Start-Up CEO Interview: From Google To Bebo to CEO of Mydeco - Nicole Vanderbilt
Q: Tell us a bit about your background, from Princeton to American Express to Google. How and why did you get into the web industry?
When I went to university, I studied engineering and architecture. My teachers kept telling me that I was so good at math ("for a girl"), so I was directed to a life of problem sets. But, I was desperate to find something that balanced all that analysis with some creativity. I thought architecture was the answer. However, I graduated Princeton in 1995, just as the Web was starting to take off and Netscape was hitting its stride, and it became clear to me that the Internet was going be a great place to flex both muscles. On the plus side, it was also wide open to people without much experience (like me!)
Q: How was it to run Industry marketing at Google from 2006 to 2008, from Europe to India? Tell us about the challenges and what you learned from it.
When I joined Google in London in 2006, there were about 100 people in that office. I'd convinced myself that I'd still joined a small company (although the company had already gone public in 2004 and was already quite large in the US). By the time I left in 2008 there were over 1000 people in the Google's London office. For me, the greatest challenge during my time there was continuing to find ways in which I really could have an impact.
That's part of the reason I went to India with Google for 6 months. I joined a team of about 15 people who were the first to focus on the Indian market itself (and not the use of its talented labour for support of other markets). It was fascinating, a market where you have to question most of your basic assumptions about consumer behaviour and how the Internet works. At the time, there were only 40M online users there, but over 1.1B people and close to 400M mobile phones.
The clear challenge for Google there, particularly in marketing, was how to grow the Internet overall and make it relevant to more than just the 70M people for whom English is their first language.Every time I think about the experience, I sort of have to pinch myself. I am keenly aware that few people are lucky enough to have such an experience, both personally and professionally.
Q: How and why did you move to Bebo? What were the key challenges you faced and how did you overcome them? Did the acquisition process have a strong impact on your team?
At Google, I'd worked with Joanna Shields who became President of Bebo. She and I talked a few times about me joining the team, particularly as I was returning from India and couldn't find a role as exciting at Google London as the one I'd had in India. She offered me a too-good-to-pass-up opportunity to join Bebo and consolidate my previous marketing, business development, product development experience across several continents into one role, running Bebo International. The role was made even more interesting when I started to work with AOL's other community products - AIM, ICQ, and Socialthing - across those markets as well.
At first the acquisition didn't have a big impact on the team. We were mostly left to get on with it. The bigger change was when Tim Armstrong arrived as the new CEO of AOL. Tim is an amazing leader, one of the absolute best in the business, and someone for whom I'd work again without a second thought.
However, it became clear pretty quickly that he didn't intend to invest much more in Bebo - perhaps a wise move, given the strength of the competition in Facebook and the likely investment needed to face them.Q: Tell us about MyDeco. Why did you join as CEO? What is the business model?
mydeco is my absolute dream job. It's the epitome of that combination of creativity and technology that I've been seeking my entire career.
There were three key things that drew me to the company:
- a noble purpose.Everyone has a home and everyone deserves to love where they live. That's what we are in the business of doing: inspiring people to make their homes a place they truly love. There's nothing more fundamental, and I am happy to get up every morning and head to our office to do that,
- unlike many other very successful, great consumer Internet businesses (e.g., Net-a-porter), we are also developing fundamentally new technologies, the crown jewel of which is our 3D room planner, not just putting a new spin on a standard web storefront, and
- last, but definitely not least, the people involved. One has to be pretty foolish to turn down a gig that involves daily interaction with Brent Hoberman, regular interaction with our amazing board members, and time with your sleeves rolled up with the best Internet team out there (but maybe I am biased on that one!)
We've raised £12.5M. Our board includes Brent Hoberman, Martha Lane Fox, Tom Teichmann, Olivier Sichel, John Hitchcox and David Kelly (the previous CEO). We meet 8 times a year, and we turn to them pretty regularly for help and advice.
Q: The Telegraph pointed out that MyDeco had had losses of over £11M by 2009. Is this what it takes to build an online platform or is it how much it cost to accelerate the process?
Great question. As I've mentioned above, we aren't just building a typical consumer-facing site, we've fundamentally built new technology - the best visualisation tools on the Web, the largest library of real world products modelled in 3D, a proprietary community platform and a shopping search engine. This isn't your typical web storefront/site. Through this investment, we've become the biggest home interest media property in the UK with over 1.5M monthly visits.
Q: What is your biggest challenge reaching profitability and how can others learn from that?
For any start-up, I think there's a difficult trade-off between profitability and growth. That's probably our biggest challenge. How do we continue to invest in advancing the technology we are developing and growing into new markets -- the US, the trade business -- whilst achieving profitability? We aren't far off now.
Q: Do you envision an exit, how and when?
Our job is to maximise the return for our investors.On this principle, there are many interesting ways things could play out ;)
Q: Have you had or do you have mentors? What impact has it had on your career?
I haven't really had any formal mentors, but I credit so many of the talented people with whom I've worked over the years as being instrumental in my career growth - from Gene DeRose, Peter Storck and Kurt Abrahamson at Jupiter, to Jeff Levick and Shailesh Rao at Google, to Joanna Shields and Kate Burns at Bebo. They've all done an incredible job of leading by example, providing me great feedback, and being unbelievably supportive. That's probably been the most important - to know that someone believes in you and is in your corner, wanting to see you succeed.
Q: Any role models?
So many! But, as a woman, I am always tempted to look to women first. Martha Lane Fox is such an incredibly graceful and quiet force. I hope to learn a lot from her while I am in this role. One day I hope to capture the attention of an entire room with a quiet, calmly asked, intensely wise question, the way she does. She has incredible grace and intellect... and the respect of everyone in the room.
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