Making Something From Nothing: Nikita Obukhov of Tilda On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Building a company may be as hard as creating a product. Thanks to my experience in design and development, I knew how to build a winning product and attract clients, but it was hard to build administrative processes for Tilda as a company. I didn’t expect it to be that hard.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikita Obukhov. He is a designer, developer, and entrepreneur with 20+ years of experience in digital business. He’s the founder of Tilda, a website builder that helps millions of people all over the world build effective and beautiful websites without code. It all started with the idea of block mechanics — Nikita came up with an entirely new principle of web design: to create websites from ready-made blocks with flexible settings. This modular editing mechanism has flipped the industry on its head and influenced the development of the web worldwide. Now everyone can share their story with the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
As a kid, I’ve always been into computers. In the mid-1990s, the computer industry was evolving so fast, bringing groundbreaking technologies all the time. I had a ZX Spectrum, a pre-PC version of a personal computer. It was quite limited and didn’t offer many games, but it allowed coding. So I had fun with programming: trying to replicate interfaces I had seen in more advanced PCs. I also used to draw graphics with lines, circles, and loop cycles. Later on, I had PCs but it was hard to get the latest models powerful enough to run most modern games. So, instead of gaming, I kept entertaining myself with coding, drawing, and writing music. These experiments, most likely, contributed to my future career as a designer and a programmer.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was finishing my master’s degree in visual communications, I heard a quote from my curator: “You can’t be just a little bit pregnant.”
When I created Tilda, I’ve already owned a successful web design studio. Six months after Tilda’s launch, I realized that I might have created a revolutionary product but I need to focus on it. It was my, “You can’t be just a little bit pregnant,” moment. This was the moment when I left my safe harbor, quit the design studio and stepped into the unknown. Thanks to devoting myself 100% to Tilda, this bet paid off.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Design for the Real World (1971), a book by Victor Papanek. He had a broad vision of how design could improve the way our world and society works. I still remember what I felt when writing down his quotes, but not because they were new ideas, rather because I was fascinated by the way he expressed and phrased very familiar thoughts to me.
Papanek argued that design is a universal human activity. He invented simple radios that were made out of tin cans and costed 9 cents each for distribution to the poor countries — a great example of design in DIY culture. He also looked at design as a rescue stick, an incredibly pertinent idea nowadays with the growing number of startups that are struggling to survive. Good design can make a startup stand out and give it life. At the same time, design also has a great responsibility, as bad design can bury a good idea.
To become a good designer, one should have a multidisciplinary background to master different skills and look at life from several perspectives. This idea resonates with me a lot, as does his vision in general. This is because I had that in mind when creating Tilda: I wanted to contribute to a better world and give people a tool, very easy to handle and powerful at the same time. Something they can use to solve their problems and ultimately become happier.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
From my experience, there are a few things that will help you turn your compelling idea into a prosperous business.
- Obtain a good knowledge of the industry and a rich skillset. To turn your idea into a business, you need a solid knowledge of the field and quite a bit of hands-on experience. Before founding Tilda, I’ve been working as a designer for 14 years and completed over 700 design projects. This experience forged my vision of the industry and website creation as such. I knew well how to design and build websites and was able to turn this process into a framework that anyone could grasp.
- Learn by teaching others. Sometimes, to translate a good idea into business, you need to be a good educator, and experience in teaching can be a great help. Apart from work, I developed and curated the web design course at the British Higher School of Art and Design. Teaching improved my comprehension of the industry, helped structure the insights I received in my career, and taught me to adapt my message to reach different audiences better. Believe me, teaching experience is a great way to accumulate your knowledge and distill exciting insights for your future business.
- Get lucky. Just accept it. To be successful, you also need to be in the right place at the right time.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Let me google that for you. But seriously, I feel it’s important not to reinvent the wheel by creating a new need, but to solve an existing pain in a different way. If you have a simple idea that will make people’s lives better, give it a try.
