Interview with Bettina Hein
An Interview with Bettina Hein Founder and CEO, Pixability
Date: March 7, 2011
NCWIT Entrepreneurial Heroes: Interview with Bettina Hein [music]
Kennedy: Hi, this is Lee Kennedy, board member for the National Center for Women in Information Technology, or NCWIT. I am also CEO of Bolder Search. This is part of a series of interviews that we are having with fabulous entrepreneurs, women who have started IT companies in a variety of sectors, all of whom just have terrific stories to tell us about being entrepreneurs. With me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi Larry.
Larry Nelson: Oh, hi. I am really excited to be here. Once again, this is going to be a fantastic interview with a number of high powered women who have really been examples of super entrepreneurship.
Lee: Wonderful. You want to tell us just a little bit about w3w3.
Larry: Well, we have been doing it for 12 years. We are an Internet‑based business radio show. We host everything and archive everything. We have over 17,000 pages on our website and they are all business interviews. We are excited about that.
Lee: Wonderful. Well, today we are interviewing Bettina Hein who is the founder and CEO of Pixability. Pixability helps small and medium sized businesses increase sales by using video. Bettina is a repeat entrepreneur based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to Pixability, Bettina cofounded Swiss based SVOX AG in 2001 and led the venture‑backed speech software company to profitability. Then in 1996, Patina was the initiator of START, an organization that advances entrepreneurship among college students. She is also the founder of SheEOs, and that's a network for female CEOs and founders of growth companies. So Bettina, welcome.
Bettina Hein: Thank you very much for having me.
Lee: Well, we'd love to hear a little bit about Pixability before we jump into some questions we have for you.
Bettina: Well, you said it correctly. We help companies and non‑profits create and promote themselves via online video. We help you create a great video by for example sending you a flip camera and you shoot the video. We spruce it up and then we have software that publishes that video all over the Internet and search engine optimizes. We are really the experts for video marketing.
Larry: Oh I love it. Lee: We are just going to jump into things here. We'd love to hear how you first got into technology.
Bettina: I've been in tech all of my career. I guess it started a little bit earlier than that. I started with computers and programming in Logo when I was in fourth grade on an Apple IIe way back when I went to college for business administration and did finance. But I was always in love with technology and would spend lots of time with all the guys in the windowless rooms with the computers. When I got out of grad school, I had offers from investment banks and consultancies and all of that. But I really wanted to be in tech. I took my fourth grade book where I had written down these Logo programs, written them out, so I took them to talk with the founders of tech companies. I became involved in SVOX my first company which is a speech technology software company based in Zurich, Switzerland and became a cofounder there. I've been in tech and an entrepreneur all of my career, basically straight out of grad school.
Lee: Well, and the other question I had is what today you think is really cool, what technologies do you just love to play with?
Bettina: Well, you should really play with Google Translate because that has my SVOX [indecipherable 00:03:56] and the company SVOX's technology. There is a speech technology that is pretty cool. But apart from that, the obvious thing video. There is a lot of things happening around video and into active video and video on mobile phones. That ties in with all the things that are happening in the mobile space. I really think that there are lots of things happening that are relevant for businesses in mobile and that again ties in to the social web, social media. As a geek on the side I am also really interested in things like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, because that sort of shows the human computing interface. Probably you saw what was on Jeopardy last week was IBM's Watson. I am really fascinated on how humans and AI that interface there. But that's something that's a little bit further out for commercialization, actually.
Larry: With your experiences now, what is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick, and why did you become an entrepreneur.
Bettina: I didn't know any better. All of my four grandparents are actually entrepreneurs. My grandmothers as well as my grandfathers were entrepreneurs in their own right, and my parents as well. They are professionals and nobody in my family ever had a nine‑to‑five job. I didn't really know what that meant. I heard that you have this career thing and you go to an office and you come back at night. But I never experienced that from home. I didn't really know what that meant. For me it didn't seem like a far reach to become an entrepreneur. Also, I love creating something from nothing. It's really so wonderful if you do it with an organization or if you do it with a company, that you have this idea in your head that you want to create something that helps fosters entrepreneurship in college students. What I did was START. Or you want to make speech technology an everyday then people use, and you have this idea and you work really, really hard. It's extremely hard, but it comes alive when you create all these jobs. My last company has over 120 people. My husband is also an entrepreneur. Together we have created over 500 jobs. I am really, really proud that I figured out by hard work how to take something and turn it into an entity that provides a livelihood for so many people.
