Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise of FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. I’m very excited today, because I’m here with Sandy Jen, who is one of the cofounders of Meebo. Meebo connects people to what’s important to them online. With that said, Sandy, we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.
Sandy: Sure. I’m happy to be here. I was born on the East Coast of the United States, home to the Baltimore Orioles. I was a huge fan growing up. I was always the nerdy kid at school: Obedient, did my homework, lucky enough to be born into a family of engineers. Mom was an engineer, dad’s an engineer, they both still do engineering. My mom actually helped me in college with programming assignments.
In high school, my high school offered four years of computer science, which is actually pretty cool, given how rare it was for that. And so, I started learning BASIC as a freshman in high school. I moved on to Pascal, did C++ for a couple of years, and then I was fortunate enough to get into Stanford.
There’s an intro course at Stanford where you can take a two part class to learn programming, or a one part class. I was like, “Well, I kind of know programming already, let’s just go jump into the accelerated class.” Little did I know that most kids that take the accelerated class end up just doing computer science for their whole Stanford career, and that’s what I ended up doing. I had a great time and learned a lot.
I got out of school, unfortunately, during the bust of the bubble. The bubble kind of burst, not really a lot of jobs out there. When I was a TA in my department, my class size started to dwindle. The spark of the computer science movement tended to dwindle down to, “Hey, the startup thing isn’t really a great thing anymore.”
I got a job as a software developer. I like to tell this story because it’s kind of funny to a lot of people. You come out of college thinking you’re going to change the world. I come out, I had an internship at this great company, and they put me in a cube of four walls. I’m a relatively short person, so sitting in a cube with four walls, you kind of feel like, “This isn’t really what I signed up for.” Luckily, I met Seth and Elaine, and we were thinking, “What can we do to really change this?” From then on, we started to let the ideas run. Fast forward to eight years later, and here we are with Meebo.
Matthew: What makes Meebo unique? Who’s it for, and why are you so passionate about it?
Sandy: I think the interesting thing about Meebo is that it’s a great way to relate to people. From day one, when we started to think about how we can create a startup, or create something interesting, we wanted it to be consumer. We knew that off the bat. We came up with a few ideas ahead of time, all labeled Meebo, actually. If you look up the original registry purchase for the name of the domain, it was actually in 2003, way before this Web 2.0 bubble.
As that’s translated through the years, I think what’s made Meebo special is that we’ve always paid attention to the user. The user is number one. From day one, when we launched meebo.com, the first original messenger product, we put a blog, we put a forum, and we specifically made it very, very clear to the users that they’re part of the process. In the beginning days, when we came out with the first release, we said, “Hey, this is the first release, we’re just trying it out. Be a part of the process and tell us what you think.” They would come back with all of these emails with feedback and forum requests, and we would actually say, “OK, let’s just take the top three, and just do those.”
One of the things you learn early on in the startup process is that you, even though you built the product for yourself, ultimately do not become the end user, because they take the product in ways you just never could have imagined. Originally, when we did the first product, we thought the next request would be like… We guessed three completely wrong things, and what they really wanted was password protection, emoticons, and Jabber support. We’re like, “OK, let’s just do that.” We kind of scrapped our original road map and just did those. People loved it.
What we learned was that, if you make the user part of the process and you continue to do that, even when you’re 60 years-old and you make a lot more money, they appreciate it and they understand that the product process is an evolution, and you can’t get it perfect the first day. It’s a constant iterative process, and the more you involve your end user, your end customer, whether that be a 16-year-old girl who lives in Kansas City, to a big time publisher with millions of users at their disposal, you have to involve them. If you involve them in the right way, you can create a really, really magical product.
Mathew: What are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist, and where do you see things developing in the future for your space?
Sandy: I’m going to answer this one just from a technical bent, just because I’m more engineering-focused. I think the interesting thing for me to see is that, when we started in 2005, very few things were moving to the web. That was the new trend, “Hey, let’s move productivity to the web, we don’t have to keep it on a download website, and download product.” The cool thing about that was that people started to learn that technology was not scary. They didn’t have to understand virus software and download software and progress bars and, “Is everything OK? OK.” It’s a very, very scary thing.
