UM is famous for the quality of writers produced by its Creative Writing Program, but not many of them go on to run nationally recognized tech companies based in Missoula. In fact, you could argue that Michael FitzGerald, M.F.A. ’00, stands alone in that category. FitzGerald is CEO of Submittable, an enterprise software company that allows publishers to easily accept and curate digital content. FitzGerald founded the company in 2009 with Bruce Tribbensee and John Brownell. Submittable now has more than 700,000 users and supports the editorial process of major publishers, including National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and McSweeney’s Quarterly and Books.
I hear you started as a writer and have published a book. Is that something you still do?
I published a novel in 2007, and I have published in a variety of literary magazines. I do still write, but I do much more blogging. I’ve found that launching a company from Missoula with an international reach is challenging without a lot of capital, and my writing background enabled us to communicate in a way that I can’t imagine being able to do without writing well.
What is Submittable?
Publishers have two major problems right now. The main problem, the obvious problem, is they’re competing against blogs, Facebook, all these different ways of distracting what used to be the reader. The second problem is publishers who have an online presence like a Facebook see that as communicating with their readers, but really they’re just giving Facebook content.
The traditional publishing paradigm is creator, editor/curator, production, and distribution. But the value of distribution has dramatically lowered because the nature of the Web makes it almost free, and the value of production also is dramatically lower. For creation, say I’m a poet in Williamsburg and I can write a poem on the way to my job in New York on my iPhone on the train in the morning. My phone has replaced the typewriter, the fax machine, the post office, and the copy machine. So there’s this huge oversupply of content. Anyone can create because it’s effortless to create content. So what we think is more valuable than ever is the editorial and curatorial skill set.
Right now, Google and all these people are trying to create algorithms to find this content through likes or search results and things like that, but that only really gets you to the 80 percent. Totally, utterly authentic and unique content can only truly be found by a human being at this point. Through Submittable, any organization can accept video, audio, and text, which then comes into your organization and goes through a curatorial workflow. It gets voted on, talked about, commented on, you can have a back-and-forth with the original creator.
When did Submittable begin?
In the fall of 2008, Bruce Tribbensee, who’s a good friend of mine, and I were out to lunch. We were both working for consultants, but Bruce is a filmmaker and I’m a writer who had always written code on the side. We just said, “This sucks. We should just start a company.” Neither of us had a business background or had started a company before, but while we were at lunch we made of list of things we thought we could do.
We originally wanted to fix a problem that I was having as a writer. When I wanted to send out work, I would send it to ten different organizations that all had a different way of accepting it: post for one, email for another, some crappy handmade form for another. So Bruce and I just started writing code, which we did for about ten months.
We created this social network [Submishmash], and we didn’t talk to anybody—didn’t talk to any users—and after ten months of writing code we had this really powerful social network that no one was ever going to use. We went to release it and realized we had created a solution that didn’t really have a problem. The reason why it was hard for me to send stuff to publishers was because they couldn’t really accept it easily.
What have been milestone moments for the company?
We got our first user in the winter of 2010 and after that we quickly got 100,000 users.
One of the things that’s surprising about us is we’re a Y-Combinator company. Y-Combinator was the first and one of the most prestigious seed-accelerator programs. Every six months about 5,000 companies apply to be in the Y-Combinator startup program. We applied and participated last summer. They bring you out to Mountain View, California, and give you about $200,000—for which they take a small piece of the company—and they put you into the Silicon Valley pressure cooker and help you get investments.
We raised about $750,000, which for Montana makes us one of about two companies that have raised that sort of money. I should say the biggest milestone was when we started to make money.
How are you adapting to being a CEO from being a writer?
I don’t think starting a company is that different from writing a novel. With both undertakings you are creating something out of nothing and then you’re selling it. What really was valuable is that it took me five years to write my first novel. In the beginning, no one asks you to start a company, no one cares that you did it, everyone’s sort of embarrassed for you and thinks you’re crazy. And for the first year, you just sort of have to live with that.
For a startup not to fail, you just don’t fail. You’re going to be failing the first two years anyway, but you just keep going.
Are you writing anything right now?
I’m working on a book called Start Down, which essentially is essays about this process. It’s about starting a tech company someplace outside of New York or Silicon Valley.
–Interview by Bess Pallares
Note: This article appears in the Spring 2013 Montanan.