, you want that same level of talent, but you don’t want the same level of pampering. What do you do? What you want to do is hire from all over the world, not just the Bay Area. That’s where Toptal comes in. They have a network of people that they really not just recruit into their network, but they pamper them with contact. They pamper them with education. They stay connected.
So someone who might be in Turkey who may not know other developers, Toptal says, “You’re strong enough to be in our network. We’ll connect you with other developers in our network so you have brainstorm off of, people to challenge you, people to think through problems with.” Then they say to business owners like you and me if you need a developer, if you need a team of developers—full-time, part-time, project basis, whatever, come to us and we’ll hook you up. That’s exactly what they do.
So if you’re out there and you’re looking for the best of the best developers, really learn from the fact that so many people who interview here do not hire from the Bay Area but do want Bay Area talent and go to Toptal. As a matter of fact, it’s also created by two Mixergy fans, so they’re giving you something they’re not giving anybody else.
When you go to this URL that I’m about to give you, Mixergy listeners like you are going to get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when they pay for their first 80 hours and that’s in addition to a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks. That’s top as in top of your head, tal as in talent, Toptal.com/Mixergy, Toptal.com/Mixergy. Look at this—they’re trusted by Airbnb, Zendesk, Thumbtack—Toptal.com/Mixergy.
You told—actually, you didn’t tell me. You wrote this on your Medium blog. You said, “One of the best things I did was get a job.” Before we go into the entrepreneurship part of your story, why do you think that it was helpful for you to have gotten a job and stayed in it for five years?
Aytekin: At that time, I remembered that I had no—I didn’t actually have confidence in myself. So I didn’t think that I could just out of college start a business, My story is always incremental. It’s cool and I’m just making the software for this organization and then I put it up there and then people start using it. It’s always an incremental story. So it’s just a big jump from having that small side project to jump in and starting my own business.
That’s why I thought I will find a job and maybe in the future, I might start my business. I’m actually glad because I gained so much experience working at Internet.com for five years. I had so much responsibilities. Because of the bubble burst, we had such a small team and we had so much responsibility and so much things to do. I learned so much there.
Andrew: So you’re saying, “Look, I got to do so much that I learned a lot. It might even be better than school.” As a result, you became a better entrepreneur. Can you give me an example of something that you learned there that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise, something that helped you with JotForm?
Aytekin: I learned how to manage and how to develop a SaaS site before SaaS or anything like that was made. There was actually one site called [inaudible 00:19:49], which is kind of similar to Google Analytics of today. But in the 1990s, counters were the whole thing. The counter had lots of features similar to Google Analytics. It was actually completely free, one of the products made by Internet.com. Actually, they bought it from a Swedish entrepreneur.
It was free because it came with so much banners. This was an ad business at that time. Because of the bubble burst, the ad revenue ended. They decided let’s turn this SaaS business into a real business and start making money and turned that free product into a paid product. I was at all the meetings about making decisions. I actually implemented everything and did everything on that product. So, before that, I was thinking, “I need to sell my products one at a time.” Then I saw how big it can get when you have subscription business, like when you sell monthly subscriptions.
Andrew: Yeah. And that level of experiments. . .
Aytekin: Yeah. The SaaS word, I don’t think it was named, coined until like 10 years after that.
Andrew: That makes a lot of sense. I still remember in the early days of SaaS, even as late as 2008, I think the guys behind Basecamp, who pioneered this whole SaaS world by talking about it, blogging about it, even they had to keep answering the question of what happens on an airplane. If you download software to put on your computer to work on an airplane or when the internet is out or when you use SaaS, what happens when the internet goes out or when you’re in a place like an airplane.
They had to explain that and teach people it’s okay, you’re not in an airplane much and believe me, you’re going to be surrounded by internet if you don’t already have internet everywhere. Then also the pay part, you’re right. There was a period where everything on the internet had to be free and if you were charging, you had to justify it, explain it. Even going back as early as 2009 in Mixergy interviews, I would have to ask the question, “Why did you charge?” to people like Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs because back then, people didn’t believe anything should be paid.
