Itai Sadan of Duda: “Compassionate ”

…A memorable name. It sounds simple but it’s easy to imagine how many startups fail because they just simply weren’t that memorable. Your startup’s name doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be memorable. Many startups make changes to their name throughout their start, but you should put your best foot forward to […]

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…A memorable name. It sounds simple but it’s easy to imagine how many startups fail because they just simply weren’t that memorable. Your startup’s name doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be memorable. Many startups make changes to their name throughout their start, but you should put your best foot forward to create an attention-grabbing name the first time because trust me when I say that’s when this matters the most.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Itai Sadan.

Itai Sadan is the Co-Founder and CEO of Duda, the professional website builder for digital agencies and SaaS companies. Before founding Duda, Itai held business development, product, and engineering positions at companies such as SAP and Amdocs and founded InterSight, a startup for data storage. Itai has a BSc in Computer Science and Mathematics from the University of Ben Gurion in Israel and resides in Mountain View, California.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I first found my entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. I started my first company when I was 21 years old. It was focused on document saving and databases for small businesses. From there I changed direction and studied computer science at the University of Ben Gurion in Israel.

After that, I immigrated from Israel to the United States through a position I took at SAP, after a couple of years looking from the outside at the startup scene in the Silicon Valley I decided to plunge into the water, and like any other respectable startup, started a company from my garage in Mountain View, California. I joined forces with my high school friend, Amir Glatt, who is now our CTO, and made one of a kind website building platform for web professionals called Duda.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Back in 2008, websites were still largely being formatted for desktop, but as the iPhone grew in popularity, Amir and I noticed that Amazon and eBay were doing an excellent job optimizing their sites for mobile. We then thought — what about a dentist, the local pizzeria, or the other 200 million small businesses out there? How can everyone develop sites that work flawlessly on mobile devices without having the budgets, resources, and skillsets of these wealthy tech companies?

So we jumped at the opportunity to create a tool focused on making mobile-friendly websites that were streamlined for customers on the go. This put us on the map as a modern solution to small business needs, but we didn’t stop innovating there. Although having a great mobile web experience is still at the core of our platform today, we have transformed Duda’s functionality into a broader site builder with a variety of functions that web professionals need in order to develop responsive websites that look great on any device. It has evolved into the premier professional website builder for companies that offer web design services to small businesses, which I’m happy to say has brought us enormous success.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Oren Zeev from Zeev Ventures met with me and my cofounder when we were just starting Duda. There was an immediate click and he became the first investor in Duda just 24 hours after that meeting. That investment enabled us to dedicate 100 percent of our time to Duda, hire a team, and is what really got us started in our journey of building Duda into a meaningful business. He believed in us when there was still very little to show and has continued to do so through the ups and downs of our journey. This was 11 years ago and to date, Oren is still very involved in the business; we still talk almost every other week. As a first-time founder, I have learned so much from him over the years and see him as a true mentor.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Duda is unique in how it addresses all of the pain points of web professionals. We make extensive use of white-labeling and automate every process possible so that web professionals can build websites twice as fast and therefore scale their business rapidly. We also invested heavily in APIs which has made us a great solution for SaaS platforms looking to embed a website builder in order to offer websites integrated with their customers’ data.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Fortunately, Duda markets its solutions to agencies, web designers, freelancers that serve small businesses or are themselves small businesses. This is a segment of our market that, especially in the last year due to COVID-19 has been seeing a tough time. We recognize that and have launched different programs to assist businesses in need. In May 2020 we partnered with the Louisville Colorado chamber of commerce (our own backyard) to help get local business online for the first time by providing them with free websites and training.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Calmness — They say the startup journey is a roller coaster and that is indeed the case. There are so many highs and lows, sometimes even in a single day. Maintaining an even keel allows you to run the full marathon of building a startup. I don’t fall into despair whenever I get bad news; I mostly see it as an obstacle and an interesting challenge to overcome. It’s also important to celebrate wins with the team when they come, but not dwell on them too much, as what was achieved is now history and we need to focus quickly on the next mountain ahead.

