Interview with Sandy Jen
An Interview with Sandy Jen Co-founder and CTO, Meebo
Date: January 16, 2012 [Intro music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT, and with me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Larry, hi.
Larry Nelson: Hi. I'm so happy to be here. This is a great series. It has a tremendous impact on young women, parents, bosses, and we're very excited.
Lucy: We're not going to disappoint listeners. We're going to have a great interview today with Sandy Jen, who's the co-founder and CTO, that's chief technology officer of Meebo. Meebo is a great company and we have interviewed somebody from there before, Eileen Wherry. We had just a great time talking with her so we needed to go back around and catch up with Sandy. Here's this great tag line that I've heard used with Meebo. It's "together is better." That's a great tag line because Meebo integrates all social networks and communication channels into a very simple single solution so that it makes all those different channels a whole lot easier to use. I was poking around on Tech Crunch, Larry, and found out that-- probably these numbers have gotten even higher since I did it in November-- you have 250 million Unique's a month. Wow! That's astonishing growth. Here's some other stats: now delivering 5.4 billion page views a month, up from 2.8 billion a year ago.
Larry: That's a "B"?
Lucy: A "B".
Sandy Jen: That's a "B". [laughs]
Lucy: That's a "B". Sandy leads engineering as the CTO, of course, and builds the team responsible for all these great products and solutions, organizing the technology and the innovation and thinking very creatively about how you scale Meebo's architecture. Welcome Sandy, we're really happy to have you here.
Sandy: Really great to be here and thank you for calling.
Lucy: So why don't you tell us a little bit, other than those astonishing growth statistics, what else is going on at Meebo?
Sandy: Let's see. We launched in 2005 so we're about six years old, which I guess is a pretty long time for a startup. We still consider ourselves a startup even though we're roughly 200 people now. We started with three, so it's also been a big growth in terms of just the number of heads we have on staff. Our goal, from day one we started out as a web instant messaging client and we wanted to connect people with other people that were important to them. Back in 2005 a really cool way to do that was chatting and instant messaging. We think as the web got a lot more big and a lot more complex and people are a lot more savvy now on how they use the web. Their expectations are a lot higher on how they connect with people and generally just consume content. So now what we're doing at Meebo, six years later, is connecting people with other people, but also people with content that's important to them. It's been an interesting journey for us. We started out as a web IM client, like I said, and now we're this distributed social bar. You mentioned our growth, which we're really proud of. The growth is now primarily due to this bar that I mentioned. We're on over 8,000 sites around the Internet that you see today and we reach about half the US Internet population, which is pretty cool as well. It's a really cool technology platform to play with to bring great consumer products and experiences to everybody that can touch the bar and see the bar. That goes beyond IM. So, we're experimenting with a bunch of ideas and how to really create a cool user experience using our distribution. Just to give you guys a little bit of a teaser we expect them to come out relatively quickly, in the next month or so. So keep an eye out.
Larry: Oh good. We will.
Lucy: Early in 2012. We love asking questions about entrepreneurship, as everybody who listens to these now, and we're about ready to get started with that. But I wanted to read a quote from Sandy from a recent entrepreneurship panel, because I think it's going to set up how great an interview this is going to be. "You may not feel as if you are qualified or confident enough. The biggest insight in this entrepreneurial journey of mine was when I realized that someone I knew, who was not super smart,"- I love this- "who failed the same tests I did had started a company, and I realized I could do it too." I loved it. I just love that quote, so I had to start with that. So, off we go. Sandy, we love talking to technologists, and especially CTOs. Share with us how you first got into technology and you've already told us a bit about cool technologies, but any other crystal ball you've got, technologies, on the horizon? We'd love to hear them.
Sandy: I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where both my parents were engineers. It wasn't like a foreign thing growing up to be surrounded by engineering concepts like computers and physics and things like that. Getting started, I started pretty early in high school. Again, I was lucky enough to go to a high school that had actually four years of computer science classes offered.
Lucy: That is amazing.