I see. You’re saying, “I was on the inside. I saw these decisions, I saw it worked, I saw the numbers internally that it could work,” and that I can see then led to a shift in your business. The first software was downloadable. I even found an old SitePoint post where someone says, “I bought this. I downloaded it. I’m going to resell it. Who wants to buy it?” The new product was not downloadable. It was software that you put on the web and stays on the web. You also said Gmail is revolutionizing the way people interact with software, I’ve got to make it like this Gmail experience, meaning specifically what?
Aytekin: So, basically, this is 2005 and Gmail came out in 2004. It was really different. Before then, you were used to seeing products like this. If you had to write an email, you click on any link that says compose email and then go to the next page, fill out the form and click on the submit button. You’d go to another page and it was like that.
But Gmail introduced the idea to the world that you can actually have this on a single page. I don’t think they invented it, but they actually made it available to the world, like people actually started seeing the possibility of that after Gmail. In Gmail, you could use everything within a single page without actually changing the page on your browser. People would say things like internet or browser similar to what you do on a desktop computer.
At that time, even the email was like Outlook. You would actually download the software, install it on your computer and use it from there. You wouldn’t use it from your browser. At this time, single-page web apps, this is what they were called, were coming out. Ajax was actually coined in 2005, asynchronous communication with the server from browser, so that you can actually say things with the server without actually making it like click on the submit button. Ajax was coming out.
Drag and drop on browser, probably it was possible, but people were finding out you could actually do that. Stuff was coming out. I need to make a product so people can create forms easily. All these different technologies are coming out at the same time and in my mind, they stuck together and I was anxious to see JotForm right—before I built it, I could actually see there is like this empty canvas.
I kind of imagine similar to Visual Studio and the first version actually looks like Visual Studio, where you have all these fields and all these properties on the side and you have all the properties at the top. So you have this empty canvas. You can actually add questions or fields into your canvas and you can create this form and reorder your questions and configure your emails or settings for your forms. So, I mentioned that. I quit my job in 2005, summer and work until February 2006, more than six months. That’s how I created the first version of JotForm.
Andrew: So I know you were looking online before you started this company to see were there any form software. It did exist. I interviewed the founder of Freedback. I’ve become good friends with Aaron, the founder of that site. It existed, but they didn’t do this whole Ajaxy experience you’re describing. Many of the software that existed used older technology even than Freedback. That was this big change, that this new piece of technology was available and now the world changed.
This I find happens so much. How many times were there dating sites for the web, but then you needed in this mobile experience to reimagine what dating sites would look like on mobile or frankly f or every bit of technology. I don’t have other examples that come to mind this second. I get it. I get the point of it and why it took you so long to build it up. Did you also presell while you were doing this?
Aytekin: No. Actually, on the reverse, because I only had some—I had [inaudible 00:26:40] because I already had these products I was selling the membership software. So I had no rush. Even though I was still bootstrapping, I had no rush to actually sell JotForm and have a paid portion. What I wanted to do was I wanted to actually create this first version and just put it out there as a free product. I thought this was kind of revolutionary. I thought people would love it. I didn’t want to have people sign up or anything. I just put the form right on the homepage.
Andrew: I’m on it right now. I’ve got to tell you if you go back to Internet Archive, it still works. It’s a form that says name, last name, address, etc. and then on the right side of the form us a toolbox with buttons I could put in. All I could do is drag and drop them in there. That’s impressive that I could take a button and put it right there, a file uploader. This was your idea. The thing I don’t see is where’s the email address or anything?
Aytekin: Email address?
Andrew: Yeah, how are you collecting email addresses from people who are interested or getting them to sign up?
Aytekin: Basically, that was actually a sign up link.
Andrew: That was meant to be a sign up form?
Aytekin: No, it’s not. Maybe the archive doesn’t show it. There was actually a way to sign up.
