How A Social-Media Startup Balances Agility With History And Tradition

Speed has its place at Hearsay Social, but 100-year old companies & cultures preserved through generations have also inspired its outlook.

Back in 2012, Hearsay Social CEO Clara Shih made this pronouncement: "I am going to take one day a month to visit non-technology companies to learn and get inspiration from other industries and organizations.”

Two years later, Shih admits she’s not so systematic as to designate a specific day each month, but still contends, “it is very important to seek that out and get ideas from other places.”

In her role at Hearsay, a software company that helps financial services and insurance firms manage and measure their social media presence, she’s got plenty of opportunity. Shih estimates she’s on the road about 60 percent of the time, checking with existing and prospective clients from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Paris, France. "The nature of my job is to connect and to evangelize,” she says. So far, her globetrotting has elevated Hearsay Social’s presence within its niche market, doubling the number of customers between 2012-2013 and bringing in a total of $51 million in funding.

Shih’s been an avid traveler since her college days. There’s a reason people head off to explore when they are soul searching, she says: “It takes you out of your element and makes you think.”

Before she started Hearsay Social, Shih was getting her passport stamped in multiple countries. Among the most thought-provoking moments: visiting Tibet in 2002 and Morocco in 2006. Of both she says, “there was so much serenity,” in part because each is so far removed from the daily digital grind of the West. A tour of India in 2006 held other lessons. From Mumbai to Delhi, with stops in Agra and Elephanta Island, Shih took in centuries-old stone carvings along with the “raw humanity of people sleeping in the streets.” Each of these places, Shih maintains, offered up a very grounding principle: “We are just a blip in the history of civilization.”

Shih says it was also helpful to see the juxtaposition of India’s new economy against the backdrop of a culture steeped in centuries of history. “Business leaders come with rich historical context that at times can be stifling, but also very powerful,” she observes. Moving quickly becomes a challenge, Shih says, in a society that’s very committed to tradition.

She brought that perspective with her when founding Hearsay Social. Shih says at first, the company was radically flat. Now says Shih there are a “couple of layers,” although points out that everyone is "on equal footing when it comes to ideas, power, and respect.” As Shih’s come to see the importance of clearly defined roles and responsibilities, she says, “I believe in the lightest level of process as you grow; I never want more than we need at any given time.”

Now Shih draws inspiration about her company’s growth from her current travels. Organizations in the financial services industry “like working with us [in part, because] we’re based in Silicon Valley, we’re innovative and agile,” she explains. “But there is a lot that we can learn from them, too.” The majority have been around between 50 and 100 years, she notes. “They were built to last world wars and economic downturns.”

Shih’s been able to mine this vein of inspiration more thoroughly on the streets of Paris, admittedly one of her favorite places on the planet. “I love going for walks in my favorite neighborhoods—Le Marais, Batignolles, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and becoming fully absorbed in the lush gardens, gorgeous architectural design, and centuries of changes Paris has seen,” she enthuses, “It gives me great perspective, respect, and admiration for history and tradition, even as we spend all of our time at Hearsay Social dreaming up and building the new and the disruptive.” A result of which is the company’s recent launch of its services in France.

Writing new ideas down in the notebook she always keeps at hand allows Shih to parse out these bursts of creativity and then share them with her staff. Sometimes she’ll act right away, Shih admits, but she’ll just as often find another place to park an idea while she vets it and makes sure it’s worth the team’s time.

Shih believes that speed can be an advantage, especially in a leadership role. But when two years in the Valley seems equivalent to a lifetime, Shih says working with Hearsay’s clients has helped her slow down and make decisions around staff, company culture, and systems more deliberately. Making sure each is aligned, Shih says, “is an investment that can take you into the next decade.”

[Image: Flickr user M Car]

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