Interview with Selina Tobaccowala

July 30, 2007

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

When Selina Tobaccowala co-founded a little web company called Evite as a junior at Stanford, she was one of just 18 women majoring in computer science.

Selina Tobaccowala

Selina Tobaccowala is Senior Vice President of Product and Technology at Ticketmaster's Europe division, where she manages the 200-person Product, Technology and Operations team. In addition to launching an entire rebuild of the division's websites, in this capacity Selina is responsible for introducing new products into the European marketplace, as well as integrating newly merged companies into core operations. Previously Selina was Vice President of Online Product and Technology at Entertainment Publications, where she led the company's online sales and technology initiatives -- managing the growth of Entertainment's websites and developing new electronic discounting products and web tools. Prior to joining Entertainment, Tobaccowala founded Evite.com, an online invitation service that lets users organize an offline event online, and which currently sends over three million invitations per month. As Vice President of Engineering for Evite.com, she led the company's development and operations and played a key role in setting the strategic direction with the board of directors. In 2001, Evite.com was sold to Ticketmaster. Tobaccowala managed the transition, then took on the role of Senior Director of Product and Technology for CRM (customer relationship management) at Ticketmaster. Tobaccowala holds a bachelor of science degree in computer science from Stanford University.

Selina Tobaccowala

Transcript: 

An Interview with Selina Tobaccowala Senior VP of Product and Technology, Ticketmaster Europe

Date: July 30, 2007

Lee Kennedy: Hi, this is Lee Kennedy and I am on the Board of Directors for the National Center of Women and Information Technology or NCWIT and 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 have just fabulous stories to tell us about being entrepreneurs. With me is Larry Nelson from W3W3.com. Hi Larry, How are you.?

Larry Nelson: I'm fantastic, and I'm real excited. Again this is another wonderful interview you guys have lined up. That's super. And W3W3.com we're a web‑based Internet radio show. We podcast and blog and everything else, and this is right up our alley.

Lee: Great, and just to get right with it we are interviewing Selina Tobaccowala. Selina has a really interesting background. Selina was a Stanford grad and right out of school started Evite, which I think everybody in the universe knows about, and if you've ever been invited to a party or an event. She is currently working at Ticketmaster. So Selina why don't you start and tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to be in technology and an entrepreneur.

Selina Tobaccowala: Thank you Lee and Larry. From my standpoint from entrepreneur and how I got into technology, it's very much being surrounded by technology my whole life. My father was in computers as well and started doing the initial punch card programming in the 70s and eventually got into management and so forth. And then going on to Standford where you are surrounded by technology everywhere. I mean, I graduated in 1998 and in that time frame there was Yahoo, Excite, and Apple. Everything was around us and everything was started by Stanford entrepreneurs. So being in computer science at Standford there was just so much opportunity to go and do something in technology, which was very exciting.

Lee: Great.

Larry: I can't help but ask this. You've kind of led into it already. Just for a little clarity, you were one of the co founders of Evite.

Selina: Yes.

Larry: And that is how you ended up where you're at now. Because I kind of went and checked you out online. You've got a very interesting product that you're working on there at Ticketmaster. I can't wait to see where you're going to be going next. [laughter]

Larry: How did you first, you mentioned your father. I can remember punch cards. I was doing some work at a University back in Wisconsin. I dropped the basket, oh boy. What was that transition in terms of what you think is really cool today going on in technology?

Selina: In terms of technology today, some of the stuff I find cool possibly being in Ticketmaster and being surrounded by music is all the conversions in devices especially around music. So just looking at the iPod and what it's been able to do, and some of the products surrounding that from iTunes to iLike is something that actually Ticketmaster has invested in. And it's just a great convergence of taking new music, all the new web technologies as far as taking consumer data, and being able to help you discover new music. But it's all really from a standpoint; those are some of the things that I find really interesting in today's pace. And it is really tying together all the devices if you look at Google Maps tying into the GPS on your phone so you always know where you are, and driving those things together. I just feel like right now we're in another interesting time where the hardware has been able to catch up with what people can do from the software perspective. And being on the software side, obviously I find that very exciting.

Lee: So it sounds like you really love being on the leading edge of technology and integrating all the latest and greatest devices. When you think about your role as an entrepreneur, what is it that makes you enjoy being an entrepreneur? What about being an entrepreneur really makes you tick?

Selina: I think the key for me, based on my personality. I like to really dig in and solve problems and looking out there in terms of business opportunities and then using technology or consumer problems that people actually have and then using technology to take advantage of them. When you look at everything in my history, it's all about consumer products and making it easier, using the web to make your life easier in an off line way. So whether that's sending invitations so you don't have to try and coordinate thirty people via phone and email to actually organize an event, and actually make that event happen. Or having people very easily get to a live show and at a fair price. From my perspective it's really about taking technology to make the consumer life easier, and I like that. And there is so many opportunities as technologies get better, consumers always have problems.