Andrew: You were so excited. You said the thing that’s really unique about this is people can drag and drop any field they want on to their form. I’m not going to tell it to them in words. I’m going to let them see a form they can drag and drop. I get it. It still to this day has that kind of impact me. I’m looking at a version of your site from November 26th, 2006. So you get all this going. You finally get the thing built. It’s time for you to go out there and promote it. What you did was you reached out to forums you were a part of. You reached out to bloggers that you knew, right?
Aytekin: Yeah. So idea was because I created all these products in the past that weren’t successful, I was thinking how would I get the word out about JotForm? I thought the biggest thing was this is the actual year of the single page web apps. There are even websites like Ajaxian. They’re probably still—I don’t know if they changed the name.
This was big news because people were always talking about these new technologies and what people are doing with it. I thought I will use the technology to promote my product. That’s one of the reasons I put the form builder right on the website, so when people come there, they can try it out and see how it works and be impressed by it. This was 2006. You wouldn’t be impressed by it right now but you would have been at that time.
Underneath it, I see people commenting, “That’s pretty nice.” “I like the tool dragging effects.” “I’m not sure what the point is of that feature.” That’s great, even works on Safari.” I can see you going in there, I can see people even—here’s this guy, Jasper, who runs a website called JustAddWater.dk. Do you know him?
Aytekin: I don’t remember.
Andrew: You probably forgot him. His blog is basically down. In 2006, he had a blog that was pretty popular for instant usability and web standards. He’s talking about this new way of creating forms and he linked to you. All of that was what you did to generate attention in the beginning, all very manual, all very personal. How many users did you get from that? Do you remember?
Aytekin: I remember that in the first year, I had about 50,000 users.
Andrew: All free.
Aytekin: Free users, yeah. During 2006, I believe, I had 15,000 users and I was given like 50 signups per day on average. That’s what I remember. So I actually emailed all these technology niche sites. I actually posted on the forums and actually, I was—business of software was really important for me because I was actually—I would spend lots of time there reading and sometimes commenting but mostly reading. I would email to all these technology blogs.
At that time, I also had a blog and I would write about it there as well. Even before launched it, I started blogging. The name of the blog was, at that time, Wed Applications Are the Future. At that time, the big discussion was the desktop software is the [inaudible 00:32:10]. Web apps can never be as good as desktop software.
Even today, when I look at Hacker News, I see so many similar things, even today. People say stuff about virtual reality or whatever new technologies, machine learning or artificial intelligence, whatever is the topic of the day, people are always seeing things like this could never be a big thing. This could never be as good as what we have right now.
At that time, that was the discussion about having apps on the browser was a big thing. We could actually use that, that discussion to actually promote my product and talk about my product. At the same time, I actually believe in it. So it’s something I believe in it and it also has my product. So, I would use it to write to bloggers. At that time, blogging was actually nicer. I think at some point, Google made it so that people actually are afraid to link to each other.
Aytekin: Google turned the web into some place that people are really—they don’t want to link to each other.
Andrew: It’s more than that. People don’t want to link to each other because they don’t want to lose traffic. You work so hard to get somebody to come over to your website, you don’t want them to go over to someone else’s website. It used to be the gadget sites would profile a new gadget and then when they talked about it, they would link out to it or the new sites would. Then eventually, what they did was they stopped linking out within the article and then underneath in the resource section that nobody checks out, they would link because you want to keep traffic on your site.
Aytekin: In the past, people actually saw each other as friends, bloggers. But after Google became so much more powerful, bloggers started seeing each other as competition. After, blogs were never the same because people weren’t actually conversing from blog to blog anymore.
Andrew: Let me ask you this, with JotForm I can accept payment, right?
Andrew: Let me do a sponsorship message for my advertiser and then we’re going to come back with your story, including that horrible thing that happened. Let me take a moment to talk about HostGator.