Sandy: Yeah. [laughs] I started programming as a freshman in high school. Obviously, it wasn't the only thing that I did. I really enjoyed art as well, and English and a bunch of other topics. After I finished high school I was lucky enough to get into Stanford, they offered a couple of choices in Integral Computer Science classes. The first of which was if you've programmed before you could take an accelerated course and squish two quarters into one. Or you could take the two- quarter class that that would introduce you to the concept. So, I was like, "Well, I've done the programming, I'll go and take the accelerated course." Little did I know that those you take that course have the reputation of just doing computer science throughout their career. So, I took that course and here we are today. [laughter]
Lucy: Here you are.
Sandy: Exactly. I think that he quote that you mentioned was a really, really important one for me, where, going from a suburb high school to a big university like Stanford, one of the thing that's really eye-opening is that there are a lot of smart people in this world, and when you first meet a lot of these smart people, you're like wow, I don't know if I'm really that smart. When you go through your classes, and you may have gotten straight As in high school, but you may have gotten some Bs and Cs in college, it's a little bit of a hmm, like how good am I, right? I think for a lot of women in particular, that question tends to be maybe not explicit, but it does run strongly in the actions and the behaviors that they exude. For me, the biggest light bulb moment, like you said, was seeing someone who I thought, quote, was "as dumb" as I was do something extraordinary, and that was very inspiring. In my logical computer science brain, I was like, there's not a lot of difference between me and him, what made him do that? I think that was the biggest insight for me. So fast-forward six years now, when I talk to young entrepreneurs, a lot of them are like, "Oh, I have this great idea, I want to do this thing, I need to get the time, I need to do the business plan, I need to get the technology in place," and they keep putting up these road blocks. These are self-imposed road blocks. The difference today in terms of technology is that it's so easy to get started, like you have all these Cloud services that are really free and really cheap, you have all these resources available. You could get something launched, a mobile app, in like a week. That is extraordinarily powerful for a young, very ambitious entrepreneur who has an idea. In terms of crystal ball stuff, it's really hard for me to say, but the web is where everything is going, and whether that be mobile web apps or, websites that you get transferred to mobile, like all the things that people are doing these days, there's no concept of sort of a download or an application or even something that you sort of have to buy and pay for, there's all these services and online Cloud things. All those things are very, very interesting, and they're very powerful, and they're so easy to set up that I feel like that's where you'll see a lot of young people innovate, because it's so easy. That's really exciting for me.
Lucy: It is really exciting. I can remember, I asked for my first promotion at work when somebody who I thought was a stupid... [laughter]
Lucy: I really appreciate that.
Larry: Yeah. Well, there you have parents that are engineers going through high school and enjoying a lot of different topics; why are you an entrepreneur? Maybe the second part is, what about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Sandy: I want to go back a little bit. I went to an entrepreneurial organization at Yale called YEI, and I spoke with some of their students there, and one of them said, the interesting thing that I've found was that a lot of young people, especially young women, do entrepreneurial-type things, but they don't self-identify as an entrepreneur. They do things like, "Oh, I started a social club," or, "I started this meetup," or, "I gathered all these really cool people and they got to talk to each other, and now we do this on a regular basis," or, " Hey, I've started this event-planning thing that gets like all these really young people together." Those types of actions are actually very entrepreneurial. I would identify them as entrepreneurs, but they don't, and so they don't seek out help to take the next step. For me, I fell into entrepreneurship. I had the opportunity and I was like, "Wow. This is a really big risk." I'm generally more risk averse, and then I'm thinking, "Why the hell not?" Putting roadblocks in front of yourself like, "Oh. I'm not smart enough." "Oh, I need to do this." Or, "Oh. I didn't go to business school." Or, "Oh. I didn't do X, Y, Z." There's always excuses. I think that once I actually identified myself as an entrepreneur, and I took off with that, the most important thing that helped make me to continue to tick is that self confidence. It's the ability to think, "Oh, wow. I can really do this, and I can learn from this, and I can be respected for this, and the fact that I did this." Even if I have a team around me, the fact that you put yourself out there and were willing to take the risk to do that is amazing. Even today, six years later after we launched, I'm sometimes like, "Wow. Holy crap. I'm an entrepreneur." Or, "Oh my God. I'm the CTO." Because when you take a step back, it's like, "Wow. I was able to take a risk." Or, "I was able to put myself out there more than I would have before, and it really paid off." Even if the payoff is in monetary terms or the success of the company, the fact I overcame this self doubt, and, "Oh my God. I'm so stupid," or, "Oh. I'm not good enough." That in itself is very rewarding on a day to day basis. I think that's the thing that really makes me tick.
