Elaine Wherry is a Co-founder and VP of Products at Meebo. Originally a classically-trained violinist, Elaine graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Symbolic Systems with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction.
After graduating, she became the Manager of Usability and Design at Synaptics and co-founded Meebo.com in 2005 with two good friends, Seth Sternberg and Sandy Jen.
Thanks Elaine for doing this interview with us on YHP
Don’t mention it – thank you for having me.
How are you doing today?
I’m very well and excited to be a part of YHP.
I’m sure everyone is familiar with the meebo story, so what was going through your mind whilst you were coding the program? Did you ever think it would turn out to be this big or even start a company?
I think most of our story is pretty typical – two engineers and a business guy working to solve a problem out of someone’s apartment.
However, what most people don’t know is that we spent over two years prior to Meebo building two other products before launching the third product, the Meebo that people know today. We abandoned both prior ideas for various reasons (too much funding required, concern that our idea might not be too niche). After spending two years of weekends and evenings working on failed concepts, I think all three of us were probably harboring doubts of whether any of our projects would see the light of day.
Where did your organization's funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it? How did you obtain investors for your venture?
We funded the original concept from our pockets and credit cards. After we launched, we realized that buying servers to scale the Meebo service was a lot of financial risk for two unemployed engineers and a business school student to take on. We had a few angel investors who helped us out (Marc Andreessen, Jon Callaghan and Scott Epstein among others). A few months later, we took our Series A funding from Sequoia. Later, Draper Fisher Jurvetson funded our Series B and then our Series C was a combination of Time Warner, JAFCO, and KTB.
How many employees do you have? Full- or part-time?
Most of our team is full-time. We have about 70 people in total. There are about 50 of us in Mountain View, California. We have an additional 20 folks in other offices such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few other places too.
How long do you plan to keep operating this business? Do you have an “exit” strategy for getting out of the company?
We’re committed to seeing the company become a self-sustaining business. I think that’s why we spent 2-3 years testing other ideas before pursuing Meebo. We wanted something that inspired us and that would be long-lasting.
What is your business model?
Our revenue stems from brand advertising. We’re fortunate that Meebo has long engagement times and a very social audience which is an ideal formula for brand advertisers. Brand advertisements typically focus on building meaningful interactions that users will want to share or talk about with friends. We’ve been optimizing this model throughout 2009 and we’re pleased that our advertising product has been so well-received and performed so well.
What would you do if there was no internet?
I’m definitely a product person at heart so I’d most likely be developing interesting user experiences in some other medium like architecture or industrial design.
On those impossible days, what motivates you to keep going? The days when you were tiring to see if the concept of meebo was possible and everywhere you turned it is said to be impossible?
The team. It sounds cliché but when you’re working besides incredibly bright, motivated folks, their enthusiasm is contagious.
Do you have a favourite business tool or resource?
I’m a list-driven person so most of my productivity is organized with a simple text editor (like notepad) or within my MoleSkine journal. When I finish a list or journal, I transcribe all of the written notes and save them online in password-protected files for easy access later. I have nearly four years of notes stored online so far. The system works for me but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others.
Where do you see in yourself and your business in the next 5 years?
The leader in real-time communication. I’d like Meebo to be powering all of the instant communication throughout the web.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
I have an unexpected favorite outside the technical arena. I have enormous respect for Neal’s Farm Yard Dairy in London. I had an opportunity to meet with the owner, Randolph Hodgson, last year and was inspired by his cheese-making practices. In the Web world, we may test and deploy four or five concepts with A/B testing in a week. If you’re making a cheddar that requires over a year to age, you don’t have the luxury of making nearly as many mistakes and you need a way to remember how something tasted months ago. In addition, he's built a beautiful business that has withstood time by focusing on his products' integrity and by maintaining a close relationship with his customers.
What sacrifices did you have to make to be a successful entrepreneur?
I'm sure everyone's experiences are different. From my founder experience, I am constantly hiring or mentoring someone to fill my current role so I can continue to build the team in other areas. As a result, I have never had a role that didn't somehow evolve after 3-6 months. One thing that I sometimes miss is the feeling of routine and expertise (i.e. "been there, done that") that comes when you've had a role for a longer duration. As soon as I understand a role well enough, then I am off hiring or mentoring someone into that new opportunity.
What qualities have you developed as a result of running your business?
Hiring and building teams. When we first started Meebo, a VC told me that good founders would spend the majority of their time hiring. At the time, I thought that his portrayal of an entrepreneur’s life sounded very un-sexy. However, he was right and then some. The other day I estimated that I’ve done between 2,000-3,000 interviews since Meebo began.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
It happens everyday but I really like seeing team members pull a chair up to another person's desk to tackle a problem together.
What kind of culture exists in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?
Working with friends is being said to be very dangerous, how have you managed to work with friends and still remain friends with them and have a successful business?
I knew Seth for eight years and Sandy for six years before we launched. In addition, we already had the experience of working on projects for over two years prior to our public announcement. We each have our strengths and weaknesses. However, after working together for so long, we know each other well enough to know how we can be most effective as a team.
How do you find people to bring into your organization that truly care about the organization the way you do?
We hire very slowly, we have calibrated hiring metrics, and we have a culture that is invested in building an amazing team. We also entrust our product and engineering teams with a high degree of creative freedom to shape the products they're working on. This helps build ownership as well as fueling innovation in the organization.
How important have good employees been to your success?
They are absolutely everything. I can't emphasize that enough.
What plans do you have now to expand your business further?
Meebo's overall vision is to help users build connections with the people that matter most to them. We devoted much of 2009 to deploying a new product called the Meebo Bar which takes the real-time technology behind Meebo.com and enables real-time communication and sharing on social and content sites (e.g. CafeMom or Flixster). With the embedded Meebo Bar, our partners enable their users to chat live with their friends from that site and to share site articles or pictures via Twitter, Facebook, IM, or email. We're excited about this platform and we're excited to connect users with their friends regardless of whether those friends live in Meebo.com or on partner sites. You can learn more at http://business.meebo.com/.
What systems have you used to automate your business to give you more time for business planning and development?
On the engineering side, we use a bunch of open source projects such as Trac, SVN, and Bugzilla. On a day-to-day basis, I'd be lost without my e-mail filters.
Thanks for your time Elaine and taking the time to speak with me on YHP.