Sandy Jen – Meebo 2 of 2

"Perseverance is the key to overcoming self-doubt." Meebo organizes the web around people making it easy to find and share things online.

Matthew: From idea to product launch, how long did it take and when did you actually launch the product?

Sandy: That’s kind of a little bit complicated. We actually got together two years before. Like I said, the domain registry has been dotcom in 2003. We didn’t launch the messenger product until 2005. So, we actually worked on two ideas prior to that. Every idea was sort of an evolution of the previous ideas. We would learn why that version didn’t work, take what really worked, and then move to the second idea and the third idea.

And so, the messenger product itself, we probably conceived of it in earlier that year in 2005, and kind of got it sort of rolling. But then we were really rushing, so one of the things that developers and product people tend to do is they tend to over-perfect. Oh, it’s not ready yet. Oh, it’s not ready yet. So, you keep doing it and keep doing it, and by the time you finish it, someone else has already launched it.

So, we stayed really, really disciplined and said, we’re going to launch by this date. Just pick an arbitrary date, even if it’s not good enough, just do it. Just have it be good enough. Probably, we started to work on it in March-ish, and we launched it in September. So, it was pretty fast. We had a lot of the infrastructure sort of from working together built from the previous two ideas, but the actual code itself we just hammered it through in a few months.

We had full time jobs until August of 2005. So, Elaine and I didn’t do full time until August, and then for a month we just cranked the code out, got it to work and then launched it September, 2005.

Matthew: Are there any unique metrics or social proof about Meebo that you’d like to share with our audience.

Sandy: It got traction right away, early. One thing that Elaine was really a stickler on, which is awesome, which was statistics. So, from day one we had stats which sort of implemented the system. So, we actually crafted our simultaneous user graph from day one, and so we still have that today. But in the beginning days, when we actually launched that night, there’s a story. That’s when Digg was just starting. It was about eight or nine months old, so getting yourself on Digg was like a really big deal.

And so, we were like, OK, we’ll just Digg ourselves, and we made the mistake of going to bed. Never, ever go to bed after you launch. We were exhausted, so we said, let’s just go to bed. We woke up the next morning at 6:00 a.m., and there were like 500 Diggs. We were like, holy crap, we’ve got to get our developers back up because it’s going to kill the servers.

And so, people were so amazed with the technology that they were just like, oh my God, this is such a neat thing. We got so much traction that first three months that investors started to come to us. That’s a great place to be. We didn’t actually go and say, “Oh, we want money.” It was like, hey, there’s all this traction. They started coming to our door. So, that was really cool.

And so, fast forward to today. We started out with three people with two servers, and now we’re almost 200 people, and we have offices around the country, and we hit about half of the U.S. population, so 200 million U.S. uniques a month, which is pretty cool. So, that’s pretty far from when we first started to where we are today, which is pretty cool.

Matthew: We know founders face a new challenge when they decide to build a company. What was the hardest part about building Meebo, and how did you overcome the obstacle?

Sandy: For me, I think it was a lot of self-confidence and a little bit of sort of self-doubt mixed in. I think as a first time entrepreneur and as someone, like I said, who was sort of the nerdy quiet kid at school, you have to really overcome the fact that you tend to, I wouldn’t say idolize other founders, but you have this really mystical interpretation of what their lives are like. At school, especially being at Stanford, you hear like Larry and Sergei. When I was there, their offices were still there and there’s these other names. You’re like, wow, Google, and when I graduated from school, it was the bust.

So, it was like, oh, startups are dead. VCs were not going to fund anything. You didn’t get the best rated at school, and you weren’t like the top whatever, whatever in XYZ competition. And so, I think when we launched Meebo, part of it was a little bit of disbelief in the fact that I was actually doing it. A lot of times you think to yourself, well, can you really do this? Can you really put yourself out there? And we had to face the questions of well, if you’re actually going to create a company, you might have to manage people. You might have to build a team. You might have to hire people. You might have to actually interview other people and how good they are.

That was actually really, really scary because you’ll be interviewing people who have had many more years of experience than you have, and they’ll be reporting to you. That was daunting. And so, I think in the beginning part of overcoming that was to see that it wasn’t this huge unbelievable feat that you had to go through. You didn’t have to be Superman to do it, and when you see other folks who you know…

Another story that I like to tell is I knew this guy who failed the same math class that I did, who also started his own company. He’s doing great. It’s like, well, there’s not a lot of difference between me and him. Once you start to internalize that confidence and you’re saying, I’m actually doing this, I’m doing a good job. Being open to feedback. Being open to, “What am I going to learn from this experience” and I don’t know to know all of the answers. I ask a lot of questions. If I ask the right questions, I’ll get the right answers.

If you start to take all of those layers and you start to pile them on top of yourself, you learn a lot. And you tend to grow, and then you start to become proud of yourself. I think that pride, not arrogance, just pride in what you do and what you accomplish and what you can build starts to really become a strength. I think that’s where I’m (?).

Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your users that you didn’t realize?

