Interview with Eileen Gittins
An Interview with Eileen Gittins Founder, President, and CEO, Blurb, Inc.
Date: July 10, 2007
NCWIT Interview with Eileen Gittins
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and this is another interview in a series of interviews that we're having with fabulous women IT entrepreneurs, women who have started just the most amazing companies. With me is Larry Nelson and Pat Nelson from w3w3.com. And today, we're interviewing Eileen Gittins, the founder, president, and CEO of Blurb. Hi, Eileen. Welcome.
Eileen Gittins: Thank you for having me.
Lucy: And Larry, welcome. Why don't you say a few words about w3w3.com, since this podcast will be hosted on your site as well as the NCWIT site.
Larry Nelson: Well, I'll tell you what, it's really a pleasure. Lucy, you and your team have lined up some magnificent IT entrepreneur heroes, I guess would be the right way to put it. It's our pleasure on w3w3.com because we are just an all‑business, primarily high‑tech business radio show, where we archive anything. So we'll have this up for a long time at w3w3.com. Thanks.
Lucy: Well, Eileen, welcome. We're really happy to have you here and to get your thoughts on entrepreneurism. And before we start, I'd like to hear a little bit more about Blurb. It's a fascinating company, a print‑on‑demand book business. But it's ever so much more than that. Really, investigate your website, it seems like it's a community site. It's a site for people who like to create books and read books and share. So, why don't you just tell us a little bit about Blurb? It's a company that you've said was possibly your most fun company.
Eileen: Well, I think you're doing a great job. You're right. Blurb is more about a community. So we are a creative publishing service that enables anyone to create a book, market that book, distribute that book, and perhaps even profit from that book via our service at blurb.com. So there are three components to the service. The first is free software. It's called Blurb BookSmart. It's purpose‑built to enable folks like us, who may not be book designers, to focus on our content. So it's a drag‑and‑drop kind of metaphor. There are hundreds and hundreds of page layouts and themes, backgrounds, borders, custom illustrations ‑‑ a whole grab bag of cool stuff that you can do to really make your book look professionally published. We've hired book designers ‑‑ not just graphic designers, but actual book designers out of the industry ‑‑ to help build out all of the page layouts and themes for this application. So then you can import your photos, your blog, your cookbook, your recipes, your story, your poetry, whatever your expertise is, into these page layouts. And when you're ready to rock and roll, you hit the preview button, you take a look at it, and if it looks great, you then upload the book file to blurb.com, and you get your book back in about seven to 10 business days.
Eileen: You can order just one copy, or we're delighted if you'd like to place an order for tens or even hundreds. Prices start, for a seven by seven book in a soft‑cover edition, at $12.95, for a 40‑page color book. I will tell you that, for your listeners who may on occasion have to run down to Kinko's or your favorite color copy shop, you can barely print four or five pages for that price, let alone a 40‑page, beautifully produced book for that amount of money. We have four book sizes at the moment: so the 7X7, 8X10, 10X8 ‑‑ so that's landscape or portrait ‑‑ and then a big book, which is our 13X11‑inch book. And all of these are supported with templates and themes. Once you get your book back, then the very cool thing about Blurb is you automatically get a free bookstore. And you can keep that private, meaning only you can buy a copy of your book. Or you can share it with friends and family. You can send a link out, so it's still a private bookstore, but shared with people that you know. That's particularly useful if, say, you're doing a family book, maybe a baby book or a wedding book or something, and frankly, you like to not be in the post office business or the bank business, meaning you'd just as soon not have to collect money and ship books to everybody, and you'd much rather them be able to come and look at the book themselves and decide for themselves if they want to purchase a copy. And then, finally ‑‑ and this may be of great interest to your listeners because I think this is really turbo‑charging our business right now ‑‑ one of the challenges for people who are interested to make money on their books is, in the traditional book publishing and distribution process, there's a lot of people who need to get paid in that food chain. And so what Blurb has done is said, "You know what? If you make your book using Blurb, you can market it for free in the bookstore." You can put your blurb about the book up. You can have a free book preview. You can now bookmark it and send that out to a number of different locations, like del.icio.us and Digg it, and say, "This is a really cool book." You can have Blurb badges, which are little widgets that you can put on your blog or your website that promote your book, and when people click on them, it takes them automatically to your book in the bookstore. And then, here's the cool part: you can set your own price for the book, and you keep 100%, the uplift.
Eileen: Yeah. And then, finally ‑‑ very finally ‑‑ you mentioned community. You will be seeing from Blurb in the near future all kinds of very cool new community features to enable people to share ideas and share tips and tricks and to help each other, as well as a profile so that you can kind of get a feel for who are the people that you're talking to. All kinds of very cool new community features coming up from Blurb.
Larry: Well, Lucy, I've got to get going because I'm going to go home and finish my book.
Lucy: Larry is an author. This is definitely one of his favorite interviews. He just loves it. I mean, lots of really cool features. And the other thing I liked: you have some great vocabulary. I'm an observer of words. And so, Blurberati?
Eileen: Yes, the Blurbarians.
Lucy: Blurbarians. Yeah.
Eileen: Blurbarians, the Blurberati. And of course, we've made Slurpers, and Slurpers are tools that will enable an end‑user to get their content in there. So, for instance, if any of your listeners might have their photos on Flickr, we've built a Flickr Slurper. What's so cool about that is, as you may know, when you typically post photos on a photo community, they're down‑sampled for screen resolution ‑‑ usually 72 DPI, which is not so great for book printing. So what the Slurper does is we have written to a commercial API from Flickr, so we're able to grab the high‑res version for you automatically, bring that into your little workspace in the application, so that then, when you drag and drop those images into the book, they're the resolution that you need to print, big and beautifully.
Lucy: Fascinating. We could probably talk for Blurb for the whole interview. But I suppose we should start the interview.
Larry: Yeah. I've been hearing all this. A question that Lucy generally gets to ask, I can't help but wonder, how did you first get into technology? And by the way, is there anything cool out there that you feel is out in the marketplace today?
Eileen: Yeah. How did I first get into technology was actually through photography.
Eileen: So I'm a photographer. And I worked for Kodak for many years. I have a degree in photography, I used to teach photography, and I've been a custom printer, blah blah blah. And what's so fascinating about photography ‑‑ and I'm talking traditional photography, film‑based, darkroom‑based photography ‑‑ is that it's really the intersection of art and craft and technology. I mean, understanding shutter speeds and apertures and understanding chemistry and understanding the process of silver halide and what happens with a developer and with fixture and reciprocity failure and all those things that are the more technical aspects of photography are what made me appreciate that I am actually one of those people who lives at that intersection between the creative mind and the technical. And so I'm consistently drawn to things that give me that opportunity to marry those two things together. And when you think about software ‑‑ in particular, applications software that consumers and end users and normal people use, not big, enterprise‑class, back‑end kind of things ‑‑ that is exactly that, right? That is, how can we apply technology to enable mere mortals to either get things done more efficiently than they could before, get things done at all that they couldn't do before, or in the case of Blurb, some of both, right? I mean, for the very first time ever, really ‑‑ I mean, think about it, ever ‑‑ could I make a book that looks like a book that you'd buy at Borders for $20, and it's four‑color and laid out and designed and beautiful. When I think about the application of technology to enable people to unleash their passions, to do more with less and to just enjoy life is really what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Lucy: And I think that you've partially answered our next question. You are a serial entrepreneur. And certainly, as the founder and CEO of Blurb, you continue to be entrepreneurial. What is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick? Why are you an entrepreneur?