Lucy: That's pretty interesting. The things we tell ourselves, right? I know. We had a person who we interviewed a couple of months ago, who said, her piece of advice was, I hope I get this right, "Never compare yourself on the inside to what you see on the outside of others." It's the way you feel. It's all about that same thing. Along the way, your career path so far, you've obviously had people influence you. Maybe your parents, the people at your high school. I'm still blown away by four years of computer science, by the way. Who are your role models now? The types of people who have influenced you. Any thoughts on that?
Sandy: I was asked the same question at a panel a few weeks ago. My first answer was there's probably two types of people. The first, obviously, would be my parents. My mom was actually an engineer. A funny story, she actually helped me with my computer science classes in college when I had a bug. That's cool. People were like, "Wow. Your mom did that?" I'm like, "Yeah. Totally." Then, facetiously, but I really did mean it were, I called them my stupid goofy friends. Those friends are the one that I mentioned who, also sucked at physics like I did, and also failed that particular test like I did, and had trouble with that problem just like I did. They started companies, and they did it at a time when there was no money going around and the VCs were very wary of startups, given what had happened in the boom. They got funded, and they started a company. They worked really hard, and persevered, and were able to create a company that got somewhere. Them telling me that of course you can do it, like why wouldn't you do that? Or, hey, when I was feeling depressed or really unhappy with my job, because I was thinking, I'm coming out of school and I'm really happy about what I did in school, but now I'm in the working world, and I don't know what I want to do, they're like, "You should just pick something that you're passionate about and actually just go for it." Like there's no reason why you can't. Inspiration comes in many forms, and I think for me personally, the strongest was just the support to say yes, you can do it, and belief in me even when I didn't believe in myself. I think that's extremely important, I think, for anybody to have that kind of support network, because you can be successful and you can be rich, have all sorts of accomplishments in the world, but it's really lonely to celebrate them by yourself. Like to have someone else or a team or friends to celebrate with, and had said, "Oh," you know, "I believed in you from day one, and look what happened," is so much more valuable to me than anything else, so...
Larry: All right, now, with all these wonderful things that you've been through, what is the toughest thing that you've experienced in your career?
Sandy: Oh, man. [laughs] I probably would say hiring. When you start a company and you get all this money, people actually expect you to do something with it. [laughter]
Lucy: That's true.
Sandy: You can't just have the money in the bank and be like oh, I got funded, and now it's just sitting there all nice and pretty. You have to build a team, and you're like OK, I'm 20, when I started, maybe I was like, you know, 23, and, you know, you're a 23-year-old who was a sophomore engineer for two and a half years, you've never managed anybody, you've never hired anybody, you've barely interviewed anybody at your old company, and now you have to build a top-notch tech team to support a product that you kind of hobbled together in your spare time and got funded for, and now they're giving you millions of dollars to go and make it big. You're like holy crap, what am I supposed to do with this? The toughest thing was actually figuring out how to hire, how to evaluate people, how to build a culture for the first 12 people in the company, and also getting over the fact that you're interviewing people who have been in the industry for 20 more years than you have, and they're expected to report to you, because you're the founder and you're the boss. So getting over that was huge and very challenging. I think, as you move more towards your career, like it's six years later at Meebo and I've interviewed hundreds of people now, sometimes there's still that little part of you that when you meet someone with a lot more industry experience, you're like, how do I really make you respect me? Because I may not come off as being like the big hotshot, you know, CTO kind of person. That's probably been the toughest, because evaluating other people is actually really, really hard.
