Interview with Rashmi Sinha
"It was entirely an accident" that Rashmi Sinha became an entrepreneur, she says. After backing into technology and entrepreneurship, however, she advises that it's important to decide what interests you, and then follow your interests.
Rashmi Sinha is Co-founder and CEO of SlideShare, the world's largest community for sharing presentations. SlideShare is growing rapidly (more than 11 million monthly unique visitors) letting everyone from teachers to marketers to conference speakers share presentations and connect with others.
Rashmi Sinha is a designer, researcher and entrepreneur. Rashmi earned her PhD in Cognitive NeuroPsychology from Brown University in 1998. After moving to UC Berkeley for a PostDoc, she did research on search interfaces and recommender systems. She fell in love with the web, and realized that many issues that web technologists think about are problems of human psychology. Deciding that she enjoyed practical problems more, she co-founded Uzanto, a user experience consulting company and worked on projects for companies like eBay, Blue Shield, AAA etc. Her first foray into products was with MindCanvas (a game-like software for customer research) released in November 2005.
Rashmi writes about social software, entrepreneurship, and running a start-up at www.rashmisinha.com. She is a frequent speaker at conferences such as Webvisions and Future of Web Apps. She is involved in the HCI community, was one of the founding members of the Information Architecture Society, and co-chairs the monthly BayCHI talk series.
An Interview with Rashmi Sinha CEO & Co-founder, SlideShare
Date: April 27, 2009
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, or NCWIT. This is another of our interviews with women who have started IT companies. I'm very excited today to be interviewing Rashmi Sinha. With me today is Larry Nelson, as usual, from w3w3.com.
Larry Nelson: Hello, and it's my pleasure to be here. This is going to be an exciting interview. We'll have this, of course, on w3w3.com also, and it's been a spectacular, popular series.
Lucy: Absolutely. And you're doing something else interesting at w3w3 these days, aren't you?
Larry: We just launched our own TV show "IPTV."
Lucy: You'll have to watch out, Rashmi, he's going to be coming after you for a TV show next.
Larry: You betcha.
Lucy: Well, Larry, I'm pretty sure all of our listeners know that Facebook, Twitter, blogging, are really part of social media and powerful communication tools, but I'll bet if they're like me they didn't stop to think so much about the fact that PowerPoint is also social media. People don't create PowerPoint presentations to share with themselves, and so they really do create them for communication, and really to reach out to others. So that's really why I'm very excited, being a heavy PowerPointer myself, to be interviewing Rashmi Sinha. She is the cofounder and CEO of SlideShare. It's, I believe, the word's largest community for sharing presentations. Rashmi, you'll have to tell us how many, but the stat I grabbed off the Web was 3,000 PowerPoints created per day?
Larry: Per day! Wow.
Lucy: Wow. So it's really a great way to get your slides out, and share, and reuse, and really form community around PowerPoint. Welcome, Rashmi!
Rashmi Sinha: Thank you, thank you. Glad to be here and sharing a few stories.
Lucy: One of the stories I thought we'd start with, before we get to our usual set of questions, is: what kinds of topics are you seeing these days put up on SlideShare?
Rashmi: Anything, and everything. conversation, and debate is what this is about. Last year in November, we saw a lot of focus on the credit crisis. Recently we've seen a bunch of Obama presentations. Whatever is the current topic, that definitely shows up, and then there are more stable topics. We always have some things about the latest technologies or whatever people are excited about such as Telescope, or Ruby, or Python. You also have a different, more creative type of presentation, which are basically photographs with some music in the background. So there's a whole range of types of things that show up on SlideShare.
Lucy: That's a great transition into our first question. You have a Ph.D. in cognitive neuropsychology. That is just so fascinating, and I know that you really did fall in love with the Web, and Web 2.0, and you really have looked at some of these issues around Web technologies from a perspective of human psychology. It would be very interesting to know how you see the cool technology today. What do you think is hot, especially in Web 2.0?
Rashmi: I'm coming up from a little bit of a biased perspective, since I've spend the day kind of behind SlideShare, looking out at what people are doing. What I find really interesting is that so many of what are the more businessy, supposedly boring topics, are kind of the hot topics of conversation that people are participating in. It's not necessarily diluting the level of the conversation. For example, before SlideShare you couldn't really imagine people bonding over these very technical presentations. But you had this mission that people are interested in, and the Web really enables them to find each other, and to bond over these objects. Whether it's on Twitter, or it's on FaceBook, or it's on LinkedIn, or it's on peoples' own websites and broadcasts you really see this ability to have these topic-based conversations, which I find very interesting. I think one of the things that really strikes me is, what's happened with social networking is that the world is much more deeply linked than it used to be. Earlier it was all about just the hyperlinks, how you point to each other, and now you have all these social connections and all these different social spaces that they participate in. Overall I think that the interlinking of people and the web has become much more complex and much realistic in reflecting real world relationships in some way. I find that very interesting overall.
