Interview with Anu Shukla
Anu Shukla and her co-founder Mitch Liu brainstormed the idea for Offerpal in response to a good cause: helping friends donate to a favorite cause by participating in offers. They built an application to connect clicks with causes, made it vailable to a variety of other applications, and watched as the idea took off.
An Interview with Anu Shukla Founder & CEO, Offerpal Media, Inc
Date: February 7, 2009 Interview with Anu Shukla
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, the CEO for the National Center for Women & Information Technology or NCWIT. This is part of a series of interviews we're doing with outstanding women entrepreneurs who have started IT companies. They have just so much wealth of experience and passion around entrepreneurship to share with us. With me is w3w3.com's own Larry Nelson.
Larry Nelson: Oh yeah, well she's making fun of me right now.
Lucy: Yeah, I know, I know.
Larry: Yeah. We love what we do because working with the organization and the contacts you have is fabulous.
Lucy: Well, we're very excited to work with w3w3 and today, we're really excited to be interviewing Anu Shukla who's the founder and CEO of Offerpal Media. Now, this is really a great, great Website. People need to go check this out. Anu, though, is a Serial Entrepreneur. This is just her latest endeavor but it's really interesting because it uses an innovative Engagement Marketing model. Users win points for filling out surveys and doing other things and at the same time, it matches it up to advertisers. So, it's a win win-win for everybody and really works towards monetizing the web even more through advertising. So, Anu, tell us a little bit about Offerpal Media and what Engagement Marketing models are?
Anu Shukla: Yes, thank you so much, thank you. First of all, thank you so much for having me on the show and I am also very excited about Offerpal Media. And as you mentioned, I'm a Serial Entrepreneur but I have to say this is probably the most exciting venture I have been involved with. Offerpal Media, as you mentioned, is a Virtual Currency Modernization Service. So, what this means is and I'll just put it in plain English for everybody, is if you use FaceBook or MySpace or if you play games, any kind of online casual games or role-playing games or MMORPGs as they're known, you play for free, basically. At a certain point, you want to advance your level in the game or you want to move faster or you want to procure weapons or you want to unlock custom features for your Avatar or you want to send virtual gifts to people. That will require you to conduct a microtransaction with that particular game or Website and you can either, take out your credit card and pay for things or you can use a service like Offerpal. Offerpal really matches the consumers up with the right advertisers. If you take one of their advertising offers which are generally, let's put it in the category of good deals, then, you would not only get a good deal from the advertiser but you also get the virtual currency points. You can send a premium gift or card, virtual gift or card as well. What happens then is that it's win-win, win situation for everybody. You have the consumer, they got points on their favorite game so they can advance and engage further with the game. The advertiser got a qualified customer or lead and the publisher got some revenue so they can continue to enhance and make the game even more engaging for their consumers. Offerpal facilitates that service through our platform and we take a portion of the revenue for doing that. Sorry for the long-winded answer but at the end of it, it's all about benefits and I just wanted to end up with all the benefits that we provide.
Lucy: Well, I thought, I thought it was really interesting.
Lucy: Some of the users around dating and poker and my son's a poker player so maybe he's used it.
Anu: Yeah, most of the free to play poker games will give you a certain number of chips everyday but once you sit down at the table to play with five of your friends, all virtually. Let's say that you lose all your chips, you don't want to wait until the next day to play with them and so you are going to have to buy chips for a small amount of money or you can take one of these advertising offers and both of those scenarios are facilitated by Offerpal. In fact, all kinds of poker franchises use Offerpal and you'll see us showing up at the button in various games and Websites as earn bucks or earn poker chips or earn currency button. And, when you click on it where we come up with all the list of advertising offers and payment options.
Lucy: Very cool. You know, Anu is a visionary and, in case you couldn't tell?
Lucy: In the area of Online Personalization and Marketing Automation and she, one of her former companies was Rubreck which was acquired by Broadbase so when we talk about her being a Serial Entrepreneur, it, quite a big deal. Larry: A big deal.
