Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Aytekin: Every November, I leave the world of technology behind to go olive-picking in Turkey. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with my parents, who moved back to their Turkish hometown after retirement. We don’t use any machinery or modern devices in the harvest; just ladders and our hands. Spending a week in the olive grove clears my mind. After all, I can’t check my email or scroll a Twitter feed while I’m halfway up a tree.
I’m a firm believer in the power of rest – and sometimes doing nothing at all. My family appreciates the help, but I’m the one who gains the most from this time in the countryside. I disable all notifications on my phone. And I always return to the city with a clear mind and renewed inspiration.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Aytekin: Building my company, JotForm, has been a long and winding journey. I launched the business 13 years ago from my New York apartment. Today, our product is used by five million people worldwide.
As a company, we faced our biggest challenge when we hit 15 employees. Before that point, our little team worked on the same projects and made every decision together. We didn’t even need to have meetings, because we were always talking about the product. We had lunch together every day. We discussed our work freely and openly, because we were all holed up in the same small office, focused on the same day-to-day tasks.
Once our team grew into the double digits, the culture suddenly changed. Details weren’t being thoroughly discussed. We made a series of bad decisions, and it felt like everyone was doing half-assed work.
One day, I asked myself, “What changed?” I realized that everything had changed. As a company of seven, we were a tight-knit team with a single purpose. Once there were 15 employees, we were all working on different things.
I decided it was time to fix the problem. We divided our staff into small teams that each work on a single, mission-critical project. Every cross-functional team of 3-6 people includes a designer, developer, UX specialist, data scientist, marketing expert, or any other functions required to complete an end-to-end project. All of these teams operate like independent companies.
Now we have nearly 150 employees in three different locations, but we still follow the same principles. We even designed our office to include private team rooms (with doors that close). These rooms can’t accommodate more than six people – and that’s an intentional choice. If a team grows beyond six members, we split it into two and give each group its own room.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Aytekin: Great leaders serve those they lead. When you take care of your people, you build trust with them. I believe there are five key ways to make this happen.
1. Create an environment where people love to come to work. Beyond the Silicon Valley stereotypes of ping-pong tables and craft beer on tap, most people value a bright, well-designed workplace with lots of natural light, living plants (when possible), designated spaces for both focused work and collaborative meetings, and minimal distractions.
We also provide flexible work hours – as long as each employee’s schedule gels with their team – and we encourage our staff to take real vacations. I want everyone to be rested and refreshed when they arrive at the office, not frazzled because they were answering emails during personal time or working late into the night
2. Nurture effective teams. Our cross-functional teams are truly independent. We give them juicy problems to solve, but they decide how and when they’ll solve them. If there’s an issue, we encourage employees to hash it out as a group before turning to me or my COO, for example, to intervene.
3. Provide ongoing training. I love this quote from Henry Ford: “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Training, workshops, courses, and continuing education is a powerful way to invest in your employees – and your company.
4. Identify and solve issues that create unnecessary stress. At JotForm, for example, we don’t have deadlines. I believe that if you’re focusing on the most important problems and opportunities, you don’t need a rigid finish line. In my experience, people create deadlines because progress has stalled, there are too many projects on the table, or the project scope has spiralled out of control.
5. Celebrate accomplishments. You don’t have to throw a party for every achievement, but we all crave recognition sometimes. For example, we have Demo Days each Friday. Our teams show what they’ve been working on and everyone offers constructive feedback. It’s a fun, lively experience that enables me to acknowledge great work in front of the whole staff.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Aytekin: 1. Learn to be an effective decision maker
Important decisions take time. You need to give yourself enough latitude to think a big decision through and consult with those involved. You don’t want to jerk people around with ever-changing priorities and projects. Instead, your teams should always be working on the most important activities in the business. Knowing what’s essential and identifying the biggest opportunities is the only way to ensure you’re focused on what matters.
2. Invest in your people
Give your employees the time and resources they need to acquire more training. Don’t nickel-and-dime these investments; they pay incredible dividends. For example, we send our employees to one conference of their choice each year – all expenses paid. We hire trainers to give on-site workshops. We also pay for continuing education classes. Remember that learning happens from the inside, too. Encourage a culture of mentorship in your organization. Pair experienced staff with new hires and let them learn directly from your best minds.
3. Build systems
When things fail, you can find fault in people or in systems. It’s more productive to invest in systems. For example, our cross-functional product teams have all the resources they need – from big screens to fast computers to large white boards – and they sit in the same room. We ask them to show their progress every Friday. And we have a weekly meeting with the team leader. The system ensures that nothing is left to chance. They have the freedom to make their own decisions, but we also hold them accountable for results and check in with each group every week.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Aytekin: When Walter Isaacson asked Steve Jobs which products he was most proud of, his answer was the Apple team – a team that can create great products over and over again. This is how I see the JotForm team. We invest in our team so that we can continue to build a great product for our customers.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Aytekin: Share your knowledge and experience by providing mentorships to others. Either one on one or by writing a blog – use whatever you feel comfortable with. I have been writing a blog for more than 10 years and it gives me great satisfaction to be able to share what I learned.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Aytekin: Reading is my biggest hobby. I learned most of the things I know from reading books and blogs. I read non-fiction and I try to apply everything I read in my business. The books and blogs I read shaped pretty much everything in my business.