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Getting Hired

Eileen Gittins: The Story Behind the Story

Eileen Gittins, founder of Blurb books, talks about passionate, opinionated creatives and the power of storytelling--and why they're both good things.

Up until recently the power to make books resided in the hands of a select few, but Blurb set out in 2004 to change all that. Built for creatives by creatives, Blurb has made low-cost, small-batch book printing – and retailing – a reality. In doing so, the company unlocked the “long tail” of book publishing and attracted an enthusiastic audience of DIY creatives.

Five years on, creative professionals make up more than 30% of the company’s customer base. Increasingly, the creative community has been taking advantage of Blurb’s affordable, small-scale print runs to publish everything from high-quality, leave-behind brochures and portfolio books to bound client presentations. And the platform’s flexibility gets a serious shot in the arm with the launch of Blurb’s new PDF-to-Book functionality, which gives bookmakers unadulterated design control.
We talked with founder and CEO Eileen Gittins about her take on the creative community that flocks to Blurb, and her approach to managing the company’s own internal creative team. In a sense, Gittins believes the communities mirror one another. As she puts it, “The people who make books are creatively expressing themselves, and they’re very passionate no matter what the topic of their book. We need people who understand that, who are that. And who want to build products for those people.”
By extension, Gittins identifies passion as the key quality she looks for in new hires at Blurb. It doesn’t really matter what they’re passionate about, as long as they’re passionate about something. She says, “We want a difference of opinion. We don’t want everyone to be the same: gender, age, race, personal proclivities. In all dimensions we need that. We look for: ‘Fit in, but standout.’”
The story behind the story is as important as the product itself.
From Gittins’ perspective, “the hallmark of creatives is that they have strong opinions.” Rather than suppressing such differentiation, Blurb encourages it.  Gittins says, “We’re not consensus people. It’s not a democracy. Sometimes a call has got to be made, and that’s it. But it is always a question of making sure people’s voices are heard, so they feel like they made a contribution.”
And when it comes to deciding what new features to roll out, the company takes a highly disciplined approach. Gittins explains, “We require a mini-business plan before a big new feature or product can even get to the table. And this can come from anywhere in the company… We really try to quantify the project: How big is it?” At the same time, the company has regular “product road map sessions,” during which they hash out what will make it into the pipeline. But capacity is limited: “If something gets added, another thing comes off.”
When asked about her own creativity – Gittins whose creative passion is photography – talks about seeing Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, speak at the 2009 TED conference. As Gilbert spoke about her struggle with writer’s block, Gittins had a watershed moment about storytelling. Encapsulating the realization, she says, “The story behind the story (or the book) is as important as the product itself. How are we going to support the creation of that story, and the telling of that story, and the sharing of that story, is a big story for Blurb’s future.”
It turns out there is a through-line between good books and good leadership: storytelling. If believing is art, so, too, is leading.

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

  • Brad Newman

    Eileen is as kind and nice as she is brilliant. I’ve had the opportunity to meet her a few times and I’m always inspired by her calm demeanor and words-of-wisdom. She is a true renegade entrepreneur and in my opinion changing the book industry more than the Kindle will.

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