Larry: Yeah it is. Let me ask this. Kind of going back in history because we're trying to get a feel of what really makes an entrepreneur and how this all comes about, one of the things that we've noticed that you and others have mentioned is people that are mentors to you, roll models. Who would somebody like that be in your life?

Selina: I think I already mentioned a little bit, but definitely my father. He and my mom came over to the U.S. probably with not that many resources or opportunities that I had. And my dad started doing basic computer technology and in the end was managing quite a bit at EAS and then jumped into a startup, then did two startups after that. And watching, he jumped into a start up actually a year before I did at Evite and watching that and saying, I think I can do that too, and then encouraging me to do so. And graduating from Standford and seeing people take jobs at general consulting firms and saying don't worry about it. Take a risk, now's the time. To me that was really important to have that around. And again, just through silicon valley there are so many different mentors around, and people encouraging you to just try and jump into businesses and take a risk, and that it's OK to fail. Which I think is one of the key things about being an entrepreneur is that you're going to try things that are not going to work, whether it's a product that you're going to put out there. We had four products before we launched Evite and we tried a product and it didn't work. We built a new product and it didn't work, and it's a matter of testing what consumers respond to, then putting something out on the market that actually works. And I think that the U.S. And Silicon Valley specifically completely encourages that.

Lee: It's really cool that your dad was one of your key mentors in life. I have to say that some of the other women that we interviewed talk about how their father was either an entrepreneur or technical or an engineer and how that played a big influence in their life.

Selina: I think that if you're surrounded by it. One of the things I think is great about the National Center for Women is if you're surrounded by it and get involved in it early, you really have the likelihood to see the value in technology and bring it out there whether for consumers or businesses.

Lee: So thinking about everything you've done in the last ten years or more. Starting a new company from scratch and now doing amazing things where you're at. What do you think is the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?

Selina: One of the things as an entrepreneur is that you're not always going to succeed in the way you want to succeed. And that's part of taking the risk and that's part of the excitement but at the same time it's not going to work out. Evite we did a lot of things right and we sold our product and people still use it. But we did hit the downturn in the 2001 time frame, and we had to downsize. That's something as a leader is really hard, because you put your time, and investment, and people, and they give their time and ideas and thoughts back to you and to the organization. And that always is one of the toughest things is that you know, fundamentally, if your business doesn't succeed to the degree, sometimes you need to let go parts of the team, and that's always going to be the toughest thing in any business.

Larry: Yes. I have to tell our listeners, off‑line, just before we started, I asked Selina, "How come I only got three Evites this week?" And I said, "Was it a slow week?" She said, "Well, either that, or you have to get more friends." [laughs]

Selina: [laughs]

Larry: So anyhow, Selina, if you were sitting in front, right now, of a young person who was contemplating whether or not they wanted to become an entrepreneur, what advice would you give them?

Selina: I mean, from my standpoint, as cheesy as it sounds, definitely go for it. [laughs]

Larry: [laughs]

Selina: But definitely, after that, it's really what I was saying a little bit before, which is you need to take risks. From my standpoint, it's prototype something as quickly in the marketplace as you can, see what's working, see what's not working; especially when you look at new technologies and web technologies. You can track everything. You can test everything. So you can get stats, see results, and then tweak, tweak, tweak. So it's very easy to sort of weed out stuff that's not working, try new things, and get it working and build a sustainable product. So, in terms of, again, that's more based on web technologies. It's harder to do if you're talking about hardware or physical goods. But the principle; being of prototype, get it out, market test it, and then keep building; is still the right thing.

Larry: Great advice.

Lucy Sanders: Well, Selina, one of the questions that we're always eager to ask is, with all the amazing things you've done, when you think about yourself, what personal characteristics do you think have given you any advantages as an entrepreneur?

Selina: I actually would ask somebody else. [laughs] But I would say that, from my perspective, one of the keys is, actually, I'm not a very patient person. And although that might not be seen as a general advantage, it is sort of an impatience with the status quo, with what's out there, and being able to be curious and question and say, "Why are things working this way? How are things working?" So we constantly try to think about how to make it better: "How can I improve on what's there?" Whether that's in a small way, from a product perspective or a feature perspective, to actually say, "Is there a full business opportunity here?" It is probably, for me, the largest thing, from a personal characteristic standpoint. But I don't think there's anything that different in terms of besides the willingness to be able to take a risk.

Lucy: Mm‑hmm. Great.

Larry: Well put. Well put. I must say, being a serial entrepreneur myself, I can relate to that. Here's kind of a tricky thing. You're a hard worker. You love what you do. And of course, that's the good side. Well, you're a hard worker, and you like to do what do you do. How do you bring about the personal and professional balance in your life?

