The interview begins when James asks Adler what Scribd is, and he says it’s like “YouTube for documents” and that their goal is to be “one of the the broadest and largest libraries of content on the internet.”
Adler began trying to figure the problem of sharing documents when he dad, a doctor at Stanford, was frustrated by the eighteen month delay in medical publishing. Instead he wanted a place to share his work online. This proximity led Adler to find what Peter Thiel (episode #43) calls a secret. “Every great business is built on finding secrets” Thiel writes and the secret that Adler found was a missing connection between readers and writers. In the same way that Uber connects riders with drivers, Scribd connects readers with writers. He tells James that they’ve found a way to preserve the formatting, get documents indexed by Google, easily embed them, and monetize them for the writers.
Uber is a fitting analogy for this, because that’s the company Adler wanted to start. “I met my founder Jared and had an idea for a totally different company. It was basically the idea for Uber but I was a few years too early.” Mark Cuban (episode #24 ) told James much the same thing about his experiences in the streaming music industries. “It pisses me off,” Cuban says, that they were doing that sort of stuff years before Spotify, Pandora, or anyone else. You have to be a little lucky with your timing. Jim Luceno (episode #60) was lucky to get a chance to write for Star Wars and told James, “sometimes hard work isn’t enough.” Seth Godin (episode #86) and Mark Cuban admit to lucky timing when they each sold their companies.
But it’s not just luck. Stephen Dubner (episode #20) told James that we should look at luck as one ingredient, like raisins in a cookie. If you make a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies and don’t like them, it doesn’t mean you don’t like cookies, just that you don’t like those. Luck is an ingredient to experiment with and quantify as best you can. If your effort and skills were good but something didn’t work out, you can figure in a bit of bad luck.
So, instead of the ride sharing service, Adler says that he and Jared spent “a good year, year and a half iterating on ideas.” And then, “after trying and failing at a bunch of ideas we had the idea for Scribd.” Sam Shank (episode #78) did the same thing with his career. When he saw that becoming a Hollywood director was a long shot, he looked for other areas he might have creativity and control.
When they decided to start down the path of building Scribd, Adler tells James they built a minimum viable product. Guest after guest on the podcast have advocated for starting small on big projects.
- Jon Acuff (episode #106) spoke anywhere for free before being paid as a public speaker.
- Maria Popova’s (episode #89) Brain Pickings was first an email to eight people.
- Lewis Howes (episode #88) did instructional videos for LinkedIn projects before expanding.
- Ramit Sethi (episode #36) said not to look at what people have built, because built things are far from starts.
Adler started small, building up the Scribd community, which turned out to be a good move. Before launching he tells James, they were “picking off internet users one by one” reaching out to anyone what might be a good fit for the service. It’s always striking to me how often technology companies start with so much non-automated activities. Scribd didn’t have a base of customers so they had to email people one by one. Sam Shank tells James much the same thing about Hotels Tonight. When they started they had to call each of their participating hotels each day to see how many rooms were available and at what price.
Scribd had a successful launch though because they manually built a community. Since then the company has grown and started to compete with SlideShare and Amazon. Throughout the interview Adler really seems to know his industry, talking knowledgeably about both his own company and his competitors. Jason Calacanis (episode #77) told James that he looks for founders who, “know this stuff cold.”
As Scribd has grown Adler has learned some valuable lessons, things he had to go through. “Getting advice is only going to help you so much, ultimately you’re going to have to learn these things on your own” he tells James about the bumps along the way. Jairek Robbins (episode #96 ) told James the same thing about his coaching business, noting that his dad Tony Robbins (episode #62) could have warned him about so many things – but that those lessons wouldn’t have been as valuable.
One of those hard lessons was in 2011 when, “a lot of things were not working out at the same time” Adler says. We’re all going to have our moments like this. Alex Blumberg (episode #70) has had a lot, figuring things out as he goes along. Ditto for Ben Mezrich (episode #84)who didn’t know if he’d ever be a full time writer.
James asks if Scribd had a “Lazy Sunday” moment (ala when the Adam Samberg video Lazy Sunday went viral and people began to discover YouTube.) No, Adler says, their model is more like the long tail. Kevin Kelly (episode #96) termed the coin and talked to James about it. Amanda Palmer (episode #82) has lived the long tail as a career.
James paraphrases Stephen King and asks, do you do it for the money, honey? Adler has a King like remark and says, nope. “The trend to start a company and make a lot of money is on the way out” Adler says. Sam Shank told James the same thing and Peter Thiel recounted the same story about Mark Zuckerberg. There’s more than money to life because some guests have had all the money they could ever need, and still weren’t happy. Tom Shadyac (episode #15) found himself sleeping in a closet and dealing with a disconnect between an actor making $20M for a movie and the janitor on set making $20/hour. Brad Feld (episode #91) tells a similar story of going through depression even though his financial health was great.
The interview ends with Adler sharing three lessons he’s learned:
- Focus. “Decide what you need to be” Adler tells James.
- Communicate. “I didn’t naturally communicate as frequently as I had to as CEO.”
- Effort and Determination. “The main reason companies fail is because they give up.” Jay Jay French (episode #75) told James about as it related to Twisted Sister. It took French 11 attempts to form a band with competent members and 6,000 shows before signing a recording contract.
Thanks for reading, if you want to connect, I’m @mikedariano.