Jordan Ritter got his first taste of entrepreneurship in 1999, when he was sharing a Silicon Valley apartment with startup superstars Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker at the San Mateo Marriott Residence Inn.
There, he was part of the founding team of Napster, the controversial file-sharing company that fundamentally changed the music industry. Ritter left Napster in 2000, and went on found four more startups including Cloudmark and Servio.
After feeling suffocated in Silicon Valley, Ritter moved to the more “spacious” Seattle tech scene two years ago to create Ivy Softworks, his latest startup that he says is more like an “innovation studio.”
The premise behind Ivy is that startups shouldn’t start from scratch every time they have a new business idea. So he built a new model for innovation where one “A-team” sticks together and pumps out companies, one after another.
Ivy recently spun out its first business, called Atlas. At its core, Atlas is all about tracking and saving any file, web page, email, chat thread, or other piece of information that you accessed at one point in history and need to re-surface.
Ritter is serving as the CEO of Atlas right now, but it’s safe to say he’s already got his next startup idea rolling around in his head. Continue reading for his answers to our Q&A.
What do you do, and why do you do it? “At my core, I absolutely love the glory of building things from nothing, and the mastery that inevitably comes from the experience. This has manifested so many ways in my career, across building cool tech that solves hard problems, meaningful products people love, great teams and resilient organizations that endure the test of time and life, and successful businesses that make money. I’m always trying to make everything I encounter better on every level, and I do it because, fundamentally, that’s the kind of world I want to live in.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Truly, there is no spoon — most limits exist largely in the mind only. But it’s also important to remember: all your base are still belong to us!”
Where do you find your inspiration? “Tech for the sake of tech has never been interesting to me. In my book, nothing is worth doing unless it improves us or our world in some meaningful way. I get my ideas from staying closely connected to the everyday human experience of life and its intersection with tech. So the vast majority of my inspiration comes from shared experiences with close friends, community and everyday people I encounter. And of course, I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the letter my father wrote to me before he died.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Jimmy John’s. You click a button and they literally bring you a sandwich 10 minutes later. It’s brilliant! Or possibly Emacs, the one true editor that completely rules all others (duh). I don’t know, it’s a tough call. Emacs is essential to my life, but I guess I couldn’t actually live without food, so I’ve got to give the win to Jimmy John’s. Sorry Emacs.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “Our workspace is a beautiful brick and timber aesthetic with a polished concrete floor and an open desk plan with no straight lines of sight allowed for desk organization. It has funky common areas with very unique furniture and lots of vibrant, lush plants everywhere to drain stress out of the crazy experience that is a startup. As part of our adaptability core value, every six months we make the entire company move to new desks. It keeps the experience new, forges new relationships not usually considered, changes up the energetic experience and staves off emotional-physical stagnation in the environment.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “For work, time and time again the key for me has been ruthless prioritization. That, for the record, doesn’t work without also being heavily disciplined around time and task management. As for life, well, I’m still figuring that out like everyone else! But so far the most valuable technique I’ve learned is to stay in regular contact with my inner self, raising to the level of conscious awareness whatever I’m feeling, and deliberately optimizing toward what makes me feel happy. That changes over time, so it has to be constant internal dialogue. Life constantly presents me with opportunities to explore and grow, more often than not in surprising and serendipitous ways. Building empathy for myself has been the No. 1 most powerful tool for discovering those new sources of happiness.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “I started geek life mainly on text-mode operating systems with crappy hardware — a constant struggle that helped teach me how to be creative when programming against severely limited system resources. In high school I got tired of trying to run Desqview/X on DOS on my slow 286 (12 Mhz!) and took up with newer graphically-oriented OSes like OS/2 (miss you!) and Windows 95. In college I fell head over heels in love with Linux (back in its 0.9x days), mainly because of the super nerdy community and the still-totally-awesome GNU software toolsets that came with it. I remember feeling drawn to the Aqua interface when OSX first debuted, but I never really dipped my toe in the Mac waters until it got faster with the Intel transition. I’ve been sold on Mac ever since then: beautifully designed hardware, gorgeous apps, all my devices just work, all on top of a Unix OS that’s still got all my GNU power tools and then some. Pure heaven!”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Oh, Kirk 150%! He’s resilient, strong, a masterful critical thinker under pressure and a capable do-er. The man always got his hands dirty and led from the front. You ever seen Picard or Janeway willingly get dirty? It almost seemed like Kirk relished it, and I totally relate to that. Getting your hands dirty is glorious!”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “The experience of my journey has been so much more meaningful to me than the destination of any particular moment, so a time machine would be of little value. And what use is being invisible if you can’t participate in the experience? But ever since I was really young, I wanted to be a space explorer and discover the unseen pristine that awaits us out there. So I’d love a transporter.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Ask for more! Have you folks seen what it takes to build a world-class startup engaged on something worthy these days? Today’s compensation Candyland is completely out of control.”
