Flipboard’s Evan Doll on Creating a Standout Smartphone App

A Flipboard fanatic interviews its creator, Evan Doll, about what it takes to create a killer smartphone app.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
March 27, 2012

Smartphone apps make my head spin. From e-mail to Facebook, Twitter to photo-sharing … there are too many on my phone to mention. I found it cumbersome to open and close each of them individually. When I complained about this annoyance to my husband, he said, “You should download Flipboard.”

Instead of rolling my eyes at downloading yet another app, I did it. And I’m glad I did. Flipboard takes selected information from your smartphone and condenses it into one, easy-to-read apps interface. It lets you scroll through your e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, news and whatever else by swiping. It eliminates time wasted opening each application individually. Genius!

I’m now a Flipboard devotee and my passion led me to do some research. Turns out, the company was founded two years ago by former Apple staffer Evan Doll and long-time technology entrepreneur Mike McCue. Since its launch, the company has already secured more than $60 million in funding and was named one of the 50 best inventions of 2010 by Time magazine.

I called Doll for the inside scoop.

What is your background? 
I grew up in Healdsburg, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. I graduated from Stanford with a degree in computer science in 2003. I’ve always been interested in computers. As a teenager, I built animation games on old Macintoshes. I was always fascinated by Apple and quoted Steve Jobs in my high school valedictorian speech.

When did you start working at Apple? 
Well, when I graduated, the dot-com bubble was still inflated, so it was hard to get jobs. I spent some time unemployed and sleeping on my brother’s couch. But about three months after graduation, I started working for Apple as an engineer on Final Cut Pro, a video-editing software.

In January 2007, I heard rumblings around the office about the release of the iPhone and asked to be on the team. I ended up working as a software engineer building apps for the iPhone. I worked on SMS apps like Notes, the clock and e-mail.

How did you get the idea for Flipboard? 
In 2009, I was feeling ready to try something new but not sure what I wanted to do. Mike McCue, who was former CEO and founder of Tellme Networks and a former vice president at Netscape, contacted me. He had ideas for iPhone apps and we would meet often to brainstorm over coffee.

In the summer of 2009, I quit Apple still not knowing what we were going to build and spent hours working with Mike, sketching ideas on whiteboards in his backyard, going to coffee shops, and finally settling on the big-picture concept of tackling information overload on the Internet.

What was it like starting out? 
The company started to form in January 2010. I was the only programmer. We had a designer and we reached out to a few investors Mike had used in the past. We thought we’d launch it first on the iPad. At the time, it seemed like a big risk because the iPad was coming out a few months later and we didn’t know if it would take off. Even so, we had high hopes and wanted to be the reason for people to own an iPad.

When we launched in mid-2010, we didn’t have enough money for public relations or marketing, so we relied on Mike’s wife Marci, who is a genius on both fronts. She really helped us. Soon we had hundreds of thousands of people using it.

What were some of your challenges at first? 
One of the biggest was that of scaling to an audience of users. We were already in the cloud, using Amazon Web Services, and we had a bunch of new servers sitting out there. But we needed way more than we thought we did. When we launched and so many people joined quickly, our servers started crashing, people would download the app to a blank screen—it was a mess. Our initial success almost killed us.

How does Flipboard make money? 
We work with publishing partners such as newspapers and blogs and present their content in a beautiful, print-like way, interspersed with ads. We do a revenue share with developers.

How have you managed to secure more than $60 million in funding already?
A lot of the credit goes to Mike. Our philosophy is that we don’t want to nickel-and-dime it. We don’t want to find a niche and occupy it. We want to build something that a lot of people will be able to use and find indispensable in their daily lives.

What does the future hold for Flipboard? 
We are not trying to build a company whose destiny is to get acquired and chewed up and spit out. We are focused on building something that is world-changing.

How many people use Flipboard? 
We’ve had more than 7 million downloads on the iPhone and iPad. In the future, we’d like to be on different types of devices, not just Apple.

What lessons have you learned along the way? 
I’ve learned not to get too hung up on success and not to be complacent.

What advice can you give to budding entrepreneurs? 
Build things. Ideas are wonderful, but being able to prototype something and see it in front of you is better. Use whatever tools you have. You need to make it real before you can discover what it is supposed to be.

Also, understand the importance of interpersonal compatibility. Make sure to choose a co-founder that you enjoy spending time with. Life gets a lot harder if you are not an interpersonal fit.

From the book The Monk and the Riddle, the author talks about the idea of when you are getting ready to take the plunge, the only thing you really have to risk that you can’t regain is time. Everything else—money, ego—those are renewable resources at some level. At the end of the day, as long as you don’t feel like you’ve wasted time, it is time well spent.

Photo credit: Courtesy Flipboard

Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed