Ep. 212: Jennifer Smith – Obsessing over efficiency with the CEO of Scribe

December 19, 2022 | 30 Minutes

As a former McKinsey consultant and venture capitalist, Jennifer Smith specialized in helping businesses become more productive and profitable, often by leveraging powerful software tools. Today we learn how her obsession with efficiency compelled her to found Scribe, a productivity software company of her own.

Connect with Jennifer: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jenniferreneesmith/
Learn more about Scribe: https://scribehow.com/

Full Episode Transcript:

  < Intro >
Adam:            Hello and welcome to Count Me In. The podcast that explores the world of business from a management accountant's perspective. This is Adam Larson, and today my co-host Neha, is talking to a woman who describes herself as an accidental CEO. Jennifer Smith is the founder and CEO of Scribe. 
A software company that helps businesses capture and scale the expertise of their top performers, to drive new levels of productivity. From fighting collaboration overload to leveraging RPA, to attracting the right talent, Jennifer discusses how her obsession with efficiency has fueled her unique and unplanned leadership journey. Let's start the conversation.
 < Music >
Neha:              Welcome to Count Me In, Jennifer, it's such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Jennifer:         Thanks so much, I'm excited to be here.
Neha:              Awesome. So first things first, you call yourself an accidental CEO. Tell me more about that and what brought you to this point in life?
Jennifer:         Because if you were to ask me 15, 20 years ago, gosh, maybe even five, seven years ago, "Would you ever be CEO? Would you ever start your own company?"
I probably would've laughed at you and said, "No." It's not something I've ever thought about. I don't know anyone who does that, that's not in the cards for me. I started my career as a management consultant. 
So I was at McKinsey for seven years. I worked mostly with financial institutions in the Oregon operations practice. Which functionally meant I would spend nine to five sitting next to agents, in operations centers, looking over their shoulder and watching what they did. 
And if you ever do that work, you learn the name of the game is you figure out who the best person is. And you sit next to them and you say, "Well, what are you doing differently than everyone else?"
And you find that they've found better ways of working. They would say, "Oh, I was trained to do all of these things, but here's how I do this better." And they would show me, they're all tabbing, they're doing really fast things on their computer. They became whizzes at finding these shortcuts and these very complicated pieces of software they were using. 
And, as a consultant, I would dutifully write that up and sell that back to my client. But I always thought like, "Gosh, if we had a way to just capture what these people knew how to do. They could have had really big impact on that op center. They could have helped their colleagues all be better." And I said, "Well, it's an obvious problem, someone will solve that someday, surely." 
And then, you fast-forward 10 years later and then I'm working in venture capital, and investing in enterprise software companies. And I spent a lot of my time talking to buyers of enterprise software, again, folks in financial services. Just trying to understand like, "What are your open problems? What are your challenges? What are you trying to solve?"
And this idea kept coming back. People saying like, "Oh, gosh, well, I or my people are spending a lot of time doing similar tasks over and over again. And actually they do it differently, it's definitely different between people, everyone finds their own way." Sometimes it's not even consistent within the same person. They do something once a quarter, they don't quite remember it, they try to do the process, especially, if they've a very complicated software. 
I'm like, "Wouldn't it be really nice if there were a way to just know what was the best of what everyone knew how to do?" And I don't really have a way of doing that today. My only option is to tell someone, "Just take time away from doing your actual work and please generate a document that shows what you know how to do." That's not a very popular request. 
And, so, I looked at it and said, "Gosh, technology has gotten so much better. It's so many years later and we're still facing the exact same problems." And I shifted from like, "Someone should do something about this." To, "Well, I don't think anyone is doing anything about this and they should, so I guess I'll do something about this."
And, so, I very much did not intend to start a company. I cared a lot about solving a particular problem. I'm obsessed with efficiency. And I just saw a massive inefficiency in how millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world are spending their nine to five, trying to navigate these complicated pieces of software and trying to do it quickly, because everyone's got a million things going on and everyone's just doing their best.
