THE BLOG
01/09/2015 11:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Going Against the Flow: Trip Adler, CEO of Scribd

John R. "Trip" Adler III started the social publishing company Scribd in 2013. Adler grew up in Palo Alto, California, and then attended Harvard University where he studied biophysics and graduated in June 2006.

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Trip Adler, CEO of Scribd

What does entrepreneurship mean to you, and what underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

TA: There are many different types of entrepreneurship, but I'll tell you how I think about it in the context of Silicon Valley right now. Entrepreneurship is about tackling big problems - often non-obvious problems - that will have a meaningful impact on the world and this usually involves solving these problems in counterintuitive ways. In general entrepreneurship involves leveraging the hard work of people, financial resources, and market trends, and pulling it all together so that big things happen in a way that gets compounded over time, regardless of how small the initial project or resources were.

I think the most important trait for an entrepreneur is persistence. When you try to do something new and difficult, you are more likely to fail than to succeed. When most people hit failure they give up, but good entrepreneurs simply treat failure as a learning experience and use it to fuel and inform their next move. This process is emotionally exhausting - at least before you get used to it - and that's why persistence must be an underlying characteristic in order to find success. Unfortunately the road is not always smooth, and this this doesn't happen just once or twice in the evolution of a company, it happens constantly. In the ever-changing world we live in, you always need to be pushing the envelope on everything, and trying and failing in order to continue learning every part of the business. I think the classic quote is when Thomas Edison said: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

What are you most proud of in your professional career? If you could do something over in your life, what would it be?

TA: I'm most proud of the team we've built here at Scribd. We have some truly talented and passionate people who have accomplished some amazing things. Building a high quality product that serves more than 80M people a month that's constantly changing reading and publishing is no easy feat. I'm very proud of what our team has accomplished and everything we will get done in the years to come.

I'm not sure I'd go back and do anything over in my life. I've definitely had my fair share of failures and moments where I wasted my time or that of other people, but if I did those moments over, I'd have missed out on so many lessons. I can think of at least one product I built that ended up being a pretty big failure because of my own mistakes. If I had given up at that point, that would have been a terrible outcome. Instead, I learned countless lessons from that experience that I've already used to not only improve the product and company, but also to regain and make even more for our investors and rest of the team. In the grand scheme of things, money lost is just one of the casualties of lessons learned, and in the case of successful entrepreneurs, persistence and resilience will ultimately lead to greater success.

Tell us about an instance where you had to go against the flow to realize your goal.

TA: In late 2012 when we decided to start going down the path of offering eBooks through the subscription model, we ran the idea by some of the most influential publishers in the industry and we heard from the majority of them that what we are doing was a bad idea and would never work. One might have seen that as too great a challenge to combat and walked away, but I knew we could make it work. That initial feedback didn't stop us from pivoting our entire company and getting everyone to start building the first ever eBook subscription service. It also didn't stop us from continuing to pitch publishers slowly working to get them more and more comfortable with the idea. After a year of work we managed to sign up a few dozen publishers and turn them into fans, including HarperCollins, one of the Big 5, who's become one of our biggest supporters. When we launched, it became an instant success with readers and publishers. Fast-forward to today and we have thousands of publishers who love working with us and a rapidly growing number of readers who are loving the service. We still have a lot of people we need to convince about the model, but I'd say that at this point we've reached a tipping point, and we are getting enough data to make a very compelling argument to the publishers who are holding out.

How is the subscription model for books benefiting the publishing and reading ecosystem?

TA: The key to the subscription model is that it allows us to create a much better experience for discovering and reading books, which causes people to read in new ways, which ultimately allows us to return increased revenue and distribution to publishers and authors. Let's dig in to each of those:

The subscription model allows us to create a much better experience for discovering and reading books: A core part of the experience Scribd creates is helping guide each and every reader to their next book. We've built an entirely new type of experience for discovering books, through a unique blend of algorithmic, editorial, and social recommendations. With traditional retail models, every time you want to read a book, first you have to find it, then you have to make a relatively big decision to purchase it, download it, and finally you can start reading. About half the time you feel obligated to finish reading it just because you paid for it. But the subscription model is worry free reading. You can read what you want, and if you don't like it, there is no cost to switching books.

This new experience for discovering books changes reading behavior: This new discovery experience has resulted in several distinct changes in reading behavior. First, people tend to read a lot more. Our data suggests that our subscribers spend about 2-3x more time reading as people buy individual books. This is likely because we make it so much easier to start reading a new book. Second, we see that when people buy books they typically search for a particular title and read it, while in the subscription model, they tend to read books that are recommended to them. That means that people are reading new books they wouldn't have discovered and read otherwise.

These changes in reading behavior are creating new revenue and distribution opportunities for publishers and authors: Since people are reading more and discovering more, we can return more revenue to publishers overall, and we can provide more revenue and distribution to backlist and long tail books. Its not easy to get brick and mortar stores to merchandise titles unless they're new releases or best sellers but on Scribd we're able to drive significant attention to content of all kinds including backlist and works from indie authors. In many of these cases, titles that otherwise wouldn't have found much of an audience through the other retails, are suddenly becoming the most read titles on Scribd. It's a shift in the overall ecosystem, which will ultimately be a great thing for publishers and authors.

LinkedIn style - If you were to give advice to your 22 year old self, what would it be?

TA: I feel like every time I thought I learned something and I had the urge to advise others, I realized a year or two later than my advice was completely wrong. I either gave bad advice or would have been giving bad advice had I given it. When you get advice from someone, all you are getting information on what particular person learned from one specific experience, and therefore it's nothing more than a data point. The only way you really truly learn things is through real life experience. You can take tips, lessons learned and warnings from others as a guide, but its important to truly experience the results of your own actions - both good and bad. I'm not sure I would give my younger self any advice, because I think my 22 year old self would pay too much attention to my 30 year old self, and then I'd just mislead my younger self. I'm sure this answer will continue to evolve and change as I continue to grow and experience.

Follow Trip Adler at @tripadler, and check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ or thestartupsutra.com.