David Okuniev on Typeform’s Formula for Success: Innovation, Business & Culture

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David Okuniev met Robert Muñoz while the two were running their own small digital UI and development agencies out of the same co-working space in Barcelona. Between working for fellow startups, agencies and other clients, the fellow entrepreneurs struck up a friendship and eventually collaborated on a project. The assignment was to build a lead generation form that would sit inside a 3D application in their client’s exhibition space. The two were inspired by the 1983 movie, WarGames, which features a conversational computer interface. “We didn’t want to build a plain vanilla form,” says Okuniev. “We liked the idea of the computer having a personality, so we took that on board, made a form out of it, and that’s how we got started on Typeform.”

After delivering on the original assignment, Okuniev and Muñoz created a back-end for the concept so they could resell it to their other clients. When the duo eventually realized that their design might be viable as a standalone product, they began rebuilding the back-end in HTML. (The first iteration had been built in Flash.) For two years they worked on the project during downtime with resources from their two agencies, and in February of 2013 they launched their beta and went full-time on the project.

Today, Typeform is reinventing the way people create and respond to surveys and other types of forms. Their mission is simple: Make forms awesome. Their user-friendly, “human” approach to design and interactivity has proven to be a big success with both the people building forms and the people filling them out.

Throughout the experience Okuniev has gained a lot of insights about what it takes to found, lead and grow a company. “After making loads of mistakes, we’re finally seeing things more clearly,” he says. “One thing we’ve learned is that if you look at a company, there are three pillars: innovation, business and culture. If you’re not optimizing on all three of those pillars, then one of them is going to suffer.”

For example, a failure to create strong culture results in reduced motivation to innovate, which will limit your business potential. Or, if the business end of things isn’t working well, no one will have time to experiment with new innovations and the culture will suffer from a sinking morale.

“If I did another startup,” Okuniev says, “I would put a lot of focus on those three things very early on. I would plan projects that contribute directly to pushing each of those three pillars forward.”

Innovation

Typeform is loved far and wide for its UI and design. The easy-to-use and beautiful interfaces transform even the most pedestrian form into an opportunity to engage and delight. This ground-breaking design emerged from a simple observation. As Okuniev puts it, “Forms suck; how can we make them better?” From that somewhat blunt beginning, Okuniev and Muñoz began crafting a solution to the problem. “If you think about it,” Okuniev explains, “forms were conceived at a time when there wasn’t CSS3, CSS animations or anything like that. We wondered what we’d get if we applied today’s technology to forms.”

From day one, the duo kept their approach simple. “We had just one guiding principle,” Okuniev says, “make this as awesome as possible.” To reach this goal, they kept the user’s needs in mind at all times. “Focusing on the user was really important,” Okuniev explains. “That’s why we chose to display one question at a time while still keeping the follow-up questions visible for context. We wanted to make sure the design was simple enough that it could eventually become a standard.”

To complement their streamlined designs, the team ensured that the mechanics were similarly elegant. “The animations aren’t over-exaggerated,” Okuniev says. “It’s just a simple, easy, in-out transition that you don’t get tired of, even with repetitive use. In the end, we wanted the design to be as invisible as possible. We wanted it to be a facilitator rather than a show off.”

The evolution of the product’s design was very intentional. The first version (the one built in Flash) incorporated several decorative elements like a glowing cursor and questions that typed themselves out (much like the computer in WarGames). As they worked on later iterations, Okuniev and Muñoz made decisions based on the future of their product. “We knew that if we wanted to create something that would become a standard, we couldn’t make it too gimmicky,” explains Okuniev. “So, we held back a lot on the design, and I think that served us well.”

In addition to tackling a unique problem and taking a super-simplified approach, something else that Okuniev and Muñoz did differently was eliminating user feedback from their development and testing process. “The form that you see today is pretty much the same form that we built at the outset,” says Okuniev. “We were just designers solving a puzzle. It was like working in a bubble.”

Okuniev believes that working in that bubble gave the project an advantage. “If we had done early user testing, we might have been put off trying to solve some problems,” he explains. “The fact that we didn’t take feedback and were very driven by a single, focused mission meant that we never gave up on ideas, even when they didn’t work out right away.”

Even to this day, Okuniev and his team stand by this approach. “Nowadays we’re very metrics driven as a company in general,” Okuniev says, “but as far as the design process goes, it’s still very much gut-based.”

Business

Okuniev and Muñoz approached the business end of things with the same kind of simple and straightforward style that they’d employed in building their product. They launched the product as completely free, knowing that they would add a paid tier at a later date. They set their initial prices based on a very informal survey of the market. “We literally just looked at what legacy players were charging and priced around that,” Okuniev says.

Over time, they added the paid tier and increased prices gradually. Most recently, they increased the monthly fee on the mid-tier PRO version from $25 to $35. “Nobody batted an eye,” says Okuniev. “Our conversions didn’t go down at all, and none of the new users complained that the price was too expensive.”

Despite this reasonably stress-free increase, Okuniev is typically pretty conservative with pricing. “I’ve heard from loads of sources that you can experiment with pricing, push it hard and probably get away with quite a lot,” he says. But that’s not the kind of pricing strategy for Okuniev. Instead, he remains focused on the original mission to rid the world of boring forms. “Most companies doing data collection and surveys do pretty much the same thing – produce vanilla forms and some kind of back-end to build the forms and analyze the data,” he explains. “Because we’re one of the first design-centric companies that is solving a business problem, we’re able to differentiate ourselves by delivering something else. So, we’re not really competing on price.”

That product focus isn’t just driving design and pricing, it’s also Typeform’s go-to-market strategy. The company doesn’t have a sales team and hasn’t done any traditional marketing. “We basically say that product is our growth engine,” says Okuniev. “Most of our sign-ups come from people filling in a Typeform, loving the experience and then checking us out. We have a viral loop with a coefficient of 0.5 that drives traffic to our own company.”

Though they don’t have a sales team, they do have a customer success team to help with retention and upselling. “Now that we have our PRO+ plan, we’re just upselling and that’s it,” Okuniev says. “We may eventually have to hire enterprise sales teams, but we’d do it not as a means to grow, but as a way to service clients like Uber who have 70 PRO accounts. We’re not doing any cold calling or looking for leads. Everything is product here.”

Culture

Other than having a standout product, Okuniev has learned that hiring the right people is critical to a company’s success. “If you hire B players, you’re going to have a B team,” he says. “But, not always. You can find really talented people who just procrastinate until the end of days. On the other hand, if you put passionate, hard-working people in the right environment and give them support, they can really excel.”

“Our criteria for finding people is: smart, humble and passionate,” Okuniev says. “These are the people we need to hire – people who will come into the team and support culture, business and innovation.”

To help facilitate the intentional support of those three pillars, part of the Typeform culture is using the Salesforce-inspired V2MOM management system to set goals for the company, teams and individuals. “We have a company-wide V2MOM and then each team and each individual also has a unique V2MOM. The company V2MOM is split into three sections in terms of the methods and measures, and we have projects for business, for innovation and for culture.” Team and individual V2MOMs roll up under the company V2MOM, ensuring that everyone is aligned and moving in the right direction.

They started with a simple idea, built a company on a strong and singular focus and now align their team around a shared culture and unified objectives. Though, like everyone, they had to learn a lot along the way, the Typeform team is clearly going places and looks to have a good shot at fulfilling their mission of making forms awesome.

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