Confessions of a CEO: Piktochart in 2019

By | December 18, 2019 - 12 Minutes Read

Image by Piktochart

As I was reviewing Piktochart’s growth in 2019 with the team, I noticed a pattern: We have been churning out the same kind of press release every year; highlighting yet another big number of visuals created, users who signed up with Piktochart, and new employees.

Don’t get me wrong. Celebrating successes is good. 

This time, however, I feel that we should end the year on a courageous note. In the words of respected researcher and celebrity writer Brene Brown: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”

Piktochart CEO Ai-Ching Goh
Ai-Ching Goh is the CEO and co-founder of Piktochart. Photo by Mingyu/Piktochart

Let me close 2019 with my very honest reflection of what we did right, what went wrong and what we learned along the way. In this year-ender, I have gleefully tried to map out our 12-month journey in the Piktochart acronym.

Positioning: Lack of vision and strategy

“Without a vision, the people perish.” 

I have read that there are two types of strategists. One is a Spock who extrapolates data from the past, analyses the patterns and uses them to construct the future direction. The other is a Kirk, who is a lot more intuitive and follows his gut feeling. I am definitely the latter. As a result, I often find it difficult to rationalize my vision. 

As the CEO, I know that I need to get our vision and strategy right. This is one of my biggest struggles. At best, we dream it and feel it from our gut. At worst, we become so afraid of committing ourselves to something that sounds foolishly idealistic.

We started our project strategy in 2018: coming up with top three new goals for the product teams. This initiative was led primarily bottoms up from a product manager’s level. Although this wasn’t exactly wrong after testing both top down (authoritarian) and bottoms up (democratic) approach, we felt that the W model worked best. In this model, the leadership gives a sense of direction of the goal e.g. conquer Mount Everest and why that is a reasonable target for the company. Then, they seek input from the teams on how we can conquer Mount Everest. The leadership consolidates all the feedback and works to approve, modify or reject the plans. The execution lies in the hands of the teams and there’s greater support since the teams were involved in the plan from the start.

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What I did not know prior to 2019 was that creating yearly goals was too tactical while a 10-year Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) delved too far into the future to actually work. A good in-between was a 3-year goal, with constant retrospectives every quarter to ensure that we are still on track. 

We now have multiple checks to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes: 

Customer centricity. Look for the user’s problem, not their solution. Then, tie the user’s needs with business objectives.

Build to focus on outcome (value), not output (feature). For example: Keeping your baby safe in the car vs. building a car seat belt.

Metrics to be thoughtfully defined at the start of any project. Live progress and metrics will be made transparent through JIRA and other data platforms to guide us.

Innovation on pause

We grew into a larger team of more than 50 but stopped innovating. Why did innovation stall at Piktochart? We lacked bias for action and customer centricity.

We can’t possibly know how the future is going to turn out, but we can take calculated risks. This is what bias for action means. On the contrary, our teams became paralyzed with inaction, primarily due to the lack of leadership, clear goals and expectations. We created an environment where there was no process and boundary. Every one was free to operate in whichever way they deemed fit. Our freedom became our paralysis.

People also became afraid of making mistakes. When a project was in the midst of development, people questioned it and said, “Will this even work? I am skeptical.” This is a dangerous mindset, and creates an atmosphere of fear that can cripple creative minds. While we want to have a certainty of success there needs to be a balance between project planning, taking calculated risks and execution.

These are the things we have learned:

Create product and design principles. When is a value good to be shipped? What are the characteristics? What is the DNA of Piktochart’s product, and how do we translate that in everything we do? Ensure that everyone knows these so that the product teams can make their own call.

Make product development process transparent. How does a value get prioritized? What is the framework? Who are the key decision makers? How is that decision derived?

Take care of technical aspects. Sometimes, it’s easy to prioritize business objectives and user value that we forget that we have technical debt and bugs that need equal attention. It often becomes slower for an organization to ship more when their technical stack can no longer support the addition of new features and has accumulated a lot of debt.

Release in small batches before a full release. Help the development team build confidence in what they’re doing by validating what they’ve done with a small, closed group of users to begin with and learn as much during that phase before releasing a product to the wider audience. This allows the team to take more risks, deliver faster, learn and iterate for a better success at the end of the day.

Clearly identify the right stakeholders for a project. Who are the key people within the organization who will be affected by the new product changes? How do we incorporate them in the development process to ensure their thoughts are considered in a timely manner to streamline the whole development process?

Piktochart team members in action. Photo by Natasya Sunarto/Piktochart
Piktochart team members strive to be more engaged.
Photo by Natasya Sunarto/Piktochart

We also became less customer-centric. No company in the world would dare admit that they don’t focus on customers, but I have discovered (as I read David Cancel’s books) that many pay lip service to customer centricity but few actually execute it diligently. Customer centricity is the practice of putting ourselves in the customers’ shoes, anticipating what they need and fulfilling it. 

