Interview with Celia Francis
Celia has a passion for product development and she has said that there is nothing more exciting and rewarding than "creating something out of nothing." Her inspiration resulted in the creation of the incredibly successful online social network WeeWorld, targeted towards teens and tweens, as an outlet for them to express themselves and bond with one another.
An Interview with Celia Francis
Date: February 27, 2012
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of NCWIT, the National Center for Woman and Information Technology, and this is one in a series of interviews that we do with women who lead or who have founded great technology companies. The purpose of which is to ask them for their very best entrepreneurial advice. With me is Larry Nelson, w3w3.com. Hello, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hi, I'm happy to be here. Hello, Lucy.
Lucy: Well, Larry is an entrepreneur himself. So, this is all interesting, I think, to you, as well. Today we're interviewing Celia Francis, who is the CEO of WeeWorld, and she's an entrepreneur with a wealth of experience leading innovative mobile and Internet companies. WeeWorld is amazing. I encourage all of our listeners to go and look at WeeWorld. Celia joined when just seven employees from the very beginning.
If you go to their site and look, you see they have this collection of really distinctive online social games and mobile applications. Youth or anybody can really participate in things like drawing contests, or other games, even philanthropic activities online and really find their digital or virtual identity.
Interesting to our listeners as well, I think people associate gaming mostly with men, but that's not the case. Women make up more than half of all social gamers, so all gaming companies are starting to really take notice of the things that Celia has been pioneering in terms of social gaming and girls' and women's participation in gaming.
We are thrilled to have you here today, Celia. I can't wait to hear from you about entrepreneurship.
Celia Francis: Thank You.
Lucy: Why don't you give us a little bit about what's going on at WeeWorld. Wait a minute. I forgot to say something that I absolutely have to say. The people who habitate WeeWorld are WeeMees.
Larry: Oh, WeeMees.
Lucy: I love it. There are like, I don't know what, 50 million I saw, from the site.
Lucy: What are the WeeMees doing these days?
Celia: Well, WeeMees have found a home on WeeWorld, which is a social network for tweens and teens. We're one of the top 10 sites for that age group in the United States. They spend their time socializing and playing games, and expressing themselves and being creative. We really are focused on an idea of personalized entertainment, with the idea of thinking about ways that you could get more people in that age group involved in design and creativity and self‑expression. So, we have quite a number of different, fun applications on the site that allow you to do that.
We've also taken the WeeMees over to the mobile world. So, very shortly, actually, we'll be able to access WeeWorld.com from any web browser on a mobile device. You currently can get the number one avatar creator on both iOS and Android. It's called the WeeMee Avatar Creator.
Celia: That's very popular. Top 100 app. You can also get a number of other fun, creative apps from WeeWorld.com, if go to the app store.
Lucy: Well, it seems like you have a really fun job.
Larry: [laughs] Yeah.
Celia: Yeah. It is quite fun. I get to look at all kinds of cool animations all day, and talk about how to make the site more fun. So, it is good fun.
Lucy: Why don't you tell our listeners how you first got into technology, and in particular perhaps gaming, and maybe what you see as trends in technology, trends in gaming.
Celia: Well, I would say that actually my story starts out from when I was a kid. I have a mom who is actually German. As a kid, growing up as a first generation American, I used to hear her complaining as I was growing up about how all the American products were not high quality and were not beautiful, and broke, and how she wished she had more long‑lasting beautiful products from Germany. So, I felt quite a sense of nationalistic pride. [laughter]
Celia: I think that started me out on my journey of wanting to create great products for consumers. I spend then a lot of my educational time thinking about design as well as technology. I managed to find my way, after studying product development and a fun job at Compaq computers, doing new product development, and inventing, and in fact even patenting a variety of new products and features. Grew up from there in the valley as well as now in London doing a variety of both web and mobile products for the consumer. It's been a fun journey. It's been particularly exciting. I think what makes me really excited about being involved in innovation and creating new things is this idea of millions of people touching and playing with and enjoying the things that I've been a part of inventing or designing, or getting to the market. It's just something really exciting when I'm standing in line, and I see someone playing with one of my apps.
