Scribd began as site to simply host and share documents. Essays, poems, novels — whatever writers needed to share, Scribd offered a home for their words. And now it has grown into a fully fledged book subscription service.
In fact I used to use Scribd when I was in school, aspiring to be a bleak writer of fiction — in search of any audience I'd upload my tomes and hope for readers. Since then the service has grown and transformed and is showing no signs of slowing down — and is certainly hosting much more literature than my college projects. We spoke with Trip Adler, co-founder of Scribd, to learn more about how the service came about, and how they pivoted into a new publishing territory.
Where did the idea for Scribd come from? Were you trying to solve a problem you'd experienced, or did the inspiration come from somewhere else?
The original idea came from a conversation with my dad, who's a doctor a Stanford, when he was having trouble getting a medical paper published. It gave my cofounder and I the idea to build a site that would help him easily publish his paper, and that quickly lead to us building a site where authors or publishers of all kinds can publish any kind of written content.
That's where we got started back in 2007, but now we're much more heavily focused on our latest evolution of the product, which is our new book subscription service. This newer idea came along after spending a lot of time working with authors and publishers, and we realised that the main things they wanted were more readers and more revenue. At the same time we realised that allowing them to distribute and monetise via a subscription model was the best fit for our product and our audience, and the right model for the future. It would allow us to create a much better experience for book readers, and by getting people to read more, provide more distribution and revenue for books. Fast forwarding a year and half, we now offer over 400,000 books, from top publishers including HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster that are available to read on whatever device you like for a flat fee of $US8.99 per month.
After you came up with the idea, what was the next step?
In late 2012, the core Scribd product was up and running with 80 million monthly readers, 50 million uploaded books and documents, and was a profitable business with 40 per cent net profit margins. When we had the idea for the book subscription service, we began two things in parallel: 1) Evolving the product into a better book subscription experience, and 2) working on signing up publishers for this new business model.
On the product front, we already had a pretty good cross-platform reading experience for documents and books. The challenge was simply to make it a bit more book-centric. This meant things like better support for ePub files, a book categorization system, book-specific recommendations and a bunch of other little things that add up to create the book subscription experience. We also had to build the system for tracking reading behaviour that we would use to make payments to publishers. To get all of this started, we carved out a small part of the team to build the beginnings of this new product, and gradually added more and more people to the project as it became a larger part of our focus and we got closer to launch.
On the content front, I personally went out and starting pitching publishers. Since most publishers in the world were already using us to sell or market their books, it wasn't difficult to get in touch. On the first phone call, both Berrett Koehler and Inner Traditions agreed to give it a shot, so we had their books up and running in the subscription service in a matter of days. Without any promotion or marketing, we saw the reading activity on their books quickly spike. We even saw one subscriber in New Zealand spend over 50 hours in one week reading books from these two publishers! That was when we realised we were on to something. We knew that as soon as we signed more publishers and added more books, it would take off quickly.
How did you choose which platforms to target and which to ignore or wait on?
At this point we've built the product for iOS, Android, web browsers and Kindle Fire. We have a team of 60 people, most of which are engineers or designers, so we have the bandwidth to build for many platforms. It's actually key to our value proposition that you can use the product on any platform, because we're making books available to you wherever and whenever you like. Kindle Fire is a key platform for us, because we're targeting book readers, and lots of book readers own Kindle Fires.
What was your biggest roadblock and how did you overcome it?
Probably the most difficult roadblock for us was getting publishers on board, particularly the big ones. The subscription model is very new for the publishing industry, as it switches the business model from an ownership model to an access model, and it's taken a while to get the big publishers comfortable with such a radical shift. However, I'm proud to say that we have now signed large deals with both HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster to make the majority of their backlist catalogues available to our subscribers. We were able to get this done simply by taking time to talk through all the benefits and risks of the model, and demonstrating results through data. We're able to drive a lot of revenue and distribution for publishers, particularly books that don't get read quite as much through the traditional retail model, and publishers are happy with this.
What was launch like for you?
We soft launched our book subscription service in January 2013 and then publicly announced it with the participation of HarperCollins in October 2013. The big launch went exceptionally well, because our product was well built out and had already been live and tested by users for months. Because we already had the subscriber base growing exponentially for the nine months leading up to the launch, the addition of the new books and the publicity were like rocket fuel to a growth curve that was already hockey-sticking. Growth has remained excellent since launch too.
How do you handle user requests and criticisms effectively?
User criticism and requests are extremely valuable feedback. We receive a large amount of feedback with a varying degree of quality. We look for common themes in feedback which helps us identify pain points and validate our product roadmap. It's pretty rare for a user or reviewer to point out something we don't already know, but hearing a bunch of users request a feature that we are already working on helps reinforce our conviction that we are on the right path.
We also treat user feedback as an opportunity to open up a two-way dialog. If someone writes in to tell us they wish our product had X or they really dislike Y, it means they cared enough about Scribd to take time out of their day and share their thoughts with us. It's a great opening to help debug their problems, let them know our future plans and build a more personal connection.
Now, how do you split time between developing new features and managing existing ones?
Our goal is to provide a superior ebook reading experience. For the past few months, we were focused largely on new features because that's what we thought our product most needed. We are reaching a point where we are satisfied with the feature set in our apps and our focus is going to shift back towards refining the experience. We are always looking for new ways to improve our apps, so there will always be a need to balance new and existing features. New features are also dictated by the business side of Scribd. If we decide to enter new markets, it will most certainly require new features. Our overarching goal is quality of features over quantity. We will focus on features and continue refining them until we are completely happy with how they work and feel.
What advice would you give to others that want to take on a similar project?
Oh man, this is a big question. Since this kind of "project" involves everything from design to engineering to large publisher deals to marketing and fundraising, I really would need to write a book to answer this, but I'll do my best to answer this question in a few sentences.
If you are going to take on a big project like this, the main thing to get right is the team. It obviously takes a lot of people to do something so complicated, so you need to attract a world class team, delegate responsibilities effectively, and get everyone aligned and working towards a single vision. If you have the right people in the right roles, everything else follows pretty naturally. I know this pretty conventional advice, but it's a lot more difficult than it sounds, and getting this right can easily make or break a company.
Lifehacker's Behind the App series gives an inside look at how some of our favourite apps came to be — from idea to launch (and beyond).