We had our equal share of mistakes in this regard when we rolled out the font deprecation. We underestimated the impact on our customers when we removed certain fonts we could no longer support. Complaints came flooding in, forcing the development team to roll back the changes. 

In retrospect, our approach was company driven instead of customer focused. We were only thinking about making changes that would make the most sense for us instead of how those changes would impact our users. 

We now strive to be more engaged with our users; expanding our feedback channels to include Slack messaging and our monthly all-hands meetings to go through any customer feedback. 

Being customer centric doesn’t mean we compromise on our business needs. It just means we know how to strike a balance that benefits both parties, starting from the users’ needs.

Keepers of the culture 

Our company begins with our people. The year 2019 was our greatest year in terms of having the highest employee attrition. This was also the year we learned our greatest lesson and grew up.

Piktochart has always been good at retaining awesome people who are genuinely passionate about their work and colleagues, but we were failing in the “high performing” part. It was time for us to balance the culture where people loved working but at the same time were making an impact. 

This meant that we needed to focus on having a clear strategy and vision where everyone understood the meaning of “good performance” at all levels: as a company, a team and as individuals. We also looked at putting mechanisms in place to ensure accountability on projects and tasks; while giving room for our teams to grow, develop and give positive feedback.

As keepers of the HOPEFUL core values, we continue to be a company that grows sustainably, while being strongly connected to serving our users with excellence and cultivating a joyful workplace where people can enjoy and grow. We look forward to proving that a great, people-centric culture can co-exist with high performance in a bootstrapped company.

The end of one chapter means a new beginning

Towards the end of 2018, a new developer joined us. He challenged the status quo and dreamed of a future for Piktochart where stories were not just static but also interactive. I, together with the leadership team, have given him our blessings to take on the idea. 

Naysayers warned that it was untested and lacked a market, but we worked on the prototype anyway and took it to a few potential customers who loved it! So we continued to develop the project. 

A screenshot of the Piktogram beta site.

Of course, we discovered that we were still far from turning it into a complete working prototype. We needed to create a mobile friendly version while sorting out CMS plugins and SEO-friendliness. On top of that, we also realized that the product potentially had a one-off use and we needed to make it more enticing to online users, such as designers who could not code. 

We simply fell in love with the solution, and not the problem! We are grateful to have learned this lesson, albeit in a hard way, but we remain excited to show you what this is going to be about.

Today, we have pivoted to a very user-friendly app that helps people to tell stories through video footages. The idea came because today’s video editors have either steep learning curves or really basic editing features. We saw an opportunity to create a video editor that helps users focus on the message behind the video. Watch this space for updates on our progress and to volunteer as a beta tester.

Ordinary business-as-usual makes the company go south in the long run

Of all the realizations I made, this is perhaps the most painful but also the most real:

“This company plateaued because I, the CEO, plateaued.” 

In the busyness of running an organization, I made time to occasionally chat with customers and go for occasional executive training. But that wasn’t enough. I needed to make time for personal growth.

I rediscovered my love for reading. I had deprioritized it for a while because I thought the business needed my attention more. I was so wrong!

I have benefited from clearing my schedule to read at least one book per week. Now, I can confidently share that I need the rest of my team to start reading. The world’s best leaders—including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett—took time to read. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was told by his coach to read at least one book every two weeks. 

Reading is the cheapest way of learning from someone else’s mistakes. Pick up a book and start reading!

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Change brings growth 

We need to focus on people development. Business management guru Tom Peters says that the Chief Training Officer should be the highest paid official in the organization. CEOs often under-invest in training. People usually see mandatory training as a time-waster, and I could see that Piktochart was also falling into the same pattern. I now realize that training or developing our people is the most important agenda for any company that has reached a mass of about 10 people. It’s never too early to start thinking about training. 

“Insanity is when you try the same thing over and over again and expect different results.”

Albert Einstein

With the company currently trying to move out of a growth plateau, the above quote really resonates with me. As a company with a relatively healthy employee attrition rate (15 percent until 2019), we have people who have been with us for years. While we recognize their loyalty, we also need to recognize that skill sets need to evolve, and given the right training, our team members can grow better with the organization.

During our performance evaluation to build agile and self-organized teams, we looked at the following areas:

  • Performance evaluations on a bi-annual basis. Currently proposing to go with continuous performance management.
  • One-on-one meetings weekly instead of monthly to help managers and employees give timely feedback to help them grow in their role. 
  • Personal development plans (including budget) to be owned by the individual, and not the manager.
  • Introducing Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to inspire individuals to dream big and help them stretch their potential.
  • Regular retrospective at leadership and team level to learn what’s not working and how can we do better at every cycle.

Humility – Reflect and recognize what went wrong

With humility being our first core value in HOPEFUL, we did a lot of self-assessment to recognize many of our stumbling blocks in 2019.

As American author and speaker John Maxwell once said, “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them and strong enough to correct them.”

We believe that recognizing our shortcomings will open doors to improvement. Our biggest stumbling block in 2019 was failing to give the organization a clear direction, purpose and strategy. 