Eileen: Because I'm a builder. I like the creation aspect. I mean, there's nothing that gets me more excited than seeing an opportunity that's not yet there, [laughs] and where I can see it, I can see a market, I can see a convergence. I see patterns. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs train themselves this way. I know I didn't wake up one day and just all of a sudden saw patterns. Over the course of many years, I think I've trained myself to look at those convergences. And sometimes you just see patterns emerging, and you see gaps in the marketplace, and you just think, "Wow. That's big. That's really interesting. That's a problem that I'm having, or that other people are having, and I need to go and figure out why hasn't it already been solved." And then, once I've figured that out, then it becomes about the economics, right? Because there's two parts to it. It's not enough to have a great idea. It's important to have a great idea for which there is a business need and a business application and a market that you can efficiently reach, with economics behind it that are going to enable everyone to have a nice payday as a result of investing your energy. And so I just love solving puzzles. I mean, I just really am one of those people who likes to look at what's not there yet that should be.
Lucy: I think it's great to compare entrepreneurship with being a builder.
Larry: [laughs] Yeah.
Lucy: I think that's a really nice analogy. And on your path as an entrepreneur, I'm sure you had role models or mentors. Who influenced you the most, or what influenced you the most, on your career path in entrepreneurship?
Eileen: Can I go back to your last comment before I answer that one, the builder comment?
Eileen: By the way, I'm married to one...
Eileen: Who actually is a builder. And we talk, in software and in the IT world, of course, about things like architecture all the time, and blueprints and project schedules and all that...
Lucy: That's right.
Eileen: And I find that the analogy is maybe more perfect than any other single one I can think of. What we are doing and what other entrepreneurs in the IT world do is they imagine the building that's not there yet, right? And what should it be? And what's its function? And who should it house? And then how does it grow over time? And does it need to have additions? And does it need to be architected in a way that it will support a third story, even though that's not there yet? So all of that level of abstraction, the technical level of the engineering, and then coupled with the aesthetic beauty, which one hopes results from the actual building that's built, is very analogous, I think, to software development, and, in fact, to Blurb itself. So yeah, I think I am a builder. And I'm also married to a traditional builder. All right. So then, the follow‑on question was about mentors and who influenced me along the way?
Eileen: Well, there are two things. One is I was in college, and I was working my way through school, and I had a night and weekend job at a big, fancy department store out here in San Francisco. And I was selling men's designer clothes or some such thing. They paid me well on Sundays, right? Yeah. I mean, I worked my way through school and didn't pay off the last student loan till I was 30. That was my opportunity. I had to put myself through school. So here I am, working at this store. And they had a management training program, which is, for any person who works at the store who's getting a college degree, they invited you to interview for a job, basically, as a management trainee for the company. Well, I will tell you that I really didn't want to go into retail. That wasn't really my aspiration. But hey, I was just delighted that somebody wanted to interview me and that somebody might potentially want to give me like a real job that I went down to the big hiring office in San Francisco and ended up interviewing. And I will tell you that the net result was I was not hired, because I was not considered management material. And I will tell you that I am one of those people ‑‑ and I think there are many people who are entrepreneurs who are like this, who are naturally competitive. The minute someone told me that I was not management material was the day that I decided that I was going to be the CEO of a company.
Lucy: [laughs] "I'll show you!" [laughs]
Larry: There you go.
Eileen: I mean, seriously. So that was the first thing that happened. And then, on the positive side, my very first manager at Kodak was a wonderful woman ‑‑ actually a woman, which was interesting at the time ‑‑ and she was the person who taught me the most about the value of team and the value of people in building not only a great life but a great career. And I came in thinking I was God's gift to Eastman Kodak Company. And in the nicest possible way, she reminded me that I was brand new, and that there were a lot of people around who knew a lot more than me, and that I would be wise to be a bit of a student, right? And I took that very seriously. And to this day, I remember her often. In fact, there was recently an article written about Blurb, a really nice piece in "USA Today." And I got an email from her. And I haven't talked to her in years. And I got an email from her, and I felt like I was back at the student level again.
Larry: That's fantastic. Let me ask you this question, Eileen. You've had so many neat little successes ‑‑ little and big successes ‑‑ along the road. What was something along the way that was a challenge that you were not able to overcome and you were forced to learn to live with?
