1. What was a pivotal moment of reinvention for you?
Going from being editor-in-chief of American dictionaries at OUP to being the founder & CEO of a venture-backed technology startup was a huge shift. Suddenly my job wasn’t to “do things right” but to “do the right things” — a huge difference!
2. Who has been a valuable mentor or sponsor?
Roger McNamee, who was our first investor at Wordnik/Reverb, and who is our chairman of the board, has always been the first to say “you can do this!” and the first to give me advice as to how.
3. What is your biggest goal right now?
We just announced last week (at Pop!Tech in Camden, ME) that Wordnik.com is becoming a not-for-profit! It’s very exciting. Wordnik has always been mission-driven, with the mission of making as much information as possible about as many words as possible available to as many people as possible. Now I will be able to make pursuing that mission my main focus.
Reverb, which developed out of the core Wordnik word graph technology, is continuing as a for-profit startup. (It’s due to Reverb’s success that we have the opportunity to devote resources to Wordnik.com as a non-profit!) We’ve found that Reverb’s recommendations — both through our app and on the web — really resonate with readers, and are very valuable to publishers! It’s very exciting to build something that both delights consumers and makes money for publishers.
4. How did you get your first job? How did you jump to your second job?
I knew I wanted to work on dictionaries since I was eight years old, but I didn’t get my first dictionary job until my junior year of college at the University of Chicago. I needed a summer job, so I checked the directory of publishers in the library and found ScottForesman, an educational publisher in Glenview, IL, had a children’s dictionary program. So I called them up and asked if they needed interns! I worked there as an intern that summer, a freelancer during my senior year, and was hired full-time after I graduated. I ended up working there about eight years in total, and when I left I was the editorial manager of the department.
About the time the department’s copyright cycle finished (that is, all the dictionaries were updated and published) and it looked like I would start working on other textbooks, Oxford University Press called and asked if I’d be interested in working for them. So I joined OUP, where I worked for about seven years.
Wordnik is essentially the third job I’ve ever had.
5. What time do you typically wake up? What do you do every morning?
I usually wake up between 6 and 6:30. I do some stretching and planks, make breakfast (right now I’m obsessed with scrambled eggs & dal makhani, and cold-brew coffee mixed with seltzer), and try not to jump right into email. 🙂 Lately I’ve been trying to read technical explanations first thing in the morning, when I’m fresh. Twice a week I go to they gym before work. I really enjoy straight-up weightlifting (my max squat and deadlift are both 200lb).
6. How do you unplug? How often do you unplug?
I’m not sure I ever really unplug … to get away from whatever the immediate focus is I like to take long city walks (“urban hiking” is great because you’re never too far from ice cream, especially in San Francisco). I also like to sew — I pretty much make all the dresses I wear now, and I blog about it (since 2005!) at dressaday.com. It’s surprising how manageable problems seem after ten miles of walking or four hours of sewing. I also try to take Saturday “off” from email if possible.
7. What challenge / achievement are you most proud of?
Overall, I think I’m most proud of how doggedly the team at Wordnik/Reverb has pursued the idea that “knowing more about more words” would be valuable in so many ways. It’s fantastic seeing our hypothesis play out so well.
Personally, I’m most proud of having written a novel — it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. (And my fourteen year old son is pretty neat, too …)
8) What cause do you most want to advance?
I’m a big believer that tech needs to be more inclusive, across the board. As our daily lives become more and more intermediated by technology, it’s important that the producers be at least as diverse as the users. Luckily I am in a position where I can help make a difference — both as a model and as someone who can hire.
9. What is your “keep me going” quote?
Whenever I feel overwhelmed or blocked, I try to remember this Robert Benchley quote: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” (It’s meant to be a joke, but I think like most jokes it’s secretly true.)
10. What is your secret indulgence?
I listen to a lot of hip-hop. A *lot*.
You can read Erin’s full #40over40 profile here: