Clara Shih knew that whole Facebook thing was going to be big.
She was a young marketing manager in 2007 when she grew intrigued by the social network's potential to help businesses reach customers. In her spare time, she wrote a book on the topic that became a bestseller, and in 2010 she co-founded San Francisco-based Hearsay Social. The startup's software helps big brands court consumers on Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp and Twitter.
Hearsay now boasts about 100 employees and clients in seven countries, and Shih's been getting noticed. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has become her mentor. And when Sandberg rolled off the board of Starbucks, CEO Howard Schultz tapped Shih -- then just 29 -- to take her place.
Shih recently sat with this newspaper for an interview; here's a transcript edited for clarity and length.
Q Tell us how you came up with the idea for Hearsay.
A It happened very organically. I was working at Salesforce.com on their AppExchange, and Facebook was looking at how they might also build a platform that third parties could use to develop software applications. I became enamored with their vision and decided to build an app on their platform, called Faceforce. (It integrated a Salesforce contact's information with their Facebook profile, so you could see them side by side.) In 2007, this was a novel idea.
It went viral, got blogged about, and before I knew it I had an offer from Pearson-Prentice Hall to write the first business book about how to use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. (Salesforce CEO) Marc Benioff wrote the foreword. When it came out in 2009, it was featured in The New York Times and got picked up by Harvard Business School as a textbook.
I left Salesforce that summer. All these Fortune 500 companies were calling to say, "How do we do what you've described in your book?" I realized I had the blueprint for a tech company. So I called my best friend Steve Garrity, whom I'd met in the computer science department at Stanford; he left his job at Microsoft, and we started the company in my apartment.
Q Hearsay's landed $21 million from Sequoia Capital, New Enterprise Associates and a bunch of angels, including YouTube co-founder Steve Chen. What do they find so compelling?
A We're seeing a transition of social media from "nice to have" to something that's really changing how companies do business. The old way of selling -- cold-calling for dollars -- just doesn't work like it used to. There's so much data on social sites that salespeople can put together highly personalized proposals.
The challenge is, there's a lot of noise out there; if you're selling life insurance, you don't care what I had for breakfast. So it becomes a "big data" problem of digesting those tweets and updates and figuring out what matters.
Q What was it like when Howard Schultz asked you to join the Starbucks board just a year after Hearsay launched?
A What drew me to it was the opportunity to gain perspective. It was refreshing to see how such a large company is arguably as entrepreneurial as we are, as a startup.
A lot of the challenges are the same -- it always comes down to people. I was surprised at the number of parallels, even though we're in very different businesses.
Q You graduated first in your class in computer science at Stanford. How did your male classmates take to that?
A It's hard to not notice when you're the only woman in the upper-level engineering classes, and one of a few women in the beginning classes. I felt intimidated by some of my male classmates -- I let their immature comments drive me to work really hard. Ultimately, I realized I deserved to be there as much as they did.
Q Is that self-doubt women can feel part of why your friend Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" has become such a phenomenon?
A Sheryl always says the most important career decision you make is whom to marry. My husband has been extremely supportive of my career; I couldn't do this without him. Though I do think I have it a lot easier because we don't have kids yet.
I've just started to speak and blog about this topic; Sheryl mentioned me in her book, and people have started calling me. We do a lot of programs for girls in high school and college who are thinking of computer science, and we talk to them about not being intimidated because they think the boys are better at it.
If not us, who's going to do it?
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Current job: Co-founder and CEO of Hearsay Social
Previous jobs: Technical, product and marketing roles at Microsoft, Google and Salesforce.com
Education: Bachelor's degree in computer science and economics from Stanford; master's in computer science from Stanford; master's in Internet studies from Oxford (as a Marshall scholar)
Family: Married to health-tech entrepreneur Daniel Chao
Residence: San Francisco
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT Clara Shih
1. Born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States with her family at age 4
2. Her elementary school in Chicago had no "English as a Second Language" program, so she was placed in a class for students with speech impediments.
3. Shih's editor wanted to rename her book on social media for business "The MySpace Era." Forward-thinking, she stuck with "The Facebook Era."
4. Won't get a touch-screen phone because she types fastest on the slide-out keyboard of her Motorola Droid 4.
5. Counts Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg among her mentors.