Sandy: [laughs] I think one of the funniest stories is that in the beginning we had this very simple design esthetic. It was like, nice rounded corners. It wasn’t like Web 2.0, but it was very sort of subtle, not too in your face, very streamlined. And then, the whole MySpace thing happened, and people were like, I want glitz. I want lots of glitter. I want pink. I want jazz, and you’re like, that’s so not Meebo. You had to learn to be OK with that. You had to be OK with colors that you didn’t like and experiences that you may not necessarily have designed for yourself, but the users loved it.

And so, you have to take a little bit of what they say and a little bit of your own esthetic and combine them in a nice hybrid form, but that was a rather interesting experience.

Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make building companies easy. We know it can be very challenging. What talents or skills come intuitively or easy for you, and what’s been difficult, and how have you managed that?

Sandy: I think perseverance is something that helps a lot because, again, there’s that self-doubt. There’s the, oh my gosh, what if the next competitor just pops something out of the sky and destroys us? What if Google does something that has a competitor product and just destroys us? All that, that constant self-doubt can be debilitating so you have to sort of work through that. Just like, working hard; just trusting yourself, building a great team, sort of trudging through. There’s times where it may be hard that you know you can see the vision ahead of you.

I think the other thing is to try things that scare the crap out of you. I used to hate public speaking. I was so nervous. I would not want to go on a panel. I would not want to do this kind of interview. I would not want to get in a crowd, and I didn’t like networking either. It just didn’t come very natural to me, and so the part of the job was, do you want to make it be successful? Do you want to give your company the best shot possible, then you have to put yourself out there.

And so, you put your best foot forward and getting out there and then learning to be OK with it and then learning to learn from it. Now, I really enjoy it. So, working through that and just being OK with being scared completely and terrified on stage and your heart’s beating out of your chest. And then, a couple of years later being relaxed and having fun with it was a huge step for me. But I think that’s a common sort of weakness for a lot of folks, and if you just power through it, then you can kind of get through it.

Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned building Meebo?

Sandy: Wow. There have been a lot. The most important lesson? The people who you surround yourself with is the most important. That ultimately determines the success of your company and your idea and your vision because doing it alone is something that I just can’t do. It’s so lonely. You don’t have anybody to celebrate successes with. You don’t have anybody to weep with your failures with. Having the right team around you, as a founding company and as a 200 person company is crucial.

The proudest thing I can say about when I built Meebo is my team. I have no doubt that they are what makes Meebo. And so, to this day that’s why I go into work because obviously the vision of the company and how successful we are has been awesome. But without those people there, it would have been nothing.

Matthew: Can you share an experience when you dealt with failure?

Sandy: Yeah. I think we pivoted a lot at Meebo, in terms of the product cycle. We had the messenger product, and we even had [inaudible 10:03]. At every point of sort of that cycle, you wonder, is the market big enough? Are we going to be relevant? After the Web 2.0 thing, we weren’t in line a lot of the time. After you become three years old, you’re kind of a startup but you’re not like a baby darling startup.

And so, I wouldn’t say it was a failure but keeping motivated and keeping your team motivated through those pivots is something that you have to be very good at, in terms of keeping the right team there. And when we go back to the early days of Meebo, we actually had to pivot completely new ideas because we had the first two ideas didn’t pan out. I was ready to quit my job and do the startup thing, and it didn’t work out. That, I took it very hard because it was like, oh my God, I had all my dreams and hopes on this one idea and it died.

And so, learning how to recover from that and just learn from your failures constantly is important, even day to day from a manager perspective and being a leader at Meebo. You fail sometimes and you succeed. You have to learn to be OK with those failures and integrate those into your system.

Matthew: What advice would you like to share with the audience about building a startup company? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?

Sandy: Work hard. Find the right team, which is crucial, and do not give up. One of the special things about the valley is people here will tell you why it will succeed, rather than tell you why it won’t work. There’s a great community here to do that. Finding the right team is crucial, like I said, as far as creating that awesome experience with your team to actually build something. As I said, building it alone can be great for you, but it can be very lonely and then just working your ass off. Just trudging through that, persevering. Believing in yourself is just really, really important.

Matthew: Before we close, we’d love for you to give our audience your vision for Meebo and how you hope it will continue to change the world?

Sandy: So, I guess, two points there. From day one, I’ve always wanted to go to any city in the world, tap any person on the shoulder and say, “Meebo, I want to show you exactly what I’m talking about.” Obviously, exactly what I’m talking about has changed over the years, but I think now, like I said in the beginning, Meebo connects you to what’s important to you.

In the beginning, that was sort of communication and chatting, but that’s expanded beyond that these days. The social experience is way bigger, and users have become more savvy about what they want and what they expect from the web and products and experiences.

And so, with our new product I think it still remains true to that vision of connecting folks, and there’s this thing now where the web is so large. It’s so overwhelming sometimes where, taking it back to that trend that I was talking about, it’ll make the web such more seamless and a very easy experience. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the web were an easy place to navigate and look to help you do that. We can make next click, the next URL, the next experience, the next link, the next person you meet so much more natural and, say, magical. That would be awesome.

Matthew: Sandy, it’s been an honor having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success on Meebo. For those in our audience who would like to learn more, you can visit their website at HYPERLINK “http://www.Meebo.com” www.Meebo.com.

This is Matthew Wise of FounderLY. Thanks so much, Sandy.

Sandy: Thanks.

 
 

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