Female Heroes Interview: Lisa Sounio
Every week we publish an interview with one of our female internet heroes. MEET interesting women, READ about their WORK, THINK about how they PLAY the internet industry and see how you MATCH them. Be inspired! This week: Lisa Sounio.
Lisa Sounio (photo*) is a Finnish internet entrepreneur, an investor, and a great advocate of simplicity in web applications. She is also a co-founder of social network Dopplr, a service that is as simple as it is useful. Dopplr lets users share their future travel plans privately with friends and colleagues, answering their question ‘where next?' Thenextwomen asked here the same, where next?
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
About myself, I am 38, an entrepreneur. I have a degree in marketing, finance and business, but I also studied a bit of engineering and design. So I have this multi-disciplinary background. I do not think as myself as a graphic designer, but I think like a designer. That, I combine with business skills. After my degree, I worked ten years as an export manager, account manager, marketing manager. But I grew tired of how little you can do, you just play your role, you do your task, you do not make the decisions, you are not involved in what to do next. I wanted to take initiative, I wanted to do something that shapes our world. So I left and set up my consultancy, and I worked on product development, PR and marketing. That went really well, which surprised me because it is often said that I takes a long time before your company flies. But then I also noticed that it is very difficult to grow as a consultant, because consultancy scales to people. That is the point at which I decided to set up Dopplr with other people. I also wanted to be a mini- investor in companies and so now my role is to be a senior advisor for these businesses, while attracting other financiers and experienced teams to make the company grow.
How did you start out in this industry?
When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer, architect or a businesswoman. Then, when I started studying, there was a recession, and I was not a risk-taker, so I went for business. I think business is like a race, or a game. I was interested in learning the game.
How did you come to set up Dopplr?
I set up Dopplr with a group of people. We had a joke that we did not know of each other where the other will be next. We knew where we would be, but we did not want to make a phonecall, or send an email to know where the others were. And so we came up with a web application that tracks people, that answers the question ‘where next'.
Who are we?
We are a team of five. One of the founders was a developer, a British Matt Biddulph and the other was a user interface designer, Matt Jones, who is also from the UK. And then one of founding investors, Marko Ahtisaari, also a Finn, had been working for a technology company. Than there is Dan Gilmore he is American, a journalist and an author of books. Then there is me.
Was it a conscious choice to have such an international team?
We all have been living international lives; we are used to meeting people through international business. So for us it is very natural to start something across borders. And because the web is truly global, it is very natural for us to have a team from all over the world.
So what was your role?
I am the CEO of the company and also responsible for the brand marketing. I was elected the CEO because I already as a young kid learned to handle money and take care of the "family", our community. Another reason was that the guys were very democratic, they wanted to do a business with woman. They also thought I could bring my marketing skills, and bring some humanity, some simplicity, or purity into the service.
Where are you now with the company?
The company is growing, because there really seems to be value for both individuals and companies getting to know where you´re next. We have offices in London, the UK and Helsinki, Finland but some of customer care functions are taken care of from the US and Australia. In the coming weeks, we are announcing our new investors.
How did you come up with the name 'Dopplr'?
You get different explanations for what it means, but one of them is, and that is my explanation, is that when an ambulance drives towards you, the sound of the ambulance travels faster then the actual car. And so the same works when your friends get closer, some people feel it. I would not compare Dopplr to an ambulance but Dopplr is about meeting up with friends and colleagues, people who are important to you. People of which you want to know when they get closer to you.
How did you arrange financing for Dopplr?
What happened is that some of our first users became our investors. People like Martin Varsavsky, founder of FON, the world's largest WIFI network, Joichi Ito, a Tokyo based entrepreneur who is very active on Technorati, and Saul Klein, from Accelerator ventures a company that works together with Index Capital and finally Reid Hoffman, from Linkedin. So, Dopplr was a service created by us for us and for our friends, and then it took of and became a business, a company.
What is your business model?
We offer our users services that improve their quality of life when travelling. So we do not want to have advertising for the sake of advertising, we want to have added value-services, such as hotel bookings, airline offers and tickets. We take a slice of that. We tailor services. But they need to be based on where people are going. We have a database, so we know where people are going, so in the future, there will be many new nuances of business. It won't change completely but become more sophisticated.
What is you marketing strategy?
In fact we have not been able to do very much marketing. I think the way Dopplr has spread is from a need-basis. People are spreading the word for us. I think that is very much a feature of the web too. I have been making marketing plans, but the web it seems to be very dependent on word of mouth.
What makes you different from other players in the industry?
We have a very well functioning user interface. And there seems to be a lot of unique value. Many other webservices are complicated to use, when you just want to do one thing. Another way of saying that is to call Facebook or MySpace a living room. Dopplr is more a utility that makes people meet.