But most people are doing it sub-optimally and it's taking them more time, and they're spending a lot of time even just trying to figure out what to do, that's not a good feeling. And, so, I said, "Well, gosh, if I could solve that for people, why would I do something else? This feels like what I should be doing." And, so, I started my company, Scribe, three and a half years ago now.
Neha:              Wow, that's really insightful and thank you for connecting it to common business problems that we are all facing every day. So this reminds me of a conversation I was having with my daughter, she's 10 years old. And I was telling her about coming on this interview and meeting you, the CEO of the company. 
And she was very curious, of course, about the company and your work. I was, of course, able to help her understand what the word Scribe means. But how would you explain to a fifth grader, in simplest terms, what you and your team does?
Jennifer:         Yes, we actually design our software, so a fifth grader could use it, it's designed for people across digital literacy. So you could actually tell her to just try it out if she's at all curious, and she should be able to do it. 
So, Scribe, very simply, we're a desktop application or a browser extension, your choice. And we will watch you do work and auto-generate step-by-step, written guides with screenshots showing how to do that process. 
So let's say, for example, you have a client who is constantly asking you, let's pick something very simple, "How do I log into my QuickBooks Portal?" I don’t know, that's probably a question you've gotten before. So all you would do is you would click the Record button and you would log into the QuickBooks portal, and you would click Start Record. And, boom, Scribe would auto-generate step-by-step written guide on how to log into a QuickBooks Portal.
Again, very simple example, but it would say, "Step one, navigate to www.quickbooks.com.
Step two, click on the Login icon, instead, it's got a little screenshot and it shows along, and so on and so forth. And there's a bunch of ways, obviously, you can edit, and customize, and all those sorts of things.
But the idea is anything you would need to explain to someone how to do. Whether that's a client who's constantly asking you a question, or a colleague that you're onboarding, or a virtual assistant who's doing some tasks for you. It's a very easy way to capture what you know how to do, automatically, and share that with other people. Without having to take any time away to actually write that down or show them what to do. 
My whole philosophy is you've already done the hard part. You know how to do something valuable. Let's make it automatic for you to be able to scale that knowledge and to show someone else how to do that. 
I'll often talk about it as documentation, as digital exhaust. Just that byproduct, you're going along and doing your work and you're creating this exhaustive documentation, that you can now use in a variety of different contexts.
Neha:              Wow, fantastic, and thank you for making it easier for people, who are new to this concept, to understand. You bring up automation, so let's take it up a notch, from the fifth graders' level, and talk about the three-letter buzzword, RPA, Robotic Processing Automation, which is getting a lot of spotlight these days.
But then, sadly, it remains just a buzzword for many people in small and medium organizations. How can RPA, or automation like this, help finance and accounting people in these small companies?
Jennifer:         Yes, RPA is an area I've spent a lot of time in. I would take it up from RPA to automation. There's a lot of excitement around RPA. RPA, in particular, means I will replicate what a human does using software. So it's almost like a layer on top of your existing systems, and you build these very manual flows that will click through software as if a human were clicking. 
I've talked to a lot of Fortune 500 companies that have implemented RPA. They do these big RPA programs. They set up these centers of excellence and they do very good work. 
I'll tell you, most of them, over beers, will tell me, "I'm not quite satisfied. These things work, but they work 70% of the time."
And then you've got these edge cases, something's a little bit different, the software UI changes there. There's a lot of difficulty and nuances when you're talking about RPA. 
Automation, more broadly, it's just this concept of how do I use software to do tasks that I otherwise would have to be doing? And that I get very excited about, especially, if you're in a small business because time is money. 
You have limited resources, limited number of people, we see this with our customers. We're across hundreds of thousands of, of organizations in over a hundred countries, pretty widespread everywhere from a solo person, all the way up to folks in Fortune 50 banks. And we often see it's the small business owners who are the ones who are most passionate about, "How do I save time?"
Because it's limited number of resources, time is money. "I could be spending this time servicing a client. Instead, I'm going through and generating reports and doing these kinds of tasks that I could automate."
And, so, what I would think about is anytime you are doing something that feels repetitive. That feels like, "Gosh, I do this over and over again or I do some variation over and over again." 
