Scribd co-founder wrote his own story

John R. “Trip” Adler III

The gig: Adler, 29, is a founder and chief executive of Scribd, a YouTube for publishing in which anyone can upload documents and let others read and share them. With 80 million visitors a month, it’s a popular destination. And at 6½ years of age, it turns a profit from displaying ads and taking a cut of sales and subscriptions.

Book deal: Last month Scribd struck a deal with publisher HarperCollins to make thousands of book titles available by subscription on its service.


“It’s an extension of our original vision,” Adler said. “The original idea was to make it easy to publish content on the Web and find an audience. What we learned from publishers is that the thing they want the most is more readers and more revenue. So we are shifting our focus to a more reader-focused product and one that readers will pay for to help return that revenue and distribution to publishers.”

Growing up in Silicon Valley: Adler didn’t have to move to Silicon Valley to become an entrepreneur. He grew up in Palo Alto, surrounded by them. Adler’s father, John R. Adler Jr., is a neurosurgeon and an entrepreneur. Adler used to drive through the Hewlett-Packard parking lot to get to his high school each morning. His childhood baby sitter was Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of genetic testing start-up, who is married to (but separated from) Google co-founder Sergey Brin. “I had a lot of exposure to technology entrepreneurs through my friends’ parents who were starting or running companies,” Adler said.

He followed in his father’s academic footsteps and attended Harvard. He was a pre-med student for a time, before switching to biophysics. He also interned one summer with an investment bank. But it was only in his senior year that he realized something that he knew deep down all along: He wanted to become an entrepreneur.

Trial by error: Adler came up with what at the time was a novel idea: a ride-sharing company very similar to Uber and Lyft. He submitted the idea to a business plan competition at Harvard and recruited students to work on it. “I learned how important timing is; having a really good idea five years ahead of its time is practically worthless,” he said.

But he and his Scribd co-founders caught a lucky break when they got into Y Combinator, the best-known incubator in the tech industry. They cycled through a bunch of ideas: a Craigslist for colleges, a call center, a “rate your happiness” social website. But it was his father, whose complaint about how difficult it was and how long it took to publish medical research, who was the motivation for the winning concept.

Scribd launched in March 2007. Within days its popularity was soaring, and venture capitalists were knocking down the door. Adler says that of all the Y Combinator alumni, his is the oldest company still alive and kicking, meaning it has not been bought or closed (No. 2 is Dropbox). “We take a long-term perspective on building things,” Adler said. “If I make a good product and deliver value to users and to the world, the financial gains will come.”

Learning on the job: “One of the interesting things about my job is that it’s always changing depending on what the company needs at that point in time. It requires learning a lot of new skills as the company matures and the market changes,” Adler said. And that has been his most important lesson in business: Never stop learning. “The more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to learn,” Adler said.

The Scribd offices in San Francisco sport go-carts, a zip line and a rock climbing call. But most crucial to Scribd’s success is handing each of its 50 employees a chance to make a meaningful difference, Adler said. “We want every single person to have a key role where they can feel the weight of the company on them and at the same time have the freedom to be creative and come up with their own best solutions,” Adler said.

How Scribd first made money: At Christmastime, Adler donned a Santa cap and busted out his saxophone to entertain a busy street corner in the heart of San Francisco’s shopping district and downstairs from Scribd’s office. That yuletide busking earned Scribd its first $17 in revenue. The story even showed up on the company’s website in the Frequently Asked Questions section: “How do you guys make money?” “Trip plays sax on the street corner sometimes.”

Surfing the Bay Area: When he’s not working, Adler, a lifelong surfer, rides the waves at Ocean Beach or elsewhere along the coast. He also makes time for his dad, who coached him on starting Scribd. His father is starting a Web business that would open up the peer review process for medical publishing. And now Adler is the one giving him advice.