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Interviewing Julian Rothkamp from Tower – Version control with Git made easy

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Tower helps developers get the most out of Git by supporting an easy tool for version control. We talked with Julian from fournova about the journey of creating Tower and how to grow from scratch to over 50,000 customers.

Can you tell us a little bit  about yourself and your startup fournova?

I’m Julian Rothkamp, I live and work in Berlin. I run marketing and sales at fournova, a software startup that was founded in 2010. We are a small team and focus on the development of our product Tower, a Git client for Mac. Before I joined the startup world I worked for several years at Universal Music in business development.

You just launched Tower 2. Which innovations or improvements came with the new version?

Since we launched Tower 1, we received a huge amount of valuable feedback from our users. While the first version was already a great product, we knew that there were still many aspects of the software that could be improved. We worked on Tower 2 for two years, starting almost from scratch. The new version is completely redesigned and re-engineered. We added more than 50 new features, and invested a lot of work in improving the app’s performance. Our main goal was to make it even easier for users to work with the – quite complex – version control system Git in an efficient and powerful app.

How did you come up with the idea to start Tower?

We wanted to work with Git in our team and when we made the switch from another version control system – called Subversion – to Git, we immediately noticed the lack of a good desktop app. We scanned the market, looked at the numbers and noticed Git’s fast adoption rate amongst developers. With this growth rate we knew that this market would be an interesting one to be in early on. As we bootstrapped, we did some client work at the beginning to finance the development of Tower’s first version. We quickly realized that this was the product we wanted to work on full time. We solely worked on Tower for about a year and released version 1 with hardly any money left in the bank. We have been profitable since that first launch day in 2011.

What is one of the core beliefs and values of your business?

We believe that you can only create great products as a team. I’m extremely thankful to work with such talented and extraordinary people. We respect and rely on each other and strive for the highest possible quality. It makes work not only more fun, it’s also essential to make an impact with your product. Tower is used by tens of thousands of users every day. We wouldn’t be where we are today without our great team.

How do you drive adoption and growth for your business?

Before we launched we handpicked our first users. Making sure that we had beta users that could give us not only valuable feedback, but also help us with the launch. Having beta users with a great  standing in the design and developer community can really boost your launch. Your first users will be the first ones to market your product to their network. It’s worth investing the time to have the right user base at the beginning.

In terms of adoption and growth, you will need to offer more than just your product. As the author Nathan Barry says, “Teach everything you know” – and that’s what we do. We invest a lot of time and effort in content marketing. We blog, write guest posts and tutorials. Our help and learning material goes beyond the standard. We published a book and released a stand-alone learning platform with a free online book, videos and webinars to help users get started with Git and eventually testing our app. We keep our marketing budget small, on purpose. It keeps you creative and helps you to find other ways than simply booking ads. Don’t focus solely on the product. Rather make your users awesome. Deliver value and help people. This will put you in a different spotlight.

What would you wish you’d have known before founding Tower?

You’ll probably never again learn so much in such a short period of time as when founding a startup and bringing your first product to market. We learned a lot during the whole process. Even if we had failed, it would have still been worth it. Each of us has grown as a person and a professional. You don’t need to know how to found a company. You’ll learn it on the way.

One of the things we had to learn was saying no more often. Saying no to feature requests, saying no to partnerships. Once you launch, the feedback you’ll receive can be quite overwhelming. It’s important to stay focused, filter the noise and not let others distract you from reaching your goal.

What are your tips for building successful digital products?

Don’t go with the first idea. Invest the time to refine it and chances are high that you can transform a good idea into a great one. Use proven methods such as the lean approach, customer development or the business model canvas. You don’t have to go by the book step by step, but these methods can give you guidance.

Before you even start, make sure to validate your idea. Is there a market? What’s the business model? And how are you going to create demand, market and sell the product? With the help of today’s technology it’s cheaper and easier than ever before to develop and distribute a digital product. However it’s still important to not underestimate the work ahead of you.

Which other success stories for startups inspire you?

There are two kinds of startups that inspire me. The ones that dream big. That are not afraid to go after the really big challenges. That are not afraid of disrupting a whole industry or creating their own space. The problems Elon Musk tackles fall into this category: disrupting payment, space travel and the automotive industry. Nothing seems impossible.

The second kind are startups that start with a small and clear problem to solve and focus on their solution. They take it step by step, listening to early customers and adjusting the product. They grow organically. Instead of investing in classical marketing, they rather find creative ways to spread the word and grow their user base. Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich – the two founders of Buffer – are a great example of this approach. Study their story and you can learn a lot on staying focused, growing a loyal user base and market your product outside the traditional path.

What is the best advice you can give entrepreneurs?

When I quit my job at a large company to join a small team that never released a product before, my boss asked me if I was serious. He warned me how hard it would be as nobody knew us and we literally had to start from scratch. Today we have more than 50,000 customers in over 80 countries including many Fortune 100 companies. If you’re really passionate about your idea and willing to work hard, creating something on your own with a great team of talented people is indeed possible. Chances that you might fail are of course high. Accept failure as part of the process. I have a huge amount of respect for founders that get back on their feet and start over. Be aware of the risk, but do not let it stop you. With the right team and the right mindset, there is always a way.

The way how Tower became one of the most known Git clients is a perfect example for startups. Be picky about your first customers, listen to their feedback and focus on creating an outstanding product with a great team will get your from 0 to 50,000 customers. We are thankful that Julian shared his experiences with us!