Think about, "How can I automate this?" And your mind might, immediately, go to a very complicated automation system. And that is great, if you are at that level of complexity, most people are not.
And, so, I would think even at the levels of templates. Here is a really mild automation, are you sending a very similar email every month to clients notifying them of something? Or when you're generating a report and you're sending it out. Depending on your email client, you can create automatic templates. You hit a couple of hotkeys and, boom, it automatically pastes into your email. And then you can change the person's name and personalize customers, whatever you need to do. 
But where are the moments like that where it feels like it's simple and it is, but it adds up over time. And, so, I would start thinking about automation from anytime you feel like you're doing something, you say like, "Gosh, this really doesn't feel like a use of my specific talents."
Find software to do it, because I bet there is software out there to do that. Whether it's really simple macros, all the way to custom solutions that will help you, automatically, flag uncategorized expenses and send it to a client or something like that.
Neha:              Those are some really good examples, Jennifer. And talking about repetitive tasks and tasks that people don't like doing, knowledge management and process documentation always-
Jennifer:         What, not everyone's favorite?
Neha:              Definitely not everyone's favorite, but these are still very important tasks. Not just from compliance perspective, but they're becoming more and more important because people are now working asynchronously in remote teams. 
Jennifer:         Mh-hmm.
Neha:              So what have you seen are the most common knowledge management mistakes that people make?
Jennifer:         Not doing it, is the short answer. So most people I talk to have some basic knowledge management. We have some wiki, we have made some attempt, we've done something. And then I say, "Well, how's that going for you?"
And I have yet to hear, "Great." For most people, they're like, "Oh, it works for this and works for that." And, I mean, there's many challenges with it, but one of the big ones is just the amount of time it takes to create documentation. You have finite, you've got eight hours in a day that you're working or whatever your workday is. And you've probably got 10 hours' worth of work to do in those eight hours. 
And, so, you're making ruthless prioritization decisions all day long. And when you say, "Oh, could I send this one more thing to a client, or complete this one more task versus sit here and write out what I know how to do?" Which task are people going to pick?
They're going to pick the direct output at all times, it's more urgent for sure. And maybe even, arguably, more important depending on the task. And, so, this is where we thought a lot about with Scribe. We said, "Well, gosh, a big problem is the world's vastly under-documented." I know that's not a sexy and exciting thing to say, but it is true. And it manifests in that it creates a lot of problems for companies.
It makes it much harder to onboard new people. It means that your people who are there, even if they've been there for five, 10 years, you yourself are spending time doing these repetitive tasks. And maybe you're not even doing them correctly. McKinsey did a study, of course, I was at McKinsey I have to mention McKinsey. I was not part of the study though. 
McKinsey did a study where they estimated that the average knowledge worker, spends one day a week trying to find info on how to do their job or explaining to someone else how to do their job. That's a day a week of just like, "Hey, how do I generate this report?"
"Hey, how do I act? How do I file my return?"
"Hey, can you show me where do I go to the IRS Support"
"Hey, how do I get this in?" And there's these small micro-moments throughout the day, and it feels like not that big of a deal, but you add all of that up and that's a day a week.
Neha:              Wow. 
Jennifer:         And, so, 20% of your time you're spending doing all of these things. And, so, now in the context of that documentation, what if I said documentation could give you that 20% time back?
Say, well, oh, no, that gets exciting to me. And with Scribe, we think about, "Well, how do we make that documentation automatic for you?" So you're not sitting there saying, "Hey, I have to decide, or do I do this task, or create documentation?"
And we say, "What if we can make that in-and? What if while you're doing the task, you just hit that Record button and you automatically create documentation?" Now you've found a way to scale what you know how to do. 
You've made your knowledge almost like software or media, which are really, scalable elements, versus one-on-one answers. "Oh, I'm writing out an answer to an email." Or someone pings me and says, "Hey, can you give me a quick call and show me how to do this?" I mean, how many of those have we gotten?
Neha:              Oh, God, I've sent many of those.
Jennifer:         Yes, I definitely have too. We all have been on both sides, and it's not fun being on either side. I'm talking about it from the perspective of the person answering repetitive questions, but being the person asking them isn't really fun either. Because you've already probably gone in and tried to do it yourself and hit a couple of roadblocks. Maybe you said a few swear words to yourself and then you said, "Oh, this is not working."
