Interview with Skype CEO Josh Silverman
This week will mark the first month on the job for Skype CEO Josh Silverman. It may not be as round an anniversary as 100 days, but if you want to find out what’s brewing in the mind of the man at the top, Almost Thirty Days On the Job looks like a pretty workable milestone. And it didn’t even require an international logistics operation to do this interview — being able to reel in the CEO to benefit the readers of this blog is one of the perks of an open-plan office here in Tallinn. Enjoy.
Villu Arak: What are your initial observations from the Skype office and Tallinn, your home for the next two months? Has anything surprised you, or is it business as usual among the 300 people that work for Skype in Estonia?
Josh Silverman: My first reaction in Tallinn was, “Holy cow, there’s two feet of snow at the end of March!” But I was certainly not fazed by this — it looked picture-perfect and seemed to bring out more smiles on the streets. Besides, I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I spent my first 17 years shoveling enough snow to fill the Grand Canyon. So bring it on!
What’s quite clear is that I’m surrounded by incredibly bright people who have a ton of great ideas about where we can take this business. Where I can perhaps add value is to help us focus us on the “Vital Few” – the (very) few things we’re going to commit to delivering with excellence; as opposed to the “Worthless Many” – the long list of very good ideas which, if we tried to tackle them all, would bring us to our knees. The hard part about prioritization isn’t saying “no” to bad ideas, that’s easy. It’s saying “no” to the good ones in order to deliver on the truly essential and/or breakthrough projects that really drives focus through an organization.
VA: When your arrival at Skype was announced, you wrote that you want to build the greatest products — and the greatest company — on Earth. And you pledged to always have the best interests of the Skype community at heart. What do you think are their core interests that you’re treating as sacred territory not to be meddled with?
JS: Besides keeping communication within the Skype cloud free, there are two things we need to deliver very well: incredible ease of use and world-class sound and video. Everything else wins us bonus points. Skype is one of the most innovative companies in the world, and I want to make sure that the focus of that innovation is around making our products 1) even easier to use; 2) even more reliable and high quality; and 3) relevant to everyone everywhere for all their communications. Sure, with 309 million users under the belt today, we need to be thoughtful and weigh our choices carefully. But we’re still a young company with plenty of ambition. And we’ll continue to launch innovative new disruptive products, because that is who we are.
VA: Recently, a procurement agent for a high school in Portugal contacted us through the Skype website, seeking to buy a refrigerator for their laboratory. I didn’t know we’ve expanded into that business, but beyond what you’ve outlined above, what are Skype’s priorities in 2008 and beyond?
JS: Well, since Estonia got a whole winter’s worth of snow a few weeks ago, we thought we’d make a quick buck selling it to less fortunate countries. The fridge is just a preservative, it’s the snow inside that counts. But seriously, this year we’ll make video — including multiparty video — more prominent and, er, easier to use. But more generally, I talk about end-to-end ease of use. It goes far beyond making the green call button easier to find. We’re looking at every aspect, every stage of the user journey. From when you download the client and make your first call, all the way through the range of products we have, from the desktop to mobile. We’re going to focus on where the biggest pain-points are along that journey, in order to make the whole experience seamless and delightfully easy. If we do it right, we’ll be relevant to more people more often.
JS: That’s right, we’ve just announced unlimited long-distance calling to over a third of the world’s population. For those who haven’t heard about it yet, you can basically make worry-free calls any time of the day and not be tied down by a long term contract – or high cost. You only pay a flat-rate monthly fee and you can make calls to landlines in the country of your choice to up to 34 destination countries worldwide. While these subscriptions are a great value, the main thrust was actually to make it even easier for people – not worrying about keeping the clock ticking while talking with your girlfriend in Prague, or running out of credit and having to recharge the account.
VA: As CEO of Evite eight years ago, you told Fast Company that you questioned the value of focusing on today, as it makes you lose sight of what’s important. Do you still think that addressing today’s issues is reactive management? Surely you’ve noticed some warts here and there — what are the existing things that you’d like to fix?
JS: I think my views have evolved and aren’t as black and white any more. One of the key skills of the CEO is to zoom in and zoom out. At 10am, you should be able to have a conversation on where things are going 5-10 years from now, followed by a switch at 11am to a discussion about what’s shipping next week. We’re playing an important role in helping shape one of the key global industries. So having an eye on the next 5-10 years is really important. At the same time there are some pressing issues we have to address today. Ok, so we’ve made it possible for more than 100 billion minutes in Skype-to-Skype conversations to happen, and it’s a major milestone. We’ve helped make video calls mainstream, with about a quarter of Skype-to-Skype calls using video. But it’s not just about milestones. At the top of my “now” agenda is this: radical ease of use. Skype still confuses some people, so we’re digging even deeper to achieve step function change. But let me get through the first hundred days and let’s take stock of our progress in the summer.
VA: There are a lot of developers out there that are developing third-party applications that expand Skype’s functionality. What can this developer community expect from you?
JS: Philosophically speaking, I do think we need to continue building a robust ecosystem and supporting the developer community as best we can. I’m taking a little time to understand where we are and what the next steps should be. Soon, I’ll share more thoughts on this on the Skype Developer Zone blog.
VA: And last but not least — a recent story in the Financial Times implied that eBay could sell Skype this year. What’s your take on this?
JS: Skype is a strong, profitable business with 61% year-on-year revenue growth and 309 million registered users, with 33 million added in Q1 2008. eBay has just made a huge investment in Skype by removing the earn-out. We have new management in place, and with the earnout out of the way, we measure ourselves by our ability to delight our users. That’s our focus. That’s our test.