Lucy: A big, big deal. So, Anu, you have a real track record with technology and so how did you first get into technology and obviously Engagement Marketing model is a petty cool technology. Do you see any other technologies today that you think are especially innovative?
Anu: Sure, it was a bit, that was a series of questions so first of all how did I get into technology? I guess it was luck of the draw because I graduated with my MBA from Ohio and I happened to know somebody, which is lesson number, always remember to network. Just through my network, I knew somebody who had a small company here in California, in Silicon Valley and that was my first job out of, fresh MBA grad within a technology company and a start up. So, I've stuck with both of them ever since because it was personally, intellectually, and financially very, very rewarding. And it's something I really liked so that's how I ended up in technology. I really have an MBA. I have an undergraduate degree in history so it wasn't that I had none, done a lot of programming courses or even I was a competent hardware engineer or anything. But, I ended up in marketing job, this high-technology company starting with semi-conductors and moving on to databases and development tools for programmers, pretty technical in a B to B environment. So I worked for about six companies, all start ups, all of which were either acquired in a financially good, on good terms or they went public. So, after having done it about six times, I said, maybe I should do a start up myself rather than always working for other people's start ups. Because it was so rewarding, I think I've seen the process enough times, I'm comfortable. The area that I selected was Marketing Automation for a business to business environment because, guess what? I had been doing that for about 15 years. I had been a marketing executive in a business-to-business marketing environment for high technology companies. So I created some software for my peers, which is other marketing executives in the business to business environment that were selling technical products. That's how I started Rubreck which was a Marketing Automation software company that really pioneered the category of marketing automation. I had dealt with the problems of running a budget and using the Internet to communicate with my customers, all the nuances that come in to B-to-B marketing environment. And I've put that into software and made it into a company called Rubreck which was acquired about 19 months later by a publicly-traded company so it was a good financial exit for my investors and myself. That's how I set up a track record as an entrepreneur and was able to then get funding for my subsequent ventures including Offerpal. With Offerpal, what is so exciting about Offerpal and here's where we get to the technology opportunities that are emerging and remain. It was really that Offerpal was riding, the idea, the concept of Offerpal Media was really riding a few different and interesting waves. One of the big trends right now is social networking. A lot of people are spending time on FaceBook and on MySpace and on other social or community networking sites. Offerpal allows applications that work on social networks or social networks themselves to actually make money from all the visitors that they get. This we called Net Monetization and so that's an interesting and important problem. Everybody's spending time on social networks, how do you make money so that it's viable? We are an extremely important and viable option for making money on social networks, we're publishers. The second thing is the rise of the freemium model and so the freemium model is really, I don't know if you read the latest book called "Free." I think it's by the same author, I'm forgetting his name, went blank but it's all about how everything is free, but it's not really. Really, the model is all about getting a lot of consumers to engage with your product or service and that leads to up-selling and cross-selling. That's where you really make your money. The freemium model is really emerging in gaming, in online gaming so people are engaging, they will play, this has really expanded the universe of people who will play online games because they can actually engaged and try it for free. Offerpal is the center of monetization for the freemium model in online gaming and so that's an important trend that we're riding. And the third is the rise of virtual currency. Virtual currency is much more advanced in its usage and its popularity in Asian countries like Cyworld in Korea, which is a social network, all that income from virtual currency. Also in China with companies like Tencent and Xiao Nei which are all social networks that created billions of dollars of revenue from virtual currency. The virtual currency model is really being applied in European-based properties now and again, with it, the center of monetizing, virtual currency as well. Being that we're riding these three important waves, it's no surprise that we've seen some measure of success. And it also opens up lots of avenues for technology innovation in all these three areas.
Larry: Mm-hmm, wow. I guess.
Lucy: Pretty interesting virtual world.
Larry: Is that ever but you and I are here right now.
Lucy: Well, maybe.
Larry: Yeah, maybe.
Larry: I think it's pretty obvious why you became an entrepreneur but what is it about being an entrepreneur that makes you tick?
