Highlights from interview with Jeff Veen of Typekit (Acquired by Adobe)

Jeff Veen was a founding partner of Adaptive Path, a user experience design and consulting firm, and a UX lead at Google before his passion for publishing and open standards led him to co-found Typekit. The online service gives designers and developers a subscription-based library of hosted, high-quality fonts to use on their Websites. In 2011 Typekit was acquired by Adobe, where Jeff is is now Vice President of Products for the Creative Cloud service.

When Typekit started in 2008, Web fonts were a controversial idea and “cloud computing” was in its infancy. But Jeff was confident they were onto something:

  •  “I’ve always felt really strongly about not giving away fonts on the Web. And that you could build a business out of Web standards. But we also believed that you could sell products that were traditionally assets as a service, as a subscription. The big wave of objection from people when we announced Typekit was, ‘I’ll never rent my fonts.’ I did not believe that to be true. Because if I could create a service that you wanted to use, you would never think about buying a font again. It’s not about switching to a new thing, it’s about, ‘I need that service.’ I believe that’s the case for everything. I don’t even go to iTunes anymore. I’ve accessed every song ever created with Rdio or Spotify. I think a lot less about my library and a lot more about what I want right now.”

Jeff says that his time as a design consultant built up his skills as a communicator. That experience paid off when they created a strong vision for Typekit that was well articulated and internalized by team members:

  • “As a consultant, one of the most valuable skills that I had was telling the story of what we were trying to accomplish—communication skills. I think every successful product has a narrative running through it. What are we doing here? Some people call that the vision. And so I put a lot of effort into making sure everybody knows what the vision is, hears the narrative a lot, agrees on it, and that it’s expressed in everything that we do…”
  • “When we started Typekit, the team was very clear about the vision. It wasn’t just an opportunity to bring fonts to the Web. There was another layer on top of that—advocating for Web standards… Our vision was you can actually build a service that helps people implement Web standards and charge for it. Typekit is a product and service that takes the values that I’ve been cultivating my whole career.”

Jeff sees his strengths as a designer shine through in how they balanced time, quality, and scope. That meant keeping up the team’s momentum as they raced to be the first to market. It also meant maintaining high quality while shedding every non-essential feature they could:

  • “When we launched Typekit we charged customers from day one even though we didn’t have a search engine. We created some good partnerships with foundries, so that we had about 800 vaults in the library, but no engine to actually search them. You had to page through a file that you couldn’t sort. And we didn’t do alphabetical order because honestly fonts vary in quality and usefulness. If all your pixilated retro grungy fonts start with A, you’re library will look really bad. So we put them in order of how much we liked the font. You couldn’t search or sort it—all you could do was hit the next button.”
  • “We had almost no functionality in the core app, but what we did have there resonated with people so they would immediately say, this is awesome, but you know what I really need? That phrase, ‘What I really need,’ is vital. That phrase sets up all your priorities. And now we are in market. We’re getting the head start over potential competitors and we’re continuously learning from our users.”

His advice for budding entrepreneurs is to find what you’re most passionate about and go for it:

  •  “I barely finished college. I got all A’s and F’s. I was totally into whatever I was into, and I couldn’t stomach anything that seemed pointless, which maybe leads to a myopic education. It taught me that if you’re really into something, go deep. I guess I call that entrepreneurial—getting obsessed with something over and over again and trying to find a way to make that work.”
  • “Pick the idea that you can’t stop thinking about. It comes down to what you really want to do. I have all kinds of ideas that I think would be great, but do I want to spend all day everyday doing that? Making tools for Web designers and developers, absolutely; that’s what I’m doing with Adobe and I’m super happy.”

For Jeff, meaningful impact comes down to his passion for the Web. It motivates his work because he sees the Web as an open-content network that ultimately advances us as a civilization:

  • “Very, very big picture, I think the way to be successful as humans is to pass knowledge along so that I can learn something and share it with you…Before Typekit, we were making content wrong. We were sticking content in an image just to have some control over typography. That makes it harder for it to be translated to other languages on the fly. It makes it harder for people who can’t see the screen to read it. We’ve got to stop doing that and just do it right.
  • We need to make every idea we’ve ever had available at the lowest common technological denominator. And that’s why Web standards are important. That allows us to communicate. We’ve collectively created a lingua franca for the first time in human history… Typekit is the tiniest little nudge in the right direction, but it’s also not a nudge in the wrong direction. And if you do that on a broad enough scale, a tiny nudge has unbelievable exponential benefit overall.”