For Tilda specifically, I thoroughly analyzed the website builder market and realized that I came up with a new approach. Before Tilda, you’d have to take a non-customizable website template and do some coding around it. But it wouldn’t look like an agency-level website if you weren’t a developer or a designer. I came up with a modular editing mechanism that enabled people to create professional websites out of blocks. I knew this idea will disrupt the industry and it was inspiring me. Be hungry for such ideas and everything else will follow.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
I can only speak for digital products. I’d recommend taking the following steps to stay focused while turning an idea into an actual product:
- Research. Start with the primary research and conduct a series of in-depth interviews with your potential users. This way, you’ll identify what really concerns them and how your product can help. Next, do secondary research — Google your competitors and understand what’s happening on the market. There’s this saying, “Assumption is the mother of all mistakes,” so never ignore the research stage!
- Ideas. After the research, you need to generate more specific ideas for your future product and identify hypotheses you want to test.
- Prototype. Then you build an MVP (minimum viable product) to enable early testing of your idea. The objective of an MVP is to launch a product quickly, based on an established idea, with a small budget. For example, the first version of Tilda had a rather simple interface. As a designer, I wanted to create a cool and sexy UI, but as an entrepreneur, I only needed to focus and to prove that Tilda’s modular mechanism would work for the end user — no more no less.
- Analysis. After the prototype is launched, you have to collect users’ feedback for the MVP, include it in future iterations or pivot the business if needed.
- Repeat. So you received the first insights from the early adopters. Next, you apply what you learned to the next cycle and start all over again. This way, you’ll go through a series of iterations to identify the full set of features for your product or service.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Building a company may be as hard as creating a product. Thanks to my experience in design and development, I knew how to build a winning product and attract clients, but it was hard to build administrative processes for Tilda as a company. I didn’t expect it to be that hard.
- Be less adamant. I tend to set the bar high for both myself and my teammates. This was working when I started Tilda but, in the long run, I challenged myself to balance my level of perfectionism and become a better team player.
- Hiring and letting go is harder than you think. To keep Tilda growing, I had to grasp how to attract the best talent that would fit into the company’s culture and lifestyle. Moreover, I also learned how to fire employees gracefully.
- You’ll be lonely. People are more often than not willing to support and help you. But at the end of the day, as a leader, you are the only one responsible for everything happening in the company. You need to get used to loneliness.
- Don’t forget to unplug. In the beginning, your company is somewhat leading a revolution, so you literally work 24/7. But you should recognize the moment when you have to pace yourself accordingly and accept it’s not a sprint anymore but a marathon. Don’t forget to take breaks from work!
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The thing is, any business is based on your unique vision. To develop your own vision, you need to receive hands-on experience in the field (just as I said before). Once you’re ready to start something, go out there and do some research — talk to people, understand what their pains are and how you can help. Once this is done, do some exciting brainstorming to come up with your disruptive idea.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I’ve never had the luxury of working with invention development consultants. As an entrepreneur, I believe no one can do anything better than you. If you have a new idea that takes up all of your thoughts, this astonishing energy will help you strike out on your own.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I’d highly recommend bootstrapping — especially at the proof of concept stage. If you invest your own money, you feel super uncomfortable and this all or nothing situation will force you to deliver a breakthrough. It’s tough and painful, but it’s worth it.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Tilda is making the world a better place every day, because it evened the odds for both, big players and small businesses, to succeed.
The website is a cornerstone of the business’s online presence and it has a massive impact on its success. With Tilda, entrepreneurs don’t have to compromise on their ideas and designs to create powerful websites. They also don’t have to spend a fortune on hiring a web studio. Instead, they can invest money into improving their products and services.
Thousands of startups have created a website on Tilda and have grown into large successful companies. That’s what makes me love my job!
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire 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’d say any movement that inspires entrepreneurs to solve big problems and run purpose-driven businesses for the common good. I want to inspire them to treat customers like people, not like leads or numbers. Sure, the revenue matters. Efficacy matters. But they don’t matter nearly as much as your users.
Once you do your best to create a product to make people’s lives easier, happier and more fun, everything else will fall in line. When you’ve done that, you hit the jackpot.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest 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 like the concept expressed by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of Basecamp. They noticed that business vocabulary is very similar to the military one: “win the market share,” “kill the competition,” “headhunters,” “dominance,” etc. However, business is just business, it’s not war. You can realize that you are not the only choice for a potential customer and still be successful. I would be curious to discuss this concept with them.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.