Anu: Well, I think that entrepreneurs, I really feel that I'm on a mission every time I start a company. It's a really, a big problem that I'm trying to solve and I really love the people that I work with. Because of the nature of start-ups, the risks involved, the intensity and the tenacity that you have to have to be part of a start-up, you actually meet and work with like-minded people. So, essentially I like working with the people that work in my company but also with the industry at large, the kinds of people you meet are a reflection of what is important to you. I think, that's what really drives you, the process of creating something from nothing, the whole unknown that you are about to conquer and that along the way you're working with people that are like you that share the similar drive and passion and intensity. I think that's what makes an entrepreneur tick and once you officially hang out your board and say, "I'm in business, I'm a start-up. " Then it really becomes all about your responsibility to your, the things that you have to prove and the things that you have to do and the responsibility you take to the employees who leave their jobs and come and join you in your quest, you want them to be part of that success. Your investors, who believe in your idea and based on a business plan, plunk down millions of dollars. Then it's about proving to them or coming through for them. I think it's a combination of feeling a sense of pride and responsibility and also the creative process.
Lucy: They're great answers. Being an entrepreneur is certainly all those things. You do have to have a good bit of intensity. For sure, to be an entrepreneur so, tell us about mentoring. You mentioned when we first started chatting with you that networking was important. We've heard over and over again that mentoring is important to an entrepreneur so tell us your take on mentoring.
Anu: I think mentoring is very important and I'm coming from the perspective of somebody who hasn't really benefited from a lot of mentoring, official or structured mentoring. I think the reason I didn't benefit from it was because I wasn't very open to it and I've now realized that I could have benefited more, really been better in many ways had I actually been open to mentoring from other people. This is different, it's a different take that you will hear because a lot of people would say, I didn't find mentors or my mentors didn't have time for me. I didn't go looking for mentors and the ones that I did run into, I wasn't very open to their advice because I just felt that I knew it all. That's not actually correct so in hindsight, if there's one thing I've learned is that mentoring is really important. You have to actually find the right mentors that you can benefit from, and then you have to be open to listening to their advice and actually making behavior or strategy modification based on what you're learning. You always have to make up your own mind but if you're open, then you would listen to inputs from others and I'm getting a lot better with that now.
Lucy: That's so interesting that you say that. I personally equate to that myself. It took me a while to get used to, in taking advice and not just taking advice but asking for it and then welcoming it.
Anu: A lot of people, it is easier to approach mentors with a completely different expectation. I will have people approach me saying, "I really want you to mentor me," or "are you available to have lunch with me," or whatever. At the end of the day they're immediately looking for, can you help me find a job or can you give a career advice? It's very narrow, the scope. It's more about networking for referrals rather than mentorship. If you're really seeking a mentor, you should be prepared that they're not there to find you a job, they're not there to write you checks for your most recent venture although that maybe coming up sometimes. They're not just there to refer to other people so you can advance your business. They are there to understand what are your weakness and what are your challenges and give you specific advice on how to improve yourself and also as a sounding board for issues that you're facing. I think if you approach mentorship that way, your mentor will feel better and you will get a lot more than if you just get one referral to a business partner or a venture capitalist.
Lucy: That's an excellent distinction between mentoring and networking and I'm sitting here thinking, if you were talking to a young person besides that particular piece of wonderful advice. What else would you tell them about entrepreneurship because I do think people make so many mistakes about mentoring and networking and all of those things, what other pearls do you have?
