The New York and Seattle startup FiftyThree is made up of Microsoft vets. But they’ve certainly mastered Apple’s iPad with their blockbuster app Paper, named Apple’s 2012 App of the Year for iPad. We chatted with FiftyThree co-founder Jon Harris in a recent episode of the GeekWire podcast and radio show. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation, which followed news that FiftyThree had raised $15 million from Andreessen Horowitz and others.
GeekWire: So for people that aren’t familiar with Paper, the app for the iPad, how do you describe it? Is it a notebook, a sketchbook, what is it exactly?
Jon Harris: “Paper is really a space to create ideas and work through your creative process, and, in many ways, it is like a Moleskine notebook. It’s a notebook you can open, you can flip through pages, and has these beautiful tools that work really well for jotting down sketches or drawing paintings; whatever it may be that comes to mind.”
GeekWire: Are people taking this artwork and selling it, or using it as a basis for their own creative process? Why are people doing this?
Jon Harris: “We are seeing people use Paper in a lot of different amazing ways. Entrepreneurs like Jack Dorsey, you see him capturing his business ideas and sharing them in keynotes. We’ve also seen a Pixar illustrator or concept artist sketching a super hero day for his daughter. And, another example, a math teacher making his math and science lessons more rich and posting them online for his students.”
GeekWire: The app is very well designed, and easy to use, as you can use it with a stylus or even with your finger. But the thing that makes Paper so interesting is that, people often say: “hey you do work, and you are creative on a PC, but on a tablet you consume media, watch TV shows, check your email, and don’t really respond.” You guys break the mold, and by being a creative outlet on the iPad, not the PC, you prove that tablets can be inventive. Where do you see tablets evolving as a creation device, from what you guys have experienced through Paper?
Jon Harris: “When we started FiftyThree, as creators ourselves, we recognized that the creation tools today are lacking, they’re antiquated. On one hand, you have a pencil and paper, in a physical form, which have lasted for thousands of years. On the other hand, you have a keyboard and mouse, with these programs we’ve been using since the 90’s: Photoshop, Word, and whatnot. These tools, they haven’t really been rethought for the modern day maker. Why are we capturing modern day ideas using basically a chisel and a hammer, when we have this sleek beautiful iPad in front of us that has this amazing gesturing system? And so, as we recognized this need we thought: “Hey this is a great opportunity space for us. We are passionate about creation, we feel like we can make a big difference in this space.” And that’s where we began to think about Paper.”
How do we re-envision creation tools on tablets and mobile devices? So I think the space is rich with opportunity. When you now start to think about putting together an app like Paper, that’s just as fluent as pen and paper, (you have to) add some digital advantages to it. For example: Rewind. I can take my two fingers and just rewind a stroke that I made or idea that I put down.”
GeekWire: Also known as “undo.”
Jon Harris: “Yeah, also known as undo, which is hard to do with pen and paper. Or another advantage is that, in a notebook your ideas are trapped there, and that it’s not connected to anything. And being able to do that on a device like a tablet, now you can connect it to your networks. If you have an idea and want to share it with your co-workers or peers you can do that now. You can now broadcast to the world some great idea you came up with.”
GeekWire: And Paper itself, the app, is free. But then you can buy different devices, like virtual pens and paper and pencils inside the app itself. And that’s how you guys make money so far right?
Jon Harris: “Yeah exactly, we allow people to customize the tools that they want. So if you love the watercolor brush you can purchase that, if you love the whole suite you can purchase the essential tools, and how we think about it is: we like to keep creating new tools, and offer that to our creator base.”
GeekWire: Now one thing that’s interesting about the iPad, you guys actually suggest a stylus that people can buy to use instead of their finger. Tell me about how the stylus might work. Because some people might think of stylus like on Windows Tablet. Is it a digital stylus that you use on the iPad?
Jon Harris: “Styli on PC tablets use a digitizer technology. And on iPads, it’s all capacitive touch. And so a lot of the styli that you see out there today are passive styli, it’s basically a stylus tip that has a capacitive nature to it. It senses touch just like your finger.”
GeekWire: So it’s basically replicating your finger?
Jon Harris: “Exactly.”
GeekWire: Tell us about the team behind FiftyThree the company?
Jon Harris: “Yeah, we have a fabulous team. We are all passionate creators and we all have this inherent need to create. And if you look at the team at large there are a lot of interesting folks. Like Ian Curry was a beekeeper, Mathew Chen was studying to be a sushi chef, we have Audrey who is a fashionista of some sorts and is creating her own jewelry line. So it’s a team that’s very much about what we do as a company. And so a little bit about us and how we started. FiftyThree’s founders, we met at Microsoft about five or six years ago. George (Petschnigg), Andrew (Allen), and myself. We came together at Pioneer Studios, and they were working on a project called Microsoft Courier.”
GeekWire: If you have never heard of the Microsoft Courier Project it’s because it never actually became a product. When people stop you at parties and say: “hey, I heard you were part of that secret Courier team.” How do you explain what it was to them?
Jon Harris: “Yeah, well Courier was really an experiment around free-form computing. And what we were developing, there was a more human or natural way to interface with the web, programs, or office like applications. In essence it was a two screen tablet with a pen.”
GeekWire: “On a percentage basis, how many of the Courier project reports were accurate, as it was going on?”
Jon Harris: “Those were real assets that were leaked, the images and things that came out, it was really a conceptual program.”
GeekWire: You guys left Microsoft after Courier didn’t become a project. Did you guys leave because of this?
