This fall I will have worked on my writing company for 10 years. Here’s how it all started, as best I can remember it.
In the summer of 2004, I needed a change in my life. I spent the majority of my four years at UC Berkeley doing all sorts of environment things, culminating with this, my crowning campus environmental policy achievement, still going strong at Cal over a decade later and replicated at most UC campuses.
In a lot of ways, organizing the environmental community at UC Berkeley was my first real entrepreneurial endeavor. It even had a business plan, in the form of a proposal that I pitched to Chancellor Berdahl in his office in California Hall. I wasn’t trying to be an entrepreneur, but I was, and I loved it.
I took a job right after graduation with the non-profit Alliance to Save Energy and helped them open a new office in Sacramento. They had just received a large grant to build new energy efficiency programs on campuses throughout California. I was to be the organizer. A perfect job for a guy like me, and I was excited about it… until I wasn’t. Something wasn’t right, and I knew it but I couldn’t figure out what exactly the problem was, and therefore had no idea how to fix it. I stumbled along until I realized that all along I was battling with a severe case of denial: I really just wanted to get into the private sector.
This was a tough one to swallow. My friends, my mentors, and others I respected might think I was selling out. I felt badly about changing course like this, quitting a job, and getting out of environmental work, but it felt right. I couldn’t explain why I needed to do it, but as soon as I accepted it, I was at peace. Within a few weeks I got a new job as a consultant at Navigant Consulting and moved to Los Angeles.
And thus my personal-preamble-detour-to-the-start-of-Scripted is complete.
I probably met Sunil Rajaraman on my first day at Navigant, and I know for sure that we hung out my first weekend in LA. It was his 25th birthday party and I was very happy to have a new friend in a new city, and I got along well with his friends too. He was a quirky guy with a palpable charisma. We worked together well, and before long we were sharing business ideas over beers in Beverly Hills and Westwood. We even went to cafes together to write for fun.
We played with a bunch of ideas in the ensuing months, but nothing really stuck. I got to know his best friend, Zak Freer, a screenwriter with some really nice design chops. Sunil got placed on a remote project in Watts and after a year of cranking away and doing some good work in downtown LA, I got the itches again to move. LA was fun, and my coworkers were great, but I needed something more. I was filling my spare time with LSAT preparations, and when my boss, the guy who hired me, announced he was leaving, it opened a window for me to make a move, too. I decided to move in with my grandpa in Lafayette, transfer to Navigant’s San Francisco office, and start taking my grad school applications seriously.
Lo and behold, it worked!
In March 2006 I was accepted to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s class of 2008. After making another big decision to ditch my legal ambitions for the more specific route of public policy (both could ultimately lead to public office, I figured), I went all-in and it worked. The ace up my sleeve? A glowing recommendation from the chancellor of UC Berkeley. I figured not too many applicants would have that. Not even at Harvard.
Sunil and I stayed in touch, and that summer I traveled to Spain on an impromptu backpacking trip and met him in Barcelona where he was visiting his sister. He was accepted to the UCLA Anderson School of Business and would also be starting grad school that fall. After a day or two we split up and I didn’t hear from him until I landed back in the US and turned my phone back on. There was a text from Sunil.
“I have THE idea that will make us rich,” it read. I wish I had a screenshot from that moment, but I don’t.
I learned that he and Zak were talking about how dispersed screenwriters are and how difficult it was for them to be discovered. Simultaneously, I had been working on my own on a project for writers to collaborate on stories. I hired a PHP developer to build this application and teach me how to program at the same time. Since I wasn’t paying rent at my grandpa’s house, I was temporarily flush with cash. I was calling this project RingTale.
Sunil put the pieces together: a dispersed network of screenwriters, a web-based writing collaboration site, and a team of smart guys who liked working together. We set a buy-in expectation of $10,000 each, to be spent primarily on technology outsourcing, since none of us were engineers.
I was excited to be building a company and didn’t think twice about the money. I was in. I remember we had our first conference calls the same week that classes started at the Kennedy School. Needless to say, what follows is a blur. What I remember from this time is a jumble of grad school, trips to LA, and lots and lots of emails and calls.
We launched Scripped in January 2008. I remember sitting in class and checking our little admin site and watching the count of users climb up.
Seeing people randomly appear and start using your creation is a magical feeling. Even though the numbers were small, even though we had no idea how it would ever make money, we were ecstatic. This part of the story alone made the whole $10,000 buy-in and countless hours up to this point worth it. I had no idea — NO IDEA — that 10 years later I would still be working on it.
Scrappiness is a funny thing. People often warn that you should not be “penny wise and pound foolish,” and I agree with this, but that concept does not run counter to being scrappy. I think scrappiness is a special intuition about how to spend resources. Scrappy entrepreneurs know how to deploy a limited amount of resource to gain maximum effect. They don’t hoard it all, afraid to spend it. They’re the opposite, in fact. They simply know how and when to spend limited money and time and get a lot of impact.
