All Things Piktochart

10 Lessons (And Counting!) from 10 Years of Bootstrapping

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In November 2011, Piktochart’s MVP (Minimum Viable Product) came into fruition.

From four people working day and night out of a small Penang-based warehouse, our first do-it-yourself infographic platform was born.

Ten years later, in November 2021, we are a remote-first 4DWW (4-day workweek) company with 40 team members from 15 countries.

photo of Piktochart team 2021
Piktochart’s all-hands meeting celebrating our 10th anniversary

Happily bootstrapped and with more than six million users since we started ten years ago, we are proud to say that we remain one of the market leaders in our space.

With our two visual storytelling products (Piktochart Visual and Piktochart Video) providing lasting, meaningful impact to users worldwide, we continue to strive to be intentional in three areas (purpose, people, and profit) as we look forward to another decade. Keep reading to learn more about these three pillars.

All of these won’t be possible without you, our loyal users who have been with us for years. Thank you!

This milestone means a lot to us, so please indulge us for a bit as I share 10 things I’ve learned as the founder and CEO of a bootstrapped company for 10 years now.

This isn’t our humble brag post, and neither do we want to dwell on failures. Instead, we hope that these lessons will inspire you from the perspective of building a sustainable business as well as leading fulfilling lives.

1. Establish purpose early

Piktochart's first office space
Piktochart’s first humble space and office

If I have to give one piece of advice to startup founders who are still starting today and want to make it to year 10, it would be having a clear-cut understanding of your purpose. 

After a decade of bootstrapping Piktochart, I realized that if we don’t know our “why”, the entire company won’t exist because the “what” doesn’t matter anymore. 

I’d like to call it our “reason to be”. 

For some, it’s the money, the thrill of being an entrepreneur, a problem you saw in the world that you wanted to fix, or a combination of all three. 

For Andrea (my co-founder) and me, it’s about the people and problems that we are trying to solve. 

an image of Piktochart's mission during the early days
Staying true to our mission from the start

People

image of the Piktochart team in 2013
The Piktochart team in 2013

We became unplanned entrepreneurs because we both didn’t fit into the companies we previously worked at. We were misfits, and we dreamed of building a workplace that would have “no more Monday blues.”  

Written down on a piece of paper back in 2011, little did we know that those four words would mark the beginning of an incredibly exciting and rewarding journey. 

Don’t get me wrong; I understand that it’s more likely an organizational problem when an employee is going through Monday blues than with the individual. We acknowledge this and deliberately build our engagement surveys to ensure we have a pulse on what may disengage team members and work on plans to improve things.

It may sound cliche now, but being surrounded by people better than us kept me going during our difficult times at Piktochart. 

Purpose

image of content marketing trend statistics from 2009 to present
Rising content marketing trends = more people needs help with visual content creation

Back in the days when Andrea and I had a web consulting business (we built WordPress and Magento websites for clients), I was tasked with finding new clients. I studied digital marketing and realized that content marketing would be bigger than anything else the marketing world had seen at that time (circa 2009). And that this trend was going to be accompanied by a visual trend.

If people and companies created more reading materials, they would surely create lots of visuals to summarize them. I tried to learn Photoshop at that time to create an infographic, but the furthest I got was to create a business card.

That was when I realized we might have an idea for a product—an easy-to-use infographic maker for the people who want to digest information quickly and easily.

Profit

We weren’t always deliberate about becoming a bootstrapped and profitable company. Over time, we realized that it was okay for us to grow slowly and sustainably to build products that our users would love and not compromise the work-life balance itself.

2. Validate your idea as quickly as you can 

One of our earliest user stories on YouTube

Nine years ago, I remembered monetizing Piktochart (going from free-access-for-all to freemium-Pro product) and thinking if anyone would want to pay for the product.

On the first day, we had 3 paying customers. 

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but 1 of the 3 customers continued to stay in touch with us, giving us a lot of valuable feedback around the types of templates he would have liked to see and features that are needed. We kept going from there.

