This is why a Silicon Valley entrepreneur believes London could produce the next Facebook

 
Shruti Tripathi Chopra
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The Silicon Roundabout In Old Street
Old Street's Silicon Roundabout district has made a name for UK tech firms (Source: Getty)

By the time Clara Shih turned 30, she was a Starbucks board member, had raised $21m (£16.7m) for her social media startup and had become a bestselling author.

A Stanford and Oxford graduate, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur founded software company Hearsay Social [now Hearsay Systems] in 2009 to make financial giants look slick on social media platforms.

Today, the Californian firm boasts over 150,000 customers in 22 countries.

Shih’s on a mission to ramp up the firm’s presence in London. She believes the capital has what it takes to produce the next Facebook or Google, no matter what uncertainty Brexit creates.

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Building a viral app

The 34-year-old is considered somewhat of a trailblazer in the US tech industry.

In 2007, Shih developed the first ever business application on Facebook called Faceconnector, which helped companies identify potential customers through their social media profiles. Being the first of its kind, the app went viral and landed Shih a book deal.

“The Facebook Era: Tapping Social Networks to Market, Sell, and Innovate” went on to become a New York Times’ bestsellers and is now used as a marketing textbook at Harvard Business School.

“I am a software engineer by education and entrepreneur by nature,” Shih tells City A.M. “I’ve spent my career working at technology companies, including Microsoft, Google and Salesforce.com, helping traditional companies adapt to the digital age.”

While working at the world’s biggest tech giants, Shih spotted a gap in the market for a company that helps big organisations use social media to attract customers. She tapped her Stanford classmate Steve Garrity to become the business’ co-founder.

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“Every company is ‘digitising’ these days, but amid fancy brand websites and mobile apps, most traditional sales organisations are being left behind. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in financial services, with the added layers of complexity, regulation, and conservatism.”

The San Francisco-headquartered firm has raised over $50m to date from top venture capitalists including Sequoia Capital, which has invested in Apple, Google, Oracle and PayPal among others.

Shih attributes the growth of the business to her decision to focus exclusively on financial services.

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“Initially it felt counterintuitive to focus on a single vertical market, but this focus was the best decision we ever made,” she says.

In 2015, Hearsay expanded beyond their flagship social selling product and added websites, text messaging and email, all on a single integrated platform.

Shih’s achievements caught the attention of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who recommended her to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for a position on the coffee chain’s board.

“Starbucks views itself as a technology company and was seeking a millennial digital director,” Shih recalls. “At the time, Sheryl Sandberg was stepping down from her position on the board to join Facebook’s board and included me on a shortlist of potential replacements.”

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After a standard interview process, Shih came onboard to help Starbucks improve its online experience. Wasn’t the 29-year-old too young to be on the board of a Fortune 500 company? “In tech, age is not an issue,” she insists.

London’s tech prowess

Shih set up the Hearsay European headquarters in London’s Silicon Roundabout district in 2013 and quickly snapped up big clients including Zurich Insurance and Axa.

“As the financial capital of Europe, it is a priority for us to have a strong presence here to both support our European customers and scale the business,” she says.

Shih admits that while London has an “incredibly vibrant and exciting tech scene”, she was concerned about the impact last year’s Brexit vote would have on the tech industry in the city, “especially when some companies openly stated they were considering moving away”.

Read more: Why Silicon Roundabout is overtaking Silicon Valley

“More than six months later, however, the future appears brighter,” she says. “Not only have fast-growing companies such as Snapchat chosen London as the home of their international operations, but the giants of the industry – Google, Facebook and Amazon – have all increased their investment in the city.”

Shih thinks London has all the “ingredients” to create the next Facebook or Google, be it its “investment community” or “the innovators on the ground”.

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“What really makes a difference though is talent, and it’s paramount that London nurtures and invests in the people that can create the next transformative company. This is particularly important following Brexit, and as the details of what leaving the EU means for those that work across borders [are revealed].”

Shih’s message echoes that of many of her tech industry peers – London has a bright future, so long as it keeps the door open to global talent.

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