She's 31, a Starbucks board member & just raised $30m. Meet Hearsay Social co-founder Clara Shih

Why Hearsay Social has set up a London HQ

When Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg decided to step down from the board of Starbucks, she recommended a twenty-something tech entrepreneur to replace her to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

That twenty-something was Clara Shih, co-founder of Hearsay Social, a software company that helps big brands use social media to tap customers.

Shih, now 31, became a social media swot after authoring the book The Facebook Era in 2009, which went on to become the New York Times’ featured bestseller and has now become a marketing textbook at Harvard Business School.

Of course her degrees come in handy too: she graduated number one in Computer Science at Stanford University and has an MSc in Internet Studies from Oxford University.

Last month, Hearsay Social raised $30m in Series C funding led by existing investors, Sequoia Capital and New Enterprise Associates, bringing its total funding to $51m. And Shih plans to use the funding to fuel the company’s expansion plans, which include a new London HQ.

We spoke to Shih about Hearsay Social’s growth strategy, girls in tech and what is it like to be mentored by Sheryl Sandberg:

Q. How did you come up with the idea of setting up Hearsay Social?

I had always wanted to start a company, but it took a while to build up the courage. In 2007, a Facebook app [Faceforce] I had built for fun suddenly went viral and, quickly thereafter, I was approached by a publisher to pen the first book about social sales and marketing. When The Facebook Era became a hit - featured in The New York Times and picked up by Harvard Business School as a sales and marketing textbook - I realised that social media presented an enormous opportunity for enterprises. Knowing that enterprises would need help driving sales, relevancy, and loyalty in this new ‘social media era’ I reached out to my former Stanford classmate, Steve Garrity, and Hearsay Social was born.

Q. What’s your business model?

Hearsay Social provides a ‘Software as a Service (SaaS)’ software solution that empowers global sales forces to efficiently and successfully use social media to attract prospects, retain customers, and grow business. The Hearsay Social platform boosts sales productivity and incorporates best practices while ensuring brand integrity and compliance for even the most regulated industries. Tens of thousands of salespeople worldwide use Hearsay Social every day to hear and respond to everything their customers and prospects are saying on top social networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Q. How have you been funded over the years?

Since its founding in 2009, Hearsay Social has raised $51m across three rounds of funding. Most recently we raised $30 million from Sequoia and New Enterprise Associates in August 2013.

Q. How many customers do you have and how many social pages does Hearsay power?

We are not sharing the number of customers or social pages, but we can say that we have doubled our customer base in the past year and today power over 55,000 sales rep profiles across LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Q. How are you going to use the new funding?

We will be using the new funding to accelerate product development, customer success, and go-to-market efforts to better serve enterprise customers and continue global expansion.

Q. Why did you decide to set up an HQ in London? Why is the capital a key market for you?

A key driver in our expansion to London was our customers. We work with a number of multinational organisations in the US and, as they expanded their social sales programmes overseas, it made sense for us to support them in Europe. Also, London is a crucial financial hub for Europe and, because we work with primarily financial services and insurance firms, it made sense for it to be the location of our first European office. 

Q. What do you think of London’s tech scene? How can it be better?

London’s tech scene seems to be growing all the time, which is really good news for business in the UK and Europe as a whole. From Silicon Valley to Los Angeles to New York to London, tech and start-up communities are thriving across the world, with each one bringing something new and different to the table. All of them have the power to impact business and consumers in meaningful ways.

Q. There are a lot of businesses in the UK that don’t consider social media as part of their sales strategy, what are they missing out on?

I just recently wrote an article with Goldman Sachs CMO Lisa Shalett about the risks of not being on social media. Not being where your customers are erodes relevancy and awareness over time. Neglecting to have a social media presence also means allowing others to define your brand. Finally, organisations and individuals who ignore technology risk being perceived as behind the curve as well as actually being behind the curve, which is not acceptable in today’s competitive market environment.

Q. You’ve worked at Google, Microsoft and Salesforce in the past, what key lessons have you learnt?

Across these companies, I have learned the power of focusing on long-term customer success should be the highest priority. This is true for companies of any stage, size, and sector. Additionally, one key lesson is to prioritise your time and energy. While figuring out what to do is easy, figuring out what not to do is extremely hard.

Finally, I’ve learned to be okay with conflicting truths and extremes. For example, we’re often told that we need to move fast and pivot to stay ahead of the game, but we’re also told that building a sustainable company takes time. Every mantra has its truth, but each serves its purpose at different times and stages.

Q. How’s it to have Sheryl Sandberg as a mentor, what is that one key advice that she has given you?

Sheryl gives me the same advice she has now given to the rest of the world - lean in. Throughout my professional career, I’ve come across many obstacles and at times wanted to hold back or even quit. Sheryl’s friendship, mentorship, and helpful insights have helped me realise it is perfectly normal to have doubts and insecurities, but we truly grow as leaders when we learn to overcome them and inspire our people to overcome their fears as well.

Q.  You’re on the Starbucks board of directors, how has the experience been?

It has been a tremendous experience working with Howard Schultz and the rest of the board. For me, it is eye-opening to see how a large Fortune 500 company like Starbucks adapts and grows in a rapidly changing world. From mobile to social media, several forces of technology are transforming how businesses interact with their customers, and it is inspiring to work on effecting that change in a positive way.

Q. What should be done for more women to take up roles in tech companies?

It starts in our schools and with our children. We need to encourage our daughters and granddaughters to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and not be intimidated by these core subjects. At Hearsay Social, we do a lot of volunteerism and outreach in this area. I recently visited my alma mater, Stanford University, to speak to 50 high school girls learning how to code, as part of a summer course taught by she++. Additionally, I am an advisor to GoldieBlox, a toy company dedicated to teaching a whole generation of girls to be more confident and courageous when it comes to engineering tasks.

Thanks for your time Clara.

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