Linda Cheung, Founder Cube Social: From Facebook Novice to Social Media CEO

In late 2009 Linda Cheung was about to leave Morgan Stanley to start her own business. At the time she had less than a dozen connections in LinkedIn and had never used Facebook or Twitter. Today, she's CEO of CubeSocial, a software development company all about winning business through social media, recently selected as a “Top 20 Start-up” of 2011 by entrepreneur magazine Startups.

CubeSocial’s innovative social CRM software allows professionals to win new business through social media. “At its heart all business is about relationships. CubeSocial allows professionals to cut through the noise of social media in order to identify new prospects and build profitable business relationships,” says Linda.

CubeSocial takes the best of traditional contact management tools and combines that with social media to enable companies to win new business from their online communities.

Since its launch in mid-2011, CubeSocial has garnered accolades from customers and press alike. CubeSocial was named a “Top 20 Idea” in The Guardian, selected as a “Company to Watch” in the The Business Magazine’s TV250 awards and is a finalist in the Local Business Accelerators competition.

Linda has an impressive track record in devising innovative software and business solutions that routinely deliver benefits worth millions of pounds in the toughest of markets. A former Executive Director at Morgan Stanley, she was promoted to a Chief Operating Officer role at 32 after making her mark as a key player in the launch of the company's first ever credit card. Her reputation as an entrepreneurial yet pragmatic business leader, trouble-shooter and fixer, is built upon an infectious passion for excellence, proven commercial acumen – all underpinned by a strong sense of personal integrity.

She founded CubeSocial with Microsoft Lead Program Manager Mark Bower to capitalize on the growing Social CRM market that Gartner predicts will grow to 1bn USD in 2012.

We talked to Linda about why start-up life isn't for everyone; about her aspirations for 2012; and how a random tweet led to her company's first breakthrough.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for CubeSocial and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

LC: If you had told me two years ago that I would leave my fast paced London career and social life of theatre, galleries and restaurants for a leafy suburb in rural England, I would have laughed out loud. But that’s exactly what I’ve done.

Back then, I had less than a dozen connections in LinkedIn and had never used Facebook or Twitter. Today, I’m leading a software company that’s all about winning business through social media. It’s been quite a journey.

If I’m honest the change had been coming a while. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my 13 years in banking, but much as I had loved the buzz of London and working in a large company, I’d always had a yearning to run my own business one day.

More personally, I received a massive jolt when my father passed away. The last thing I wanted to feel was that I was treading water when life was so short.

I didn’t want to assume what businesses wanted so I went out and asked. The overwhelming answer was new ways to win business.

At the same time, I was experimenting with social media and achieving surprising results. I saw how traditional best practices still applied online and how I was able to reach a much larger - yet more targeted - audience. This realisation formed the basis for CubeSocial.

TNW: What is your business model?

LC: CubeSocial is social CRM for professionals – we enable you to easily manage your contacts, tasks and social media conversations to win business through social media.  We have a simple subscription business model. The price is a flat £9 per user per month, but we also offer a free account that allows you to manage up to 500 contacts.

We are the only product specifically designed for professionals (eg. financial services, lawyers, consultants) to interact with social media.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

LC: I was clear from the outset that we should hire talent and attitude, and create an environment where everyone would want to grow with our start-up.

I had worked in a start-up environment before, leading part of the team that launched the Morgan Stanley credit card. That was very different from now, in that Morgan Stanley effectively gave me a blank cheque book to go out and hire anyone I wanted.

What I learned though was that start-up isn’t for everyone. I was shocked that some incredibly smart people crumbled under the pressure of building something from scratch.

The things I look for now in prospective employees are entrepreneurial spirit, a positive outlook and something that demonstrates that they aren’t daunted by the challenge of creating something from nothing.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

LC: We have used CubeSocial – to the exclusion of anything else – to promote our business through social media. To date we have gained local, national (The Guardian) and international (Wall Street Journal) press coverage, all without spending a penny on marketing or PR!

One marketing agency told us we had received publicity worth tens of thousands of pounds.

TNW: What is next for your company?

LC: I was delighted that CubeSocial closed 2011 by being named a Top 20 Startup and has started 2012 as a Local Business Accelerator competition winner and being listed as a One to Watch by analyst firm Index B.

I want to end 2012 by moving CubeSocial from “one to watch” to “one to follow”!

We have bootstrapped CubeSocial this far, but the next step will be to take on external funding during 2012 to accelerate growth.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

LC: Lots of people will ask you for free advice as a start-up. The reality is that you can’t go around giving your time for free as you build a business. We have learned to identify and cut out time-wasters much more quickly.

My tip to other entrepreneurs is to ask people early on what their budget is. If they avoid the question, politely and quickly move on to the next prospect.

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

LC: I don’t lie awake exactly, I just don’t go to sleep!

Seriously, I get very excited about all the things I am doing and the opportunity we have to change the way millions of professionals do business. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist and when you have so many hats to wear (at CubeSocial I am the CEO, sales director, customer services rep, tester and chief tea maker), the day just whizzes by. I often joke that I need more than 24 hours a day.

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

LC: I came to entrepreneurship relatively recently from a 13 year career in financial services.

Much as I have always wanted my own business I very much enjoyed my time in the corporate world. I thought it a privilege to work with amazingly talented people and never bored of the diversity – simply hearing all the different languages spoken as I walked to and from meetings would always make me smile.

I know that a likely exit is acquisition by a much larger business. So I guess it’s possible I could end up back there, and I wouldn’t mind that at all.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

Our first breakthrough was getting a 45-minute slot on BBC Radio to talk about our business. People often ask us how that came about and the answer is a random tweet!

A journalist tweeted about passing though grim Basingstoke on a train and asked if there was anything good about it. I replied saying that I had just left London to live there and it wasn’t all bad. That led to an email exchange and being asked to write an article on 'Why I left London for a start-up in Basingstoke.' A couple of days after that was published, the BBC phoned – so we have a lot to thank social media for!

TNW: How have you found angel investors’/venture capitalists’ attitudes towards you as a female entrepreneur?

LC: I have found attitudes remarkably positive. We have been specifically approached by investors who prefer to invest in women-led start-ups. Some of their comments are… women have a better eye for detail, tend to be more dedicated than male entrepreneurs, are good at building teams, managing relationships and juggling many responsibilities. 

The interesting thing is that these things have all been said to me by male investors.

TNW: What is one lesson about leadership you learned from a boss or mentor?

LC: Early on in my career a male boss was fuming about a female colleague and advised me “as you get more senior, don’t lose your femininity”. Working in a male dominated environment I learnt that being in a minority has its positives. It was easier to stand out and be remembered and a female voice could add a different perspective to heated discussions and calm fraught situations. (Of course you would also be remembered if you said something stupid!)

The key thing is: don’t try to be something you are not. Recognise the differences, make the most of them and remember that being in a minority does not mean you don’t have a right to be where you are.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?

LC: I wish someone had told me early in my career how women tend to self-select out of opportunities.

For example, women will tend to read a job description and pick out all the elements that they can’t do and not apply. Men on the other hand, will tend to read the same job description and pick out all the elements that they can do, and submit an application.

Every woman I have ever told this to has immediately recognised this trait in themselves.

My advice to other women leaders is that to benefit from more opportunities, you need to embrace them.

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