Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Social media success Rx: "Be a little crazy"

January 11, 2012: 10:22 AM ET

Clara Shih is an early achiever. At age five, she arrived in the U.S., from Hong Kong, with her parents. With no access to bilingual education, she was initially placed in special classes for kids with speech impediments and advanced so rapidly that she scored a 1420 on her SATs -- in eighth grade. She started her company, Hearsay Social, at age 27, made Fortune's list of Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs last year, and married her neurologist boyfriend in October (delaying her honeymoon to attend the Fortune MPW Summit.) Last month, Shih was tapped to replace Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on the Starbucks (SBUX) board. And today, she turns 30 years old. There is no better timing for the Hearsay Social CEO to share, well, lessons from her youth:

I head an enterprise software company called Hearsay Social, which I founded two years ago after realizing that social media is a fundamentally new business paradigm -- as big as, or even bigger than, the Internet was a decade ago. Hearsay is a platform that helps companies -- retailers, financial services firms, and anyone else with a lot of employees in a lot of locations --manage Facebook, LinkedIn (LNKD), Twitter, and Google+ (GOOG). We've raised $21 million in venture capital from Sequoia Capital and New Enterprise Associates. We employ more than 60 people, and we were cash-flow positive in 2010, our first year of operation.

We think of our growth as a testament to the transformational power of social business. Consider this: A year ago, there were 500 million Facebook users, 100 million Twitter users, 50 million LinkedIn users, and 0 Google+ users (it did not yet exist). Today, there are over 1 billion people on Facebook, and the other networks too have more than doubled in size.

But our growth also reflects what I've learned along the way. I began my social-media journey in 2007, when I developed the first business application on Facebook, called Faceforce. It was this experience -- after working as an engineer at Microsoft (MSFT), in product strategy at Google, and then as head of the AppExchange at Salesforce.com (CRM) -- that led me to write a New York Times bestseller, The Facebook Era. Both the app and the book, which forecasted the rise of social business, helped me identify gaps in the market and pursue my real dream: building a startup.

Today, my business partner is Steve Garrity, whom I had met a decade ago in an introductory computer programming class at Stanford. He quit a safe job at Microsoft to join me in this venture. Steve is chief technology officer of Hearsay Social. I'm the CEO. Since we started the business in my apartment in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, here are a few key lessons we've picked up:

1. Move fast. In the rapidly evolving technology arena, it's critical to test and iterate new ideas quickly. Often, it's the fastest and most agile learner rather than the best first attempt that wins.

2. Focus. We work exclusively with corporate-to-local brands—major companies that have local branches or representatives. Our laser focus makes us prioritize our scarce startup resources and guides every decision we make, from what to build to how to sell to whom to employ. I believe this is one of our greatest strengths.

3. Listen more than you talk. We named the company "Hearsay" because, in the social media era, it's important for everyone in business to listen before they talk. I strive to do this with my team. In turn, our company does this with our customers. And we urge our customers to adopt this approach with their customers. It's a virtuous circle.

4. Lead by example. I know that only by being open, transparent, and collaborative can I inspire these same traits in others -- and attract more great people to Hearsay Social. So, everyday I try to get online as early as my first East-coast salesperson. And I stay as late in the office as our most bleary-eyed engineer.

5. Be a little crazy. People thought I was crazy when I was quoted in 2007 as saying that "five years from now, no enterprise application won't be social."  That idea seemed unfathomable then, but what I have come to realize is that, in Silicon Valley, anything is possible. As entrepreneurs, we must constantly dream and have the conviction and obsession to transform our dreams into reality – to create a future that never existed before.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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