And then you go, "Oh, God, who can answer this question for me? Okay, how do I get in touch with them?" You're going through this whole process. And, so, what if you just had all of that info, automatically, available to those people?
So when they were going to do that process, it was just there for them. They didn't even have to spend those cycles going and finding someone else. And, so, if you can find a way to do it, and our software is one way to do this. Where you're just, automatically, creating this process documentation, now you just have way more documented. 
So to your question, "What are people doing wrong?" Now you have way more documented, and now you can do a lot more with that. You can avoid questions, in the first place. You can make it so that now when a colleague goes to do something, rather than them saying, "Oh, I don't know, I only do this once a quarter, I forget how to do this."
Or "I have never done this before."
And instead of them having a mild panic moment trying to figure it out, they can just go find Scribe or the documentation that you've created, and they'll have their answer. And that's, let me tell you, a really delightful experience, when you say like, "Oh, gosh, I had a question and, boom, it was immediately answered. I didn't even have to go through this whole process."
Neha:              Wow, and that's definitely a blessing for people who are working in another time zone, where they don't have the luxury of same-
Jennifer:         Yes, and that's even worse, because then you've got a question, and now you're gated.
Neha:              Mm-hmm. 
Jennifer:         People you need aren't available then, and you're probably sitting there trying to figure it out yourself. And you're puddling through and, especially, when we're using complex software. It's not always completely obvious how to do something, especially, if it's a complicated process. And, so, you're sitting there muddling through and trying to figure it out. And those are both real-time costs, and I would argue, emotional costs too. 
We assume that's the cost of doing business, of doing work, that you're going to spend time trying to figure things out. But next time you're a little confused, check yourself emotionally. And what you'll see is you're frustrated, you're extending energy just kind of trying and you're like, "Ugh, I just need to get this thing done. I need to move on, I got my 10 other tasks."
Neha:              And talking about frustration, I also remember you mentioning something called collaboration overload.
Jennifer:         Yes.
Neha:              Help us understand what you mean by that and how can listeners in accounting and finance, but also leadership positions can avoid this overload.
Jennifer:         Yes, so I think it got a lot worse during the pandemic, and it's really been driven by something that is a good thing, which is the fact that we now have all of this collaboration software. We have all this software that makes it really easy for us to communicate with each other. Whether that's Zoom or Slack, someone is, literally, just a keystroke and hitting enter away, from being able to connect with them. 
And I'm the CEO of a software productivity company. And, so, it's counterintuitive that I would say this, but these things almost have been too much. It is too easy now for me to get in touch with people. And, so, what you end up with, and we saw this, in particular, at the height of the pandemic, is you spend so much of your time collaborating with other people. 
Whether it's being in meetings, answering Slacks, answering emails, whatever you're using. Different pings, phone calls, text messages, WhatsApp, so many ways for people to get in touch with you and ask you their questions.
And, so, what you often end up with is you spend a lot of your day collaborating with other people. And at the end of the day, you can come home and your spouse can say, "Hey, honey, how was your day?" And you can say, "Oh, my gosh, it was so busy." But here's my question or challenge to you, did you actually get work done? 
Did you actually do the core output of what your job is? Or did you spend a lot of your time in what feels very busy, but just communicating and collaborating with other people? And, so, I like to think a lot about how do you make that collaboration much more productive and have it be much more about the core things that are output related. 
And, so, obviously, Scribe is part of that story. Like, "Hey" instead of someone... we're trying to avoid those pings. So instead of someone hopping on a Zoom with you, or give me a phone call to try to show someone how to do something in a one-to-one way, just shoot them a Scribe. The average Scribe takes 56 seconds to create, and two seconds to copy and send to someone. 
And, so, find those moments. How many of those can you just bat away with something that's more, to your point, automatic. You feel like minor automations but they actually add up to real amounts of time. There are psychological studies that will say, "For every ping that you get, every interruption in your day." You hear that sound of the Slack message go ding or whatever it is that you're using.