Check this out—tell me what you think of this idea. Imagine you’ve got nothing but a website and a JotForm account. So many different businesses that you can build with that, I’m going to throw out one—what we’ve found is that people like communities but they don’t like being on Facebook for communities. Imagine if what you have is a site for—let’s find this set of communities—entrepreneurs. You come to the site. There’s a form that says join our entrepreneur community, you fill out your information and then we get you access to a Slack group.
Now, if you want access to the private section of the Slack group, then you come to another JotForm on my site and you pay $50. It comes to me because JotForm can collect credit cards and then I give you access to the private chat area. Super simple, takes nothing but a HostGator account, which costs a few bucks a month, plus a JotForm account and boom, you got it up and running.
Here’s another one—imagine what you want to do is you realize real estate people and other business people do well when they send out not just email but physical postcards. It’s a pain in the neck to send out postcards. I’m going to go to HostGator.com. I’m going to install WordPress one-click install, nothing more. I’m going to get a JotForm account, nothing more. Then I’m going to connect it using Zapier to a service called Lob. So, when somebody, let’s say a real estate broker or an online podcaster like Andrew has a list of their customers’ addresses. They can go to the form and say, “I want to send out this card,” and upload a picture of the post card and have another upload with all the contact addresses of the people who they want to send it to, hit a button and pay, also with the JotForm.
Then all that data through Zapier goes to Lob.com and Lob.com sends out the postcards on behalf of Andrew. You put this kind of website up and anyone can use it to send out cards. The thing that I’m saying is there are lots of different business ideas. You can start super simply with nothing but a HostGator account that has one-click install for WordPress and most people think of WordPress as the place that you create blogging software, but frankly, that’s old.
Today, WordPress houses so much more than blogging software, including ecommerce sites and single page ideas like the ones that I just threw out. And if you want to super power it by adding JotForm, so much the better. Put a form up there and use it not just to collect data in surveys but also to sell something and collect payment.
So, if you’re out there and you’re listening to me and you haven’t started something or want a side idea, go to HostGator.com/Mixergy. They’re going to give you super low rates to host your website and they’ll give you one-click install of WordPress, which means you can use things like JotForm on your website and you can experiment with ideas. I actually highly recommend you use the unlimited domain option on HostGator because then you can try lots of these different ideas and the one that works, you expand on, the ones that don’t, you get rid of.
And finally, if you already have a hosting package and you hate it, you should go with the one that I used when I started my new company, Bot Academy. I really urge you to go check out HostGator.com/Mixergy. They will give you unmetered desk space, unmetered bandwidth, unlimited email addresses, 24/7, 365 tech support—Christmas? Yes, they’re there in case you have a problem. If you don’t like it, they’ve got a 45-day money-back guarantee. They’ll make it super simple for you to switch. Once you’re in there, if you want to switch away, you can leave. Most people are going to be happy and stay with them. Go to HostGator.com/Mixergy.
You like those ideas, huh?
Aytekin: Sounds great. We actually processed $300 million last year in payment forms. You can do products. You can sell products, subscriptions, donation forms, all those things. We have integration with 25 different payment gateways, from PayPal to something called PagSeguro, a payment service in Brazil. So we have all the options you can use with HostGator to create all kinds of websites.
Andrew: Yeah. HostGator, quickly create a website, then JotForm to create forms. Most people think of forms to this day as ways of collecting survey responses or collecting contact information, like fill out this form and tell me what your issue is. It could be so much more. It could be a way to sign people up to your email newsletter and you guys will connect to that and send their contact information to newsletter or sell products and so on.
So you built up a first version, life is good, but you learned from working at Internet.com you’ve got to start selling. The paid version you had to have had in mind. How did you know what to put into the paid version?
Aytekin: So, basically, when I released the free version in 2006, February, I actually started getting people to use the product and I started getting all these feedbacks. I started working on some of those feedbacks, like fixing bugs and some small features. I started thinking what kind of features, if I build, people would actually pay for it. I started working on a paid version of the product. That took me another year.