Selina: [laughs]

Larry: [laughs]

Selina: A bad question when I'm at work at 7:15 at night. [laughs] [laughter]

Selina: No. I'd say there's a couple of things, which is, even doing Evite, and we've been working intense hours‑‑every Friday, at least, Friday evening and Saturday, spending time with friends and being able to say, "I'm going to take out X time, and no matter what else is going on, spend time with other people." Because it does actually reinvigorate you, give you new ideas. And then another thing, for me, is I absolutely love to travel. And so it's really saying that taking, even if it's just one week out every year, but it is taking that time and actually going and seeing someplace new, because, again, I feel like really taking some time out to just go do that. And it does bring on new ideas, you do relax to a different degree, and your mind sort of refreshes. And I think that that's very important. And I'd say the last thing is I love to read, and every night, before I go to bed. It's like it takes your mind to a different space and does give that relaxation that you need. Lucy: Gosh, I think that's the best advice I've heard yet from anybody on how they get balanced. Yeah.

Larry: Yeah. I love it. Yeah.

Lucy: Because being an entrepreneur requires so much creativity, because you're always faced with new challenges...

Selina: Yeah. And the thing is, if you don't get away from the day‑to‑day ever‑‑I live in London now, and one of the things is, no matter what else, I walk to work every morning. And it takes me about 35, 40 minutes, but it's like I'm walking through a park, and it's like it lets you actually think through everything. Even if it's just an hour here or there, taking the time out to refresh yourself, because you end up actually thinking through things more clearly and being more productive.

Larry: You brought up London, and I have to ask this. Here we are, sitting in Boulder, Colorado...

Selina: [laughs]

Larry: Sunny skies, 80 degrees, gorgeous outside...

Lucy: You rubbing it in, Larry?

Larry: Oh, I'm sorry. Sorry.

Selina: [laughs]

Larry: And I know it's evening there now, but what was it like earlier today in London?

Selina: Well, actually, today was absolutely beautiful. [laughs]

Lucy: We caught you on a good day!

Larry: Oh, wow. What a setup! What a setup!

Selina: Yes, it was. The summer months are generally just beautiful here. And as I said, I walk through the park with wildflowers...

Lucy: Oh.

Selina: And I was in Germany for work yesterday, so it's very easy to see new places. [laughs]

Lucy: Well, the last question we have for you is‑‑you've already achieved so much at such a young age. What's next for you?

Selina: As Larry said, the whole serial entrepreneur. One of the things, Evite got bought by the parent company, IAC. And I've been doing, to a certain degree, startups within IAC‑‑started a group at Ticketmaster first, then went on and started an online organization for Entertainment.com, and now came to Ticketmaster and doing European products and technology. But I think the next thing for me is I will get back that itch to do a startup from scratch, [laughs] and coming up that idea and finding the next thing. And for me, I love what I'm doing now. We're doing great things in terms of new products and launching it through the different European marketplaces. But I'd say, after Ticketmaster, it's definitely jumping back into a small organization.

Larry: Oh, we just have to ask this. With your experience, and now your worldwide travels and involvement and all, what do you see, technology‑wise, that's coming down the pike that's going to make a big, sweeping difference to all of us?

Selina: Oh, wow. That's a tough one. [laughs] But again, I don't see any single technology. And I think that that's the way I think. I don't see that, all of a sudden, everything's going to migrate to mobile phones, or there's going to be any single device or any single technology that's going to sort of change everything completely. I mean, there's a few of those that come up occasionally, like, obviously, adding search to the web changed it dramatically. But I do see that what you have today is finally, as I was saying before, the ability to suddenly drive everything to the web, from, rightly, with software applications that used to could only sit on your computer. I think, all of a sudden, you can be connected from everywhere, and you can get to everything from everywhere. And I think that just changes the mindset in terms of continually and always being able to access your information and, to a certain degree now, other people being able to access your information. And it changes the whole how anonymous you can be within an everyday life, and everybody's more connected and the web connects people, and so I do feel that more and more technologies are taking advantage of that. But it will change how people interact.

Lucy: Yeah. There's definitely some exciting things.

Larry: Are we going to follow up on this, Selina, or not? We can tell you're going to have a super, super career, and we definitely will follow you.

Selina: Well, thank you. Thank you for taking your time as well.

Lucy: Well, Selina, thank you so much. It's been wonderful learning more about you today. Remember, these podcasts will be on www.ncwit.org, as well as www.w3w3.com.

Larry: That's it.

Selina: Great.

Lucy: Thanks, and pass these on to a friend.

Selina: Thank you so much.

Larry: See you soon.

Lucy: Bye‑bye.