Ep. 280 - Jennifer Smith, Cofounder of Scribe on Building Software to Create Operating Systems of Knowhow

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On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we host Jennifer Smith, CEO and Cofounder of Scribe. Jennifer and I talk about her journey as an accidental entrepreneur and the trends and opportunity she sees as she grows a software company on a mission to build the first operating system of know-how. Let's get started.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast to help the new innovators navigate what's next. Each week, we'll give you a front row seat into what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today's world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It's time to get started.

Interview Transcript of Jennifer Smith, CEO & Co-founder of Scribe

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Jennifer Smith. She is the CEO and co-founder of Scribe. Which is a startup software company that enables you to automatically generate step-by-step guides for any process or task. Welcome to the show, Jennifer,

Jennifer Smith: Pleasure to be here Brian.

Brian Ardinger: I am so excited to talk to you. Not only because what you're building. But you've got a pretty interesting background that I think our audience will get into. My understanding is you got into entrepreneurship as a, an accidental entrepreneur. You've spent some time at McKinsey and at Greylock. Degrees from Harvard and Princeton. And now you're developing and building a startup from scratch. So why don't we tell the audience about how you got on your path to becoming an entrepreneur.

Jennifer Smith: Yeah, I, I do say I'm a bit of an accidental entrepreneur, cause I, you know, meet so many folks in the valley who say, I knew since the age of 10 that I was going to found a company. And you know, if you had asked me even a few years ago before I started Scribe, I would have said no, unlikely not.

To me I fell in love with a problem. So, I'll kind of take you on a quick history tour. Imagine it's 10, 15 years ago, you know, when you're a leading global corporation and you want to figure out how work is getting done. Maybe you're facing a productivity imperative or you're scaling up your company. And so what do you do?

You probably hire some fancy consultants, right? And they probably come around. And they interview your people. And they create a bunch of PowerPoints. Maybe they document what some of your best practices are like. Anyone who has seen office space can maybe just think of the Bob. And, you know, I should know, I spent seven years at McKinsey. Doing exactly that.

I did mostly work in our Oregon operations practice. Which functionally meant spending about eight hours a day in an operation center, looking over the shoulder of agents, trying to figure out how they were doing things. And I learned really quickly the name of the game, at least as a consultant at the time was you figured out who the best person that ops center was. You sat next to them. And you said, what are you doing differently Judy.

And Judy would tell you. Right? Oh, I was trained to do this. And you know, she'd pull out a big manual. I'll date myself. It was a big binder at the time. Right. Here's what I was trained to do. But, you know, I found these 30 shortcuts. And here's what I do. And I would write that down and my team would sell that back to our clients for a whole bunch of money.

I always thought like, gosh, if the Judy's of the world had just had a way to share what they know how to do, they could have had really big impact on that ops center. Right. They didn't need me and my team to be saying it for them. And so that always kind of nagged at me, but I figured that was a problem for someone else to solve someday.

And then fast forward a decade later, and I'm working at Greylock on Sand Hill Road. And I spent a lot of my time there meeting with CXOs of large enterprises. So CIO, CDOs, Chief Innovation Officers. A lot of folks who would kind of come talk to VCs to try to understand how they could be more innovative.

I counted them when I left actually. I talked to over 1200 folks. So pretty broad sample. And what I realized was nothing had changed. The way that you still wanted to understand how work was getting out. You were still getting some version of a 28-year-old Jennifer with a Lenovo ThinkPad running around, interviewing your people, right?

Maybe it was an internal person and maybe now you're using a fancy Wiki instead of PowerPoint to capture it. But the idea is still the same. It was still very manual, not very scalable. And that was crazy to me. We'd had so much technological innovation and something that's so core. So fundamental to the way that millions of people, billions of people around the world work, hadn't changed. And so, I just got really obsessed with this problem and Scribe was born.

Brian Ardinger: So that's the impotence of the problem. It's like, okay, well, I've got this little nugget and ideas are great, but obviously you have to execute on that idea to make it an innovation or make something of value from that. How did you go from that nugget of information to finding a team or finding somebody who could help build or solve this problem for you?