Anu: Sure. I've come across two types of entrepreneurs. One is, the entrepreneurs who come across a business idea that they try out against all odds and they see certain signs of success. They just are so enamored and passionate about it, they can't wait to do it and they just jump headlong into doing it. Usually, they're right, actually, and they end up as young prodigies with huge business enterprises. That is one type of entrepreneur and what's really important in this is to have somebody who's smart enough to see an opportunity but also with blinding passion and drive to pursue it. Also, I keep in mind that not everybody will end up with a huge, an instinct that was completely correct, a great execution so they end up with a huge success at a very young age like the Google guys, right? Or the Yahoo guys, these were young people, students that found something and they said "oh this instinctively make so much sense. I love it" and then they went out and executed nearly perfectly for huge, huge gain-changing things. I'm just giving this as an example of a profile of an entrepreneur and how people come about it. So, it's important for young people listening in to see, am I that person? Am I a young person who has just come across this wonderful idea and I believe in it so strongly, I really want to pursue it and it's really, really important. The end result of this is really important. If you talk to the Google guys or entrepreneurs like the people who founded Google, yeah, they'll tell you that it was so compelling to create a better technology so people could find things more easily on the World Wide Web. It was such a huge idea that they had to pursue it and I was part of their academic curriculum but they saw the commercial viability and the benefit that could come about from it. If there are young people listening in that they have that, they should pursue it, they should, absolutely should pursue it. I don't think that good entrepreneurs are made when they just come out with, "I'll do anything, I just want to make money." I don't know, I think you have to be committed, really be passionate about the subject matter that you're pursuing or the idea you're pursuing. If it's a good idea and if you're really passionate about it, the money will come. That should not be your primary motive.
Larry: Mm-hmm, very good. After getting your MBA, you went one company after another that all were successful. You've had successful companies but in this process, what is the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Lucy: The toughest thing that you do in your career, is to make two kinds of moves at the same time. The two kinds of moves are, you are moving away from your subject matter that you know and you're also moving away from the functional model that you know. And you're trying to get into another company or start an enterprise in a completely different area at the same time; you're not going to be the functions. Let's say, you want to move from marketing to sales and you want to move from semi-conductors into software or into, make a bigger, you want to move from retail sales into technology sales. My advice is, that's a tough thing to do and I've done it a couple of times and I was able to make it work but it was certainly difficult to do. I would say, if you try to make one move at a time, it's probably easier. If you move from retail to technology, you may want to stick in sales rather than try to change your function from marketing to engineering at the same time.
Lucy: It is hard to do that, two things at one?
Anu: Yeah but in all fairness, I want to go back to the question?
Anu: That's a tough thing to do and I had to do it a couple of times. The toughest thing that I had to do was, in one of the start-ups that I did, realize= a year into it that it was never going to be a big idea.
Anu: So I needed to change it and I needed to change it radically. I needed to change it now in half the venture money that I had to do this, the enterprise in the first place because I had spent half of it on, essentially a wrong idea, for the wrong time. And so, I had to take my little company down from 30 people to five people, going to a room and reinvent it and reinvent it on the time calendar, on a clock. That's the toughest thing because innovation doesn't come on a timer. And in having to abandon what you are so passionate about and move into another. That is the toughest thing I've ever done.
Lucy: We've heard that a number of times, that they're very consistent, downsizing, laying people off, leaving an idea behind that you felt passionate about.
Anu: Yeah, really, it's hard to downsize of it but really, the worst part is abandoning the idea that you, you went out you had an idea. You were so passionate about it. You were able to sell people to put money into it and you have to sell people into joining your company and you have to sell the initial customers into buying it. Then, you have to turn around and say, it was not the right idea and we're going to abandon all of it and start over. That's really hard.
Lucy: We like to ask people as part of this interview series, words that describe your personal characteristics that you believed gave you advantage as an entrepreneur. We hear things. I won't bias your answer.
Lucy: What characteristics do you think really you have that make you a successful entrepreneur? Anu: I think a high tolerance for risk is one.
Lucy: Mm-hmm. Anu: The second is a good vision about where the market is now and where it's going so to be able to really apply the creative process towards the right things, moving in your idea. You have to have some vision about where you are now and where you could be and how markets would emerge. Being able to spot those trends, I think, early enough and being able to do something about it. I think those are things that help me create the right ideas or change it or polish it into the right ideas so being open to the idea that, that idea was good. It probably needs some polishing and then adaptability. Being able to adapt to change because change, ups and downs, do happen and they happen very, very frequently. Being able to adapt to that, I think, has also made me, this part of my entrepreneurial achievement or satisfaction with the process because I'm prepared to accept those changes.