Today, we still challenge ourselves to build stepping stones. There’s no need to build the largest, splashiest feature in one go. It is more important to go one step at a time.

We often ask ourselves these questions: 

  • How can we validate this idea as quickly as possible? 
  • Would it be through a Figma file?  
  • Can we reduce the scope and release this to a select group of users first?

A fixed timeline and a variable scope have been our product development philosophy for the last few years.

3. Listen to your users as much as possible

photo of user session in Argentina in 2015
2015 PiktoTour in Cordoba, Argentina by Romi who used to be a part of our marketing team – Source

Listening seems like an easy thing to do because it’s more passive in contrast to testing, building a product, or marketing.

However, you can’t do all of these unless you take the time and effort to listen actively to people for whom you’re building products. 

Understand as much as possible through prototypes, and general interviews as this will help ensure that your product is evolving in the right direction and will save you time and money in the long term. 

photo of educators during a Piktochart user session
Educators at the Innovation Institute who joined Piktochart’s visual storytelling session in 2017

As an example, we incorporate a “listening” practice across various areas of our business. The Customer Support team conducts four user interviews each month. Meanwhile, the Marketing team aims for four #PiktoChat recordings with customers each quarter. 

The UX team tests any new feature or product improvement through a prototype that they show to a sample of our users. We also conduct regular surveys, and we have a cancellation poll that gives us a sense of why users leave and how we could prevent it from happening in the future.

Questions such as “How disappointed would you be if this product did not exist?” as well as “What would you use if product A no longer existed today? have helped us understand whether we’re solving a much-needed pain in the market. 

These practices have also helped us gauge the substitutability factor of our products.  

4. Being “strategic” isn’t as hard as we make it to be 

photo of the Piktochart team in Singapore TechinAsia
The Piktochart team in Singapore TechinAsia

Michael Porter wrote, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

I used to fear the word “strategy.” 

Over time, I realized that strategy is understanding your strengths and weaknesses compared to the market’s and choosing what to do and what not to do. 

Our strategy for the next ten years is that we would like to be the best visual storytelling platform out there.

Anything outside of that scope will likely not be considered, and it is then our job to ensure that we deliver on this vision. 

5. For the company to evolve, the organization needs to evolve too

Piktochart team went to Maldives in 2017
The Piktochart team went to Maldives in 2017

Organization design has always been one of my areas of interest and the one closest to my heart. For the past 5 years, we have taken a few unconventional methods of growing.

From a fully 100% in-office (Malaysia) model to a distributed in-office model (multiple satellite offices) and evolving again into a hybrid remote-in office model, Piktochart is now 100 percent remote.

Within each of the models, there are pros and cons. The decisions, however, constantly hinge upon the aspirations and the purpose of the company.

When we went with a 100% remote organization, we emphasized the importance of hiring more experienced people who could be located anywhere and doubled down on trust and autonomy. Also, as the world experienced collaboration in new ways, this was an excellent way to build solidarity with many teams that were going remote for the first time.

Was it challenging to replicate the relationships that we had in the office?

Certainly. We used to have lunch and “water-cooler” moments all the time.

But there are now other ways to foster belongingness through virtual communications.

As we moved into a 4-day workweek organization as of late 2020, we also learned to emphasize the importance of productivity and work-life boundaries.

We believe that happier, more well-rested individuals will come back and contribute even more to the organization.

6. People’s growth should not be an afterthought

screenshot of a Piktochart employee posting on LinkedIn about her learnings
Piktochart’s communication design lead Natasya shares her personal development notes on LinkedIn

All too often, learning new skills is an afterthought, and I noticed that Piktochart was also falling into the same pattern. In the same year, we learned that developing our people is the most important agenda for any company that has grown into more than ten team members. 

With this realization, we introduced the concept of “manager-of-one”. 

an image of manager of one at Piktochart
Manager of one at Piktochart

We wanted our people to know that there is no need to wait for orders from leaders (apart from OKRs). The same idea applies to planning out careers. A manager of one is autonomous and knows how to get things done.