Jennifer Smith: I believe in fast iteration around this. And so what we said was let's try to build the most basic MVP of a company and a product around this idea. And our idea was what if we could watch an expert do work and automatically capture what they know how to do? What if it was just like documentation as digital exhaust? Just a by-product of you doing your normal job.

And so, we built what was the very beginnings of Scribe. Wasn't even called Scribe at the time. And what we were focused on was just getting something very basic out there. That was for free. That people could test and use. And we could learn from that. And so, we kept the company very lean. Maybe a topic for another conversation. But I believe in running very, very lean as a team. Probably painfully so.

Until you really feel like the market is pulling something out of you. And so, we put our software out in the world. And sort of said, like, let's see how people use this. And what they tell us. And Scribe picked up some legs after a bunch of iterations and grew. And now it's being used by tens of thousands of workers around the world.

And that's because we really focused on a type of software that the end user would want. I think a lot of enterprise software today is focused towards a buyer. It's something that your boss tells you to use. And that's why you use it. And we said, let's flip this on its head. Let's try to iterate our way to a product that someone uses because they want to, not because their boss is telling them to. But because it makes their day easier, they're more productive. They get recognized for their contributions.

Brian Ardinger: It's an interesting approach because we've seen a couple of different companies that have taken that B2B approach and flipped it on its head. Like a Slack where, you know, again, it's a product team or something that starts to engage and use the product. And then through that word of mouth and through iterations, they start getting to the point where the boss has to take notice because that's the productivity tool that people are using. Was it always the model that you were going to go after? Or what made you think that this is the way to build Scribe.

Jennifer Smith: Yeah. It's because what you're trying to do as a startup is learn as fast as possible. We talk all the time about how do we just make our learning loops as short and tight as possible. And the way for us to do that was to try to get Scribe in the hands of as many users as possible. Right.

And so there's a few things that we did for that. One was we released a free version of Scribe. We just said, here you go. Go ahead and use it. Create a Scribe. Share a Scribe with anyone else. And we use to track this. We were trying to make it as easy as possible. The atomic unit is short and easy as possible for someone to use Scribe.

And so, we would clock it and see from the moment someone landed on our website to the moment, they were able to create a Scribe and share with one with someone else was under four minutes. And we had users who didn't even speak English. Right. And we hadn't translated the product yet. And they were able to do it under four minutes.

We said, how do we just keep this as short and tight as possible? And there are these natural growth loops in the product as well. So, whenever I create a Scribe, I send it to someone else. I share it with them. I can invite and collaborate with teammates. So, each user, be gets more users. That enabled us to learn faster and faster.

And that's very similar in many ways to what Slack and some of these other product led growth companies have done. Where they're really focused on driving that user value and cultivating user love. Which I think is great. The other thing we're focused on though, is in addition to this being a product that folks are pulling for. That they're telling their bosses, I want to be using. How do you also add value to the organization?

And so, what's interesting about Scribe is you've got people across your org who are using it because it just makes their day to day better and easier. But then there's value that accrues to the overall organization. Oftentimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, when you're starting to talk about making each person incrementally more productive.

And the knowledge that you're starting to capture from people documenting what they're doing every day. I think Slack has a similar model there. I think where Slack is a bit different and I've actually written a piece about this is their pitch to the enterprise is really just, your people are already using this. You might as well pay for it and get these enterprise security and features and all these things you want.

And we try to think about it as like, no, what's actually the value add to the organization. Like, it's great that all of your people are getting this value, but then there's also additional unlock that comes at the organizational level.

Brian Ardinger: You talk about Scribe as you're building that first operating system of know-how. How is this different than the way people have tried to solve this problem in the past? Wikis or other ways? There's always that challenge of capturing information and then making it easy and accessible when you need it. How's Scribe a little bit different?

Jennifer Smith: The Wiki was born in 95. I remember at the time we're all very excited. You know, everyone contributed, you saw the rise of things like Wikipedia. What's interesting. If you look at the staff even around like a Wikipedia. It's the idea is this, this big democratic open source, everyone contributes to this hive knowledge of the world.