Lucy Sanders: I think the idea of communities around PowerPoint presentations is fascinating. What kinds of communities do you see forming? What kind of topic areas seem to be the most popular?
Rashmi: A lot of conversation around social media. I think all the social media junkies of the world come to SlideShare and put up presentations and find the other ones. So you see a lot of conversation about that. You see a lot of conversation about marketing, about the web itself, about technology, and about I would say pretty much any topic that people do their presentations around, you see communities forming. The interesting aspect about the community and was something that we had noticed time and again is that it doesn't happen only on SlideShare. It happens outside SlideShare often. It often happens on Twitter or on FaceBook, where people take back the objects and then bond over them. We have tried to embrace that in a natural and fluid manner and let the community formation be anywhere that people are. They can take these presentations, or documents which we also support, back with them.
Larry: Wow, you're doing a wonderful job. Now one of the things, Rashmi, I'd like to ask you is, with your background, your education and everything else, why did you become an entrepreneur and what is it about being an entrepreneur that makes you tick?
Rashmi: Well I never planned to be an entrepreneur, and it was entirely an accident, maybe a little bit of an accident stemming from what the thing that I wanted to do in life. But I did not, when I was doing my Ph.D., if anybody had asked me "are you going to be an entrepreneur?" I would not have thought that for a moment. I guess I just embrace whatever is in front of me and kind of go with it. And that just led to one thing after the other. So I'd like to share the story of how it happened. I did my Ph.D. and then I came UC Berkeley for a post doc. I was doing psychology, not at all interested in technology. As I said, the Bay Area water, there's something in the water here that gets you interested in technology. So I started just focusing more on technology, found the topics very interesting, and one day walked into the UC Berkeley School of Information which does a lot of human computer direction work, and just said, "I find these topics interesting. I'd like to work on them." And they said, "Great. Why don't you start?" So I switched topics within UC Berkeley, did that for a year, then decided I wanted to do consulting. So I changed to consulting, formed a company, we built our first product, that was MindCanvas. And I formed the company, by the way, with my husband who is a software engineer and who was getting done with his job that he was working in for Commerce One. So we formed the first company, we built our first product, and then he came up with the idea of SlideShare. We launched SlideShare in October 2006 and it just took off, and we kind of followed it. I'm definitely an accidental entrepreneur.
Lucy: I like this notion of embracing what you see in front of you, and just moving with it and taking advantage. It's very opportunistic and I think we see that a lot in entrepreneurs. So along that path, I'm sure people influenced you. You had mentors, or maybe not. But we're really interested in understanding who influenced you.
Rashmi: Lots of people along the way. So in academia, my teacher was very influential. In terms of the way he taught me to work rather than the specific things that we worked on, I've moved away from them. But the way he was efficient in his working, that really taught me a lot. At UC Berkeley I work with Marti Hearst and Hal Varian they were doing academic admissions and how the end is now economists at guru, and just kind of watching the way the talk about the Web. That's how I was really introduced to technology working with them. That has been very influential in the way I approach things in SlideShare. So, those are just some of the people who've influenced me, but there are lots and lots of people along the way who've helped me figure out things.
Larry: Very interesting. Now, I really admire the progress you've made. Somewhere along the line since you've started your company, SlideShare, what was maybe the toughest thing that you had to do.
Rashmi: The toughest thing was moving down at a product. I had to do that, it was called MindCanvas, it was a service platform. It was doing well, we were making money off it, it was a profitable business. But SlideShare had more promise, SlideShare had already touched the life of millions of people, and we realized that we could touch the life of millions more. So, we were definitely all in love with SlideShare, and we loved MindCanvas as well, but there was really a moment in time where we realized we could not do both. SlideShare especially was a very demanding application so we had to put all our energies into that. So I remember the day that we realized that we needed to make a decision, it was a very tough day.
Lucy: That is tough, you really do get very close to products and companies, I mean they're parts of the family. I had to shut down a few things at Bell Labs and I hated it every time it happened. In fact, I think I just either saw in your Blog, or maybe it was a Tweet. That you had had to tell somebody once again what had happened to MindCanvas, and it is, it's very emotional.
Rashmi: I have to do that pretty much every two or three days. We still get a lot of emails about it, and what we really need to do is say so on the Website that we are no longer offering this. But I think somehow or the other that it is hard to, kind of, make that. But we still get a lot of inquiries and we need to make that final. It's a very tough thing, actually.
