Interview with Clara Shih
Clara Shih, founder and CEO of Hearsay Social and author of The Facebook Era, gives the following advice to young entrepreneurs: “Expose yourself to as many new ideas and opportunities as soon as possible. We don’t know what we don’t know, and sometimes it takes a while to find what we’re passionate about. But we can accelerate that process by learning new things and exposing ourselves to as many new things as possible.”
Interview with Clara Shih
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT. Over the last few years, we've been interviewing women who have started technology companies and have just had the greatest time talking to them about the fabulous things they're doing, getting all kinds of wonderful advice for entrepreneurs. With me is Larry Nelson, w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: I'm happy to be here. This is a great series. We know it's had a great impact on a number of young women. Bosses, parents and the like.
Lucy: Wow. We've got a great interview today. It's a really fascinating interview with a woman who's not only started a technology company, but also is a best-selling author. Clara Shih, who is the founder and CEO of Hearsay Social. Her book, "The Facebook Era." We all know we're living in the Facebook era. In fact, my mother-in-law follows all the status of the family, all the time, on her grandkids' Facebook accounts. Hearsay Social is in this really interesting space in social media. I know Clara will set us straight when we're talking to her, but here is my sense of what it was. When I was working in corporate, we would have customer relationship management systems, where individual sales people, marketing people, could keep track of customers. The system itself, the platform itself, would actually do a lot of the heavy lifting of that in sort of a systematized way, so that the company's brand was well represented by those sales people andmarketing people. In this age of social networking, we have a lot of big franchise kinds of businesses that are busy developing local relationships through social media with individuals. Yet at the same time, doing it in an ad hoc way is not really particularly always supportive of that company's brand. So Hearsay Social is a company that is really trying to take that on by building a platform. So Clara, I hope I didn't get that too wrong, but we're really happy to have you here. Why don't you give us a sense of what's going on at Hearsay Social today?
Clara Shih: Thank you so much for having me. Hearsay Social is the fastest-growing social media start-up right now. We're based in Silicon Valley. We just opened an office in New York. We have 60 employees and growing every day. We were cash-flow positive last year. We've recently raised $21 million in venture capital from Sequoia and New Enterprise Associates. Things have never been better for us. We're thrilled to be part of helping to lead the social media revolution that's sweeping business.
Lucy: Give us an example. What would a Starbucks or a company like Starbucks do with a platform like Hearsay Social?
Clara: We focus at Hearsay Social on corporate-to-local companies that are brands that have a corporate presence combined with location. Whether it's State Farm, or 24-Hour Fitness, or McDonald's, you've got all these local employees and agents out there representing your brand. Increasingly, in a highly-decentralized that we're seeing from Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Foursquare and now Google Plus, we're seeing the local representatives and employees actually create their own pages, either to interact directly with customers, or because customers are checking in to specific locations using their iPhone or Android location-enabled device to kind of manage all of these local profiles and activity that are going on. Hearsay Social is all about, first, helping the chief marketing officer get a handle on who all in their organization is even engaging in these customer conversations at the local level, and then from there being able to push out corporate-approved marketing campaigns, viral videos, other content that goes out to each of these locations. Then the locations can tailor these materials for their audience, and retain a unique and authentic voice. Then finally, being able to measure all of that, and slice and dice by region or store or employee.
Lucy: I think that's just fascinating.
Lucy: Very much needed. It sounds like it's a really heavy, heavy technology platform. It kind of gets us to our first question about you and technology. How did you first get into technology? Then looking across the landscape, what technologies do you think will really be important in the future?
Clara: I've always been interested in math and science. I think growing up, having a father who was an engineer, I was always very curious about how the world worked. I was fascinated by how technology makes life better. I think that was how I initially got into this space. Going to Stanford, studying computer science there, being exposed to Silicon Valley and the tremendous innovation that takes place here, was incredibly inspiring for me.