I think in the future there will be many companies offering similar features. But it seems that people like to have their favourite ‘network brand' and so if you have a wide network and you like what people are doing, then it does not matter that there is competition.
So where next with Dopplr?
We are still developing, we are on the right track and it looks good. Our business will become more sophisticated, we will add features. What is really good is that many companies find value on our site. They have active users and they often ask us to organise travel because many companies have tens of thousands of people working for them, and so tens of thousands are travelling at the same time. And often their user interfaces are outdated, so they turn to Dopplr.
We may get integrated in more social network services, like I would say that we see the development of the internet services in many places, so I don't think we will open local offices. Our main focus is now to really improve the service and to introduce new features and have value for the customer.
Would you consider selling Dopplr?
I am only a co-founder, I am part of a team and so I would not take that decision by myself. But we do not look to be bought up. I think, we created Dopplr for people who are likeminded. Business travelers, but a new type. The business travellers of today may fly with budget airlines and use the money in a nice hotel, so there is a new kind of customer. We want to understand that new customer.
I think it is very important to make this point also to those who wish to create something on the internet. You should not start a business with sale in mind. The building up of valuable and trustworthy service is more important. You need to think of your business as your pet, and think of what is best for your pet. Sometimes it needs a better caretaker, but often it is better off with its owner.
How do you see the future for the business you are in?
I think the future looks very good, because if you think of the past fifteen years, it has gotten much better. But the challenge is to stay true to your cause. I think the web was made by and for geeks, and by and for men. But now different layers of people are coming on there. Now, for women and minorities, it is a good resource. I am also curious about mature people starting web companies. I think that the internet will less and less be run only by 20-somethings.
What women do you admire in your industry?
I admire Caterina Fake, the founder of Flickr. She is one of my idols. But there are many others. There is one service, BLIP.tv, it is American-based, founded by Dina Kaplan. Dina is so girly, yet determinant and a great business woman. I have seen her put up with a lot of pressure with a warm smile on her face, wow!
Then there was one women I met from the UK, the founder of Styleshake, Iris Ben-David, she was a designer, and now she has set up a website where you can tailor- make your own dresses. Her business interests me because of how she married the physical world and the retail world.
Can you characterize European start-up culture?
I think Americans are very brave, they move much faster in terms of financing and marketing. But what I think is very Northern-European. If you look at companies like Nokia, to give an example. The Finnish engineers were desperate to pack phones with features, so it would be good enough, whereas the Americans would put in a few features and make millions. The UK is somewhere in the middle. They are a very dynamic people. I think the British are excellent communicators. And then the German and the Dutch know that someone needs to pay for the services.
What I would say is very European, judging from the ambiance in web conferences, in Europe everyone is prepared to collaborate with other people form other places. Especially in the web community, they have a kind of readiness to take on a new plan, and work together.
Tell us a little about yourself, what do you consider your biggest failure?
I have been very lucky, but maybe also stupid, I have not had big failures. But now I am also becoming minor investor so I am sure that will come. I think my biggest failure so far is that I did not become an entrepreneur earlier, that I waited for so long to become an entrepreneur. And for other people to discover my skills. I did not have the courage to do it until I was 33, but then people say that the best time to do it is when you are 40.
What is a female entrepreneur to you?
I get a lot of people calling me, sending me emails, wanting to come meet me, to ask me how to become a female entrepreneur. So there seems to be a huge willingness and potential among women to do business. What women need is guts. Women have lots of ideas, and they are good organisers. But they need to work on bringing that into business. They need to work on financial understanding, making the business work. I think women are often too focused on the idea and have a hard time trying to create the structure around it.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I think to gather a good team and get understanding of finances. Also, women often think too small. They create something on their own, or with two women. What they say about modern Russians is that if the Russians build a house, they go to amazing lengths to find the best raw materials. This is the way women should think about business. Where can I get the brightest brains?
What does web 2.0 mean to you?
For me it is how the virtual can really marry the physical, I am very interested in online retail and how it will develop. For me, I would not say web 2.0 is good enough yet in that area. If you think about Amazon for example, it is so popular, but it is from the stone age, it is s ugly, it is not an shopping experience. I request much better services. And I think web developers need to listen more to their customers.
What do you know about web technology?
Enough to talk to smart people.
What online communities are you part of?
Xing and Linkedin. But I do not go for the mass social networks, I use the web as a tool, it is not my living room.
* Photo courtesy of MTV3. Lisa was introduced to the Finns in a series called Leijonan kita (Dragon's Den) in 2007 on MTV3, Finland's largest commercial channel.
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.