Female Heroes Interview: Judy Gibbons

Every week we will be publishing an interview with one of our female internet heroes in order for you to MEET interesting women. READ about their WORK, THINK about how they PLAY the internet industry and see how you MATCH them. Be inspired!Judy Gibbons is this week's interviewee.

Judy Gibbons, CEO MippinJudy Gibbons has been in the internet and technology sector since the early days of online. She worked for big companies such as HP, Apple and Microsoft, launching the latter's MSN business in the UK, something she calls ‘ highly entrepreneurial'.  She then went on the become MSN Corporate VP in charge of all 40 of MSN's global businesses and US sales & Marketing. Two years ago, realising that she wanted to do something with new technology in the consumer internet sector, she got involved as a VC with Venture Capital Firm Accel, investing in technology businesses. At the moment, she is CEO of one of Accel's ‘high hopes' Mippin, a company that, through enabling mobile content, is at the forefront of the emerging mobile internet. Judy shared her career experiences with the nextwomen, told us why she is convinced Mippin is the ‘next big thing' and what's next for her.

Accel invested in Mippin two years ago, today you are the company's CEO, why did you get involved with them?

Because we are optimistic about their potential. The basic hypothesis of our investors is that as people get used to consuming information and content on the internet, they will want to do that when they are away from their PC's too, on their mobile phones. Then, as devices become more and more capable of bringing that information, there is an opportunity for a free service to end-users, that you can monetise through advertising.

  • What are your future plans for Mippin?

Well, Mippin's timing is very good, because mobile Internet is growing very rapidly. The thing with disruptive technology is that the landscape is not very clear, in terms of what the key technology will be. So our challenge and opportunity is to establish a new category, which is a mobile content destination. And then we need to be the global leaders within it. We are focused on building the brand and the audience, and then monetizing that audience through the model. It is about listening to our customers, refining the product. We intend to invest in ongoing product development to understand the whole economics of the business.

  • You are involved in many start-ups through your work in Venture Development for Accel, what are the do's and the don'ts for starters in your business?

Well, there is a surprising amount of similarity between big business and small business. There are two overwhelming ones though. One, it is about being customer focused; listening and responding to customers.  The truly good companies understand that it is all about the customer experience, however you monetize that. And the second thing, it is about building a team.  It is about attracting good people, the brightest and the best. And to be able to have a diverse team, to be able to work together behind a common vision.

For a start-up to be successful, it needs to be very agile, it needs to learn and respond quickly. You cannot afford to get stuck to a certain path, you have to have your antenna up all the time. Mippin is a good example of that, we were a client-based mobile application and people were very vested in creating client software. But we had our antenna up and we were talking to people in the industry and we realized we needed to we switch from a client-based application to a mobile application as browsers and phones were rapidly improving.  So we did, and executed very quickly.

That is also a huge part of what the investors do, they look at start-up, and say ‘ is this the team that has the fire in their body and the agility to navigate their way through the early-stage market and come out on top?'

  • Do you think mobile really is the next big thing?

Bill Gates said: " within technology we tend to overestimate what will happen in two years, and underestimate what will happen in ten."

You can imagine in ‘98, people were very sceptical about the internet, I remember it well. Now we cannot imagine living without it.  So absolutely it will happen with mobile. And it will be bigger. Because not all people have a PC, especially not in the developing world. But they do have a phone. However, it will not happen overnight.

  • Did you always want to be in business?

Well I had no idea what I wanted to do. |My best subject at school when I was young was Art and actually wanted to do architecture and I ended up doing civil engineering.  But I feel incredibly fortunate to have gone into the tech business, because any high growth industry creates opportunities, if you have the appetite for it.

But I have never been passionate about just business, or just technology.  I have always been interested in technology in the hands of the users. To me, in order to get out of my bed in the morning, I need to think what I am working on it is a worthy endeavour. And I really get a kick out of seeing small businesses and users benefiting from this stuff.  And it's great working with start-ups in the tech sector as they move very fast and quickly establish a massive amount of intellectual property through development. And so you see the phenomena that, because start-ups are very focused and leading edge in their area, the big incumbents do not catch on to technology as fast as the start-ups do. And that makes the whole thing very exciting.

  • You are in the top 20 of most influential European business women by the Wall Street Journal Europe, one of Time magazine's five ‘People to Watch in International Business' and received the Women's Leadership Award at Microsoft. What explains your success?

Some of it us about sustained focus and for that you need the drive and the passion to feel it is worthwhile. I see that in other entrepreneurs.  Some of them give up social lives, put houses on the line. You do have to be committed and go the extra mile and sustain it over a long period. But ultimately it is a journey for everyone. You have to find your path. Some people struggle because they get on the wrong path. But you have to work through it. I have had to fire people, and it is a traumatic thing to do. So you have got to be willing to keep at it even when, at times, it is extraordinary difficult. You should not do it to make money either.  If anything good comes of it, it is the icing on the cake really.

  • What do you consider your biggest failure in business (if any)?