Actually, there's a very small percentage of contributors who represent the vast majority of knowledge on Wikipedia. And they tend not to be pretty diverse too. I think you see this same thing within companies. Which is you have the keepers of knowledge. I call it knowledge with a capital K. Like the set of people who contribute to the Wiki or the knowledge base, whatever you're using.

And, you know, they spend a bunch of time. They have great intentions. They spend a bunch of time putting information. And that. It's highly manual to do. But there's a bunch of difficulties. One of the main ones is that it's very manual and takes that time. So, unless it's that person's job, if they're just doing it out of the goodness of their heart, it becomes very difficult to maintain.

And what you end up with is a downward spiral. I mean, anyone who's been part of a company can recognize this, the documentation goes stale. And then you stop referencing it because you know, it's stale. Then the person who created it forgets about it because no one's ever talking about it. And downward spiral from there and it doesn't become valuable.

With Scribe, we were trying to say, hey, how do you make this instead automatic. How do you make this so no one has to do any additional work? Again, this idea of digital exhaust. It's just a by-product of you doing your normal job. So, you hit the record button and you work as usual. You just do the thing you normally would have done anyway.

And you're automatically getting the step-by-step documentation that is up-to-date and current and accurate. And reflects the way work is actually being done. Because I think it's changing this model of knowledge is something that you have to go produce. To something you already have. You've already done the hard part of knowing how to do something valuable within a company. Our view is that your knowledge around that should just be automatically captured and shared with other people who shouldn't be taking time away to have to do that.

Brian Ardinger: How do you account for the fact that as the world is changing so fast, things are changing such that what you documented two weeks ago may not be what you document or how you do that task today. How do you keep up with the pace of change?

Jennifer Smith: I think this is really important, right? Because things are changing even faster within organizations. You now have a great resignation where maybe even the people who are doing the work, its changing even more. They're changing their physical location. Potentially they're remote right now. You have a lot of differences. And I think this is why it becomes more important than ever before to really tap into this collective know-how within an organization.

I almost think of it as like popping someone's brain open and pulling out what is it that they know how to do? Which is really the lifeblood of your company, right? We're talking about the knowledge of what are people doing when they show up to work every day. Nine to five, fingers on keyboard, trying to create value for your company.

And that knowledge walks out the proverbial elevator these days. Maybe not literally, you know. Every day at five o'clock and you got to hope that it comes back. I think it's more important than ever before that companies actually find ways to capture this knowledge and then be able to share it across the right people at the right time.

If you think about it, there's so much kind of reinventing the wheel happening within a company today. You're either when you go to do something, you know, popping your head over the cubicle and asking someone or trying to search on your own, or just kind of figuring it out. And there's so much productivity loss that comes from that.

Brian Ardinger: You alluded to a couple of trends that I want to talk to you about. One is this democratization of innovation where anyone can really have an impact in the organization because of the tools that are now there. So, things like no-code and low-code tools and things like Scribe that give power to the individual to create value in different ways. Talk a little bit about how you see that trend evolving and how it's going to have an impact in the business world.

Jennifer Smith: Yeah, I love that you bring this up. And as we say democratization. I find with some of our customers, they get very excited. Some of our customers get very scared. And I think it all depends how you think about it and frame it. The best knowledge on how things get done within a company or how to do things better really come from the people who are doing the work day-to-day on the frontline knowledge workers.

And so how do you really tap into that, and both understand what those people have figured out, but then be able to share that seamlessly across the org. There are increasing number of tools that make that better. I think it's easy to point to a bunch of the collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack and others that make it easy to communicate. The kind of flip side or downside to that is that ends with collaboration overload. Which I think we've all heard a lot of talk around, especially, you know, post COVID. And it's very real.

And it also is usually a disproportionate burden on your best people. Who are the ones that everyone always goes to to ask, hey, can you show me how to do this? And so, we think a lot about how do you scale those kinds of people who really are your best or your most experienced, or sort of have found a better way to do something.

