Eliminate more meetings: Instapaper CEO Brian Donohue on getting work done - Technical.ly Brooklyn

May 20, 2015 7:53 am

Eliminate more meetings: Instapaper CEO Brian Donohue on getting work done

At 26, he's the CEO of one of the most downloaded bookmarking apps out. Here's how this Jersey kid who now calls Cobble Hill home gets work done.
Brian Donohue and his former roommate’s dog, Layla.

Brian Donohue and his former roommate's dog, Layla.

(Courtesy photo)

As the technical founder has become a necessity, so too has the technical CEO seen a rise.

After starting and discontinuing a geolocation app, Brian Donohue joined Instapaper as a mobile engineer, just months after the popular bookmarking app was acquired by sprawling digital media company Betaworks.

It turned out he had management chops, so he was soon made General Manager. Last fall, he was named CEO, leading the division as it was pivoting its business model from a paid model to a freemium one. That’s landed him among the stars at Betaworks, once an incubation company that has become a kind of publisher, with ownership of brands like Digg, Giphy and Instapaper.

Donohue has led Instapaper’s small team (three full time and one contractor) through another update and an Apple Watch launch. That small, product-orientated team means Donohue does his fair share of mundane tasks, like personally checking on revenue from PayPal.

It’s all very impressive for the 26-year-old, Jersey-bred, Cobble Hill-based graduate of the Stevens Institute of Technology.

In our regular series of learning from Brooklyn’s best and busiest, we asked him about how he gets done what needs getting done.


What’s the first thing you do every day before doing any tech-related work?

First thing in the morning is making coffee and going to the gym. I learned the hard way out of college that it’s not possible to sit at a desk for 40 to 60 hours per week and maintain a healthy weight without prioritizing exercise. When I get to the office, the first thing I do is check Digg, Techmeme and Hacker News, with any interesting links saved to Instapaper for reading on the way home.


How often do you check your email, and do you use any program to get to ‘Inbox Zero’?

I typically check my email three times per day: once in the morning before “real work,” once after lunch, and once before I leave work for the day. However, I’ll also check my email routinely throughout the day from my phone when I’m taking a break, but I usually only answer emails from my desk.

I’ve tried using Mailbox and a few other mail clients to achieve Inbox Zero, however, I always find myself returning to Gmail web client and Apple’s mail app. Inbox zero is the ideal but the reality is that I use my inbox as a to-do list so I’m usually hovering around inbox fifteen, which I’m OK with.

How do you keep track of your revenues and expenses?

Expenses are pretty straight forward. I download all of our checking account charges as a CSV from our bank and then classify the expenses. It’s not quite as efficient as QuickBooks or other software systems, but I’m mostly looking at our recurring expenses and doing quick sanity checks to make sure there aren’t any unexpected costs.

Revenues are a bit tricky. Instapaper is a freemium service and we have subscriptions from iOS, Android, Web (Stripe) and PayPal (legacy). I haven’t found a good way to automate this yet, so I wind up going to three different portals (we use AppFigures for iOS and Android) to get the revenue data. I usually do that once a month, so that when I do our quarterly reports it’s much more manageable.

Revenues and expenses get rolled up into an Excel sheet so I can track the progress of the business and create models for our growth and trajectory.

When you need to take a break, what are you turning to?

To be honest, up until very recently it was cigarettes, but I’ve recently decided to quit and now it’s mostly just walks around the block or up on the High Line.

What’s your gear?

For hardware, I use a Macbook Pro 15″ Retina, Apple Cinema Display and an iPhone 6+. On the software side it’s pretty minimal: a terminal, Vim text editor, Xcode for iOS development, Slack for communication and Spotify for music.

What’s one, specific time-saving tip you have?

Reevaluate all of your team meetings and eliminate as many as possible. In my experience, it’s rare that meetings are more productive or efficient than digital communication.

What’s one way in which you believe your day-to-day work is better now than it has been?

The only significant day-to-day change in my workday habits is regular exercise in the mornings. Since I’m not the earliest of risers, it usually means I come into work later than I would otherwise. However, I’ve found that I have more energy and focus after exercising in the morning and am more productive throughout the day.

Why Brooklyn for you?

I grew up in Fort Lee, N.J., just on the other side of the George Washington Bridge, and if one thing was certain, it was that I wouldn’t be staying in New Jersey for the rest of my life. After spending twenty-plus years across the Hudson River, on the outside looking in, I decided to move to New York City.

The choice to move to Brooklyn as opposed to Manhattan (never considered Bronx/Queens/Staten Island) was and is mostly for cultural reasons. If I could paint broad, generalizing strokes I would describe Brooklyn as grungy, down-to-earth, artsy, fringe and a bit odd. While I wouldn’t describe myself using all of those terms, it certainly fits closer to my personality than the glitz and glam of Manhattan.

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Companies: Instapaper, Betaworks
People: Brian Donohue

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