Posted: 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013
By Eric Markowitz
Microsoft came to dominate PCs, while Google came to define the Web. Can the founders of Quip build the next empire for mobile?
Bret Taylor and Kevin Gibbs believe their 13-person start-up, Quip, can become the Microsoft of this millennium by following one simple maxim: design for mobile first.
Their first product, a word processor that launched last week, is as simple as it is elegant. The interface allows its users to create a document, share it with colleagues, and edit and discuss the material all in one thread. It may seem superficial at first (do we really need another way to type up documents?) but the co-founders see Quip's word processor as the first of many products that will ultimately comprise the full "productivity suite"--spreadsheets, presentation software, etc.
But most importantly, they're doing it mobile-first.
"Whenever there's been a big platform shift, the companies that ultimately succeeded were the companies that were built around that new platform--whose soul is that new platform," says Gibbs. "The companies that tried to port their software over--some were successful. But by and large, when the platform shift is so big, the only way to really be successful is it to build it around that platform. Our hope is that this current shift to tablet and mobile is so big that it might give us a wedge to impact how people do their work every day."
Gibbs and Taylor met while working at Google together. Gibbs was the founder and tech lead of Google App Engine, and the creator of Google Suggest. Taylor has an equally impressive Silicon Valley resume: Also, a Stanford graduate, Taylor co-created Google maps, founded FriendFeed--which was acquired by Facebook in 2009--and then went on to become Facebook's CTO.
In 2012, Gibbs and Taylor quit their jobs to pursue Quip full-time. Since launch, they've raised $15 million in a venture round including Benchmark, Greylock Partners, Peter Fenton, Marc Benioff, and Yuri Milner.
Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
You both left what many would consider to be Silicon Valley dream jobs. Why?
Taylor: We decided to leave because we wanted to start a company together. We felt like it was time in our lives to take this kind of risk. This shift to tablets and phones gave us the confidence that we might be able to have a big impact. When you look at the early days of the Internet, or the early days of the PC, so many of the great companies that can still exist today, came to exist at those big platform shifts. Microsoft grew into the company it is today because of the shift to PC. A company like Google grew into the company it is today during the shift to Internet. It's not easy to make a company just because of the shift to mobile devices, but it means that there is going to be a new generation of companies that has the potential to enter these really significant markets.
Gibbs: Bret and I both worked on products that were successful. We wanted to take on a much bigger challenge. We joke about it, but we wanted to work on something that would make us jump out of bed in the morning for the next 10 years or more. For us, this idea for the space we're in, seemed like such a big challenge.
You could have built a number of other "mobile-first" companies--why a word processor?
Taylor: We looked at the software that people have been developing for tablet and phones--and it was mostly social and games. But it was surprising that no one had really tried to address the core applications that people use at work every day. So it was somewhat logical. That space has been defined by a single product and a single company for 30 years or so. We made a product that works exceptionally well for the new, mobila era. People might actually give it a chance despite the 30 years of legacy features. We're building something that could be the mobile productivity suite, if we execute well.
What important features did you think about, especially as a mobile-first product?
Taylor: The product needed to work well both offline and online. The really interesting thing about what it means to be online on mobile devices is that it's not a single state of online or offline. It's variable. Our product works well in all those environments. So if you're typing a document and you're on a WiFi connection everything happens in real time, collaboratively. But then if you go through that tunnel and lose service, you can continue working, and when you get out of the tunnel, everything synchronizes. Building a product that seamlessly works well through all those situations is something we built into the architecture of the product--and I think that's pretty significant.
There's also some interesting uses of push notifications. If you share a document with somebody, the first time they open it you'll get a push notification that they opened it. And then you can tap that push notification and walk them through what you wrote. It's a really natural and human way to talk about a document with someone. It's like putting a piece of paper between two people sitting at a table, and talking about it.
Tell me a little about your approach to design, and why it's so important.
Taylor: On one hand, we're a start-up going up against some formidable companies. On the other hand, we don't have a legacy of 30 years of features that we're forced to port over to this new system. So when we were designing this, we started with the core of the product experience and built up from there. And at every point, when we were adding functionality, we would ask ourselves--How simple can we make this? If it made the product less simple, or less beautiful, we would question the importance of that feature and try to find an elegant way to do it in a way that didn't reduce the overall simplicity.
As people are using products on the go more, simplicity will come to define the product experience of really good mobile products. Because the things that you want to do on your phone are just fundamentally different than you would want to do on your laptop.
We spent a lot of time designing from the perspective of the phone and tablet, and making that work on the PC, rather than the other way around. I think that design process will become a lot more common for companies as tablet and phone usage come to dominate people's uses for products.
What's the long-term vision?
Gibbs: Our hope is to be that element of the software that you use at work that helps you make documents, share them with other people, communicate, reach conclusions, etc. To be honest, that's a huge space. We have so much left to do to make the product so much better. When we get to that point, I think we want to apply the same methodology that we've used with Quip the word processor to the rest of the productivity suite and the rest of the things you do at work. Building things like a spreadsheet, a modern way of presentations--we consider them to be in the scope of what we want to do.
What about competition? What if Microsoft comes in with its own mobile-first product, for instance?
Taylor: That's the standard threat for most start-ups. So I don't want to understate it, but it is par for the course. Either you make something that's not compelling, or you make something that is compelling and it's almost a foregone conclusion that the established players will try to replicate it.
The shift to tablets and phones is not a superficial shift. If we are able to succeed here it will be because a lot of those companies will attempt to port their software over to this new environment and it will feel clunky to the people using it. Our product is being built for the new environment and that changes the product experience in a really significant way. It's our opinion that our product will be much better. It's what keeps us motivated. It's exciting. It'll be stressful, but in some ways a huge compliment when they start to copy our product.