Based on this practice, we implemented changes to hiring, performance evaluations, and personal development budgets (the individual team members own this now instead of their managers). Also, vacation days are auto-approved. This is what we mean by manager-of-one!

Finally, we also introduced regular retrospectives and quarterly OKRs which helped us improve accountability and drive excellence across the company.

7. Attract and retain the best talent

Piktochart culture video in 2016

With the ever-heating competition to get more talent (especially now when every company is an all-remote company), we have to find ways to stand out. 

During interviews, I explain our purpose, people, and profit pillars which include:

 Purpose

  • Contribute to a product with over 400,000 monthly active users
  • Be at the forefront of visual storytelling

People

Profit

  • Sustainable and stable
  • Profitable company that crafts its own path
Piktochart culture video in 2018

Next, I usually “bare all” during interviews and see how the candidate responds to the challenge. I also tend to ask for their opinion on a problem I’m wrestling with. These answers give me a good understanding of their line of thinking and if we could work well together.

Most of the time, whenever someone joins the company after they receive my “bleak picture letter”, they’d say, “you didn’t tell me how amazing the company culture at Piktochart is”. They are positively surprised instead of being disappointed. I prefer to undersell rather than to oversell . 

My goal in writing these vulnerable letters is to earn the trust of the potential hire. After all, they’re going to likely ask themselves, “Why would they trust a bootstrapped company based in Malaysia?”.

8. Focus on the main thing, but make small bets

The enemy of progress is the lack of focus.

As entrepreneurs, we’re pulled in a million different directions. How do we know when it’s time to make small bets?

An excellent example of this is how we decided to work on our second product, Piktochart Video. 

We were looking into storytelling (Piktochart’s roots) and finding another medium that we could work on. The contenders were no-code immersive websites and videos.

We went for videos in the end because it was closer to our roots of promoting storytelling. Nothing beats videos as people are looking to connect more authentically. 

Instead of focusing on the visual design aspect, we asked ourselves — how can we help people share their visual content better? 

9. Get the story right, and then tell it over and over again

As a visual storytelling company, we also make sure that we get storytelling right.

While I’m not saying that we are excellent presenters, some of us are gifted within the company (shout out to Masoud Mirzaei, Javascript Developer at Piktochart by day and news anchor of the Piktochart News Network by night). We aim to be better storytellers and repeat the same narrative over and over again.

As we tell our brand story, we ask ourselves:

  • How does Piktochart differentiate?
  • What is Piktochart Video aiming to do?
  • Who are our users?
  • What use cases do we fulfill and not fulfill?
  • What kind of people do we want to attract as a company? What kind do we not want to attract?

This lesson applies to multiple facets of the company. As a leader, I repeatedly iterate the same stories until they stick.

10. Reinvent to stay relevant

In December 2019, our VP Growth, Agata, asked me to think of a word that I aspire to be in 2020.

I chose “intentional” because I believe in living life backward. This means having a goal in my mind first and then working backward to accomplish the goal.

This is how we ended up with our 4DWW arrangement at Piktochart. In late 2020, we decided to experiment with the 4DWW and adopt it fully in 2021.

I also committed to listening more, changing the way we work, and being okay with delaying some of the launches when needed.

Although there are times when I cannot avoid working late nights, I don’t flaunt it like a badge of honor for others to see.

photo of some of the Piktochart team members in 2020
The Piktochart team went 100 percent remote in 2020 and implemented the 4-day workweek in 2021

We also became more intentional as a bootstrapped company. We learned to manage our finances more prudently and found creative ways of spreading awareness without relying on paid channels. We are also committed to not getting lured and distracted by shiny new opportunities of raising funds.

Finally, in 2020, we also went 100 percent remote after being a semi-remote company since 2016.

Looking back, we made it to 10 years because we’re not afraid of reinventing ourselves (as a team and as individuals) at Piktochart.

Here’s to ten more years 🎉.


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