Lee: Boy, that's so cool. This question is a lead on to that. Who influenced you or supported you to take the career path you have? Do you have any role models or mentors?
Bettina: Well, my family, definitely. My grandfather grew a company. He was a coal miner and when he was 15 he went into the coal mine and was under the earth. It was a really back breaking hard job. Over the years, he found ways to make money in other ways. He ended up having a wholesale Coop providing hundreds of millions of tons coal to the big energy producers, electricity producers. He was retired by then, but he would always tell me how he did that. How he used his knowledge, when he was 15, to do all of that. He would do math problems with me on this and tell me about how he negotiated across the table and that he always was really faster in his head. They couldn't pull out a calculator as fast as he could do the math, so we would work on that. Up to about five years ago, I had mostly male mentors because I haven't seen any women doing what I was doing. As a female entrepreneur in technology, in Europe there were hardly anybody to look up to. But then I moved from Zurich, Switzerland to here to Cambridge Massachusetts. I found that well there are these people I can look up to that can be a mentor. You interviewed Gail Goodman the founder of Constant Contact, or the founder of the Zipcar, Robin Chase. People like Beth Marcus who sold her fifth company. People have done this here before. I now feel like I am living in Disneyland in a way because I have so many people that support me. I am trying to give it back with SheEOs group that I created to foster more female entrepreneurship.
Larry: That's terrific. By the way Lucy Sanders always likes us to ask this tough question. What is the toughest thing that you had to do in your career?
Bettina: So I started my first company when I was 27. This was in 2001. So it was post dotcom boom. But there was still money around and a little bit of hype around. But that very quickly evaporated. But, we were able to raise money and we hired people and that was going pretty well. Then we just did not make any of our goals. It was terrible because I, the young person, had promised the world to all these people. We hired over 20 people. I had to fire half of them at a certain point, together with my co‑founders. That was really, really, really hard to do that. In Europe, it's also harder to fire people. You don't fire them and they leave that day. You have to keep them on for three months. You have to continue to paying their salaries so, that was really, really hard. It made me very prudent about over hiring and making sure I meet my goals before I promise people too much.
Lee: Yeah, I think we've heard from a good majority of the people we have interviewed that having to lay off people or fire people is not easy.
Larry: Yeah, Bettina, you're absolutely right about in Europe. My wife and I have owned a number of companies in Europe. We had some of those similar experiences.
Bettina: Yeah, you have to look people in the eye for three months and say, "I failed you." Every single day they look at you while they're searching for new jobs, but they still work for you. I didn't feel so hot.
Lee: If you were to think back of all the things you learned through growing businesses and having the networking, the CEO, what would you advise a young person about entrepreneurship if they were sitting with you there today?
Bettina: That's one of the things I really love doing. I really love helping other people make their dreams come true. I typically tell them anybody can be an entrepreneur. I tell them that "You can do it." There are three things I tell them that they need. The first one is naivete. If you knew what was going to hit you during the course of building your company, you would not start. [laughter]
Larry: You're right.
Bettina: You should really, really start young and go at it. That doesn't mean to be unprepared, right? That means, you have to do your research. You have to look for a good market. But, if you knew too much, you would not be able to be an innovator. Naivete is the first thing. The second thing I tell them they need to have is chutzpah. Do you guys know what that means?
