Interview: Co-founders of Meebo

Elaine Wherry, Seth Sternberg and Sandy JenElaine Wherry and Sandy Jen were recently selected by Fast Company as two of the most influential women in technology. In 2005 they co-founded instant messaging company Meebo (together with Seth Sternberg) which now boasts more than 40 million users.  Meebo allows you to chat with friends from any location and using any IM network.  In other words, an MSN user can talk directly to a Myspace IM user.

What are your backgrounds?

(Elaine) All three of us are connected through Stanford University.  Sandy majored in Computer Science. I majored in Symbolic Systems.   When we graduated, we both joined companies that focused on very large computer hardware challenges.  That made it fun to think about side programming projects that tackled our individual user problems.  It was one of those projects that led to Meebo.

What's the business model for Meebo and are you in profit?

(Sandy) Currently Meebo's business model is advertising and we've been ramping up that effort for the past 8 months.  Our philosophy has been to treat ads as a product feature, rather than an add-on.  Our ad units are designed to be fully integrated into the Meebo experience, and users have responded positively.  We're mainly focusing on high-end brand advertising  and so far we've met with success.

How is it going with the Meebo developer platform?

(Elaine) The Meebo developer platform allows others to add features to Meebo without waiting for Meebo to build them.  We are inundated with user requests and while we would love to be able to build every game that has been requested, it’s better to be open and let others innovate.  And in most cases, it’s a better experience for our community.  It’s also a great way for our developer community to get a large audience that might be harder to attract on a separate website.

Your partnerships with music companies like Universal are  interesting. How did that come about?

(Elaine) Music labels wanted to get artists closer to fans.  They also wanted to embed real time communication into their sites which drives engagement.  We’ve seen on average about 20% boosts in user time spent on music when Meebo rooms (chat rooms) are adopted on sites.

Is there any advice that you wish someone had given you when you were starting the business?

(Sandy) You can't figure everything out! Sometimes we over-analyze events, trends, or just things in general when we're unsure of why something happened.  I think as entrepreneurs, we have an itch to create something interesting and we are hungry to make it successful.  Part of that is being able to fix things that are broken.  But sometimes, as we've learned, it's just luck, chance, or good/bad timing.  It's been an enormous amount of hard work, perserverance, good choices, bad choices, and luck too, that's gotten Meebo to where it is today.

Was there a particular low moment that you remember in the early days?

(Sandy) I think the lowest points are when we're struggling to create a product but we're vastly under-resourced, which pretty much happens a lot in the start-up world I suppose :)  The painful part is when you have to sacrifice development on a key feature, or cut the specifications in order to meet a deadline.  It takes a lot of discipline and we're getting much better at it. However the struggle to create a really awesome product with limited resources is always going to be a challenge.

what's your biggest ambition for the future?

(Sandy) I think the best thing for me has been to see the people we've welcomed into the team take "our baby" and make it their own.  Meebo's really grown up from the little product it was almost 4 years ago, and even though the beginnings were very much rooted in Seth, Elaine, and myself, the current company and product has turned into something amazing.  Meebo today has the DNA of every single member of the team in it.  It really blows my mind sometimes, in a great way. My personal ambition for the future is to be able to stop by any random town around the world, say the word "Meebo" and have their eyes light up with recognition.  I think that would be an awesome thing to see.

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