We last talked to Trip Adler in 2014, about expanding Scribd from a document hosting service to an ebook subscription service. Since then Scribd has kept growing. (And yes, it’s still useful even though library ebooks exist).
We talked to Adler about the binary path for startups, leaving room for impromptu meetings, and his personal reading habits.
Location: San Francisco, CA
Current Gig: CEO of Scribd
Current mobile device: iPhone
Current computer: Macbook Pro
One word that best describes how you work: Determined
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I was at Harvard, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I started out studying biochemistry, and switched to biophysics, which allowed more room for critical thinking — physics is great for that. But when it came to choosing a career path after university, starting my own company was the dream.
My cofounder and I worked on about 10 different startup ideas before landing on Scribd. I loved the larger mission Scribd encompassed: To change the way people share the written word. Luckily, the idea took off — we were able to raise venture capital quickly, and suddenly I was running a company.
Pretty quickly I learned that startup outcomes are binary: You’re either worth a fortune or you’re worth nothing. So I just kept pushing and reinventing the company as necessary until we hit our stride.
It’s been a longer road than most people would expect — we’ve been around for 11 years, and it’s been just in the last year that we’ve gotten to that point where we’ve reached “escape velocity”, or at least it feels like we’re pretty close to that. I think that really speaks to the power of persistence and having faith in your idea.
Take us through a recent workday.
I feel like my job evolves every few months depending on what the company needs, although it is getting more predictable as the company grows. On average, I’d say my job splits about 50/50 between an internal and an external role. Internally, I’m focused on strategy, product and company culture. Externally, I spend a lot of time working on deals with publishers and recruiting.
I try to keep my calendar pretty open, which gives me some time to think and take spontaneous meetings. The occasional free hour or ad hoc meeting has led to some big changes in company direction, so I always try to make time for them.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Gmail. Lots and lots of Gmail.
What’s your workspace setup like?
It’s a pretty standard open office layout like you’d find at most tech companies. We just reorganised seating around “squads” — collections of teams, focused on a unified business goal — which has been a great change in terms of communication.
We have a common area where we host three meals a day for employees. We also have a bunch of games (including a pool table and a ping pong table). We host a monthly author speaker series, “ScribdChat”, in that common space as well.
How have your work habits changed in the years since your last Lifehacker interview?
I rely much more on other people now. The company is now three times the size it was back then, which means I do a lot less “work” personally, and instead manage others who are doing the work. So in my current role I’ve had to learn how to add value without overstepping, and how to enable others to do their best work.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
I turn off almost all push notifications on my phone and then check messages in batches. So if it takes me a day to respond to your text message, that’s why. This helps me prioritise and manage my time — instead of spending the whole day responding to messages, I can focus and complete tasks.
Take us through an interesting, unusual or finicky process you have in place at work.
Once a month we host what we call “ScribdChats”, where we’ll bring a well-known author of a new book by the office and interview him or her about their latest work. It’s a great way for everyone to take a break from their day-to-day tasks and be immersed in the world of an author or journalist or professor or biographer and get exposed to new ideas.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
I’m really proud to say that we’ve hired a very smart, diverse, driven team, which is the most important thing you can do, in my opinion. I rely on Scribd’s executive team and the broader team of 140+ people. It’s always amazing to me how much work gets done every day.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I use a Gmail draft to-do list.
How do you recharge or take a break?
I go surfing and hiking a lot. Being immersed in nature on a regular basis is important to me, it keeps me balanced and happy.
What’s your favourite side project?
My wife Sierra started a salon, Hook & Scissor, a few years ago. I’ve been a proud investor and adviser. I never really expected to end up in the hair business, but it’s been fun and educational to be involved in such a different industry.
What are your own reading habits like? What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I read about a book a month, or maybe a little more than that. In this era of constantly being bombarded with information, I find that reading helps settle the mind. I read on Scribd quite a bit, but also still love reading print books. More recently, I’ve discovered the advantages of audiobooks. They’re great to listen to during my morning commute.
I tend to gravitate toward non-fiction and and business books, but occasionally I sneak in a fun novel. I just finished listening to Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I loved the nostalgia and smart pop culture references. Totally recommend it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Empathy is everything: I work hard to internalise feedback and other points of view, especially if it seems very different from my own thinking. This is one of the best ways to grow personally and form a vision.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
I’m still working on changing the way the world reads. If we can get the average person to read just one more book every year, that will have a big positive impact on the world.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.