Inkling's CEO on turning an idea into a business

(MoneyWatch) Will the e-reader kill book publishing? It doesn't have to, says Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of Inkling. MacInnis started his company with one specific goal: To build a better book. But the Apple veteran isn't writing them. Instead, MacInnis says he's "reinventing" books by adding an interactive component to iPad and web-based versions. He began with textbooks, but today the San Francisco startup has expanded to everything from art to food and culture, and attracted capital from the likes of Sequoia Capital and even top publishers McGraw-Hill and Pearson. Matt MacInnis joins The Startup to talk about the future of publishing and how he hopes to change the way we learn online.

Rebecca Jarvis: What were you doing before you started your company?

Matt MacInnis: I was at Apple, where most recently I ran international market development for the education team. I spent a total of about eight years there, and learned a lot about how products are built and brought to market. It was a terrific foundation for starting Inkling.

RJ: How long did it take to turn your idea into a business?

MM: We've been at this since 2009, but I don't believe that ideas don't become businesses in any obvious time frame. Ideas become tinkering and prototypes. Prototypes become recruiting and fundraising tools. The prototypes evolve, and new business challenges present themselves. Sometimes your vision evolves. Certainly, your strategy changes.

In our case, the vision grew from a simple notion of digital textbooks to an all-encompassing vision for the future of publishing, and that's the one we're pursuing today. Many would argue that we now have a business, and that's flattering. But there's something inherently self-congratulatory about saying that we've turned an idea into a business. Technically it's a business, but we have years of work left to do before we'll have scratched the surface of what that original idea will eventually yield.

RJ: What's your number one piece of advice to entrepreneurs?

MM: If you really believe you're building a big business -- really, truly believe it -- then you'll make decisions that optimize for that outcome. You'll raise the capital you need to think big. You'll place bets that have long time horizons. You'll find employees who will happily work for five years to reap rewards, not just five months. You'll create product designs that contemplate three downstream revisions, because you'll simply assume that three downstream revisions will be successfully shipped. And you'll take risks that look silly in the short term because you'll know the long term benefits better than anyone else could. And you'll quietly relish in your own confidence, knowing that failure is always an option, but assuming you'll succeed.

It sounds altogether too simple, and perhaps cliched. But the truth is, the minute you doubt the big outcome, you'll forswear it. Never take your eyes off the horizon.

RJ: If you could ask one person for advice, who would it be and what would you ask?

MM: I'd love to ask President Obama how he deals with the really tough decisions. The ones where he's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't, and there's no easy compromise. My job is a walk in the park compared to his. I don't deal with life and death, nor do I deal with the immense uncertainty of political systems on a global scale. He gets up every day and faces the world's toughest job because, in every organization, big and small, the toughest problems roll uphill.

If I had him over a beer or two, I'd love to know how he does it. How does he manage his priorities? He does, undoubtedly, have a visceral sense of his fallibility, and I'd love to know how he copes with that when he makes tough decisions. Has he ever used a coin to let the universe choose?

On my own tiny scale, on a relatively inconsequential set of problems, I think he'd have some sage advice to give.

RJ: Are you hiring? How do you get hired by a start-up?

MM: We're growing, so we're hiring. And, like any good company, we hire people who can do the job and who fit with our values. The former is easy: There are plenty of qualified folks who can be designers, engineers, editors and marketers. But when you overlay any skill set with the filter of Inkling's particular value set, then the field narrows dramatically.

Getting hired by a startup is pretty easy, then, if you know their values. You can always fake it. But you probably don't know the values of any particular startup, and you don't need to. Show up with your own values, prove your skills, and then see if you're a fit. If you're not, it's for the best. You wouldn't have been happy, nor would they have been happy.

And if you don't feel like they probed you on your values -- gave you tough interviews, did references, and talked to you about touchy-feely stuff -- then the odds are there's no good value system in play at the company and you might want to look elsewhere.

Get hired by being good at what you do, and by being honest about who you are. That's not just how you get hired at a startup. It's how you find a happy career in a company, big or small. Startups just tend to be a bit pickier, which is why they're so much fun.