I have failed at so many things, so how much time have you got? I have sometimes been distraught because things did not work out. Undoubtedly that is what you learn from, because it makes you analyse what happened and how could things have been different? It is a lot about judgement, that is what you develop through experience - which has to involve it's fair share of failures. You develop pattern recognition and the ability to make a judgement call. But you come to realise there are no absolute rights. That is the key to a successful start-up too. It is this constant iteration of the philosophy that ‘If you try ten things...and only two of them work out, you are doing really well. That is what large companies struggle with, because it is not good to be seen to fail in big companies.

  • You worked with major companies such as HP. Apple and Microsoft, what were your experiences there?

The companies I worked for, they are world class, in terms of professionalism, their customer focus, their value, how to train people, how to empower them. So I consider myself fortunate to have worked in that environment. And a lot of what I did was highly entrepreneurial. When I set up MSN UK, it was in very early days of the Internet, I was miles away from corporate headquarters. So I had the chance to innovate in that environment.

  • Do you not feel like setting up your own business?

Who knows? I am thrilled to be CEO of Mippin now, I am passionate about it, it is a lot of learning and we are creating something compelling and valuabe. It is hard to predict the future, you have to be focused on now.  But I am interested in social entrepreneurship, initiatives with focus on common good. So the future is full of opportunity.

  • You have worked in Europe, the US, South-America and Asia, how do these compare in terms of start-up culture?

Well, I think that, in Asia they are very advanced in many areas of technology such as network speed and mobile, in particular Korea, Japan and China. There, in the emerging categories of mobile and internet, you'll find that it is the often the local companies that dominate. For example in China not Google but a local search engine dominates. So these are quite big local markets, but global companies markets find it quite difficult to get in. I think we will see that more and more companies, founded outside the US,  that are global players. Because in our world, the barriers of entry are lower. You can be in London or wherever to create the business.

  • What is a female entrepreneur to you?

I think women can bring a lot of strength to any endeavour, women are entrepreneurial. There is an extraordinary proportion of small businesses that is founded by women; 60 or 70 per cent in the US, I think. A lot of women combine business and family, and starting their own business gives them control and flexibility. Whereas the corporate world is often very inflexible. So entrepreneurialism for women is a fantastic opportunity to run their own show. And if you want to do the caricature, they are usually very customer focused, good team workers players, strong communicators. But what men and women entrepreneurs have in common, I have found as a VC, is vision to succeed and tenacity. And great resilience.

  • Are there any companies run by female entrepreneurs that you think will become successful?

Weeworld.com comes to mind. Their CEO is Celia Francis, based in London. She is fantastic, and Weeworld.com, a online virtual world and social network, is a great example of how a company can evolve.  It is a global company, going through massive growth. And Jana Eggers is doing and brilliant job as CEO of Spreadshirt, an ecommerce company which enables people to design, buy and sell their own customised garments online. She is creating a whole new category of design, ecommerce, micro-business and more.

  • Do/did you have any mentors or advisers during your career?

Well no-one person specifically, but I have been very fortunate in working with and for great people who were inspiring and were generous in sharing their knowledge and experience.  And in every situation, I learned something from everyone, even if it was how not to be or how not to work.

  • What advice would you give to women looking to become successful in the online business?

I think it all depends on where you are in your career.  In the early stages, make sure you work with people you can learn from and be inspired by. Be thoughtful about what you do and find something you can be passionate about. Then when you are ready to do your own thing, research it; is the timing right, are the customers there?

FACTBOX

What does Web 2.0 mean to you?
If I use Mippin as an example: One aspect of it is something which is referred to as a ‘mash-up', which is not to reinvent something new but to take what is already there and use it to create a new use for it.  So with Mippin, it is taking thousands of great websites that are already there and adding value to it by making them fit for mobile.

Another one aspect of Web 2.0 is about user, the engaging of the end user to create value.  Traditionally you'd have editors who decide what is on the front page, whereas with Mippin we use the power of community to  surface content that is relevant and interesting. So on the home page for example you see ‘most recently read' and get content recommendations from other users who share common interests.

Then a third example would be, in the context of web 2.0, the idea of an application that goes beyond a  single device. In the PC world be have only really had the Mac and PC and small number of different browsers. Now on mobile, there are thousands of different devices and browsers and is it is much more fragmented. Mippin is about adapting to that and making content look great on all devices.

What do you know about web technology?
I do not know everything, but this is where the team comes in, with technologists, engineers, UI designers,  marketing experts etc. But I always try to know enough to be able to understand the emerging opportunities, because otherwise you cannot have a vision.

What online communities are you part of?
I am on linked-in, and on facebook, but I can't say I am the  most active of users.

Great piece! We also focus on building a network of women executives and providing them with news that informs, empowers, inspires. The Glass Hammer is an online community designed for women executives in financial services, law and business.

Sign Up to our Newsletter

So you enjoy The NextWomen. Why not sign up to our monthly newsletter?
You get a Letter from the CEO :-), the chance to catch up with the best of our recent articles - and some extra things we throw in once in a while.

We try hard for smart reading.