Celia: I just love that.
Lucy: That is awesome.
Larry: That is.
Lucy: Yeah, it seems like the whole area of social gaming is just booming. Do you want to pull out your crystal ball and tell us what's down the road there?
Celia: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I speak at conferences quite a lot. I spoke recently in Hamburg at a conference. I talked a little bit about the transition from web to mobile. What's interesting there is, this is the first year in history where there are more minutes spent per day on a mobile device than on a web‑connected PC or laptop or what have you. I think that that transition is happening incredibly quickly. I think also the transition from a lot of the game‑specific devices. I can see that with my own kids, how they all have DSs, and of course having a mom who makes games means that they're the kids who get everything. The Wii, and the TS, and the "this" and the "that."
But all of a sudden, this is the year where now they want my iPad and they want my iPhone, or they want to grab somebody else's smartphone, because there's just so much for them to play with on those, and there's always something new. So, that transition is happening, also incredibly quickly.
For me, I feel like I've got to work hard to make sure that...of course there are millions of people who enjoy our web browser game, you call it a girls' MMO. That we make sure it's available on a mobile device in that if you come into it using your iPad or Kindle Fire, what have you, whatever you're using, that it's going to work well, but then also that we have a good line‑up of native apps for iOS and for Android.
Android is getting lots and lots of growth, but I think, for us, it seems like the iOS devices are still a better place to monetize. But, that could change in the future, so we're working on both of those platforms.
It's also interesting, I think you talked earlier about girls verses boys. It is still a world out there where I spend a lot of time with a lot of guys who are working on games that are very appealing to guys of whatever age. But you are seeing a definite new group of people who are thinking about games for adult women or games for younger women as well. It's quite fun to be a part of that trend as well, especially as a woman and also as a mother of a young daughter, who I get to have test my various games.
Lucy: I bet you have all the kids in the neighborhood over at your house. [laughs]
Celia: Yeah, it's funny, because the other mothers accuse me, because they say, "Oh, your son." I have a son as well, and the kid who always tests every new thing that comes out. Because I'm like, "Max, tell me what you think of this." In the process, he ends up being the guy who starts the trends on what everyone is playing at school, so the mothers always blame me. [laughs]
Lucy: [laughs] You villain.
Larry: Yeah, isn't that terrible. Well, anyhow. Celia, I have to ask this question. What is it that made you become an entrepreneur, and what is about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Celia: Well, building a business is a little bit like building a product. I guess on some level, you're creating something from an idea. There's something very exciting about creating something out of nothing. I think, obviously, in the case of a product, it's something very specific, but in the case of a business it's all about thinking about the vision for what you want to do to impact beyond a single product. It's about creating a great team and a great culture. I think there's something much more vital about the daily struggle to survive and to grow.
It's definitely harder than being part of a company that's got years and years and years of success with a very proven "something something" that you're working on, and you're just part of keeping it going. There is the initial experience of building up that flywheel and getting the momentum is something that's a lot harder, but it's good fun.
Lucy: Along this path, this entrepreneurial path, who supported you? Who do you believe had some of the strongest influence? You mentioned your mother, and the beauty of German design. Who else do you think influenced you to become an entrepreneur?
Celia: Let's see. I think about that in a number of different ways. I guess I worked in my career for a number of excellent business leaders. I could start naming them, but I don't know if I want to embarrass them all. [laughs] All of the men, actually, who taught me a lot about what it takes to focus a team on a goal, and present ideas clearly, and mentor people and coach people, and grow a business. But, I think at the same time, most of those guys were people who were inside some of the bigger companies that I worked for. The inspiration, probably to become an entrepreneur comes maybe out the water, of living in the valley.
I lived in the valley for a number of years, and worked there on building up a couple of small businesses, a couple of start‑ups. Also, I just spent so much time in that ecosystem. There's something about how almost everyone works for a start‑up, and how you meet incredibly cool entrepreneurs every day, that you pick up a little bit of something from everyone, I think.
