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When you look at technology today, you can be scared, depressed, excited and impatient all at once. That’s how Paul Ford feels. Paul is the CEO of Postlight, as well as a writer and frequent contributor to publications such as Wired and The New York Times. On this episode of IT Visionaries, Paul dives into what he loves about the tech industry, as well as what scares him. And he discusses building his company, the culture within it, and the exciting projects they’ve worked on for everyone from Vice to The Players’ Tribune to the Obama Foundation.
Best Advice: “You’re going to find your limits and you shouldn’t pretend you can get past them, you have to work with them.”
- How Paul got his start and his background in writing
- How Postlight works and who they work with
- Creating a culture of innovation
- Looking toward the future
Paul’s origins in tech
Paul jokes that he was interested in technology since birth. He grew up in West Chester, PA, the home base of the Commodore Computer, and so he believes that computers and technology are in his blood. By the time he went to college, the internet was exploding. Paul had been playing around with the internet for a while, as well as working on digital “zines,” so once the internet became more fleshed out, he finally had an opportunity to publish everything he had been working on. From there, Paul says the rest was history.
Currently, Paul serves as the CEO of Postlight, which is a four-year-old digital product studio that builds software platforms, APIs and other products for mobile and the web. Most of the work Postlight does is spread across media, NGO’s and finance. The company has worked with Vice, the Obama Foundation and The Players’ Tribune creating unique products, apps, and experiences. Working with different customers who themselves have unique needs and customer bases, has led to building really creative and different platforms.
Paul’s editorial work
Paul has written for numerous publications including Wired and The New York Times. In his recent work, Paul has examined the state of tech. He believes that technology has evolved from the bright young newcomer into something enormous, and that’s what he wanted to touch on in his pieces. He remains hopeful about the future of tech and innovation but also feels frustrated about the pace at which things are happening. Paul also shines a light on the big corporations and asks what are we as a society going to do about the power they have? He asks that because he believes that the ethical fallout is happening because things are scaling so quickly, and the way to manage that will be through regulation.
As a writer and a CEO, Paul says he is caught between two worlds. One in which journalists are tearing down tech companies as the enemy, and one where companies are just trying to make progress however they can.
[On his article “Why I (Still) Believe in Tech] “I just wanted to talk about what had happened and point out that technology foundationally has changed from the bright young newcomer to something enormous in the same way that electricity is enormous or travel or, cars are enormous.”
“There’s a part of me that believes that human ingenuity with better and better tools can really solve a lot of problems.”
“The world will decide what it wants to decide whether I have a strong opinion or not. But you’re seeing the structure and the scale at which these arguments are starting to happen.”
What Postlight is working on
Although Postlight is still a young company, they have worked on a number of big and exciting projects already. One of the reasons for their success, Paul says, is their location. Having an agency in NYC means becoming a meeting place for all sorts of different companies. So a big tech company, a new media start-up and a non-profit all are able to roll through in the same day. From partnering with Vice, helping The Player’s Tribune build out their platform, or working on The National Audubon Society’s bird app, Postlight’s scope of projects is extremely broad.
“Instead of somebody coming to us and saying, ‘Make us a site or help us market and communicate,’ they’re coming to us at the platform level and they’re saying, ‘I needed an API that connects to five other things and then I need to build products on top of it.’ And that is very, very satisfying work. We’re talking to it at a deep data system and then trying to create a good experience on top of it.”
Creating a culture of experimentation
Experimenting and being creative is critical to what Postlight does. As such, Paul said it was important to create a culture where you could pitch anything. But after pitching, you needed proof of concept within two weeks. That, he says, lessens the cost of failure. He explains that product ideas tend to come from leadership and the product team, and then the engineers will develop solutions and interfaces.
This culture has allowed the creators at Postlight to build some really fun tools, APIs, and platforms. There are no bad ideas, and when you build something cool or silly that catches on, it works as a product, but it can also double as a marketing tool and a culture builder.
“We created a structure whereby it was possible for anyone in the firm to pitch a project, but proof of concept needed to be less than two weeks. You had to be able to get something real into the world within two weeks. Then we lessened the cost of failure. If it didn’t work, you could write a post about it. If you were a designer and you didn’t know quite what you wanted to build, you could do some design work and write about that and promote it. Or if you are an engineer, you just had to hack it just enough that it was believable and then we could decide what was going to come next.”
“Somebody wrote a graph QL interface to Salesforce because Salesforce runs the world in 2019. Salesforce has a number of interesting edge cases in how you might talk to it as an API, and by creating a simpler layer so that you can talk to it in a very, very consistent way, Postlight ends up having this wonderful open-source tool that lowers the cost of setting up and interacting with Salesforce….Salesforce is increasingly kind of the engine that tracks and monitors how people are moving through a funnel. And so a framework like that lets engineers sort of surface those ideas and lets them play.”
“It’s accountability, it’s monitoring, and it’s publicity and that’s very motivating.”
“People come up with ideas all the time. You want to have a culture where instead of people laughing about it you say, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Focusing on the business side
Paul explains that there are many hard parts of a business like Postlight, including sales. But the true challenge, he says, is staffing. At Postlight, everyone is utilized to the best of their ability, but Paul says that you also have to give people time to plan and think. So the company always builds in time to do things that aren’t pure client work, whether that’s conferences or experiments or even taking vacation time, which is encouraged.
Looking for talent
Postlight looks for talent everywhere. And Paul sees himself as a good advertiser and broadcaster and is always letting people know that Postlight is hiring. However, the growth process is necessarily slow because you don’t want to sacrifice culture or create problems where there shouldn’t be. Paul says that the strongest indicator of a good company is when people recommend their friends to come work for you, which has been happening at Postlight.
Looking toward the future
The future is both scary and exciting. Paul believes that it is scary that the giant platforms set the rules for what everyone else can do. For example, the Apple terms of service has essentially become the terms of service that every other company uses. Apple then becomes the gatekeeper, because if you don’t meet those terms, you can’t punch your golden ticket to get into the app store and have a wide reach.
But companies today are being really creative and building platforms and cloud technology that is wonderful and changing the world. However, that is making the tech industry a bit harder to break into because the skills you need to succeed keep increasing. To thrive in this industry you need to understand apps, components, and all different things. But people are rising to the challenge and building incredible things. We’ve transitioned from document delivery to application delivery. And because platforms overall are getting so good and easy to start up, it’s hard to find a competitive advantage.
“It’s getting back to that point where you can prototype and experiment and do something new and novel in the course of a couple of days. And you know, it might not scale to tens of millions of people, but it’ll scale, it’ll work.”