I had the pleasure to interview Frits Habermann. Frits is a Tech Entrepreneur, Landscape Photographer and CEO at PicMonkey. He spent 20 years at Adobe, where he co-founded Adobe InDesign and later ran the Core Technologies group. More recently, Frits served as CTO for PopCap Games and CTO/Head of Product at Lynda.com. He holds degrees in both applied mathematics and computer science from Carnegie Mellon and University of Washington.
Thank you so much for joining us Frits. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Inhindsight, I can say I have always followed my interests. My father was one of the original pioneers of computer science — being around him and his colleagues really was the initial spark for me. While I was in school for computer science, I realized I really enjoyed technology as it relates to art and games. This convergence of art and technology has driven most of my career. I’ve worked in casual gaming, in online learning at Lynda.com, and my love of photography eventually brought me to PicMonkey from Adobe, where I had been for 20 years. I didn’t intentionally set out to do it, but as I look back on my career I can see that I always end up working where I can actually use the product. I think that makes me a better leader when I believe in what we’re creating.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was working at a big company, and had become very interested in the casual gaming industry. I had an idea for my company to make a big play in this space, so our CEO gave me the green light to create a business plan and present it to the executive team. The feedback was ultimately that my idea was interesting, but that it didn’t fit into our business model at this time. Because I was passionate about it and saw a real opportunity, I could have easily gotten angry and resentful, but the CEO did a really good job of helping me see their reasoning with an objective, clinical eye. He taught me that making business decisions that seem cold doesn’t mean you can’t treat people with warmth. This experience taught me that business is business, regardless of independent personalities, so you shouldn’t take anything personally.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting, and what lesson you learned?
I was working at a software company while we were in the midst of digital music emergence in the late 90s. We were hosting the CEO of a very large Japanese electronics company, who came with an entourage of about 10–12 people. Our office building was in the former trade center, which had a confusing layout of overlapping escalators. I was the one chosen to lead this entourage of extremely important people through the maze of escalators to the conference room, but I missed one of the floors because I wasn’t paying attention. I ended up having to take the entire group all the way back down to the floor below to restart, and the CEO was extremely confused. The Japanese culture is very proper and hospitable, so what I had done — though an honest mistake — may have come off as a pretty significant insult to them. It’s funny now, but being extremely prepared to host people is a lesson that has stuck with me through my whole career!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re a creative bunch — all across the board. We strike a good balance between professionalism and not taking ourselves too seriously. Since our customers are using our product to create, we continuously try to foster creativity amongst ourselves. For example, we have an All-Hands meeting every other week, where we present photos and designs that our staff have made with PicMonkey. This generates a knowledge transplant between us all, and allows us to learn from and be inspired by our users so we can figure out how to build new and better things moving forward.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I’ve experienced burn out before, most notably around the middle of my career. It was during this time that I had an epiphany which has since been corroborated in all kinds of books, but it has been my mantra ever since: you are not your work. When you are your work, you’ll easily burn out unless everything goes extremely well across the board 100% of the time. What I try to embody is the idea instead that work is part of what happens while you’re living. I don’t have to spend my weekends as a zombie just recovering from the work week, because I define myself as a person that has hobbies and interests. Also, I’m a father, a husband, a photographer, and a pianist — in addition to being the CEO of PicMonkey.
My second tip to avoid burn out is to find what makes you curious. Curiosity is the number one way to stay energized. People often say that the cure for burn out is to go on vacation and relax. I disagree. If you’re burned out, all a vacation does is stave off the stress and exhaustion until you return. Curiosity and exploration are the key to keeping things interesting, so that even when you do have to work long hours, the time feels well-spent, and much more multidimensional.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
After grad school, I set about blindly sending resumés. Mark Davison, one of the engineers, at a product company called Aldus received my resumé and offered me an interview. I didn’t really know what I was doing in the interview, I just knew I wanted to be a programmer. He ended up hiring me, but the day I started, he left the company. He could have easily put someone else in charge of hiring, but he didn’t. He stuck around to give a shot to a newly minted grad student — for whatever reason, he took a chance on me and thought I could do something interesting. Ultimately Adobe acquired Aldus, and I was at Adobe for 20 years. I may have never gotten the chance if not for him, which is one of those milestones I look back on and realize that if that hadn’t happened, nothing else would have unfolded the way it did.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
I actually just came back from photographing Iceland from a helicopter. I’ve shot Iceland before — everybody’s shot Iceland. It’s not a crazy thing to do, but my goal was to get a totally different perspective than the regular landscapes and waterfalls — my focus this time was river deltas shot from the sky. I want to show nature doing something that you can’t even begin to imagine until you see it. I enjoy photographing things that others are not — when I go out shooting with other people I am a half mile down the way trying to get the shot that nobody has. Sometimes I get skunked, but I don’t mind that. When I do get the unique shot, that’s very rewarding for me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am working hard to use my photography as a way to give people a unique glimpse into nature and our planet, so that we don’t all become immune to how amazing it is. We’re inundated with beautiful pictures of sunsets, whales, landscapes, etc. By not taking the picture that everyone else is taking, I’m trying to inspire people to care about the world.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would start a movement to reform the way we educate our children. Kids need to learn by action and mimicking, not just memorization. You don’t learn how to drive a car by reading a book. My movement would encourage apprenticeship and curiosity so that kids can find their real spark. I think this would bring kids to a stage of enlightenment around their school subjects that memorization of facts simply can’t achieve.