Lucy: Obviously, social media is an important technology, both now and in the future. Do you see anything else that you think is really going to change the landscape?
Clara: If you look at technology, about once a decade you have a disruptive technology innovation that changes how we live and work. In the '70s, this was mainframe computing. In the '80s, it was the PC, the idea that every person could have their own machine, and today we have several machines per person. In the '90s, in the last decade, it was very much about the Internet. Social media is the key disruptor for this current era, that I call the Facebook era. I think along with social comes a couple of other trends. One is the real-time nature of communication. Two is that increasingly, people are mobile. It's not just about accessing the Internet from your PC, but actually concurrently with your iPad, your iPhone, a host of mobile devices.
Larry: I tell you what, Clara, I know there's many entrepreneurs that would like to be cash-flow positive their first year.
Lucy: [laughs] No kidding!
Larry: Besides that, why are you an entrepreneur? Then, what is it about the entrepreneurship thing that makes you tick?
Clara: Good question. I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur per se, but I've always been very action-oriented. The world is changing so quickly. I think it's in large part to consumer technologies like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn. The opportunity that I saw for Hearsay Social was, "OK. Facebook has fundamentally transformed how people interact with each other. How can businesses keep up?" I started imagining what the world could look like for companies. That became the foundation for becoming an entrepreneur.
Larry: Mm-hm. Wow.
Lucy: I even think writing a book is entrepreneurial. That's hard work, and a very original work. Along your career path, you mentioned your parents as influencers. Who else influenced you in terms of being a mentor, or giving you advice, or...? Who are your role models?
Clara: I would say that I've had the fortune of having many role models and mentors. I couldn't have arrived to this point without them. I'll just name a few. Mark Bennioff at Sales Force, the ultimate technology entrepreneur, who not only created a new company, but an entirely new way of delivering software through the cloud. More recently, I tremendously admire Sheryl Sandberg, who is the chief operating officer at Facebook, not only for what she's done there, but for how she's balanced that with her family, and with being a very outspoken advocate for women in the workplace.
Lucy: She's given several tremendous talks over the last few months. She's really stepping out in support of exactly what you're talking about. It's very heartening to see that.
Larry: Yeah. Clara, being an entrepreneur, there's the ups and downs and challenges and everything else. What is the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Clara: That's a good question. I would say the toughest thing I've had to do was decide to leave a perfectly fine career path to start something new and start from scratch, and accept all the uncertainty that comes with being an entrepreneur. In the early days, there was no $21 million dollars and 60 employees and all of these. Just a blank slate. My co-founder Steven and I, sitting in my apartment. We didn't even know what the company would do or what the name would be. And that's really scary.
Lucy: How did you make that decision? Share about your thought processes there.
Clara: I think the decision to start a company happened pretty organically. I studied computer science and econ at Stanford, and then spent some time at Oxford, and then really grew up in the Silicon Valley companies. I worked at Microsoft, I worked at Google, I worked at Salesforce.com. I just happened to have been tinkering with the new Facebook APIs when they came out in early 2007, and developed what became the first business application on Facebook. Word got out, just because of the viral nature of Facebook. My friends added the application, their friends added it. Pretty soon, it made its way to the desk of a very influential analyst at Forrester, who blogged about it, and credited me with kick-starting the social business application movement. Before I knew it, I had offers to write a book, to keynote major technology conferences. Given the experience of researching and writing "The Facebook Era," where I realized that there was huge unmet need in the market, not only for knowledge and education in social media, but actual technologies to automate and bring governance best practices and effectiveness to these technologies.
Lucy: I just love this story.
Larry: Yeah, I do too.
Lucy: I mean, I just love this story, and I think it shows yet again in your life, you look backwards and you can the dots, but looking forward, it's like, "I don't know how people have career plans." You don't even know.
Clara: I couldn't agree more. I wish I could say that I had this master plan when I developed Faceforce, but really it just happened serendipitously, and I was opportunistic when opportunities came my way.