Larry: Yeah, we do, but why don't you explain it to our listeners. [laughter]
Bettina: Yeah. I always usually ask them. It means being audacious, putting yourself out there. You really have to own it and say, "Yes, I am convinced I can do this and I can solve your problem." Let me give you an example. When we started SVOX, we were a small company, but we had the chutzpah to go to Mercedes Benz and say, "We have the solution for your flagship product, the S Class and we want it." We didn't know at the time how we'd be able to deliver. I mean, we had a plan, but we couldn't the next day have delivered. But, they gave us an order for this, and that made the company. Chutzpah means putting yourself out there. It doesn't mean winging it. You have to do your homework and be prepared to deliver. But, you have to also say, "I know I can do this for you. Trust me on this." Then the third thing is perseverance. You have to have the willpower to see it through. Because It's hard. It's very hard and you're going to want to quit. Often. You have to see it through. But, that doesn't mean being stubborn. You do have to take cues from your environment and pivot and change your business model and evolve it. Just as I said my toughest experience was firing all those people. Well we didn't give up. We laid off all those people because we said, "OK, with the cash that we have and where we need to go, this is how we can get to growing the company." Since then, the company has grown more than 10X. But, we knew we had to see this through. If you have those three things, I think any young person can make it in an entrepreneurship.
Larry: Wow. You have hit on a number of different things that you've done, and so on, but let me just see if we can narrow this down. What are personal characteristics that have given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Bettina: Well, first of all as I said before that not know any better, the family background, definitely. Also, if you statically look at it, what makes people more inclined to be entrepreneurs, is if they have role models in their family to do that. But, just personally, I have a dogged determination to succeed, to make things happen. I think that's really the most important thing that people say to me. I feel that motivates the people that I find to work for me most is that people can serve me all kinds of punches and I will get back up, get back on the horse and just continue on. Obviously, that's my strategy and learning from those punches, but I will do that. I think my team also [indecipherable 00:14:46] the energy through hard times to keep going. Lee: With all the startups and things that you've done, how do you bring balance into your life, between personal and professional?
Bettina: It all melds into one, in a way. I just don't believe in this myth that you can completely separate your personal and your professional life. I think that's just not true. I do think that you have to have some little bit of distance. I try not to work on Saturdays. That's what I try not to do. I also advocate that people take time off and I do that myself. It's very hard to do that, but being from Europe, a lot of vacation there is mandated by law. What I always try to train everybody in the company to tag team it. We're experimenting this year with a vacation policy that says you get two weeks off a year, or you get four weeks off a year, if you take two weeks at a time. You have your pick. You can either get four weeks, or two weeks. But, of you want to take off time, don't piecemeal it a day here or a day here. You have to take two weeks off. The reason for that is, that I want people to do their jobs and document them so well that other people can take over their jobs for two weeks while they're gone and they don't have to worry. I try to do that with myself. I really try not to be a bottleneck for decisions or for things that are happening in the company. For me, I think, it's very hard to do. But, I am really working hard on it. Right now, I am getting ready to have my first baby so I am really working very hard in order to be able to take four weeks off of maternity leave and trying to get everybody transferring enough responsibility so I can go do that. It's a big challenge, but I absolutely believe if you fail at that, then your company will collapse like a house of cards if you leave. That means you didn't build a good organization.
Larry: Bettina, you're right on. My wife and I, who are in business together, we have five kids, so we have some empathy for what you're talking about.
Bettina: I'm glad, yes. It's going to be a challenge. I know that.
Larry: Besides your new baby, you've already achieved a great deal. What's next for you?
Bettina: Well, I think there's lots more out there. I think I am 10 years into my apprenticeship of being an entrepreneur. I think I'm constantly learning. I do have a dream of taking a company public one of these days, like Gail did with Constant Contact. Pixability we often sell ourselves to investors as, "What Constant Contact did for email marketing we're going do for video marketing." But, maybe being public these days isn't the most attractive thing anymore, but I do want to grow a company in a substantial way and into the thousands of employees. That's my dream that's still out there.
Larry: I have a feeling you're going to do it too.
Lee: That is a wonderful dream.
Bettina: Thank you for that confidence. Lee: We thank you for interviewing with us today. For everybody out there listening, you can find these podcasts on W3W3.com and as well at ncwit.org. Please pass it along to a friend. Thank you Bettina. We've enjoyed having you today.
Bettina: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Larry: Thank you. [music]