I once waited in line for … “Do digital lines count? True story: when I moved up to Seattle two and a half years ago, I decided I wanted to propose to my girlfriend, but I knew that any regular old diamond simply wouldn’t do. It had to be special: synthetic (conflict free), internally flawless, colorless, a very special cut (called an Asscher), and, ahem, large. So I wrote a ruby program to constantly monitor for these particular specs, and two years later it finally went off and started spamming me with email. Which, ironically, was the precise moment I happened to be on the phone with Ben Elowitz (one of the co-founders of online diamond seller Blue Nile). I literally made him wait on hold while I bought the diamond! Pro tip: I proposed with the loose stone, which had the same effect as a ring, but still gave her the chance to pick her own custom setting — and relieved me of the burden of probably getting that part wrong!”
Greatest Game in History? “Oh, that’s a hard one. I’ve enjoyed so many greats across the big productions and small indies. If I could only play one more game before I died though, it’d have to be Homeworld 2. It’s got everything I love: heart-touching and inspiring story, gorgeously stunning visuals, haunting and emotional musical score, it’s a space operatic, and it has true 3D navigation (it’s space after all). And the bonus: they remastered it earlier this year! So awesome.”
Best Gadget Ever? “Lighter.”
First Computer? “Commodore 64.”
Favorite App? “No favorite. I embrace all!”
Favorite Cause? “Women’s health issues and universal access to affordable healthcare.”
Most important technology of 2015? “We’ve been living in the information age for a while now, and while our digital worlds have literally exploded with possibility and potential, we don’t yet talk much about the downsides. We’re mired now in a huge swamp of big data, spread across a multitude of devices, apps, services and clouds. So much meaning and utility for the individual user is being lost to this great data diaspora. Clearly, the most interesting tech of 2015 has been around the focus on digital assistants and improved human/machine interfaces. The real-time audio transcription and natural language query tech has absolutely leapt forward in meaningful ways, but most of what it’s used to interface with is still really basic correlation and automation.
Case in point: Waze recently sucked in my calendar and now offers helpful notifications about travel times to my next appointments. It’s great in principle, but it gets silly fast because of a basic lack of understanding of what appointments actually represent. Just last week one of my appointments was a flight back to Seattle, and en route to the airport it suggested I had 29 minutes to “make my appointment.” It didn’t know I was already en route (which it could have assumed because of high speed vector towards the airport), and it certainly didn’t factor in the obvious time necessary for parking traffic or security checkpoint delays. Then, after I’d been sitting at the gate waiting for the delayed flight to deplane, it gave me another reminder that I had 2 minutes to get to my destination. I had already arrived, checked in, and was waiting to board the delayed flight. This isn’t intelligence, it’s simplistic automation. And while that’s got some marginal value, we’ve still got a whole lot more ground to cover yet.”
Most important technology of 2017? “Same as above. The next meaningful paradigm shift that’s coming will be towards real contextual awareness and meaningful intelligence — saving us from drowning in our own big data, making sense of all our digital chaos, and finally moving us forward into the age of context. That’s when it’s really going to get interesting!”
Editor’s note: Ivy Softworks is a GeekWire sponsor.