Web technology has allowed people to seamlessly jump that ocean from download to web. I think now what we’re seeing is that people are jumping the next ocean, from really scary web things, to like, “what my 16-year-old nephew who goes to MIT can do,” to, “Oh, hey, I’m a stay-at-home mom with three kids, and I can do all of this stuff. I can blog, I can tweet, I can make videos, I can create these magical experiences for my friends and my social groups,” without having to understand all of the ins and outs of that. That trend of users becoming savvy, becoming much more involved with their online experience, is real interesting.
Look at it from Meebo’s perspective, where we had to pivot a bit from the [inaudible 06:52] product, to more of a communications product, to a social product to, now, we have this publisher product that engages both the consumer and the publisher and the advertiser at the same time. That bar is trying to create that really seamless experience for everyone. Whether that be the publisher trying to engage its users more, whether that be an advertiser trying to create a really interesting brand experience outside of television, or whether that be to create a recommendations platform that we’re trying to do with the [inaudible 07:22] product to create something so seamless and interesting that we can create a very easy experience for users without them having to feel, like, “Oh my God, I don’t understand how to do this.” I think that trend of trying to make things easy, make things seamless, and make things much more intuitive and dynamic and interactive is very exciting.
Matthew: Who are your co-founders? How’d you meet, and what qualities were you looking for, and how’d you know they’d be a good fit?
Sandy: Seth, I met actually over the phone. He knows the husband of my other co-founder, Elaine, who I met at Stanford. She was a couple years ahead of me in school. She was much more involved in the user experience, fronted part of the consumer side, and we kind of knew each in school a little bit. When I graduated and got depressed at living in a cube all day, Seth had come up with idea of trying to start something. He was like, “Hey, I’m looking for some chief Stanford students to help me code this thing,” and he asked his friend Todd, who’s Elaine’s husband, “Do you know anybody who might be interested?” He’s like, “Well, Elaine’s itching to do something interesting, and she knows some people. What if you guys got together?” That’s a lot better than just hiring some students to do some work.
We all got together through various means, and I think Seth was in New York at the time. When we met, we kind of hit it off right away. We had this really natural way of communicating, and we actually had very similar skill sets. Seth was much more visionary, business-y, had this experience in the field. Elaine’s much more fronted, like I said, much more involved in the user experience, and had a great eye for how to create a product for people. I’m much more, like, “Hey, let’s just make the server part work,” and engineering and everything behind the scenes.
We kind of hit it off right away, and one of the things that people tell you that you don’t realize off the bat is how important that founding team is. If it doesn’t work right away, it doesn’t work. One of those things that clicked really well was that we had great matching skill sets, we had great matching personalities, and we worked really well together. We had similar philosophies on how to make things go forward, which I think is really important.
The qualities I think that you want to look for, I’m sort of giving advice to other folks now, is that these people who you start things with, it’s kind of like a marriage. You have to put your whole self in there, and you have to trust them. Trust is earned, again, but at the same time, the more you give it, the more it’s also taken from you as well. There’s this really nice cycle that feeds itself.
I think, off the bat, we just had a lot of fun doing it. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I have to go to Elaine’s apartment to go work now.” It’s more like, “Oh, yeah, let’s go to Elaine’s apartment and let’s get some stuff done.” We would meet every Sunday. We had this routinized thing, where it’s like, “We don’t know what the idea we want to do yet, but we want to keep it up.” We met every Sunday, we all had full time jobs. Seth actually moved out from New York to California.
When we were just about to launch meebo.com, the messenger product, I would basically get up at 7:00, go to work, use my lunch hour to work Meebo, leave at 5:00, go to Elaine’s apartment, work until 3:00 a.m., go back home, or maybe not go home, sleep for like four hours, and then repeat. It was fun. It was something that was really exciting.
Once we decided to actually quit our jobs, which Elaine and I conveniently forgot to tell Seth at the time, it was exciting, because it was like, “Wow, this is actually going to go.” When you feed upon that, it just became its own thing. Part of it was that the idea was really cool, but part of it was because you’re doing it with people that you really feel like you have a connection with, and you’re really getting there with something.