Lucy: Well, I think it is though. It is the flip side to the coin of having great passion and loving what you do as an entrepreneur, that sometimes in the life cycle you have to shut it down. So, if you were sitting here with a young person and telling them about entrepreneurship and giving them advice, what would you tell them?
Rashmi: It said so very often but it really is true, is that: have the confidence that if you believe in something and if you think you can do it then you can do it. Maybe there are aspects of it you'll realize that your skills and personality are not suited, but there are other aspects that you will grow into. You know, when I decided to do technology I knew a little bit of computer science, I had taken a few courses but I was definitely not a very technical person. I kind of just went ahead, and forged ahead with it and have learned along the way and have picked things up. I have figured out what my strengths are. I would say that's a very important thing to decide what interests you because you can't do anything as well as the things that truly make you come alive.
Larry: When you said, "if you think you can, you can" it reminds me of some things I've read in some books about, "working the mind". Is there any book in particular that has been important to you?
Rashmi: I can't think of any particular book. I used to read a lot as a child, and it's kind of like a whole range of books. I always feel that about half my life was in my imagination in these books, and I read very fast. I read in this frenzied manner. So, it's more like I read a lot of books, rather then any particular books. But I will say there is something, one thing, that has been very influential to me as an entrepreneur is my mother. My mother has been a housewife and she hasn't had a career, but she made sure that her daughters would have a career, and in some ways, I have lived her ambitions. What she didn't get an opportunity to, maybe both my parents gave me that opportunity. That's been a very big influence on me.
Larry: Kind of following up on that, then, what do you feel are the personal characteristics that make you an entrepreneur like you are, that'd given you that advantage?
Rashmi: Well I think these entrepreneurs have to have this optimism, this ability to see the bright. To see that you can do it and what the next thing is. You always have to be able to imagine what's going to happen next and then to make it a reality. So the ability to imagine, to see the positive, and pull ahead and not really care. When we first went out and talked about SlideShare, and this was early on before we had barely a few million visitors, even at that point, I remember some VCs, et cetera, would be like, "how can you have so much traffic?" We just believed that presentation are used every day. There's millions of people sharing it, and we were going to build this site where they would all share it. So, we had this believe no matter how many people doubted us, we just kind of went on with it. That's one very important ability for entrepreneurs. But it's really hard. And there are days you seem really feel down and something has to carry you through that day.
Lucy: Well if you'd come and talk to me, I would have told you that probably half of that traffic would have been me. I can give so many power point presentations that, I think it's a fabulous idea. Good for you for sticking with it. You mentioned that it is hard work and sometimes you're down, and you have to keep going, and look at the bright side. What other things besides thinking that way, what other things do you do to bring balance between your personal and professional life?
Rashmi: That's the hardest part. We are still trying and it's hard to figure that out. I keep on making resolutions and breaking them. I keep on thinking, I'll go home at a certain point in time. But then I go home and start working again. One thing that we have been trying very hard, and, by the way, it also reflects the fact that my husband, John and I, are both of part of SlideShare. We are the cofounders. So it it's hard for us to leave SlideShare behind. I would say I lead an unbalanced life and I'm probably not the right person to give any advice about leading a balanced life.
Larry: Rashmi, I really needed some of that advice because my wife, Pat and I, we work together. And we have this... you talked about our scenario.
Rashmi: You can leave the place but you can't leave the, yeah.
Lucy: And we've heard the answer before about being rather unbalanced. But we've also heard that sometimes you have years of unbalance and then years of some amount of balance. So it sort of integrates out over decades. So you've achieved a lot. And, I should mention to our listeners as well, that Rashmi was named one of the most influential women in Web 2.0 by "Fast Company." So congratulations for that...
Rashmi: Thank you.
Lucy: Awesome achievement. And so what's next for you? As SlideShare is up and going and making great progress. I am sure there is more work to do there, but have you looked down the road just a bit to see what you might want to do after SlideShare?
Rashmi: Well, I mean, I want to make SlideShare a big independent company. And I'd like to do things along with SlideShare. One day I think I would like to write a book. And I'd like to get more involved in social entrepreneurship. Interesting companies that are doing something in that space. But that's definitely something I would love to do. But right now SlideShare is such a young company, it's just two and a half years old, and it's just starting. So there is a long way to go with that.
Larry: Yes, actually just finished the final editing of my latest book. And it's really worth it. It took just about three years to write it and get it edited. So don't forget that, you keep it up.
Lucy: It's very good. Well thank you very much, Rashmi. It's been great talking to you. I want to remind listeners that they can find these podcasts at ncwitt.org and w3w3.com and pass them along to your friends. Thank you Larry.
Larry: Yeah thank you. And Rashmi, it was a pleasure.
Rashmi: Thank you both you. This is a pleasure too.
Lucy: Thank you, that's great.