So that's definitely a great place to pick up the whole culture of entrepreneurship, is if you've lived there and spent time building companies there, you just pick it up by being a part of the scene.
Larry: With all the different things you've been doing over the years and different companies you've worked for, and now, of course, with WeeWorld, what's the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Celia: It's really hard to say. There's always a new challenge. I feel like that's what's quite fun actually about entrepreneurship, is that there's always something that's a challenge or that's tough that you're working. I always find it quite difficult sometimes when you're growing a company, especially a smaller company, as you move from trying something maybe that didn't work and then you try something else because you got a better idea, and that process of "pivoting" ‑‑ that's one of the jargon words that people use in entrepreneurship. But you often have a situation where you have started off with the right people but maybe find that you need a slightly different crew. I get quite attached sometimes to the people that are part of my crew, let's say, and I have had the experience of having to ask people who've been great contributors and done a great job and there's absolutely nothing wrong with what they're doing, to leave the company because they're not the right person anymore.
I think that's always, to me, one of the toughest experiences. It's something that happens, I'm sure, to lots of entrepreneurs. I think the other pieces that have been interesting for me that have been tough has been going from a stage of development from my own personal experience of having a really deep career in marketing and product innovation and development, to going from that to being essentially the finance person. It's a really different set of tools. [laughs]
From being a creative leadership type person to being a fiscally prudent "I understand every financial metric" person, and I've gone through that transition, and that was a tough transition but certainly one that I'm quite proud of.
Lucy: I feel your pain on that. I went from being an R&D Vice President to being the CEO of a non‑profit. [laughs]
Celia: Yeah, it's interesting to be in a position where all of a sudden you have to really understand every detail of what drives your revenue and every detail of what drives your cost and making sure that they line up month to month.
Lucy: Yeah, it really is. I have to say that it certainly is rewarding when you get to the other side of building those skills, as you mentioned, something that you're quite proud of and you should be. That's like a reinvention of yourself.
Celia: Definitely was one of the best days of my career to be able to wake up and say, "I've built a cash‑flow positive company with 60 people in it, from nothing."
Celia: Well, it definitely is a great feeling of accomplishment.
Lucy: If I can frame a bit of advice from that last conversation it's, certainly as a CEO or founder of company or as an early participant in a company, you're going to be asked to do a lot of different things. And reinvention of your skill set is something not to be concerned with and you just have to do it and get through it. Other advice you might have for people thinking about being an entrepreneur?
Celia: Well, it's interesting because before I decided to do this thing I had two offers. I had the offer to be the CEO of what was then a nascent company or to go and run an unnamed, very large, very well‑known Internet company in Europe that was already established. I got advice from someone who said, "Don't do the small thing, you're crazy. [laughs] Don't do it." I guess it's one of those things where I would say, certainly go for it if you've got the passion and you've got the enthusiasm for an idea and you feel passionate about wanting to see that become a reality in the world, definitely go for it. But just make sure you have really clear expectations for what you're getting into because it's going to be a lot of hard work. Probably way harder work than you have to do if you're working in a big company, no matter what your job.
You're going to have to be very hardy in terms of your ability to have something fail or not work out, and not take it personally and just move on and keep trying stuff until it gets to the place where it's working. If you don't feel like you can take that, because I've talked to a lot of people who have tried it and it's interesting how many guys and girls I've talked to who've been doing it who say, "God. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and feel sick to my stomach."
You have to have some good mental toughness, I think, to be able to get through the hard times because there's always going to be a problem that is often not somebody else's ultimate responsibility but is really your responsibility that you have to figure out how to solve. I don't mean to discourage anyone but I think it's one of the ultimate challenges and if it's something that you feel as a person you want to take on, then this is the way to prove yourself, really, is become an entrepreneur and build something in the world that impacts a huge number of people.
