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Min read

“I felt trapped as CEO of my own company. So I demoted myself.”

Written By
Steve Howe
David Okuniev | Co-founder and Head of R&D, Typeform

David’s passion for making things started when he was young, with Lego. He spent countless hours building anything his imagination could conjure up. 

When he finished school, he swapped bricks for bars. He started producing music, layering sounds on top of one another until he was satisfied. It was an early introduction to the design process.

“That's what building products is like. You start with something, you add, you get feedback, you tweak it, you improve it.”  

David finds this process cathartic—he can lose himself for hours. So much so that doing anything else—like talking—can feel frustrating. And like many creative types, he’s never fully satisfied with his own work. He’s a self-confessed tinkerer.

“I feel like I'm always behind the quality bar I’ve set for myself, so I’m always tweaking. When I go back to old things I wonder: what was I thinking?” 

Later, David got into web design. He didn’t know it at the time, but his constant tinkering would eventually lead to something huge.

“I believe that things create themselves eventually. People who create things are chaperones of their own creations, in a way.” 

That’s exactly what happened with Typeform.

Business noobs

Back in 2012, David and his friend Robert ran a small web design agency in Barcelona. They had lots of clients. But their attention was constantly scattered across different projects, and the work had to adhere to their clients’ terms. They dreamed of being able to focus on one project—on their terms.  

One early concept, David remembers, was a collaborative karaoke website where people could source different parts of a song from their friends. It didn’t get off the ground. 

Then, a better idea fell into their lap. 

Robert had a client called Roca—a company that made bathroom products. They wanted a digital form for their showroom to collect the contact details of potential customers. David and Robert quickly got to work on a new type of form, one that would really stand out.

Roca loved it. It looked and felt more like a conversation than a form.

“We thought: this could be the idea that takes us away from all the client work.” 

They knew this was their opportunity. But having an idea is one thing—building a profitable business from it is a completely different challenge. 

“We didn't know what MRR, ARR, or any other startup metrics meant. We tried to raise capital here in Spain and no one would look at us ‘cause we just had no idea about running a business.”

Despite being business noobs, the product—which they called Typeform—gained traction. People loved how refreshing typeforms felt compared to traditional web forms. They’d fill in a typeform, wonder what it was, and sign up as customers—the lucrative “viral loop”.  

In the first few years, Typeform felt like a fun adventure. They formed a close-knit group of around 30 employees in a bright, open-plan office full of plants. Everything felt easy—an expert in support, marketing, or development was just a shoulder-tap away. 

Until it wasn’t. 

“The pressure was tremendous”

After a while, David and Robert’s roles as co-CEOs became formalised. David struggled with his CEO responsibilities.

"The bigger the company became, the further away I got from the product. I was dealing with people issues—hiring leaders, that sort of thing. The pressure was tremendous. I just wanted to build things.”

But he felt compelled to carry on. Robert—born and bred in Barcelona—spoke English well, but not as well as David—a native speaker. So David took on all the fundraising work, as well as the demands that came with hiring and managing people in a fast-paced startup  

They grew to around 150 people and moved into a bigger office, where teams were tucked away in different areas. Things got harder.   

“Communication starts breaking down. Trust breaks down. People make assumptions and start complaining about a reality that you don’t really see."

"You try your best, but end up having to play politics—something I never wanted to do.”

David and Robert were committed to creating a company with heart. Employees were given flexible hours, unlimited holiday, and free lunches—among other benefits. One of the early company mottos was: “make things a little more human”. 

But David felt like their bold statements on company culture were often used against them. One of the first times they had to fire someone, the outgoing employee said: “well maybe this company isn’t so human after all”.

Another employee asked them to change the kitchen setup, because the smell that wafted around as the chefs prepared the free lunches was bothering them. And there was the constant trolling of the leadership team through anonymous internal feedback forms. It stung.  

“I saw so much entitlement culture around Typeform, because we gave people a lot. I don’t think betrayal is the right word, but I wanted people to be more positive.”

"Good vibes alone are not scalable"  

On top of the strain of managing company culture, David and Robert had extra pressure from investors who demanded faster growth—something that had slowed after a stellar first few years. 

While David was energised by the idea of expanding the product and its capabilities, the pursuit of hyper-growth didn’t really engage him. This was made clear in his approach to managing people—while he and Robert had high expectations, they didn’t really hold people accountable to those expectations.

“We built the company on a lot of heart. But we were missing the rational, calculating side, the side that would allow us to scale the company. Good vibes alone are not scalable.” 

David admits that he’s never embraced the concept of “work-life balance”. For him, work and life aren’t two separate things—it all just bleeds into one. But during this time, it became even harder to shelve problems when he went home. He’d ruminate and worry because he’d have to face the demands of colleagues and investors the very next day. 

He wanted a change, but people looked to him for leadership. And leaders, he thought, must ooze confidence and provide stability. So he swallowed the stress and just kept going. 

“I think that's the definition of stress, actually. Not living out what you really want to do every day, and forcing yourself to carry on regardless.” 

He felt trapped, with no obvious way out. Then, along came Kim. 

A way out

Joaquim "Kim" Lecha had been hired as Typeform’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) several months before. A soft-spoken, thoughtful type, Kim was more calm conductor than impulsive experimenter. He’d had an immediate impact, introducing procedures that allowed teams to focus and thrive. 

One day, David and Robert were talking and it hit them: Kim was the “head” that balanced out the “heart”—the equilibrium they needed to navigate the next stage of Typeform’s journey. And he’d provide the release valve for David’s stress. 

They made a bold decision: they would step down, promoting Kim to CEO. 

People have since told David he was brave. But he sees it in a different way. 

“Founders are quite attached to their baby—they find it hard to relinquish control. But having that control was something I wasn’t enjoying. It was easy to let go of the reins.”

<quote-author>David Okuniev<quote-author><quote-company>Co-founder and Head of R&D at Typeform<quote-company>

Kim brought in clearer boundaries, and a renewed focus on growth targets. And David immediately got back to what he loved best: making. He hired a small development team, and started work on a new product idea. It was a startup within a startup, and he felt liberated. 

“I did it completely on my terms—I was like a mini-CEO again. There were no leadership issues from my point of view, because this time I was completely open and authentic. I wasn’t pretending. And I could work directly on product again” 

He disengaged with everything else at Typeform. He even stopped going to leadership meetings. It’s what he needed to feel like himself again. 

Back to the heart

David is still at Typeform. He now heads up a small research and development team, revelling in his role as leader of a scrappy band of innovators.

But he’s also become an advocate for the heart of the company again, returning to the principles on which Typeform was founded. 

“We have to do things we believe in. Like allowing designers to be our driving force. Or not measuring absolutely everything.”

He formed a “design guild”—a group of employees that care about design thinking and want to apply it across the organisation. And when the office closed because of the pandemic, he was the one who pushed leaders to think about how to recreate spaces in which meaningful interactions could occur. 

David once produced music—tweaking tracks until they sounded good to the ear. In his work, he’s now found the perfect harmony between “creator” and “founder” roles. It’s his responsibility to keep the company he founded grounded, while pushing it forward with fresh ideas. 

His parting advice for founders struggling with the pressure of being a CEO? 

“In the absence of viable options, it may be hard to see a way out. But you can create those options. And just remember: it’s only a fucking company.” 

Oliva therapist photograph

by Oliva therapist