Larry: Wow, that's wonderful. It's easy to tell that you're a very busy executive. How do you bring about balance in your personal and your professional lives?
Anu: Yes, that is something I don't think anybody has the perfect answer to and I suffered a lot especially after I had my children between the whole, horrible feeling of guilt. Why was I working and not spending more time with my children because certainly I didn't need to work. I could have spent all my time, 100 percent, 24 hours a day with my kids. So, why wasn't I doing that? And the reason is I just think I'm a better person when I don't. The reason is I think, I'm a better person when I'm engaged in entrepreneurial activity which I love and enjoy and have passions about, at the same time, I allow enough time and energy to raise my children and be with them. I determined for myself that I was not going to be able to do just one or the other, I had to do them both. So then it gets to the question of how do you balance the two? I think that with me, especially with this additional demands on my time, with the family situation, what I learned to do was to really hire and it became a necessity, it's something I wanted to do all along, but now, it just became completely, completely something that I couldn't live without which is to hire a great team and not micromanage them. I did focus a lot on surrounding myself with bright people and letting them, enabling them and empowering them to make independent decisions and not getting in their way, not micromanaging it so that's one thing. The second thing is, actually, it's more mental than anything else which is realizing that there are going to be times where you're going to be the best mother in the world and there are going to be times where you're going to be the best chief executive in the world. And those two don't necessarily happen on the same day.
Lucy: That's amen, great.
Anu: When you realize that, you said, OK there are some Parent-Teacher meetings and things I will just not miss, that's it, I'm going to be there. I don't care what great business opportunity I'm going to lose by doing that. I'm sorry, that's what I had to do. And there are times where my kids are just going to have to know that Mom is in New York for a conference and she'll be gone for two days so, I'm sorry, I won't be there. Those are the, you just have these tough choices and just live by them.
Lucy: I'd say that was pretty close to perfect answer. It's wonderful. You did really achieve a lot in your career and you have, I'm sure, a bright future. Give us just a few words about what you see as next for you?
Anu: I just think that, I realized a while ago because as you know, I've been fortunate enough to work with some great teams so that we will all have some measure of success. And so, I think that when do you feel you've had enough is a personal choice for everybody. This is my third start-up and I still don't feel I've had enough and so I just let my internal center guide me as to when is the time to call it quits to change and right now, that isn't the time. And I'm not trying to put this on a time calendar or a schedule as well. Right now, I just love what I'm doing so I look at what's next for me and I think what's next for me right now is to make Offerpal Media, to focus 100% on Offerpal and make it as big a success as possible. That's where my vision ends right now for that piece of it and of course, it does not end ever with my kids. It's all about, how can I do more things with them and how can I engage with them more, how can we do more things together, what's good for them and so on and so forth and how much I like to be with them and that never ends. I'm focused on that and then, when I do think beyond, after Offerpal reaches some kind of a successful conclusion for me personally, what do I do next? And I can't really think of what, if I'll do another start-up or not. I'm just not there yet. I do think that it would be fun to have, to do something completely different such as go to Washington, D.C. and serve in some capacity over there or my favorite of all times is to be a talk show host.
Lucy: I love it. You can help us with these interviews. That would be awesome.
Anu: I was thinking more television.
Lucy: OK, all right. We may have to move it. Larry's been doing television lately and so there you go.
Anu: Yeah. I see, that's, I've always thought that would be a lot of fun. I watch people like Charlie Rose and I think he has the best job in the world. He gets to engage with all these people and really get into the heart of things so that's what I think about it. Maybe some career in that talk show, host-type environment.
Larry: We'll follow you.
Lucy: We will. We'll be right there. We really do appreciate your time. These have just been very insightful answers and really appreciate it. I want to remind listeners where they can find the interviews.
Larry: In w3w3.com.
Larry: It's one place. Lucy: And also at the NCWIT Website, www.ncwit.org. So thank you very much. We really appreciated it.
Anu: Thank you so much. Bye, bye.
Larry: Bye, bye.