One Milestone At A Time: How I Built (And Sold) My Bootstrapped Startup
Over the past 11 years, our award-winning, easy-to-use portfolio website platform has helped top-rated international photographers and artists showcase their best work. Today, I’m proud to announce the acquisition of Format.com and share some insights from my entrepreneurial journey.
As an entrepreneur, you quickly learn to measure success in incremental milestones: first deployment, first customer, first hire, first office. This is partly because this method of evaluation can offer some much-needed ongoing motivation, and partly because — well, when you’re just starting out the bar of expectation can be pretty low.
Last week, after what seems like a lifetime of building and growing my Toronto-based self-funded SaaS business, Format.com was acquired. This decision, like all of the ones I’ve made throughout this 13 year entrepreneurial journey, is a storied reflection of sacrifice, triumph, and countless hours of hard work. In short: it is our company’s biggest milestone to date. This was a goal I had fantasized about for years.
To no surprise, celebration often goes hand in hand with reflection. In planning the future of Format.com, it was impossible not to look back at how far we had come. How far I had come. Especially since, as an entrepreneur, your own personal story is often heavily entangled with that of your business. This isn’t simply the end of an era for Format — it is the beginning of a whole new chapter for me.
Today I’m sharing a small window into a much longer story of Format.com, along with some of our highs and lows along the way, to encourage aspiring entrepreneurs. Keep at it. Don’t measure yourself against that end goal. Build momentum through intention, one milestone at a time — ultimately, they’ll get you to where you want to be. Each big leap of faith is supported only by thousands of tiny steps. And, in the case of a self-funded business, a lot of patience and foresight. Think of your vision not as one guiding principle, but a blueprint for the series of actions you must now take to actualize it. And those actions take time.
Invest in the power of simplicity
So much of my life has centered around building and running my business that thinking back to a time before Format can sometimes feel hard. The initial idea for Format first started taking shape in the early 2000’s, while as a design student at OCAD University, I was surrounded by like-minded artists, designers, and photographers across all sorts of disciplines and industries.
Just before the rise of web 2.0, many of my creative colleagues were starting to look for ways to showcase and promote their work online. We collectively understood the value of building a professional portfolio website and establishing a digital presence, but at that time, actually doing so was incredibly difficult: you either had to learn the basics of programming, or invest in a costly solution. For many emerging creative professionals, paying someone to update your site with every new change was entirely out of the question. A relatively simple page update could have you waiting weeks, whereas a rush job might gouge your wallet. There had to be a better way.
My vision for Format was simple: I wanted to empower anyone, anywhere, to independently create and manage their own simple, affordable and beautiful website, regardless of expertise or financial capabilities. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but the power to self-publish, to carve out a space on the internet that is inherently your own, was monumental. We exist now in a time when creating your own capital-B “Brand” is the norm, for companies and individuals alike, but the yet-to-be-named early iteration of Format was a burgeoning pioneer in that space.
Reason with your expectations
Around 2007, I managed to convince a developer (who would later go on to become my co-founder: Tyler Rooney) to devote just enough time to this online portfolio builder idea to really get it off the ground. I believed that the problem we were solving for was a need that had to be addressed in the market, but we were coming up against two seemingly immovable obstacles: time and resources.
While I was fuelled by the excitement and the possibility of what we were creating, the initial build took much longer than I had anticipated. At that time, we were both only working on Format on a part-time basis. To this day, I am grateful for those early startup days, because they taught me that patience isn’t simply a characteristic — it’s a practice. One that I had mindfully build up over time, day over day, week over week (especially at the start).
Two excruciatingly long years later, we launched our first version of Format.com in 2010. You may remember it as “4ormat.com” at the time, prior to securing our coveted format.com domain. (I for one am also grateful that we no longer have to spell out “four-or-mat-dot-com” to our accountants over the phone.) In these early stages, 4ormat.com existed as a portfolio website builder that allowed the global creative class to build, design and maintain their website through an easy-to-use interface for just $5 CAD a month.
Once we went ‘live’ is when time seemed to abruptly switch gears. Now, as we steadily gained momentum and grew our customer base, it seemed like we were operating at warp speed compared to our previous years. Six months after launch, my co-founder was convinced to go all in with me as it became clearer every day that we had found product market fit. I, of course, was ecstatic. There’s a certain feeling of both elation and relief when your idea is not only actualized, but validated and encouraged. My seemingly never-ending eleven hour work days; that tireless energy I invested in early self-promotion and grassroots marketing; and that relentless hunger to bring my idea to life all became worth it. That feeling actually becomes a bit addictive; you want to continue to do and be better for your business.
In mid-2010, Tyler and I officially registered our business together.
Embrace vulnerability as an essential job requirement
The birth of a business is often romanticized. Founders love to swap stories of struggle and hardship, but we often hear these stories only in hindsight. The reality is, running a self-funded (bootstrapped) company is simply and wholly life-altering — for better and worse. In 2010, just before officially launching 4ormat.com, my wife and I had just purchased our first condo. This made perfect sense at the time; given our combined salaries it was a wise and sound financial decision.
Cut to a few short months later when I am now formulating a hypothetical plan with my wife in which I would operate a newly founded business, with a $0 personal salary, for an undetermined amount of time. To my surprise she encouraged me to jump at the opportunity, despite the challenges that would come along with navigating mortgage payments, let alone everyday living expenses, solely on her $42k entry bio-tech salary. There is something incredibly powerful and mobilizing in the support from your most trusted loved one. I already had my co-founder; and now, in Johanna, I had my partner. I was ready to really do this.
Without hesitation, I abandoned my healthy salary and, in the opinion of many of my friends and colleagues looking on, entirely blew up my life as I knew it.
Early on, Tyler and I agreed that building out our team and our product was our top priority. We initially decided to forego salaries ourselves in order to pay our employees fair, liveable wages. For years while we grew Format, my wife and I lived frugally out of necessity. If I ever accepted an offer from you for dinner or drinks that I had to abruptly cancel on, I apologize. Chances are another personal expense had just come my way and I couldn’t afford to meet you that night. I just didn’t know how to verbalize it at the time. Having to weigh these kinds of decisions daily took a toll on my mental health, and affected the quality of my friendships and professional relationships for a long time. It was never that I didn’t want to spend time with someone — it was often that I didn’t know how to advocate for myself and my situation.
As such, the “hustle and grind” of an entrepreneur’s life can be a lonely one. There’s a lot of shame to be felt while balancing ideas of the life you thought you’d be living in your twenties versus the life you’re building for yourself for the future. There’s nothing romantic about counting every dollar to ensure you can afford a mortgage payment, or having to decide which friend to say “yes” to and when. The risks are real, the nights are long, and the work is hard. I’m incredibly fortunate to have had a community of support through this time, but in the moment, success really just meant that I was keeping my head above water on any given day. And often, that was enough to celebrate.
Build the business you want to work at
“So why go the bootstrapped route?” This is a question I’m often asked, especially when I recount how we got Format started. Over the past 13 years, I’ve had the opportunity to wear many hats, take on a multitude of challenges, and face risks that I never could have imagined. I’ve (mostly) had total autonomy over the direction of my business, and complete visibility into all facets of the company. There’s something to be said about how much you can learn from simply sharing tabletop space with 8 of your employees that no amount of email updates or board meetings could ever replicate.
From humbly growing our team to 50 people, to generating revenue while competing against fully-funded Goliaths, to refocusing and rebranding the entire company: the lessons endured alongside building Format were difficult, invaluable, and indescribable. I feel privileged to have been able to experience each one of them. They have not only radically impacted the direction and growth of our business, but they have directly shaped who I am as a person and how I move in this world.
Our team, of course, has been at the heart of many of these lessons, learnings, and pivots. I am endlessly thankful to and grateful for every Format team member I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years. Together, we’ve rooted our mission in four key values: IMPACT, SIMPLIFY, CARE and TRUST. These values serve not only as a measure for the work we do each day, but in how we hire and support our team internally, and how we show up for one another.
To this day, one of the proudest moments for me as both an entrepreneur and a designer was hearing that Format was one of the top internship choices for design grads in Toronto. I’m proud to have fostered a culture and a space for young designers to launch successful careers from — even if it meant a lot of them ended up moving to San Francisco. It’s a real testament to what we’ve built with Format that all of our design interns, without fail, have moved on to work for the likes of Google, Facebook, and Palantir. As a tech startup founder, it’s a profound honour to nurture the brilliant minds who would later go on to work at today’s industry leading companies. As a leader, all you want for your team is for them to grow and succeed, wherever they can do that best.
Live in the journey — wherever it takes you
Today, 11 years since launching Format.com (RIP 4ormat.com), we managed to take what was just a dream and turn it into a reality. A 50 person, $10M CAD annual subscription business, with customers spanning every country across the entire world. What we’ve accomplished over this decade-and-change is truly groundbreaking, but success can often dull the scrappier details of the narrative. It was important for me to share the origin story of Format alongside the news of our acquisition. This win doesn’t just take place in 2021 — it spans years. Years of perseverance; of sacrifice; of risk-taking; of celebration; and of doubt. Now, with utmost certainty, I know that this decision was the best for myself and for the company.
Last week has been a whirlwind of emotions, as I let go of my dream to hand it over to someone else. They will likely face their own moments of trial, tribulation and triumph with Format.com. I’ll look on and support their journey with a mix of both sadness and joy. It’s a bittersweet feeling, to finally be out of the driver’s seat. But it’s a hell of a feeling to get out of that car, stretch your legs, and see how many miles you’ve traveled and hills you’ve covered.
Thousands of startups around the world develop technology that simplifies and improves the lives of many. A lot of them don’t survive their first year. Even more of them we never hear about. For Format to make a long-standing impact on the lives of thousands of people is truly incredible. For it to be looked at as a source of inspiration and reference for giants like Squarespace, Shopify and Wix is nothing short of astounding. It’s an honour for Format to have contributed to an area of such great change and innovation.
I’m so proud to be able to turn to my wife and tell her: “We did it.” Because what I’m really saying is: “Thank you.” Without a doubt, she is the reason that Format exists today and has been able to reach, impact, and genuinely help, thousands of people around the world. I may be recognized as the founder, but she lay the foundation. It is impossible to imagine this journey without her sacrifice and investment.
Thank you to my wife Johanna for taking a chance on this idea and supporting me endlessly; thank you to my parents for taking a risk in moving our entire family to Canada in hopes for a better life for us as kids; thank you to my co-founder Tyler for initially birthing and wrangling this beast with me over the years; and thank you to my amazing team at Format. To list all the ways I’m thankful for them could be a Medium post all on its own.
Format is the result of grit, determination, and a true understanding of our community and customers. It’ll live on long past my contribution. As for me though, I’m only beginning to understand what my story looks like now that it’s untangled from Format’s. While my body tells me I need a break (especially now that I’m a parent and no longer in my twenties), my brain tells me otherwise. Every morning, I feel filled to the brim with the promise of opportunity. To allow time and space for new ideas to emerge is both exciting and scary — yet somehow oddly comforting. There’s familiarity in taking risks when experience and history tells you that you can and will survive them. I don’t know what my next endeavor will be yet, but I am just so thrilled for this blank slate and what it will mean to me one day.
Until next time. Lukas