In April 2007, I released a premium version of the product. Before then, I actually hired my first employee. So, in September 2006, I hired my first employee. I had the existing products, working on the PR and trying to formulate my product marketing, customer service, all those things, I wanted to hire one developer who could just work on JotForm. That helped me speed up and in April 2007, I released a premium version of the product.
I remember that day on the release, we released really early U.S. time and the first upgrade came from Spain, a university in Spain just like half an hour later. We sent an email to all the users. I think we had like 20,000 users at that time. We sent an email to all of them. A half an hour later, a University in Spain, they purchased the premium version. Then like half an hour later, U.K., then U.S. woke up and we started getting orders from U.S. We started like that. I remember we got like 500 upgrades right after that year, within 2007, got 500 premium users.
Andrew: That’s unbelievable. That really is one of the powers of freemium. You give it away for free, they try it and then upgrade. Right from the start it was the free version will get you a few form submissions. I think today it’s 100. The paid version will get you unlimited form submissions. That’s the way you differentiate between the power users and the casual users. What you didn’t have at the time though is branding versus no branding. Talk about the internal discussion that led to this as an option and what is this option? This is huge.
Aytekin: Branding is something that I actually resisted for a long time, like ten years. I resisted the idea. I wanted our forms to look professional. I didn’t want to put anything. I didn’t want to put like price link or if you go to some other, you would see like abuse, report here, things like that. I didn’t want to do that. But at some point, now that we are becoming a big company, it was 2016 we actually started testing, but we did the change in 2017.
When we did a small test, we did a big spike in the number of signups if you added branding. I think our forms are receiving 100 million weaves in a month, something like that. Once we added branding, even small branding at the bottom of the forms created so much spike. After I saw those numbers, I stopped resisting. I listened to my employees who had been telling me we need to do stuff like that. At the time, 2017, last year, our daily signups jumped from like 1,000 per day to 3,000 per day just with a single change in a single day. We tripled our signup rate.
Andrew: And it continues to be strong.
Aytekin: Continues to be strong, yes.
Andrew: This is the number one—actually, I don’t have statistics to prove this—but it’s one of the most popular ways for software that’s embedded on other people’s websites to get new users. You think about things like Sumo.com, for example, doing it. It’s hard to believe you didn’t do it. You also missed out on the big SEO benefit of that over the years. Your competitors were doing things like under forums, they would say forum software and then hyperlink back to their website, so now all these different websites were linking with the anchor text forum software back to their site and they were getting a ton of traffic from that.
You missed out on that, but what you did create was a really clean design. Frankly, I went back in time. I looked at the early forms. I could not tell they were your forms except by looking at the source code or frankly, at the URL. What are these URLs that I saw as I went back in time, JotForm.us, JotFormPro.com? What are these things?
Aytekin: That’s actually the story from the beginning you have been telling us this story.
Andrew: Oh, that’s where that came from? You guys met a hacker at a hack-a-thon. Sorry, we’ve got a little bit of a lag here, which is why it sounds like we’re talking over each other. Let’s close it out with this story. You do this hack-a-thon in your office, you’re exhausted back in 2012 and then you go back to your computer and you see what.
Aytekin: This was 2012 and we actually had this hack-a-thon at the [inaudible 00:45:08]. We were around 10 to 15 people. We did this hack-a-thon. We are getting tired. We are ready to go home. We are so excited about possibilities about JotForm. Then I received this email from GoDaddy’s abuse department and it says, “We are suspending your domain name because of an ongoing law enforcement . . .”
Let me find the email right here. It says, “The domain name has been suspended as a part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation. In order to resolve this issue, you will need to contact the officer involved,” which was a U.S. Secret Service special agent. So Secret Service, what did we do to deserve Secret Service getting GoDaddy to suspend JotForm? This was really scary. We were like shocked at the beginning. So I called the agent. She said, “I have to look at the case. I don’t remember it right now. I will get back to you in a few days.”
Andrew: And your whole business is down. Even one day means all your customers are not getting your site served up.