Jon Harris: “No, not necessarily. When we were working on Courier, a lot of us came to the realization that people are at their best when they create. And having that in mind, we want to continue to work in this space. And so we decide to start FiftyThree to really envision how these creation tools can come about for the modern day maker. And also, the other reason we decided to start a company is that we want to create a culture that we really want to be a part of. The culture that we are building at FiftyThree is a really collaborative one. A culture that really is open and trusting and really values the relationship between design and engineering. We feel that when those two disciplines come together, that’s where the magic happens. Pixar is a really great example of that. They have these really amazing software engineers and artists that come together to create these amazing motion pictures. And we are creating a very similar atmosphere here at FiftyThree.”
GeekWire: “I’m curious, where did the name “FiftyThree” come from?”
Jon Harris: “Yeah, everyone always asks us that question. There is an awesome story behind it. So the name 53 corresponds to our core brand idea. We are about the space to create. So, if you are ever to read through a Henry Dreyfuss’ ergonomics book.”
GeekWire’s John Cook: Todd you read one of those recently?
GeekWire’s Todd Bishop: Absolutely. It’s right by my nightstand.
Jon Harris: “Haha, probably not, but if you were a human factor specialist you probably would’ve. You’ll come across the fact that the average length of one’s arm is about 53 centimeters. So the length to reach for a pencil, a stapler, a piece of paper, some scissors, Advil, a glass of vodka, you name it, that length is 53 centimeters; and so that’s your space to create. And everyone has their space to create.”
GeekWire: There was big news for FiftyThree just (recently). Andreessen Horowitz, one of the rabble-rousers shaking up the venture capital world, led an investment of $15 million in your startup.
Jon Harris: “Yes they did, and we are really excited to be working with them. They have a stellar track record of leading these brand led businesses.
GeekWire: Chris Dixon is one of the venture partners there at Andreessen Horowitz, and he wrote a great blog post on why he was investing, but he also said that you guys didn’t necessarily need to take the money. So why did you take the money if you didn’t need it?
Jon Harris: “Yeah, well we’ve been one of those lucky startups that has been profitable form the get-go, and that doesn’t happen very often. So we’ve been fortunate from that perspective. But, yah, Paper is the beginning and we have a lot more planned for the future, and one of the main reasons that we worked with Andreessen Horowitz is to really expand our engineering and design team. Because we want to broaden offerings.”
GeekWire: So you aren’t just gonna be an app maker. And you don’t normally see a company like Andreessen Horowitz come out and back a company that’s making an app. There’s gotta be a bigger play here. So talk a little bit about where you are headed in the direction for the company here?
Jon Harris: ”If you look at great companies that have really made a difference from an experience perspective, they have normally done it from a hardware-software services angle. Like how you bring those together to create something that is cutting edge. A great example of that is Xbox 360 or even Apple.”
GeekWire: And you used to work on the Xbox?
Jon Harris: “Exactly, and if you look at Xbox 360, they really innovated on the controller for first person shooters, trying to shift that away from PC gaming. So that was one innovation. And you start to add Xbox live on top of that, connecting FPS’s to homes across the nation. That was big. And you add on top of that, a software platform where you have Gamer Points and things of that nature. They created a very interesting value proposition because they are able to connect all those pieces together. And at FiftyThree we see that in a very similar way. We feel like we can create a unique value… By introducing hardware and services.”
GeekWire: Now are you guys talking in any detail about the hardware that you are coming out with?
Jon Harris: “Unfortunately we are not. We are not allowed to disclose, but stay tuned.”
GeekWire: One of the interesting things about this company is how it’s split: New York and Seattle. You’ll see some Bay Area and Seattle branches, but one thing that caught me as well is that the hardware team is here in Seattle, and Seattle is such a software town. So how did the decision to have a hardware team in a software town come about?
Jon Harris: “There are a couple reasons why we are located on different coasts. The first being: we are about creation and our demographic is the creative class. And there just so happens to be large creative class cities around the US, and New York happens to be the biggest. And that’s why our headquarters are there. But Seattle is also a creative class city as well as San Fransisco, and Austin. So that’s one of the reasons. And the other is that we want to draw from the best town that we can from both coasts. And in Seattle there is a lot of hardware talent, you’ll find, from Xbox from Fluke from a lot of different hardware companies.”
GeekWire: Do you see a need for Apple to upgrade the iPad input mechanisms, and come out with a stylus that’s more like Microsoft surface stylus? One where its digitized and more precise? Totally leading question there, but you can tell what my opinion on that matter is.
Jon Harris: (laughs) “What is the future of the stylus? We know that consumers are looking for stylus experiences that are more precise so that it’s easier to handwrite, and write small. Especially in countries outside the US. Like if you look at Japan and China and Korea, where the handwriting tends to be smaller,and sense they have characters, this would be a really useful feature for them. So that’s one of the ends of the spectrum. The other one is that people are looking for their styli to be more expressive, which is where you are starting to see pressure-sensitive styli pop up. I’m sure Apple will find their own way to differentiate and make their platform stand out.”
GeekWire: I am also curious on your take on the tablet wars. You’ve got iPad dominating the conversation right now. Android Tablets, and the Kindle Fire seem to be somewhat more of a commodity, and you have Microsoft extending down from Windows to try to make Windows fit on tablets. Is there one of these that’s going to win out eventually?
Jon Harris: “Good question, although I worked at Microsoft for a number of years I’ve always been an Apple fan, and used their products. At least from my perspective I’ve been really excited with the Apple platform and what they’ve done with the iPad. I think it’s phenomenal.”
GeekWire: As a designer what do you think of what Apple has done with iOS7?
Jon Harris: “When we saw iOS7, when it was revealed, we thought there was some really interesting features. From what we are developing we are excited to see what we can do next with it.”