Founder Interview: The Accidental Entrepreneur

Scribe co-founder and CEO Jennifer Smith on ‘problem first’ founding, the pros of ‘painfully lean,’ and how to pick a VC

A couple of years ago, Jennifer Smith and co-founder Aaron Podolny joined forces to create a big company based on a big idea: using AI to help companies automate their work.

After raising a small pre-seed round from Morado Ventures, they hired a few engineers to develop an initial product and obsessed over collecting customer feedback. 

Then came the ah-ha moment.

“Execs at large companies told us, ‘If you can automate stuff, that’s interesting and I’ll talk to you,’” Smith recalled. “‘But if you can help me understand what my people are doing, how they’re spending their time, and how to help make them better at what they do, that’s a step change function in my business—and no one is pitching that to me right now.’”

They trained their focus on creating the easiest way for companies to do exactly that.

Scribe captures how employees work across applications and automatically generates how-to guides. The result is not only insight into how work is done, but also faster, easier, and more effective knowledge sharing within and beyond an organization.

Smith sat down with our writer in residence, Russ Rizzo, to discuss her journey so far, why she likes to operate “painfully lean,” and what it’s like working with Morado.

Russ: We’ve written here before how Morado Ventures likes to work with founders who are passionate about solving a problem. That seems to describe you well.

Jennifer: I believe there’s a lot of power in the “accidental founder” who gets obsessed with solving a problem for a customer and then decides to start a company. I call it “problem first” company founding.

This was a space I was really interested in and heard a lot of customer feedback about for many years. I had seen the problem first-hand and researched it. I knew the customers. 

A lot of time founders do it the other way around. They decide to start a company, and then they get in front of a whiteboard and say, “What kind of company can we start?” They sort of back their way into a problem. 

My advice: Fall in love with the problem and the customer, not the technology.

Russ: What problem did you become obsessed with?

Jennifer: Far less than 5% of the processes in any organization are actually documented somewhere. Companies have really valuable institutional know-how, but it still mostly lives in people’s heads.

I first got to know this problem when I was a  management consultant at McKinsey. I’d help operations centers improve their performance. I’d shadow the best agent and ask, “What do you do differently?” They’d pull out a massive binder and say,“This is my training manual...But I found these 30 shortcuts.” My team would write the shortcuts up in PowerPoint and give it to the client.

I’d always thought, if that person had a platform to share what they had figured out, they could make a really big impact. And that company wouldn’t need my team to regurgitate it.

That’s the big idea behind Scribe. It’s about empowering employees and team members who have figured out better ways of working and enabling them to share that knowledge with other people—and enabling other team members to up-level because of what they’ve learned.

Russ: How does it work?

Jennifer: Scribe runs in the background while employees do their normal work. They simply have to select when to start recording a process and when to stop and Scribe will auto-generate step-by-step written instructions, complete with screenshots. From there, employees can customize the guide within the Scribe editor and easily disseminate the information through a number of channels, including Scribe’s own repository. We’re constantly hearing how fast Scribe is and how easy it is to use, processes like this that have historically taken hours now take seconds. 

(Editor's note: To see how Scribe works, click here for a guide we produced by publishing this post)

Russ: Is there a data play here somewhere?

Jenifer: Things get really interesting when you have a repository of these Scribes. Now, for the first time you get visibility into how work is actually being done in your organization. Unless you were shoulder-surfing—literally looking at everyone’s screens all day long—this is the first time you’re getting data on your company’s core processes and the different ways that they’re being done. You can do some really interesting things with that data.

Russ: How do you view your role as CEO?

Jennifer: I think I need to do three things really well. First, I have to set a really clear vision for where we are headed and what it looks like when we get there. I have to make sure everyone is aligned on the same drumbeat for both near- and long-term. 

Second, I need to obsessively listen to customers and make sure everyone else in the company is also obsessively listening to customers. Customers will tell you the truth. You point the company in a direction and then listen to what folks tell you. 

Third, I need to hire really great people and give them the resources they need to do their best work—and then get the heck out of the way. Since we’re growing the team a lot right now, I probably spend 75% of my time on hiring, and I love it. I love spending time with customers, and I love spending time with candidates and team members. Those are the things that give me the most energy. 

Russ: How did your team fare going remote? Will you remain hybrid?

Jennifer: We’ve had an office here in San Francisco since before COVID and just officially reopened it in June. It’s been wonderful to be able to be together in person. We also have a small and growing team in Belgrade, Serbia, which is a great historical accident that we continue to lean into.

We debate a lot about remote work versus in-person work. If you had asked me before COVID, I would have said there’s a ton of value to being together in an office. The pandemic forced us to re-examine that. We were able to work very effectively together almost entirely remotely for the good part of a year.

I think the future is this hybrid model with some spokes of offices where folks can choose to have in-person experiences and also have the flexibility to do great work from home. The candidates we recruit seem to want that.

Russ: Did you make a conscious decision to stay lean and not take on big amounts of venture funding?

Jennifer: We raised a pre-seed round with Morado when I first started the company. We took a pretty conservative amount of money to build an early team, develop an early product and do some customer discovery.

From there, we decided we’d keep things painfully lean. We wanted to feel like the market is pulling this out of us. We’d think about scaling up only when we were dropping things on the floor left and right.

Up until recently, the team was me, my co-founder Aaron and four engineers.

Russ: What are the benefits of staying lean?

Jennifer: It brings clarity of purpose. You listen to your customers and ruthlessly prioritize. It forces you to be very clear in your decisions and the metrics that you track. You can’t get lazy on any of this stuff because you don’t have the resources.

It’s more painful to operate in an under-resourced environment, but I think it was one of our great advantages. It enabled us to be incredibly nimble. We did really fast product development and iteration.

Now we’re at the phase where it’s clear we’ve got it, and now it’s about scaling it up. And we can do that with full confidence because we know we had those feelings of a market just ripping it out of us—not because we had a demand gen team that was pumping it out for us.

Russ: What’s it like working with Morado Ventures?

Jennifer: God bless Ash [Patel]. He saw the vision. I don’t think I even had a PowerPoint deck when Morado invested.

When we did our due diligence, other founders told us, “Ash is there when you need him. He’s not going to be the person adding more to your plate or someone you have to proactively manage. He’s going to be the person who picks up the phone when you call. He’ll be there. He’ll figure it out. He’ll be on your side and do the right thing.” 

That has been the case in the year and a half that I’ve worked with him. 

I mention Ash specifically because, as a founder, it is the relationship with your main contact at the VC firm that matters. That’s the person you’re marrying. The venture firm the family in that analogy.

Russ: Did you have any moments when you did make that call? Anything that you’re comfortable talking about?

Jennifer: We did a bit of a pivot. We originally started the company as a computer vision-based automation platform. But customers told us, “Hey, you know that part where you helped me capture how work was being done? That was really helpful, actually.”

We realized we were starting at the opposite end of solving the problem. We needed to come at it from the other side, to understand how people are spending their time and what those processes look like.

From that, you can start to make a whole bunch of decisions about how to organize work better. Some of that might be about automation, and other parts won’t be.

The majority of work today can’t be automated and probably won’t be automated for a while. But can we help you get better at understanding that work, organizing it better and helping your people do their jobs better, faster, more compliantly, with higher quality.

Ash was one of the key people who helped us figure that out.