Aytekin: Our site wasn’t down yet. I think because we had [inaudible 00:46:45] on all the DNS caches, we don’t see any down yet, but we could see that it was going to be down the next day. We were like shocked at that moment and there was nothing to be. We don’t have a lawyer or anything like that. I was in so much shock. I didn’t think of calling a lawyer or anything like that. I was thinking, “What should we do?”
The first thing that came to my mind is we have to be straight with our users. We have to tell them what’s going on exactly as it is. The second one is we need to find a solution so the forms don’t go down. What we did is we quickly made sure that our forms were complete and our website was completely functional on JotForm.net and the other domain we had.
Once we made sure of that, I prepared an email, I prepared a blog post. I emailed our users. I made a blog post and told them that because of ongoing investigation or something like that, I didn’t say Secret Service, but I just said government. Even those words were very scary for me. I just sent the emails and made that blog post and I was so tired. We made sure JotForm.net was working. It was like midnight. We will just go to sleep and think of a solution tomorrow.
That night, I didn’t think I would sleep, but I actually slept. I didn’t know how. In the morning, my head was so stressed out that I thought I’m going to just relax for a few seconds. I will turn on Hacker News and read stuff and relax for a few minutes. I turned on Hacker News and we were like the first one at the top of Hacker News and lots of comments and people are really angry.
Andrew: 236 comments on that.
Aytekin: What I was surprised was people were not actually angry at us. People were actually angry at GoDaddy and the government. I think it was linked to our blog post. I also posted, made a comment telling them about what happened. The whole idea is if I’m open with everyone, if I tell them everything happening, people wouldn’t turn on me because I’m not as surprised as them.
That actually kind of worked because people were actually on our side. People were angry at GoDaddy. People were angry at the Secret Service. We started to get mentioned on news, Ars Technica, Wired, Forbes, CNET, Techdirt. They were really behind us. They wrote like maybe four different posts about this. The Next Web was also there. We actually never heard from—I tried to call [inaudible 00:50:08] the Secret Service agent, and this time actually they started not answering me. They would just say she’s out and she wouldn’t be connected.
Two days later, a Techdirt writer actually told me that he [inaudible 00:50:31] a Secret Service press person and they were going to release our domain name. Because of the help of the free press, it was getting bigger and bigger. That actually helped us. Even today, we still don’t know what was the reason. Our guess is like phishing. Phishing is a big problem in the forms industry. People actually have all these phishing problems.
Andrew: They create websites that look like government sites or other business’ sites like eBay and they say enter your name and email address and people type that in and in reality, instead of going to eBay or going to the government website, that data is going to their own site and then they misuse it. You said at the time because of your Bayesian analysis, you got 65,000 people suspended for using your site there. So you were really aggressive with it and at the same time, you got in trouble with the government. So the reason you have all these different domains is you said you don’t want to rely on any one domain. We want to be up with multiple domains and multiple hosting companies. Is that right?
Aytekin: We did it that way for five more years and then we relaxed it a little bit and we stopped doing that. Except EU, we actually have different data centers and different domain names for the users, which is a different reason for the privacy, GFDPR, all the privacy things that we get that, but other than that, we’re actually are switching back to using our own domain on JotForm for forms.
Andrew: All right.
Aytekin: We thought if the phishing site was created in a continent so that we wouldn’t get suspended on other continents. Luckily, nothing like that ever happened again.
Andrew: No. You do have a lot of fans, I think, because of that. Because it was you against the government and other website owners stood up for you and I could see that here, even people who I’ve interviewed in the past I can see here in the comments saying, “Please stop using GoDaddy because of this and other related issues.”
For anyone who wants to go check out the website, it is JotForm.com. It’s got a free version you can try. If you want to check out my two sponsors, go check out HostGator.com/Mixergy to host your website right and you can just so super easily add JotForm to it. Or check out Toptal.com/Mixergy. All right. Thanks so much for doing this.
Aytekin: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: Thanks. I hope to get you in person. Bye.
Aytekin: I hope to meet you too. Okay. Take care. Bye.
Andrew: Bye, everyone.