We did not clearly spell out how we wanted to build the product and the company. Because of this, the team got pulled in various directions. We also weren’t coherent about how we wanted to grow our team and our team members. 

The good news is, we have been actively taking steps towards remedying the problems. We can’t wait for 2020 to see the results! We don’t have a silver bullet and we’re faced with so many changes on multiple fronts, but we are confident that we will be able to ship more value to our users and delight them in the process. So keep your eyes peeled for all the things that Piktochart wants to surprise you with in 2020!

Agile Performance Management 

There are mixed feelings about the word “agile” these days, depending on who you are, but we decided it was time for us to give it another try. We brought two things back from our history and decided to give them another shot: Agile product teams and OKRs. 

Leadership strategist Steve Denning says Agile’s emergence as a huge global movement extending beyond software is “driven by the discovery that the only way for organizations to cope with today’s turbulent customer-driven marketplace is to become Agile”.

Agile helps organizations master constant change and allows them to thrive despite an increasingly complex and ambiguous business environment.

We turned to Agile to improve how we met business objectives, our timeliness to ship and our employee engagement There are many ways to look at achieving these, but we went with the conventional wisdom as we know that lots of people have found success with Agile. Although we ultimately chose Scrum as a backbone, it became clearer to us that these were the changes that were needed:

To do all the above, we need a team that is without dysfunction and high trust. This is the hardest part to work on!

Although the entire Scrum framework may or may not work depending on the company, we have found that concentrating on the three outcomes have enabled us to define the changes that were necessary.

OKRs are not new to Piktochart and I also know that they weren’t successful in the past. However, we tried to pilot this quietly among the leaders for six months. We wanted to have a clearer mindset focused on what matters most to the company. We also wanted our teams to be more transparent with progress and get everyone aligned and involved in goal setting.

These are what we learned:

  • Focus on what matters: OKRs tell a coherent story of the company’s purpose, objectives and key results. The practice of writing down what is important and how we’re measuring that is hugely beneficial to all individuals, teams and company. 
  • Help people achieve “impossible” goals: Get everyone motivated, focused, disciplined and ambitious. 
  • Cross-team alignment: The time the leaders take to align their OKRs is very important, we have blocked off time to do this twice per quarter. 
  • Be transparent: We have made it transparent so everyone understands the strategy of the company and everyone’s role in it. 

We are not obsessed about trying to fit everything we do within the OKRs, but we prioritize a maximum of four objectives for the company with a maximum of four key results. By re-discovering OKRs, we’re excited about the potential of how the company will be aligned to achieve our goal of helping our users become more successful.

Rate and cadence of communication

For an organization with 33 percent of the team working remotely, we sometimes forget how important the right tools and documentation are in helping us communicate with one another. These were some of the things that we have implemented at a regular cadence:

  • Weekly all-hands meeting.  Our meetings vary between 45 minutes to 75 minutes per week. As a semi-distributed company, this helped our people to be connected to one another and be included in important company announcements so that they understand the initiatives that are going out and the user feedback and industry trends. 
  • Weekly all-leaders meeting. In terms of format: 
    1.  Quick update from each team leader on the wins, blockers (10 minutes) 
    2. Feedback we heard from employees and customers (5 minutes) 
    3. One to two major “rocks” that need everyone’s attention (30 to 90 minutes)
    4. Closing remark (5 minutes) 

We try our best to keep the meeting within an hour, but there are times when we conduct retrospectives and more in-depth meetings that go beyond that.

  1. Weekly one-on-one meetings. I have a lot of direct reports at the moment, so I have nine of these meetings per week. But I do my best to come prepared to these meetings so that I do not solve anything operational outside of them. We have been using this format and it works! The idea is that people come prepared and it also serves as a retrospective on how the person could further improve their time management as well as document their learnings. 
  2. Some teams have weekly or bi-weekly meetings, to mainly troubleshoot what they have done within their respective teams. 
GIF by Piktochart

We have lived without these meetings for a long time, but we found that it only fueled the lack of communication that impeded the flow of information onto our teams. Slack messaging and emails are not ideal avenues to discuss matters, so we do regular retrospectives with team members to bridge the communication gap. 


Our meetings now strive to have an agenda with clear steps. We have also just started using Confluence for Wiki and Jira where the product backlog is made transparent so that everyone in the company can see the development. This included a company-wide responsibility assignment matrix or RACI chart so that everyone knew what individual teams or contributors were responsible for.

Open communication can go a long way to increasing productivity and improving employee camaraderie, so we would rather over communicate than fail to communicate.

Tumultuous yet rewarding

The year 2019 was a tumultuous yet rewarding year for us. Many of us felt that something inside us died this year to give birth to something new. As we move to the next chapter, we look ahead to what the new year will bring; energized to take bigger and bolder steps because of the amazing people we have on board and supported by you, our users!

We look back with gratitude that you have made this transformational journey with us, and we thank you for your continued trust and support.

Overall, we are glad for 2019 and we cannot wait to work on the chances to bring more exciting and delightful products to you.