In the way like code or media, which are infinitely scalable. We think about Scribe as the atomic unit of just how do you pull that info out of someone's head and make it infinitely scalable across an organization?

Brian Ardinger: It's pretty interesting how the world is changing such that again, we have that ability and how that's going to change. Both the speed of change, this layering effect of, as you give more productivity tools to folks, they become more productive. And therefore, changes the dynamics and moves from there. You also talked about this hybrid and remote working. What are some of the good, bad, and ugly that you're seeing and how does Scribe and the tools that you're building play into that.

Jennifer Smith: I think it'll be interesting to see how this plays out over time. Obviously, a lot of companies have now moved into hybrid or fully remote. And I think that's worked really well in instances where folks have built in-person relationships. And then they were able to move that on to remote. At least in the first few months and year of the pandemic.

What's interesting is you're now seeing a lot more turnover within companies. You have new people who are joining for the first time. And may have never met any of their colleagues in person. Right. And so how do you start to build that knowledge. That sort of informal knowledge of how work actually gets done within a company.

And what you find is when folks were in person, they often understood like, oh, Cheryl's the one who knows how to do this. She's the person I go to for that. Right. Or Bob knows how to do this, or Benkit knows that. So that becomes much harder to replicate when you're not all sitting together. We think a lot about how do you similarly try to like tap into this collective knowledge when people are not sitting face to face or next to each other, where you're able to just pop your head over the cubicle and ask someone, you know, a question on how to do something.

We talk about it as just drinking our own champagne at Scribe. Because we're hybrid ourselves. Right? We have a team here in San Francisco, but then we have folks distributed around the U S and world too. We use Scribe ourselves to share all of that knowledge around how to.

You've got three kinds of knowledge and accompany. You have historical knowledge. What date did we release this product? You have policy knowledge. What days off do we have with our PTO policy? And I think you can even kind of ask HR. And then you have this procedural knowledge, which is the thing that tends to be least documented. And it's all of that knowledge around, how do we actually do work?

What is the day-to-day processes and business functions that happen to make this thing go? And that's the part that you see documented the least. And that's the part that we're focused on most with Scribe.

Brian Ardinger: Whenever I have a founder on the show. I'll always like to ask do you have any go-to tools or resources or hacks that we can recommend to other fellow founders or products builders?

Jennifer Smith: Yeah, I believe in time management. And being really, really thoughtful about how you spend your time. And I'd say even more importantly, your energy. So, I've talked to my team a lot about thinking about where do you get sources of energy. And what drains your energy. And you need to manage that within a given day or week.

And so, I always say lean into your strengths. And as you look at the way that you're spending your day, make sure that it's disproportionately focused on the things you are good at. And that give you energy. You should feel like you're pushing a boulder downhill. Building a company is really hard. Don't get me wrong, but it should feel like pushing a boulder downhill because you're doing the things that you love doing.

And you've got a bunch of momentum from the market. And your team. And your product behind you. And if it doesn't feel that way, then you need to be changing the way that you structure your day.

Brian Ardinger: So last question. What's next for you? And what's next for Scribe?

Jennifer Smith: We're building the team and the product really aggressively right now. The next two years for us are just continuing to scale out. As I mentioned, we have a free version of Scribe that tens of thousands of organizations are now using. I think in over a hundred countries. We've offered now a paid version of that as well, for folks who want to upgrade. And we're selling into large enterprises also.

And so, we're really focused on how do we just make it as easy as possible for anyone to be able to share how to. For us as a company that's continuing to grow the team. That's investing more in R and D. And then continuing to build out on the distribution.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: If people want to find out more about yourself or about scribe, what's the best way to do that?

Jennifer Smith: Yeah, you can check us out on our website, Scribehow.com. Feel free to sign up there directly. We also have a promo code available for listeners, if they're interested. The product's free, as I said. But for the paid version, if you want three months free, it's insideout30 as a promo code. But invite you all to check it out and try it out and drop us a line with some feedback.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Jennifer, thanks for coming on Inside Outside Innovation. Really appreciate the time. And look forward to seeing where everything goes in the future.

Jennifer Smith: Yeah. Thanks so much, Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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