In the earliest days of Scripped, we were damn scrappy. We had no money, and what little we did have was deployed doing the one thing none of us could do: actually build screenwriting software. That meant user acquisition, PR, design, product management, and even taxes and accounting had to be done in-house. I personally filed our corporate taxes and ran our QuickBooks account for years. Sunil was our marketing and press guy, calling on contacts all around LA to get more publicity for Scripped than we probably deserved. And Zak was our thoughtful designer and product manager, ever the advocate for our small but mighty writing community.
Despite lacking in perhaps the most fundamental area for a technology company (a web developer!), we were a really strong team.
By 2009, Sunil and I were both graduated and living back in the Bay Area. Zak was still in Long Beach. Our writing site evolved into running monthly contests, and built a small revenue stream from writers who opted into a $6/mo subscription charge for additional features. Importantly, we also ran into our first major competitor, a Boston-based screenwriting software company called Zhura.
If you think you’re the only one with an idea, stop right there. You’re not. Even in the tiny, archaic, utterly unviable screenwriting software market, there were at least a dozen competitors. Today most of them are dead or dying: FiveSprockets, PlotBot, Celtx, and Zhura, to name a few. We ended up merging with Zhura, which gave us some much-needed capital and punch of adrenaline.
A quick note on this Zhura merger: something like this will never happen to me again. Eric MacDonald, the CEO/founder of Zhura, our biggest competitor, the company we would stalk online, talk about incessantly, and take joy in knowing that we were causing them to spend way more marketing cash and effort than we were, became our savior. Not only did he give us the keys to his screenwriting software kingdom, but he also invested in our future. Since his own company was winding down, he could have pulled us down with him. Instead, he gave us a life boat. He became a great friend and mentor, teaching me a lesson I won’t forget: be kind to your competition; you never know when you’ll need them.
About a year later, Eric, who we brought onto the Board of Directors of Scripped, would play another critical role. We were desperately low on cash, direction, and morale. I was working full-time at a local marketing tech company called Rapleaf (Sunil had previously held a full-time job, too). Zak was no longer focusing on Scripped, and instead was laying the bricks that would eventually lead to his graduation from Harvard Dental School (yes, one talented screenwriter, web designer, and Harvard-educated dentist, that Zak Freer turned out to be!) We had been toying with an idea for months around ghostwriting marketing copy for businesses: social media, blog posts, you-name-it. This was April 2011, about a year after this merger, and suddenly it all came to a head.
Once again, something happened at my day job and I decided to make a move. I had just joined the sales team when Rapleaf hit some media turbulence and suddenly we couldn’t sell a thing. I wasn’t making any commission, but I still needed the meager salary and was becoming a decent ping-pong player at work, and also learning to program in Python, so I stuck with it. In April the management approached us with a new compensation plan and I took that opportunity to peel off and strike out on Scripted. Eric MacDonald and one of my business school classmates pledged some more cash to cushion the transition. I took the pay cut but was much happier to be full-time again with my friend Sunil and a shiny new object in front of us: Scripted.com.
A quick sidebar. How did we get the domain Scripted.com, you ask? Let me tell you. It’s another lesson on being friendly.
I was tired of people asking me, “How’s Scripted going?” and having to correct them: “Good! And it’s Scripped, not Scripted.” So one fine day, I looked up the owner of Scripted on the WHOIS service and wrote him an email.
And then I got this reply. We were supposed to chat by phone but it never happened.
I sent his nephew a postcard and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap for good measure. A week or so later I got the domain authorization code to transfer it and it was ours. We’ve been the proud owners of Scripted.com since 2008, and officially redirected it to our writing marketplace in late 2011.
And that’s what happened with that.
I don’t remember a single, spectacular launch event for Scripted. It started among friends of ours from business school and others in our Scripped network who wanted non-film writing.
Our first paying customer, in fact, was Levis. I met a marketing executive at SXSW at a lunch I was invited to by a company advisor, Tyler Willis. Out of the blue, months after returning from Austin, I got the email from Walter Haas III saying that they were intrigued about the idea of crowdsourcing marketing content from a bunch of screenwriters. The idea of Scripted was just forming then, so the timing was perfect, and since we could use our contest winners to write for it, the project was a great success.
From there we asked more friends if they needed writing help, and slowly but steadily built out an impressive customer list. We did about $50,000 in marketplace transactions before raising a $1M seed round led by Crosslink Capital in fall 2011.
We hired our first Scripted.com employees in December 2011, about four years after launching Scripped to the public. The rest is history, and it’s still in the making.
I think it was Steve Jobs who said that it takes at least seven years to build a meaningful company. I’m now going on ten.
Is Scripted a meaningful company? It depends on who you ask. It’s meaningful to me.