When asked to sum up what he’s about in one sentence, Chris Hawkins, 29, co-founder and CEO of the recently acquired e-signature startup SignNow said, “Focus on impact.” Hawkins, who grew up in and resides in Orange County, says this is what he spends most of his time doing as an entrepreneur, co-founder, and in his private life.
“Basically in any given moment, try and focus only on the thing that is most impactful for the business and also personal life as well. That means being pretty focused and relentless about letting a lot of things slide even though that could be painful and is painful, but that has been one of the key reasons of my success thus far.”
Growing up, Hawkins witnessed his parents working up the corporate ladder over a long career to be executives. Although they were successful, it wasn’t until Hawkins experienced what he calls the big bureaucracy of being in the U.S. army that led him to helm a 10-person consulting firm as president for four years. “I realized I didn’t like being an entrepreneur just for the sake of being an entrepreneur, but it did offer me the opportunity to really solve problems that I found to be interesting,” said Hawkins of his time with the firm.
What Hawkins found most interesting was building a product business. While helping financial firms with their document and signing management platforms, Hawkins and SignNow co-founder and product manager Andrew Ellis – whom Hawkins also worked with at the time – kept seeing the same issues regarding signing and notary fraud. Hawkins recalls thinking they could create a mobile-centric e-signing solution that “would be a hundred million times better” than the current players that were difficult to use. Motivated by personal interest, they created a demo product and worked with legislature to get the product legalized in early 2011.
The product’s success led Hawkins and Ellis that year to launch SignNow, accessible on iOS and Android platforms, as a way to capitalize on the product. “I think being an entrepreneur was a big, sort of scary, uncertain thing but somehow with all that we really believed that we were doing something big, something unique, something important, and that’s the thing that really drives me. That’s sort of what got me up every morning through bad times, through good times. Ultimately, it was that vision,” said Hawkins.
The milestone events along SignNow’s path were: raising a total of$2.5M in fundingin two rounds in less than one year (in part fromKhosla Ventures), signing on co-founder and director of engineering Thor Clark, andBarracuda Networks’acquisition for an undisclosed amount in April 2013.Previous SignNow customer Barracuda Networks reached out in early 2013 to talk acquisition, recognizing the startup’s success in solving a critical need for companies. “We liked what Barracuda was doing. We liked the team over there. And we ultimately decided it made more sense for us to work on these problems together than separately,” said Hawkins.
At the time of acquisition, the SignNow team had 12 members and well over one million users with an emphasis on revenue growth and mid-market customers. Now with access to Barracuda Networks’ resources, SignNow continues to accelerate as a standalone business, almost doubling its engineering team since acquisition. SignNow’s biggest markets are in North America, Europe, and Asia. “Generally, I think for most companies, growth is the most important thing. Growth cures everything else. And the opportunity with Barracuda was really to grow tremendously and that’s a huge and positive thing. It gives people the opportunity to step up and take more ownership and for your product to get further reach,” said Hawkins.
Hawkins shared some wisdom he has picked up during his entrepreneurial journey:
Working on the right thing is more important than how hard you work. Initially, SignNow included completely free e-signing and ancillary services such as online notarization, but the success of the mobile e-signing business led the team to begin charging for the product in 2012 and reprioritize their resources. “The e-signature problem turned out to be the much more broken one for most businesses. We are solving that problem in the trenches on a day to day basis and that is the most valuable thing we’re doing at this point,” said Hawkins. “This is one of the things where you never really know going into it what will work and what won’t.”
Prepare for the big moments by helping others. Hawkins boils down startup life to two things: 1) the day in and day out focus on tasks and 2) making connections and helping other people. “You may meet 100 people and only one of them is ultimately someone you connect with in a way that you can leverage at some point in the future. All the big events – the fundraising, acquisition and everything – were highly dependent on having the right players in place. Knowing how to ask for help, and hopefully give more than you ask for if at all possible is the foundation, I think, for good relationships.”
The absolute best growth metric you can have is revenue. At the end of the day, it’s about having a great team, staying on course with the company’s vision, and growth/traction. “We did not anticipate being acquired. We didn’t build the business wanting to be acquired. We built the business wanting, first and foremost to solve the problem, and second was build a business, with a revenue stream,” said Hawkins. SignNow’s revenue grew from an initial 30 percent to 60 percent month over month during the few months leading up to acquisition.
Hawkins’ recommended resources for startups
- Hacker Newsfor its intelligent commentary and filtering of the best articles
- Quora for answering questions
- SaaStr (EchoSign co-founder/CEO Jason M. Lemkin’s blog) for its interesting insights
- Less Wrong for an understanding of statistical data and cognitive biases
On SignNow’s biggest competitors, Hawkins said DocuSign and EchoSign are its significantly older counterparts. “It’s sort of an exciting race. Generally, the sentiment on everybody’s part is that this is still a very early market. We’ve barely seen penetration. There’s such a long way to go. Realistically most of us are not competing with each other. We are competing with pen and paper and fax machines and stuff like that.”