"You lose anywhere between five to 20 minutes of actual work." Because of the context switching that's required for your brain to get back into that same deep flow, generative state if you were doing something important and hard. 
And, so, these things feel really innocuous at the time. "Oh, Joe is just asking me another question. That's great, I really like Joe, no big deal." But when Joe and Joe's friends ask you 10 times a day, you just lost anywhere between 50 and 200 minutes of time, and time is the thing that we all have as their most limited resource.
And, so, can you find ways to reduce those so they don't come in the first place, and when they do manage them more appropriately. So, to your question, for leaders, for example, maybe setting the expectation that when you were doing deep work, you are not available on Slack for a couple of hours.
My team, well, when someone's head is down on work, they put a little emoji, we use Slack, whatever it is you use, but we use Slack, and we put a little emoji of someone wearing headphones. It's to indicate like, "I am doing work right now, please don't Slack me unless it's urgent."
Neha:              Okay.
Jennifer:         And then you come back on and you can batch these things together.
Neha:              I like that. And I like how you contrasted collaborating with a self-study kind of format. Where you get the answers without having to ask for them. And also how it connects to setting the expectations and boundaries around your work and your time, which is really precious, of course.
So I would like to pivot from here to your own journey. And I was reading through it and you've been quite vocal about how your startup journey went hand-in-hand with your motherhood journey. And we, absolutely, we can spend an entire episode just talking about that. But let's talk about your role as the CEO in Scribe, and what strategies do you use, in your company, to promote inclusion in the workplace?
Jennifer:         Yes, we think a lot about talent and our talent value proposition. And any time you're leading teams, you got to think about like, "Why are these people here?" Well, you think about your value props to your customers all the time, you got to do the same thing for your people and your team. 
And, so, that starts with thinking about recruiting. Who am I bringing in the door? And, so, we think a lot about... We've sort of had a mantra with Scribe, I tell everyone in our first conversations, when they're debating joining Scribe, "I want, at the end of your time at Scribe, for you to say that this was the most rewarding experience of your career. What would that look like?" Hopefully, it's long time. "At the end of that time, well, what would that look like? What would you say at the end of that time to be, 'Hey, that was the most rewarding experience for me.'"
Put another way; "What does success look like for you?" And then I'm trying to map up is that the journey that we're on with Scribe? And do I think we have the opportunity to provide that to someone? And if we don't, then I say, "Great, that's a really great goal that you have for yourself. Let me make introductions to three other people who might be able to help you. Don't come do that here at Scribe, we're not set up for that."
So there's a whole kind of, upfront, are we in alignment with our goals and what success looks like? And then when someone's in the door, it's continuing to check in with them because things change. Company changes, people's goals change, and it's still saying like, "Are we still in alignment? Are we still on track? Are we giving you the opportunities that you want? Are you learning how to do things?"
And we say we want to find people who are great at their craft and want to become excellent at it at Scribe. And to us, that's creating an environment that is really respectful, that is very transparent, but where people still challenge each other. And, so, we really hire for a growth mindset. 
Where people say, "I want to constantly keep getting better and I want to do that here." And, so, what you'll find is that our team is incredibly supportive of each other. We do, at our team, all hands, we'll do shout-outs and gratitude for the last five minutes, and it's just people spreading love.
Like, "I want to give a shout-out to Thomas who answered this question for me so quickly, and he did..."
And then Thomas, "Oh, but you were really great at that." Everyone is very quick to give thanks to everyone, but they'll also push each other. "Hey, we did really great last month, but let's do even better this month. What would it look like if we doubled that? What would it look like if we shipped this thing even faster?"
And, thankfully, this culture becomes self-reinforcing. When you bring in people who want to work in this kind of environment, and then you give them this kind of environment, then that grows over time. And, so, that means you're able to attract people from a variety of different backgrounds. And they're all united in this idea of just wanting to get great at what they're doing and do it in this kind of environment and this kind of culture. 
And, again, we design our recruiting process so that it becomes very clear to people, during recruiting, what our culture and our feeling is. 
So I'll often when I'm having a last conversation with the candidate, right before we're about to make an offer, and I say like, "Do you have any other questions?" 