I just say go for it, but at the same time be sure that you're for it because it's harder. But it can also be some fantastic amazingly exhilarating fun when you've built something that millions of people enjoy, and you've got revenues coming in and people are saying, "Yeah. Cool. Good stuff" It's also great, great fun on that side.
Lucy: I like that word, "Hardy."
Lucy: I don't believe we've heard that before but I think it's perfect.
Larry: It's perfect. It's right. With all the things you've told us so far, how would you characterize your personal characteristics that have given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Lucy: She's hardy. [laughter]
Celia: Hardy. I think you have to be hardy, you have to be able to stay calm under pressure, you've got to have an eye for good products and what's going to work and what's not going to work. Make sure you pick things that are worth working on because you've usually got a smaller team and you've got to pick well. You've got to have an ability to attract people and get people who are far, far more talented than you involved in working for you. I've certainly felt that the people who are working on my team are in many ways far more talented in certain areas that I am, so I think that's something that you've got to have as an advantage as an entrepreneur, is the ability to attract talent and ‑ yeah. Just keeping calm.
Lucy: I know. Before you said that, I was thinking to myself, "She's very calm." [laughter]
Larry: Yes. This is the first one that we've had that's hardy and calm.
Lucy: I love it. You are very calming, for sure. You mentioned that you have a daughter and a son, so the next question is around your professional life and your personal life and how do you make sense of them. I hate to use the word "balance" but I'm going to use it, how do you balance them? Perhaps understanding there's no such thing as balance, but what tips do you have around having both a personal life and a professional life?
Celia: Well, you have to be able to compartmentalize, and that's the sort of jargon... I hate using jargon. You have to be able to say, "Are you working now, or are not working?" It's difficult because when you have something that's so fully engaging as building a company, it can be difficult to even have a moment where you're not thinking about it. And yet, if you don't find a way to actually be present when you're with your family, it's not good for you, not good for your kids, so I have to put a lot of energy into, if I'm with my kids, really being with them and really listening to them and really paying attention to them and really getting fully engaged in whatever fun things that they're doing or wanting to show you.
I think obviously it helps to have some structure around your day, to say X time to X time is time where I'm with my kids, X time to X time is time when I'm with my husband. But it's not always easy. There's days where it depends on the schedule and the school year and so on, but there's days where I'm working at home and the kids also happen to be home. Even though I have somebody who helps us full time, I still find it quite tricky if I can actually hear my kids.
Larry: There you go.
Lucy: And you want to know, "What are they up to?"
Celia: Yeah. It's much easier if you can find a way to voice that same speech thing and then really physically separate the time that you're doing one thing or the other. I think of my experience and time with my kids in some ways as also another amazing, creative project, and I try to spend quite a little bit of time brainstorming all of the things I want to do with them or discuss with them, and I've got my own separate project list with my kids. It's another great love, and anyone, obviously, who's been a parent understands that.
Lucy: Well, you know when they get older you're going to start worrying when you don't hear them. [laughter]
Celia: Yeah, I'm sure.
Larry: We'll have to cover that one off‑line though. Celia, here you are, the CEO of WeeWorld. You've done a great deal, had many experiences. What's up next for you?
Celia: I don't know. I don't know what's up next for me. There's lots of things that inspire me and there's things that I'm currently thinking of getting involved with, extra curricularly. Actually some of them are non‑profit businesses that interest me, but there's other companies that are interesting to me. I'm going to re‑rope what I'm doing right now and I see myself doing it in the foreseeable future. But I'm definitely a person who, if let loose, would probably work on five other new ideas at the same time. I just have to keep myself from it for now.
Lucy: It sounds like you have a lot going on.
Larry: That was a hardy answer.
Celia: There's a lot of fun stuff out there in the world.
Lucy: Truly, there is. Well, Celia, thank you so much. We really enjoyed talking to you and we will be hosting this on our website ncwit.org and Larry will have it hosted on w3w3.com.
Larry: You betcha. We'll reach over to England, too.
Lucy: Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Celia.
Larry: Thank you.
Celia: You're very welcome. Thank you.