Lucy: That's an incredibly important piece of advice, which gets me to the next question, around giving young people advice about entrepreneurship. Or heck, even not so young people. If you were giving a young person advice about entrepreneurship, what would you tell them? I think I'll start. Be opportunistic, right? Be mindful that there are opportunities in front of you, and take them. But what else would you say?
Clara: I would say, expose yourself to as many new ideas and opportunities as soon as possible, because we don't know what we don't know. Sometimes, it takes a while to find what we're passionate about, but we can accelerate that process by learning new things and exposing ourselves to as many new things as possible.
Larry: Excellent advice.
Lucy: One of my favorite phrases now is, "Who knew?" [laughter]
Lucy: Who knew?
Clara: For me, when I was in college, it just so happened that I had to put myself through Stanford. There wasn't an option for me exceptto work both during the school year, as well as during the summer. In retrospect, that worked out really nicely, because I got an exposure to a variety of different industries and companies, and had plenty of work experience by the time I graduated.
Larry: That's great. You didn't plan on being an entrepreneur. You worked with a number of the big technology companies. What are the personal characteristics do you think that you have that give the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Clara: I think one characteristic is that I don't take no for an answer. When you're starting out, a lot of people will tell you no, or they'll cast doubt. I remember my mom was pretty upset when she heard I quit my job at a secure company. It takes a lot of courage, and it just takes extreme confidence in yourself, and optimism that things will work out in the end. I think that that's certainly the most important one. The other characteristic of most entrepreneurs that I've met, and I hope it's true of me, is that we see the world in a different way. I remember working at bigger companies like Google and Salesforce.com that this rubbed people the wrong way a lot. My advice would be, stick to your guns, and if you believe, sometimes the best thing to do is to leave the company and start your own. And that's exactly what I did.
Lucy: I think that courage to leave a secure job... My son is starting his own company, and as a parent, I have to remind myself of that all the time, that it takes a lot of courage and confidence for him.
Larry: But Lucy, you left a job too. [crosstalk]
Clara: It might take more courage by the parents than by the individual. [laughter]
Lucy: Yeah, maybe that's the case. You mentioned Cheryl Sandberg and her speaking out about work-life issues. Do you have anything to add in terms of what you do, or any words of wisdom in that area?
Clara: I would just echo what Cheryl always says, which is, "The most important career decision you make is the partner you choose." I'm recently married. I got married two months ago.
Clara: Thank you. But there's no way I could do what I do without the love and support of my husband Dan. He's incredible. He inspires me, he teaches me, and he gives me balance in my life. He reminds me when I'm working too much.
Lucy: Can you call me too? [laughter]
Lucy: You're working too much.
Larry: [laughs] That is excellent. My wife and I, we've been married for 40 years. I was nine years old when we got married. [laughs] Well, I was close to it. We've worked together all this time, and it's just absolutely fabulous. I just love it. All right. Now you've already achieved a great deal. Not only the best-selling book and a company profitable in your first year, and all the other things that are happening. What do you think is next for you?
Clara: I guess just continuing to be open to the unknown, and to be opportunistic. I don't know what opportunities will come my way, personally, professionally, or for Hearsay Social as a company. I want to make sure that I myself, as well as my organization, we're always open to taking risks, and to continually challenge ourselves and grow.
Lucy: I just think that's so well said.
Larry: Yes, excellent.
Lucy: I think being open to the unknown is so important. As organizations grow, I think a certain amount of rigidity sets in. Being mindful of that may cause it not to happen. Clara, thank you so much for talking to us. I know our listeners will really enjoy this interview. I want to remind people that it's online at w3w3.com, and also ncwit.org. Thank you so much.
Clara: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me
Larry: Clara, this was really terrific information.
Lucy: Yeah, it's wonderful. Just wonderful. We really appreciate it. These interviews are really capturing the attention of women in technology. [music]