Usually the answer is no, they're like, "I've met people on your team. I have such a great sense for what people are like at Scribe, this feels like my tribe of people. This is really what I want." Or they've self-selected out of the process. 
And, so, I think really leading with what is your culture and what does it mean to be here? It gives people a sense and they can self-select in or out, and we don't think about diversity in terms of we have to have a set number of targets or anything like that. We actually don't even really track it other than I looked at it the other day and we are 70, 75% women are underrepresented minorities. 
And that's because we've thought a lot about how do we create an environment where people can just show up and do work they feel really proud of. That's our uniting goal together, and that means you get all different kinds of people. But everyone wants to do great work and they're really excited to do it with this other group of people.
Neha:              Awesome, and that's a great way to look at diversity and inclusion in any organization. I also love the questions that you're asking and being open to the answers that you get. Not all of them are going to be what you expect, but it's good to hear those things. I hope the leaders who are listening to this are taking notes.
Jennifer:         Those are the best questions to ask. Where you don't know the answer and you want to go into it not being tied to a particular outcome. Because really what you're trying to do is find the best answer for both people, and when it works then it really works. When someone says like, "Oh, I really want to do this."
And you say like, "We can support you in doing that here." That's magic on both sides. And if someone comes describing and they're like, "I want to become the best computer vision engineer in the world." Then I say, "Great, you should go to Google. They have snapped up almost all of the world's great computer vision engineers, go apprentice with those people. That is the best place for you."
That means I lose a potential engineer, sure. But now I've freed up a spot for an engineer who really wants to be here and who wants to do the things that we're working on, and that's a win-win on both sides.
Neha:              Right, and talking about young engineers or young people who are entering the workforce. What advice would you give to younger professionals, not just in finance accounting, but overall people who are listening to this podcast. On how they should be navigating their lives and careers as they move forward?
Jennifer:         I had a professor in business school who said something I thought pretty profound, at the time, and I didn't think much of it. 
And now I look back on it and realize just how wise it was. He said, "Find the thing that you are always apologizing for about yourself and find a way to get paid for it."
Neha:              Okay.
Jennifer:         So, for me, I'm obsessed with efficiency, and I was constantly told, in work environments, that I was too fearless. I would just go off, I'd see a problem and I'd just go off and try to solve it. And they'd be like, "No, that's not how things work here, you're 24 years old." And they're like, "No, back-off, there's a process, follow the hierarchy, et cetera." And I learned over time to do that.
And that was fine and good, but now that I reflect back, I feel like I left a lot on the table in trying to conform to those environments. And instead saying, "Well, gosh, I have this passion around the kinds of problems I'm solving and ways of working. What if I could just find a different environment that actually fits those things rather than trying to tell me to change and conform."
And sometimes that's right and feedback is good. But if you're hearing it time and time again and you say like, "Oh, gosh, this is a spike I have, and maybe it's a liability in this context, but it could actually be really great in another context."
And, so, rather, I think, we often try to smooth out our spikes and become more polished stones. And I actually think the most successful people I know are really freaking, spiky corals. They're really good at some things and not so good at other things, and that's fine. Great, find a way to spend most of your time doing those things that you're really great at and the stuff that you're not good at automate away, delegate away. 
Get into a different job where you've got more support around those areas. Whatever it is, just lean into the things that you're good at, and try to spend as much of your time doing those things that you're really good at. 
And that's an efficiency story, that's an effectiveness story, and that's, frankly, a happiness story, and I think that's the most important part of it. Chances are if you're good at something, you enjoy doing it
Neha:              True, and another thing that I think our listeners can take away from this is being fearless. Whether it's about solving problems when you're not supposed to, or taking that accidental CEO position that lands in your lap.
Jennifer:         If someone tells you you're fearless and they mean it as not a compliment, as something to work on, note it in your head and say like, "This is very kind of this person to be giving me this feedback. Feedback is a gift; I'm going to ignore that." Or "I'm going to, maybe, in this environment understand the way to operate, but I'm going to secretly cultivate that about myself because that can be your superpower."
< Outro >
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