Eileen: So, wonderful question, because I think you do learn the most from your failures. Gosh, there have been many failures. In fact, I will tell you that life in a startup is a series of them. We talk now about "fail fast" as a new mantra for building our business, and our whole goal is to get things up and expose them to real people, and identify the ones that fail quickly and reinvest in the ones that succeed quickly. And so, just as a mantra, I think, at some weird level, it is all about failure and learning from that. On a personal level, a couple companies ago, I had a board that, frankly, I learned the lesson of "choose your board members very well."
Eileen: Now, you don't always have the leverage to do that. As a first‑time CEO, sometimes you inherit VCs and you inherit a board and you just inherit things. But what I learned from that experience is, if you don't have shared values with your board ‑‑ and I mean both on a personal level, frankly, and on a company level; what is the company trying to achieve ‑‑ then, at the end of the day, frankly, the board holds the tickets, right? You don't. And at the end of the day, they can make other decisions. And in the life of startups that are VC‑financed, even though you may think it's your company, in order to get that financing, you've had to give up ownership of the company, so it's not your company anymore. You may put in the insane hours each week and feel like it's your company, but literally, it's not your company. So there was an occasion where, in a past company, there were a number of companies that wanted to buy us ‑‑ big companies, big money ‑‑ and I was advocating that the market was shifting and that we should take one of those offers. And we, frankly, had a board ‑‑ and understandably, at the time. This was big IPO‑fever time, back in the day. And they really thought we should hold out for an IPO. Then, of course, it very quickly became I was the person who was in favor of selling and so needed to move on and find somebody else who really believed in the company and believed in the IPO. So there I was, no longer running my own company. Very tough lesson to learn.
Lucy: It is a tough lesson to learn.
Eileen: Yeah. But you know what? I did learn and I have great respect, now, for the fact that investors invest in companies and they invest in momentum and they invest in people. At any given time you really do serve at their pleasure to some extent. Don't think that your vote counts the most, because it doesn't. So you have to really choose people with whom you have great trust and great rapport. They have confidence in you and you in them. Then it's like any marriage, you need great partners.
Lucy: Well, and that's terrific advice. I'm wondering if you have any other advice if you were in a room talking to a young person thinking about entrepreneurship, being an entrepreneur. What other advice would you give them?
Eileen: And I do this all the time, as a matter of fact. I serve as an advisor to a lot of early stage companies. The number one thing is, "Do something you're passionate about." Life is too short to do something that is just for money for just for job or just for ego. Do something you really love. If you love it, it's funny how we all tend to be good at the things we really love to do. So there's a happy convergence there. Find something you love and figure out how are you going to make a business or how are you going to make money from doing the thing that exists that you already love to do.
Larry: Boy, this is a great segue right into my next question. That is, if you were to take all the different characteristics, both on a personal and a professional and if you were to select one characteristic about yourself that makes you successful, what would that characteristic be?
Eileen: I think I'm a good judge of people. Because at the end of the day, team is everything in an early stage company. I will argue in a later stage company, too. In particular in an early stage company where they may only be one or two people in a given discipline. Boy, they better be the right one or two! Because you don't have 40 you got two, right? [laughter]
Eileen: I think being able to judge people well, to be a good judge of character. To be able to motivate people, recruit people and identify good people, just have a good sixth sense about that. I think that's probably my strongest suit.
Lucy: We've heard the theme of really emphasizing team before on this series. Certainly being a good judge of people is absolutely mandatory to building a good team.
Larry: [laughs] Yeah. Yeah. Is that a fact?
Lucy: Absolutely. I just love, by the way as an aside, personal characteristics. I love that phrase "happy convergence." I just have to tell you, too, I think you have a great way of putting words together.
Eileen: [laughs] Well, maybe I'm in the right business then.
Lucy: Yeah, I think you have a great way of putting words together. I want to shift a little bit to your personal life and how you bring balance between your personal life and your professional life. You're obviously very busy in both spheres.
