First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Max Dunn: Surprisingly well. While the company lost some business due to COVID (a few of our clients went bankrupt), we have managed to survive, and we haven’t lost a single employee or consultant. Because we help organizations work in the cloud, the impact so far has been moderate. We were already a remote workforce, so it has probably been less disruptive to us than most other companies.
As far as the family, I have three kids attending school remotely, which is sometimes interesting (often 4 concurrent zoom meetings in this house), but the isolation has brought them together more than they would have been otherwise: the 10-year-old now enjoys baking with his teenage sister, and they’ve become best friends (pre-COVID she was never here). While it is draining, the overall economy is certainly uncertain, and I’m probably working harder than ever, I am very thankful that our company is still in business, and that the kids have handled it so well.
At both a business and a family level we’re taking this time to really focus on “what is essential?” and “how can we live/work in a new way?” We have always seen challenge as an opportunity.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Silicon Publishing
Max Dunn: I was not educated as a programmer, though I was fortunate to grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I have been exposed to new technology since an early age. For example, I was 12 years old building a computer out of chips at summer camp, instructed by a nice camp counselor who was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club. I played with the Apple IIE (programming audio in FORTH), and had one of the first Macs. I went to early Seybold and JavaOne conferences, and up until COVID, I regularly attended meetups at Google and other tech centers. I think in this part of the world, you learn technology by osmosis.
Early in my career, I started working for a health plan, managing a list of doctors. This began as a typing job and turned quickly into database management. I fell in love with relational databases: Microsoft Access 2.0, then SQL Server. I got my employer to pay for classes, books, conferences, etc., as I loved this technology and wanted to learn it voraciously. This was pre-Internet, so Microsoft would fax knowledge base articles upon request by phone. I kept my co-workers angry by tying up the fax machine, making it spew endless reams of pages. To this day, learning remains my greatest joy.
The health plan data that I managed was often output into printed documents (“provider directories” or, in human terms, “a list of available doctors”). I provided that data to a small division of Bertelsmann, the massive German print conglomerate, who turned it into glorious directories with running headers, indexes, and beautiful formatting. I was so proud to see my clean data in print, but I really got curious as to how they did it. I was also excited to see what they would do with our “doctor finder” website.
I got to know this division well, as I would bring them the data. Then I would stick around and watch them do their work (it was on the way home, and they worked late hours). I got to know them quite well. Eventually, they offered me a job as a “Software Engineer,” and within a year or two, I became “Director of Software Engineering.”
Our division was growing like a weed, as it was uniquely positioned to serve the brand new demand for dynamic web sites – in fact, my first job at Bertelsmann was to build a web-based “doctor finder” for my previous company. I mainly worked on catalog automation, emitting tagged text for the “typesetters” (then working in Xyvision) with the right sorting and grouping, who in turn would generate amazing print output by formatting each element based on our tags. I learned every nuance of how the magic happened, and I worked increasingly to advance their web presence.
We also worked in the structured authoring space, having put all of Intel’s technical documentation into SGML, and then building their first web site in a dialect of SGML known as HTML. I had heard of “XML” from the time it was just a gleam in Jon Bosak’s eye, and I got to meet Jon himself at several JavaOne conferences.
The revenue growth of this little division was too hot for our management to ignore, and sure enough, someone had the bright idea of spinning us off into a dot com scam (after all, it was 1999). Papa Bertelsmann had been like a deer in the headlights, watching Amazon eat their lunch during the previous 4 years, so (as of 2000) they had finally accepted that this “new economy” had real-world economic potential.
“Max, if you had $20 million to spend, how would you spend it?” The executive asked. I enthusiastically looked at the staff and servers we would need. Alissa (our co-founder) and I also coded demos, supporting a dot com vision that didn’t really make sense, but looked likely to make money. For the founder, if not the investors.
When $35 million in financing was awarded, we found out quickly that the funding had been an end in itself. Our demos and budgets had been pure fiction. Consequently, every serious employee (20 out of 23) quit within a month. Alissa and I did the same, then immediately founded Silicon Publishing. This was in the year 2000.
We had no knowledge of business and no budget to build infrastructure, yet we had seen how such a game could work, and reasoned that as long as we picked our battles carefully, we could build a company doing exactly what we’d done at Bertelsmann: database publishing, structured authoring, and online editing. And that’s exactly what we did.