Lucy: Yeah. That was a very interesting answer. I don't believe we've gotten that answer to this question before. But I think it's very interesting. A plug for an organization we work, Women 2.0...writing a book on certain things like this. Like, hiring or interviewing. I chose the question, "How do you let somebody go?"
Lucy: I figured no one would answer that one. [laughter]
Lucy: I figured nobody would. But I did it, I wrote it. If you were sitting here giving advice to a young person about entrepreneurship, in addition to some of the advice that we've filtered out of this interview so far around, "Don't make artificial excuses, have confidence in yourself," what are the kinds of things you would say to them?
Sandy: One is, to be confident in your own idea. A lot of people have this notion that they have this really cool idea and they're like, "It's really neat, I should really act on it." Then they start to protect it. They baby it, they hide it, they keep it secret, they don't tell anybody. They hide it in the closet and they try to work on it on their own. It seems counter-intuitive but one piece of advice I would give people with ideas, with wanting to start something, is to share the idea as much as you can. Get it out there and get feedback because if you work in a vacuum you're not going to understand how to adapt quickly. I guarantee you, and I've said this many, many times to people, if you have an idea, idea's are never formed in a vacuum, and 20 other people have the same idea and they're already working on it. So, everybody has a different take on an idea, they have a different slant, they have a different perspective, they work on it in a very different way. But the more the idea is out there and the more you can iterate on it the better the idea gets. The more attuned to your audience it can be, whether that be, like I said, an ice-cream store, to a consumer Internet web company, having people give you honest feedback is so critical to creating a really big part. When I tell this to people, they're like, "Really?" I'm like, "Yes. Absolutely. Don't hide the idea." It seems really weird but it's a really good piece of advice that we got early on that helped immensely.
Lucy: That's interesting too. Even if you have a good idea and you hide it. You get out there and as soon as you put it out there someone with more money, they're going to do it too, they're going to copy you.
Sandy: People are always afraid of people copying them. I'm like, "It's OK." One of the early lessons we had was, if you make five or six changes to your UI, let's say I change the button shape or I move the position of a particular radio button or something like that, there were reasons why I did that. The reasons were for a number of user issues or feedback or A/B tests that we did. So, we moved the button over there. But if someone else went straight ahead and copied those pixels they don't understand why we moved that button. So, they don't get the learnings of why we did that. Without the deeper understandings of the decisions that you make a straight copy can work for a certain period of time but it won't work ultimately. That's the counterargument I give to people who say, "Oh, people will copy me." I say, "Well, generally it's the shallow copy, it's not really deep copy."
Larry : Based on all the other things you've said during this interview it should be obvious, but from your perspective what characteristics do you think have given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Sandy: Hardworking. You can have as much influence and networking and friends in high places as you can, but if you don't work hard you can't really get there. Also, I didn't have this in the beginning but I think it developed a lot, would be self-confidence, but a sense of humbleness, in a way. Being OK with your decisions and not regretting the decision that you make. But at the same time being open to learning from mistakes, learning from other people who have different opinions and put that into your own system of beliefs. But being able to take a step back and evaluate that from a very non-judgmental perspective is important as well. It's a really long answer but, basically, always listening and asking the right questions, sometimes can be much more powerful than knowing all the answers. Having that perspective as you go from venture to venture or interview to interview is really important. A lot of people that I meet, who I have issues with just working with, like, some entrepreneurs can come off really cocky. I think that's to their detriment, because they may be really smart and really brilliant but if they don't take a step back and think about, "How am I perceived by others? How can I better myself to make other people want to work with me and share knowledge?" I think they're missing that. For me, I've really, really focused on doing that well. That goes into not being just an entrepreneur but as a good manager, as a good leader of the company. I don't have to have all the answers. But as long as I can ask the right questions and get the right issues surfaced, that is extremely effective.