Eileen: Yeah. The first thing is I'm really fortunate to be married to a wonderful man who is my best friend. Who keeps it real, as they say. [laughs] He reminds me I am not the boss of him. Lucy: [laughs] I know one time my son said that to me. "You are not the boss of me!"
Eileen: "You are not the boss of me." You know what? Everybody needs that in their lives. I go around here and, of course, I am the boss of people, right? So you need somebody in your life, and hopefully somebody in your close immediate family who reminds you that, "That's your professional life and now you're home."
Lucy: [laughs] That's right.
Eileen: "And that's not how the rules are played here," in the kindest and most loving way. I think that a big part of it is that I have that balance with my husband who plays that role for me. The other things though are, a couple. One is, I do think it's really important, especially when you're founding a company. It can be all consuming. I suffer from this as much as the next person. You just have to find a moment where you do something completely different. For me right now, when I was younger I used to swim competitively. We could have a whole conversation about that and team building and being sports minded and all that. But I was a serious swimmer, I was one of those insane people who swam two hours in the morning and two hour every night and was a nationally ranked swimmer. Then life intervenes and you get involved in other things and pretty soon you realize, you're not in shape anymore. You're not physically fit. You're not, hopefully, totally overweight or anything, but you're just not fit anymore. So a few months ago I just decided it's about making a decision to become fit because you can always find the excuse. I don't care if you're a CEO or a full‑time mom or even just somebody who you'd think would have all the time in the world. It's not about time. It's about making the decision. So I went back into a pretty rigorous physical fitness regime a few months ago. It's time that I know that I'm doing something good for my long‑term health, my well being. I feel better, I look better, I sleep better, my stress levels are better, everything is better! Right?
Larry: I [inaudible] better.
Eileen: It's just, you've got to make a decision about doing something that's not work. That is improving balance in your life. For me, that's been it since last October.
Larry: Wow, I tell you, that is a wonderful answer. I was guessing ahead of time since your husband is a builder and you're a builder. I thought maybe the way you did this balance was probably building a Lego library or something. [laughter]
Larry: Nonetheless, you've accomplished a great deal. You've got a lot that you're going to be doing with Blurb, but outside of Blurb what is next for you?
Eileen: Boy it's hard to think outside of Blurb when you're in it like this. Probably another one. I am not going to be one of those people who, even if I financially did really well, that would mean I'd be going and hanging out on the beach. That's just not me. Something else will capture my attention and I'll go do it. I'll tell you a couple of areas that are interesting to me. One is education in this country. I'm very interested in how some of the things that I've learned along the way, maybe even some of the technologies like Blurb and others can really inspire and motivate young people to want to learn in different ways. In an earlier life I thought maybe I'd be a teacher. But again that doesn't have the leverage that I want and I think I've accrued some knowledge along the way that can be better leveraged. So very interested in education and how I may be able to apply myself to help move that needle.
Lucy: Well that would be wonderful. At NCWIT we care a great deal about K‑12 education and computing technologies. It's rather circular. You can use information technologies to improve education about computing maybe. [laughs]
Larry: There's an idea.
Lucy: There's an idea.
Eileen: Yeah. No. It's really true. In fact I'll tell you, even with Blurb we've made a point of going and meeting with schools. I went back to my high school. Met the now principal who was a teacher when I was there who remembered me, God forbid. I'm going to be teaching a class there in September on publishing. Lucy: Wow! You'll have to do another interview and find out how that goes.
Larry: At she won't have to study for it.
Lucy: Eileen's return to school. Fabulous!
Eileen: Eileen's return to the principal's office.
Lucy Sanders: No! Don't you dare go to the principal's office. Eileen, we really appreciate you taking time today to talk with us about yourself and your career and also about Blurb. It's been really, really interesting. I want to remind listeners where they can find this podcast. They can find it at www.ncwit.org and w3w3.com. Pass it along to a friend. Again, Eileen, thanks a lot! It was really, really interesting.
Eileen: Listen, my pleasure. I'm honored to have been invited. So thanks again.
Lucy: Thank you.
Larry: We'll call on you soon.
Lucy: Cheers! [music]