The past 20 years have often been a struggle, but today we are on a scale far beyond what our division back then had attained. Today, we lead the world at software enabling the online editing of print documents. During that time, I think we learned every hard business lesson you could learn, but as we’ve grown, we’ve teamed with experts to address domains such as marketing, business, sales, that we don’t know so well as technology. In business, it is critical to “know what you don’t know.”
How does Silicon Publishing innovate?
Max Dunn: Our software lets people make documents online, using friendly interfaces powered by the latest web and mobile frameworks, then rendering high-quality output with the power of Adobe technology (we have been a proud partner of Adobe for 20 years). We are blessed with a client and partner base of household names, including those deploying the largest online editing and database publishing solutions on the planet.
The key to innovation is listening. We started as a pure solutions provider, fulfilling dreams of diverse companies requiring implementation in this domain. While we offer products now, we stay continually in touch with the pulse of what companies in our domain real want. Blessed with long-term relationships with thought-leaders in the online editing space, we refresh and refactor our applications periodically, to bring our clients what they want with the best-practice technologies of our time.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Max Dunn: We had to say goodbye to some great clients who were severely impacted by COVID, and we have supported others with discounts and payment schedules. We are coping well, and we’re grateful to our many partners and clients who are still moving forward aggressively. We are mainly going after the same sort of deals we sought out before. Already, much of what we do is in support of remote work, thus the market remains strong, but we are also considering opportunities that have become more prominent thanks to COVID.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Max Dunn: We made some tough choices, but we have not lost any of our precious resources. Support for our employees, vendors, partners, and clients has always been our top priority, and we see it remaining the case in the future. This isn’t exactly a “lesson learned” as it’s ingrained in our culture, but I think this is a best practice.
After the goal of retaining who we have, at all costs, we then think of how to adapt our business even better to this new way of life. So we brainstorm with partners, clients, and staff about the potential opportunities before us. After all, we let people edit an InDesign document without having InDesign. That model could make great sense for the millions of children who can no longer go to a school lab where desktop software is installed, but are instead at the mercy of Chromebooks, tablets, or phones.
The main lesson is “roll with the punches, and do your best to help everyone in your network.”
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Silicon Publishing in the future?
Max Dunn: We don’t have any magic solution to stress and anxiety, honestly. Tough challenges! To the extent possible, we simply work harder. We try to keep our eyes wide open and face any challenges early: deal with a problem when you first discover it, and you are far better off.
We protect our company by keeping the employees happy and delivering great work to our clients, in the spirt of mutually-beneficial relationships. In these bizarre times, we do our best to empower our critical partners/clients/people, with sensitivity to what they may be experiencing. Relationships are critical. We all need to help each other.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Max Dunn: We welcome competition, and we certainly would welcome others taking on the challenges we face. We don’t see much of it, yet.
Fundamentally, we aren’t competitive, we’re collegial: we respect anyone who is willing to dive into fonts, Bezier curves, blend modes, and text on a path, as a fellow human trying to make communications work. We share our knowledge full out with our “competitors,” as at the end of the day we’re not really opposed to each other; we’re companies who took on the headaches of typography, graphics, documents, information semantics, etc., to make people’s lives easier.
There is plenty of room for many more companies meeting the needs we do, but it’s extremely technical stuff, and so far, no company has made even a miniscule a dent in our increasing market share, to date. We see on the solutions side some small shops with mixed results, and on the product side some naive “one size fits all” strategies.
I do not know of any company with our capability. A very few try, but the top 10000 competitors aren’t “web to print” software companies, they are the internal staffs of Enterprises who tried to do this on their own, not as a software product, but as a one-off, because no software company they had found met their needs. And most are very happy to find us.
Still, we are not so naïve as to imagine this will last forever. Therefore, we follow all the technology trajectories in our current space, as well as tangential spaces, and we regularly brainstorm with our partners, clients, and internal developers about “what’s next.” We have always stayed ahead of the pack by leap-frogging. Our main plan is simply to deploy at ever-greater scale, for companies who want to lead in this domain. This has worked the past 20 years, and we hope it will continue to work. We aspire to remain humble, ears-to-the-ground, and challenge-driven: we approach each day as a chance to shine.
Your final thoughts
Max Dunn: I appreciate the chance to share a little about Silicon Publishing. I hope this helps someone with a business get some perspective or ideas that may help them. If anyone would like to contact me, I’m available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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