Lucy: Really important. This thing around listening and sometimes I say it's around, even, intuitive listening, because when you're listening really well you actually hear things that people didn't say but actually imply.
Larry: Yeah. Between the lines.
Lucy: Between the lines. There's a lot of value and there's a lot of mischief between the lines. You mentioned, Sandy, about hardworking. Of course, then we all have things we like to do outside of work, I'll put quotes on that. You mentioned your friends and people to celebrate things with. How do you strike that balance there?
Sandy: It's really important. In the beginning of Meebo, I was like, "Work, work, work. Work is awesome, Meebo is great." All I would do is work, work, work. Then at a certain point you're like, "Wow, I'm really tired." [laughter]
Sandy: The tiredness may not actually come from the lack of enthusiasm or lack of passion for the idea, but you're just physically and mentally very, very tired. If you're really tired you can't be productive. One of the things that I focus really hard in Meebo is work-life balance. I rock-climb, I do yoga, I play Ultimate Frisbee, I run, and those to me are just as important as the work I do at Meebo. So, I have this thing, you work hard play hard, and they're equally important. Because if you don't play hard and balance the "work hard" part you're going to tether one way or the other. Burning out is painful. You see it in an engineer, you see it in people who work all the time. You get cranky, you get demotivated and this spiral that keeps going and feeding on itself. You want the spiral to go the other way. The happier you are and the more balanced you are, the happier, more productive you can be and the more imaginative you can be with the work that you do and you can get more ideas that way. Again, super, super important. I will kick my employees out sometimes from work early and force them on vacation if I have to to get them to have more of that balance.
Lucy: It is really important. We heard of some new research, the listeners might find interesting, that there is research that shows, especially in this space, in tech space, and I'm sure it's true in any creative space, that you really can't work longer than eight hours on something without starting to make the crossover mistakes that make it unproductive.
Sandy: I can do that. [laughs]
Lucy: Yeah. Which is pretty interesting.
Larry: Sandy, I love that thought. Yes. Sandy, with all the things you've done, the billions of page views and millions of users and everything, you've already achieved a great deal. What is next for you?
Sandy: That's a good question. My personal goal for Meebo has always been, I should be able to go to any city in the world and say the word "Meebo" and people's eyes should light up and they should know exactly what I'm talking about. People are doing that with Facebook a little but they don't do that with Meebo and I'd love for that to happen. Personally, that's self-interesting too. I started out as a software engineer and then you learn how to manage, you learn how to be a leader. Now, as a CTO my role is divided now where I do a lot of internal management. So, team building and hiring and personal development of the people that work for me. But also, the external part of that. So, reaching out to other folks, going to industry events, speaking on panels. As someone who does both, you can't really do both really, really well if you're pulled in two directions. So, I've been learning to really love the external part. This interview, for example, is really fun for me. I really like going to meet young people outside and encouraging them to start their own ventures. I really like mentoring young people, I like going to these entrepreneurial conferences and inspiring young folks. I really love that part and so I'd love to see more of that in my career and my personal development. Obviously, my commitments and my heart is at Meebo. So, trying to find a good balance there is something that I'm trying to do right now, it's a personal goal of mine. To be honest, I don't know what I'll be doing in five or six years. Hopefully, Meebo will be wildly successful and we'll be looking at trillions of page views instead of billions. But once you start your own venture it's hard to go back to work with somebody else. So, either starting something else or seeing where Meebo goes, I don't know. I really don't know.
Larry: Well, we're going to track you and follow you.
Lucy: Thank you very much for your passion around inspiring more young people to pursue entrepreneurship, technical endeavors, young women to pursue computer science. You're an awesome role model. That's exactly what NCWIT is really trying to do. It's so important. So, thank you for that.
Sandy: No worries. This is really fun.
Lucy: OK. Well, great. We enjoyed talking to you. I want to remind listeners that they can find this and other interviews at w3w3.com and ncwit.org See you around, Sandy.