I was one of the first hires at Scribd, the social publishing site that garners over 100 million visits per month. My journey as a fruitful early startup employee has lasted over 3 and half years, and this Friday, that journey comes to an end. I will soon be pursuing my dreams of starting my own company.
It’s hard to put in words the amount of experience an early employee gets at a fast moving technology startup. My time at Scribd wasn’t just another job — it was a kaleidoscopic learning experience spanning all aspects of business and technology. For those of you weighing the benefits of an MBA program: join a startup instead. You’ll not only learn about real world business problems, you’ll also execute them in the real world with smart and passionate people.
In essence, there isn’t much difference between what you do and what the founders do. Everyone is furiously iterating on the product, making the user base happy, and growing revenue.
If you’re the kind of person that likes to make an impact and learn faster than you’ve ever learned before, being an early startup employee may be an ideal job. The following are some of the highlights of my experience.
Jared, Trip, Tikhon, and I at the 2008 Scribd Holiday Party (photo by joeywan)
Millions of Hats
I still recall the night before my first day at Scribd. We had just gotten our first office space in downtown San Francisco, and Trip Adler, one of the founders, called me up to see if I could help put together some office chairs. Of course, I happily obliged. There we were on a Sunday night, the CEO and I assembling chairs for the new office. We didn’t get very far, and quickly realized that we had better things to do with our time and hired someone from Craigslist the next day. The point though, was that were ready to roll up our sleeves and get anything done that was necessary.
Eventually, I did much more than assemble a few chairs. In my time at Scribd, I have managed to work on (in no particular order): backend and frontend Ruby on Rails development, UX design, graphic design, A/B testing, user testing, viral marketing, SEO, ad optimization, database query wrangling, Facebook app development, localization, large scale redesigns, managing a team and probably a dozen more things I don’t remember.
And typically, many of the projects I took on had some component where I had little or no experience with. I found myself going from “I don’t know how to do X” to “Well okay, that isn’t too hard” to “I have something working, let’s try it in production.” This kind of fast and fearless execution with little bureaucracy is exhilarating. It’s an experience that you will rarely find at larger companies.
Fast Iteration and Big Changes
One of the big advantages of a startup is its ability to change strategies overnight, and execute on those changes almost immediately. Startups aim to shorten the time between the inception of an idea to deploying it in production. In doing so, they are able to iterate quickly and out-maneuver competitors.
This is exemplified by the handful of major site redesigns that I’ve been involved with at Scribd. It’s not trivial to redesign a site as large as Scribd, but with our fantastically focused team, we were able to pull off radical changes while keeping the site stable and also measuring the impact on business metrics. Many times, we literally transformed and finessed every page on the site.
Here’s a fun timelapse of me slinging some frontend work that was shot over 4 hours during our first major redesign (we were neck deep in execution mode at the time, and that day was probably one of the most productive days in my life; shortly thereafter, we launched a totally rebranded site from the ground up):
And here’s a quick timelapse of the code development at Scribd, using code swarm to visualize the git commits over time:
More recently, we converted all our documents from Flash to a new HTML5 format that we built from scratch. This was a radical change to the most important pages on our site that was enacted over a short period of time. The end result was a dramatic improvement to the user experience that blew our users away.
The right startup environment allows you to be super productive and make a big impact. On a site like Scribd, developers push features that affect literally millions of people a day. In other words, the user-to-developer ratio is extremely high.
However, maintaining this high ratio is meaningless if developers aren’t empowered to push changes to the product. At Scribd, we deploy code daily. Sometimes, small features are launched; while other times, huge site-wide changes are pushed. There isn’t any hand holding from superiors when these deploys go out. Is the feature ready, tested, and does what it’s supposed to do? Does it also make the site better? Then let’s deploy! In fact, the title of our Campfire room at Scribd is “Working hard to make Scribd better!”
This brings us to the most important quality that enables impact: trust. Without trust, employees aren’t empowered. And without empowerment, there can be no impact. Needless to say, Scribd puts a lot of trust on its employees.
This is exactly the reason why startup hiring is difficult: the amount of trust required in the candidate is magnitudes above that of large companies. In fact, the difficulty factor is inversely proportional to the number of employees in the company. When you’re only one of a handful of employees, you have a big influence on the company, for better or for worse.
The people make the startup. At a well-oiled startup, they are passionate, hard working, and sincere about improving the business. There really is no other way for such a tight knit group to be successful.
The biggest part of Scribd I’ll miss is the people. The relationships that I’ve forged while working in the trenches building great products are unparalleled. Over the past few years, I have collaborated with a wide range of smart and passionate people to create the site that Scribd is today, and I’m proud of it.
Coincidentally, Scribd is hiring! So if you’re looking for a fast paced environment working on one of the largest sites on the planet with a boatload of awesome, smart, and passionate people, check out their job page for open positions. There will be big things happening at Scribd in the near future, so it’s the perfect time to join in on the action.
Feel free to contact me if you have more questions about my experience at Scribd.
Farewell and The Future
And with that, I am saying farewell to my Scribd friends and the company that taught me an immense amount about running a web startup. I will be starting a new venture, and will have more to share about that soon.