Compassionate — I take the time to listen carefully to the people I talk with. I put a lot of effort into identifying with them, trying to see how I would feel in their shoes. Providing advice that I would follow myself. This keeps me aware of how we can improve Duda’s workplace and was an essential part of understanding the pain points of web professionals that our platform is designed to address.

Foresighted — It’s important to not only make your startup fit our present-day market, but also future markets and anticipate market shifts before it’s too late. Entrepreneurs that are self-starters and take initiative to stay ahead of the curve in their industry do much better than ones that are simply reactionary. A great example of this is our shift from being a mobile-only solution to a fully responsive platform back in 2014 when it was still not clear that responsive is the way to go. Another example is how our team at Duda always makes sure our platform is optimized for upcoming changes in search ranking engines. It takes a significant amount of work to pull this off so planning ahead and knowing what to expect is key.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I wish I didn’t follow advice to hire someone although I wasn’t 100 percent sure they were the right person for the job. It’s not that I knew they would fail, it just that I wasn’t sure they would succeed. At the time we were looking for someone to fill a certain senior role for quite a while. We interviewed many candidates and the one we wanted ended up joining another company, so we ended up hiring our second-best choice. I had hesitation if they would be good enough, but the team had been looking for such a long time that I caved. The advice I got is that they were good for what we needed now and down the road we can hire someone more senior if needed. I think that when you have doubts they are there for a reason and you need to listen to your inner voice. The individual who joined was not successful and after less than a year we had to let them go. Making a hiring mistake is very costly. You lose all of the time invested in an individual that you will never see ROI on, their salary cost, and the opportunity of not having someone amazing to take the company forward to the next level.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

The hardest thing initially was to raise money from investors. Both my founder and I were first-time entrepreneurs, there were no other successful website builders that had reached a significant scale at the time so investors were pretty skeptical about the space. Although the technology was really cool, we didn’t have a lot of customers in the early days. We heard a lot of “no’s” in the first year, but stuck to it and continued to develop the product and seek more customers, then in early 2010 we closed a deal with AT&T and that put us on the map. From that point on we had investors showing interest in financing the company. The lesson learned is that you have to show some form of traction with customers if you want to secure investor interest, so keep your head down, execute focus on growth and if you achieve it the investors will come.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Every day I deal with many different challenges. These could be related to issues with our product, a customer that is complaining, a competitor that just came out with a new feature or an employee who is not performing well. I see all of these challenges as opportunities to learn and grow from and ultimately overcome. It might be painful to deal with many of these at the moment, but once you surpass them you have acquired a new skill and that is the best school you can get and will over time makes you a better CEO.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

Luckily my personality is more even keel. I don’t get into these crazy highs and on the other hand, I don’t dwell too long in the lows. Otherwise, I think I would go crazy. On particularly bad days when I feel the world has conspired against me and things are not going my way, I try to disconnect and do something else outside of work, such as watching a movie or even going to sleep early. Then I wake up the next day energized and ready to take on some new challenges.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

Should I bootstrap or seek funding for my startup? I always found this to be a ridiculous question. The answer depends entirely on both you as an individual and your startup. No matter which path you embark on, it’s incredibly important to know your options, because the best decisions you make are informed ones.

Bootstrapping a startup can certainly feel safer in a number of ways. It promotes persistent but slower growth for your startup and lets you develop your product on your own timeline, sparing yourself from the immense pressure brought on by investors. Obviously, the number one perk though is that you get to keep one-hundred percent of your company. But with that comes one hundred percent of the risk and burden of your startup.

While bootstrapping has its benefits, there comes a moment in the growth of most startups where funding is crucial to bring you to the next level. Maybe you need to boost your growth to support product development, execute before a competitor beats you to market, receive funds to maintain your expensive infrastructure, or simply need some form of safety net so you can take advantage of riskier opportunities without looking completely insane. If one or more of these factors are in play, then yes seeking funding for your startup would be a good idea.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

The first and most important thing is to focus on product-market fit. You can assemble the world’s best engineering team, but if you are not solving a real problem for a significant number of people, then it will be very hard to build a big business. This is not just something you do when you start a company, it is imperative to always keep maintaining product-market fit. For example, we make sure at Duda to always know what are the biggest pain points for our customers, we actually have an idea board that is open to our customers where they can suggest new features they need and other customers can vote on it. We don’t guarantee everything will be built, but we definitely take into serious consideration feature requests that get a lot of votes (see screenshot below).

