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Why I started Documenso

Image of Timur Ercan

Timur Ercan


Burgers, drinks on a table between friends.

Not the burger from the story. But it could be as well, the place is pretty generic.

TLDR; I started Documenso because I wanted to build a modern tech company in a growing space with a mission bigger than money, I overpaid for a SSL cert 13 years ago, like encryption, and wanted to help make the world/ Internet more open.

It's hard to pinpoint when I decided to start Documenso. I first uttered the word "Documenso" while sitting in a restaurant with Felix, eating a burger and discussing what's next in late 2022. Shortly after, I sat down with a can of caffeine and started building Documenso 0.9. Starting Documenso is the most deliberate business decision I ever made. It was deliberate from the personal side and deliberate from the business side.

Looking at the personal side, I've had some time off and was actively looking for my next move. Looking back, I stumbled into my first company. Less so with the second one, but I joined my co-founders and did not develop the core concept myself. While coming up with Documenso, I was deliberately looking for a few things, based on my previous experiences:

  • An entrepreneurial space that was a big enough opportunity
  • A huge macro trend, lifting everything in it's space
  • A mode of working that fits my flow (which, luckily for me, is pretty close to the modern startup/ tech scene)
  • A more significant impact to be made than just earning lots of money (though there is nothing wrong with that)

Quick shoutout to everyone feeling even a pinch of imposter syndrome while calling themselves a founder. It was after ten years, slightly after starting Documenso, that I started doing it in my head without cringing. So cut yourself some slack. Considering how long I've been doing this, I would have earned the internal title sooner, and so do you. After grappling with my identity for a second, as is customary for founders, my decision to start this journey came quickly.

Aside from the personal dimension, I had a clear mindset of what I wanted. The criteria I describe below clicked into place one after another, in no particular order. Having experienced no market demand and a very gritty, grindy market, I was looking for something more fundamental. Something basic, infrastructure-like, with a huge demand. A growing market deeply rooted in the ever-increasing digitalization of the world.

And to be honest, I just always liked digital signature tools. It's a product that is easy enough to comprehend and build but complex and impactful enough to satisfy a hard need. It's a product you can build very product-driven since the market and domain are well understood. So when asked about what's next for me, I literally said, "Digital, um, let's say… signatures". As it turns out, my first gut feeling was spot on, but how spot on I only realized when I started researching the space. An open source document signing company happens to be the perfect intersection of all the criteria and personal preferences I described above; it's pretty amazing, actually:

  • The global signing market is enormous and rapidly growing
  • To put it bluntly, the signing space is vast and dominated by one outdated player. Outdated in terms of tech, pricing, and ecosystem
  • The signing space is also ridiculously opaque for a space based on open web tech, open encryption tech, and open signing standards. Even by closed-source standards
  • We are currently seeing a renaissance for commercial open source startups, combining venture founder financials with open source mechanics
  • Rebuilding a fundamental infrastructure as open source with a meaningful scale has a profoundly transformative effect on any space
  • Working in open source requires being open, cooperative, and inclusive. It also requires quite a bit of context jumping, "going with the flow," and empathy
  • Apart from fixing the signing space, making Documenso successful would be another domino tile toward open source eating the world, which is great for everyone

Building a company is so complex it can't be planned out. Basing it on great fundamentals and the expected dynamics is the best founders can do, in my humble opinion. After these fundamental decisions, you are (almost) just along for the ride and need to focus on solving the "conventional" problems of starting a company the best you can. With digital signatures hitting so many points of my personal and professional checklist, this already was a great fit. What got me excited at first, though, apart from the perspective of drinking caffeine and coding, was this:

Roughly 13 years ago, I was launching my first product. We obviously wanted SSL encryption on the product site, so I had to buy an SSL certificate. ~$200ish, two years validity, from VeriSign, I think. Apart from it being ridiculously complicated to get, it bothered me that we had basically paid $200 for what is essentially a long number someone generated. SSL wasn't even that widespread back then because it was mainly considered important for e-commerce, no wonder considering it cost so much. "Why would I encrypt a blog?". Fast forward to today, and everyone can get a free SSL cert courtesy of Let's Encrypt and browsers are basically blocking unencrypted sites. Mostly, it is even built into hosting platforms, so you barely even notice as a developer.

I had forgotten all about that story until I realized this is where signing is today. A global need fulfilled only by a closed ecosystem, not really state-of-the-art companies, leading to, let's call it, steep prices. I had considered Let's Encrypt a pillar of the open internet for so long that I forgot that they weren't always there. One day, someone said, let's make the internet better. Signing is another domain that should have had an open ecosystem for a long time. Another parallel to that story is the fact that the cryptographic certificates you need for document signing are also stuck in the "pre-Let's Encrypt world." Free document signing certificates via "Let's Sign" are now another to-do on the long-term roadmap list for the open signing ecosystem. Effecting this change in any way is a huge driver for me.

Apart from my personal gripes with the corporate certificate industry, I have always found encryption fascinating. It's such a fundamental force in society when you think about it: Secure Communication, Secure Commerce, and even internet native, open source money (Bitcoin) were created using a bit of smart math. All these examples are expressions of very fundamental human behaviors that should be enabled and protected by open infrastructures.

I never told rthis to anyone before, but since starting Documenso, I realized that I underestimated the impact and importance of open source for quite some time. When I was in University, I distantly remember my mindset of "yeah, open source is nice, but the great, commercially successful products used in the real world are built by closed companies (aka Microsoft)" shudder It was never really a conscious thought, but enough that I started learning MS Silverlight before plain Javascript. It was slowly, over time, that I realized that open web standards are superior to closed ones, and even later, I understood the same holds true for all software. Open source fixes something in the economy I find hard to articulate. I did my best in Commodifying Signing.

To wrap this up, Documenso happens to be the perfect storm of market opportunity, my interests, and my passions. Creating a company in which people want to work for the long term while tackling these issues is a critical side quest of Documenso. This is not only about building the next generation of signing tech; it's also about doing our part to normalize open, healthy, efficient working cultures and tackling relevant problems.

As always, feel free to connect on Twitter / X (DM open) or Discord if you have any questions, comments, thoughts or feelings.

Best from Hamburg

  • Founders
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