Entrepreneur Turned Intrapreneur

July 17, 2013

Jeff Veen, Adobe's vice president of products & founder of Typekit
Jeff Veen, Adobe’s vice president of products & founder of Typekit

Jeff Veen, Adobe’s vice president of products and founder of Typekit (a company that brought high-quality fonts to the web for the first time, which was acquired by Adobe in October 2011), chats with People Resources MBA intern, Sonal Yadav, about Typekit’s integration into Adobe, leadership lessons, company culture, and advice for university graduates. He is passionately curious, exudes battle-hardened confidence with a progressive entrepreneurial mindset, and has a great sense of humor about himself, an important asset that is uncommon in many executives.

Adobe Life (AL): How did you create a sense of mission at Typekit?
Jeff: At Typekit, we barely had to interview the first 10 employees we hired because we knew them all. So, we always had that shared sense of mission about the web, in particular. I know “the web” sounds really big but it represents where human culture is right now and where human achievement is being expressed.

We realized that we can make a change and affect how the web world works through typography, which had not yet come to the web, and everybody onboard really believed that. I wanted people who wanted to move the web forward even in a small, but in a significant way. We were a team that shared the same aspiration and ambition.

AL: How would you evaluate the integration of Typekit and Adobe?
Jeff: When we were considering coming into Adobe, we deliberated whether it was going to be a right fit. We wanted to ensure that the team would continue to be involved in product development and be able to carry on the culture we enjoyed. One of the reasons why we felt so comfortable with Adobe was because the company also fundamentally believed in the same things we did. Successful acquisition happens when there’s a culture fit.

Ever since the acquisition, there’s just been an overwhelming growth for Typekit. It has been phenomenal to see it thrive in a way that we frankly had not quite expected. We obviously had ambition to grow, but maybe not to a degree to which it has exploded at Adobe.

AL: What has surprised you most about Adobe?
Jeff: The biggest surprise has been the appetite for change in such a well-established business. This is huge. I think Typekit came to Adobe right at the cusp of a big watershed in the history of Adobe’s business. With 30 years into this business and to be able to completely re-evaluate the way in which we create and sell software, support our customers and engage and communicate with our users. All that has been totally reinvented in just 16-18 months that I have been here. That’s remarkable for a company with that kind of history and momentum. You go to company-wide meetings or team all-hands meetings where CEO Shantanu Narayen speaks and he says it without any irony that we’re re-inventing Adobe. I am thrilled and inspired to witness this unfold. It’s phenomenal and fits perfectly with the type of work that I do.

AL: What are some of the key learning as an entrepreneur and former CEO of Typekit that you carry into your current role at Adobe?
Jeff: The most important thing to do is to always consider that you’re playing a long game. The people you’re working with now can potentially work with you throughout your career, irrespective of whether you have moved jobs. So, it’s never worthwhile to burn the bridges behind you. This has been so true in my career that I look forward to collaborating with people over and over again in many different contexts.

AL: As an organization gets larger there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening?
Jeff: That is a good question and certainly a balancing act in practice. There is a hierarchy of culture that persists within nations, states, and communities. Everyone feels as though they are part of all of those things. The same is true in bigger organizations like Adobe.

Adobe has an open culture. It’s a great place to work where there’s a shared mission of empowering and enabling the world’s story tellers. We’re good at that and we’ve a good sense of how we do that as a business. But I also think we have to preserve those micro-cultures within the various departments at Adobe and move them in a way that is part of the larger company culture. This requires constant balance because if it’s just left to the teams, it can very easily lead to tribalism. Every day we nourish that balance of respecting the local cultures and also doing what’s best at a global level.

AL: What keeps you excited about your role at Adobe?
Jeff: It’s thrilling to see the impact we’re having not just on Adobe, but on the way we’re making these incredibly powerful tools that we create accessible to a much broader audience.

I have made a whole set of new relationships with people at Adobe that I didn’t know before and I find this insanely valuable. I’m working with great people and learning so much from them. I come from a very focused San Francisco entrepreneurship mindset as I’ve been in that role for many years. So, stepping into this more established software development focus, and meeting different kinds of customers that are so distinct in scale, stretches my thinking about the business that I never anticipated. I truly believe in osmosis; I feel like I’m essentially getting an MBA.

AL: What do you consider some of the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Jeff: The biggest one is that you work for your team, they don’t work for you. There’s nothing that substantiates that on an organizational chart, but it’s the reality. You quickly realize that vision is worthless if you cannot execute and there is no possible way one person can execute on the vision. All you can hope to do is excite enough people and to get them to buy-in to that vision. The success is based on the synthesis of everybody that you work with. You’ve got to let them do their best possible work and get out of their way. Provide the support and leadership that they want and help them steer course between being overly frustrated because there too much challenge and being overly bored by things that are not compelling enough. You need to give your team a sense of what they are building is important.

AL: As a leader, how do you continue to grow and develop?
Jeff: I recommend this to everyone on my team – get out of Adobe and talk to people. I find that it’s too easy to be looking inward all the time. Talk and listen to other people in the industry. Get out and have lunch with someone who is doing something cool and ask questions and just listen. The same is true about talking to our customers. There is nothing that is more valuable than to visit your customer and see the software you’re building in use.

AL: What’s your best career advice for somebody who’s just graduating from university or starting their career?
Jeff: Practice, practice, practice! Because, it’s actually more important to be good at something than just to have passion. Over my career, I have observed that passion only comes from being really good at something. So find that thing that you love to do and get good at it. Get better and better at it by challenging yourself with every opportunity to do it and you’ll see that it becomes a passion. It’s honestly just about finding a way to make a valuable contribution.

Connect with Jeff Veen (@veen)

Photo credit: Ryan C., Sr Engineering Manager, Adobe