The second is adaptability to quickly meet the changing dynamics of your market. An example of this would be when other website builders caught on to our innovations by optimizing their platforms to be mobile-friendly. Rather than simply milking that feature dry until we’re caught in a sea of competitors doing the same thing, we took that as an opportunity to evolve what Duda offers. We re-evaluated our product and our go-to-market and pivoted hard to make our platform more differentiated and suited for agencies and small-to-medium businesses that build websites at scale, which brought us an entirely new level of success.

The third would be to surround yourself with the strongest team possible. Starting with your co-founders, I have had the fortune to be working closely with my good friend Amir who is also the CTO of Duda. The relationship we have and the trust we have in each other is the basis for much of what we have built-in Duda. From there make sure your leadership team is top-notch. Always ask yourself if you have the right people to take the company to the next level. For new entrepreneurs, a network of peers and mentors is also very important. Surround yourself with incredible and supportive people who have been there and done that, they can save you a lot of agony from learning it the hard way yourself. Bottom line, make sure you have the strongest team possible, the Duda team makes me strive to work harder and think outside the box every single day.

The fourth is a memorable name. It sounds simple but it’s easy to imagine how many startups fail because they just simply weren’t that memorable. Your startup’s name doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be memorable. Many startups make changes to their name throughout their start, but you should put your best foot forward to create an attention-grabbing name the first time because trust me when I say that’s when this matters the most.

This brings us to the fifth thing, collaboration. As the CEO of your startup, you will quickly learn that you can only wear so many hats. Many CEOs never learn how to delegate tasks correctly, or even worse don’t encourage their team to challenge processes or bring their great ideas to leadership. If you want your startup to begin to function without you having to directly do every single task and want to evolve for the better, then you need to make collaboration a key part of the culture.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One huge mistake I see newbie CEOs make is thinking a good product will speak for itself. Any product will flop if you can’t explain its value to customers. It’s essential to make an excellent narrative around why customers need your product so they’ll actually wise up and purchase it. Another mistake is when founders serve way too many customers terribly instead of first focusing on a select group of customers. If we tried to market to every web professional before starting with mobile optimization back in the day, I don’t think we would have gained so much customer loyalty in the first place.

The last and most common mistake I see CEOs make when developing a startup is only hiring friends and people they know instead of expanding their talent pool. It’s great to trust someone close to you to hold a lot of responsibility in your startup, but only if they’re equipped with the skills and experience to handle it. I’m beyond lucky that Amir is not only my childhood friend but also incredibly gifted at everything it takes to be a rockstar CTO. But beyond Amir, I’ve made it a point to attain a global team that is immensely gifted in their respective fields. Branching out who you hire is just as important as trust.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

Make sure to set quality time aside for your family and friends. The family part is self-explanatory, as work should always come second to your family, but it can also get a little depressing when you realize you haven’t met with a friend in over a year because you have kept delaying get-togethers for your business. You’d be surprised how easily this can happen without you realizing how long it’s been.

I also exercise regularly. I find that a fifteen-minute routine daily and recreational sports on weekends fits perfectly with my schedule and keeps me fit enough. You may prefer jogging or visiting the gym. It doesn’t matter as long it’s something you enjoy, keeps you fit, and becomes part of your routine.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to start a movement that gets our kids more involved in entrepreneurship. There isn’t nearly enough education on entrepreneurship for our youth and creating more grants and programs to give young people a head start or the minimum funding needed to give entrepreneurship a shot would definitely improve our society for the better.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have lunch with Jeff Bridges. The Big Lebowski is my all-time favorite film and I’m a huge fan of his work. The name of our company, Duda, is actually based on his character, ‘The Dude’, from The Big Lebowski. The Dude exemplifies our brand because he rolls with the punches and is always there to help his peers. In short: “The Dude abides.” I think it would only be fitting for me to meet The Dude himself. It’d be like my life coming full circle.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out our website at and follow us on all social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube to stay tuned on our developments and learn more about web design.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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