Garrett Camp: Building Products People Actually Want to Use

Garrett Camp never launched a photo app or a “me too” social network. There is no movie about him and he’s not fawned over by the tech press. What he has done is create two industry-defining startups that are withstanding whatever the Silicon Valley hype-cycle throws their way, and he’s about to create a bunch more.

Camp’s first foray into entrepreneurship was during the infancy of the Web 2.0 era. It was 2002. “Blog” had just entered our lexicon and the amount of content on the web was exploding. In the process, a lot of the good stuff got buried. It was in this environment that Camp, as a grad student in Calgary, co-created StumbleUpon. The service whisked users away to random pages on the web, laying the groundwork for the kind of serendipitous browsing we take for granted with Twitter and Facebook today.

After helming StumbleUpon, Camp decided to pull the trigger on Uber, the car-sharing service that’s currently rewriting urban taxi cab laws while becoming the poster child for the sharing economy. He’s since handed the business off to co-founder Travis Kalanick, who leads Uber as CEO, so that he can double down on his penchant for launching game-changing companies with Expa. Camp’s latest venture aims to be his personal laboratory for rapidly testing and scaling new business ideas. Although he was tight-lipped about exactly what type of products Expa plans to unveil, Camp spoke candidly with us about his process for transforming ideas from napkin sketches into multi-million dollar businesses.

I’m sure you’re always thinking of new business ideas. How do you prioritize which ones to scrap and which ones to work on? 

I try to write every idea down and then I put them in categories. Then I discuss the ideas with my friends, my coworkers, investors, and advisors and see what resonates. A lot of times, I’ll pick up an idea and revisit it again and again to see if it still makes sense. If I’m lucky, I’ll meet someone who’s excited about it, and it ends up taking off. 

In the case of Uber, I had the idea for about a year. I had registered Ubercab.com early on. I was working on the prototype, and it was all very casual. And then my co-founder Travis Kalanick saw it. He got the vision and became my most active collaborator on the product. 

You want people who are really passionate about the idea. I would rather have someone who is super-passionate about the #3 idea on my list than me taking my #1 idea and trying to get people onboard. 

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Click to enlarge. Illustration by Matias Corea & Raewyn Brandon.

It sounds like you prefer to bring in other people early in the process.

Definitely. If you’re smart and talented and hardworking, you can put your head down for five years and make a company successful. I feel like I did that with StumbleUpon. But with Uber, I already had a full-time job so I didn’t have that luxury. With Uber it has been extremely valuable to have a very, very talented co-founder.

What is the philosophy behind Expa, your new venture which aims to grow companies?

The two things we’re making a priority are design and data. Design is not just the aesthetics. For online consumer products, design also means all the little interactions: the usability, the system the product is built on, the details under the hood. But to help determine what’s working, we’re very data-driven. Anything we design, we’re going to test and iterate, Lean Startup-style. Just because something looks good, doesn’t mean it’s actually working. This data-driven approach gives us a more enhanced resolution on how the product is behaving and succeeding compared to what a typical startup would do. 

From StumbleUpon to Uber and now Expa, you’ve expressed an affinity for the early product development phase. Is the CEO-manager type role less appealing to you?

I’m definitely more interested in the early stage. When I think of Uber, it was probably a year to a year-and-a-half before the product got to where it worked, and then two years before Travis started rocking it. It takes a little time to get a system up and running, and everyone forgets the first couple of years because you are toiling in obscurity. But those two years are very important because that’s when you come up with a bold idea, you see all the issues, you design the whole system, and then it starts to resonate.

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Click to enlarge. Illustration by Matias Corea & Raewyn Brandon.

“Everyone forgets the first couple of years because you are toiling in obscurity.”

It’s common for entrepreneurs today to say that they’re a “product person.” What makes a good product person?

It’s just a blend of creativity and rationality.

On the creative side you obviously need to design something and have it be a novelty in the market. But there’s also a rational aspect where it has to be buildable, so you can execute it in a certain amount of time. It has to be sustainable and it has to be technologically possible. 

I think the best product people are technologists, but at the same time, they have an interest in design. Growing up, my dad was an economist and then later became a contractor, and my mom was an artist who became an interior designer. I’d watch them work together and that alternation between creative work and rational work would literally build houses.

How do you address the doubters?

For me it’s all about solving a problem. With StumbleUpon, it was about finding cool stuff with very low-effort, without having to search. Before Uber, I would wait 30-40 minutes for a cab that never showed up. I felt the pain. I was essentially building a product for myself. So even though critics would say, “Why are you doing this?” I would think, “This exists and my life seems better.” There are always people who don’t “get it,” but a lot of times I think the reason someone doesn’t get it is because they only thought about it for five minutes. But if they sat down with you for a day or two they’d realize it was a good idea. A lot of times naysayers are just people that have not taken the time yet.

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Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Managing Editor and Producer of 99U and is a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week. Email him: blanda@adobe.com or find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
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