Thilo Semmelbauer: Two experiences worth mentioning when I started Weight Watchers online business, there was no revenue. It grew to a peak of about 400 million in revenue with, probably more importantly, millions of users. Many of them satisfied and some of them having had significant life changes, which was very gratifying.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Shutterstock is probably one of the things I’m most proud of in my career and during my time there, it grew from 50 million to 350 million in revenue over the course of five years.
Dave Carvajal: Yeah, and there was an IPO in there as well.
Thilo Semmelbauer: There was an IPO, which was I think a great confirmation for this sort of staying power in the company and the impact that it has on the industry.
Thilo Semmelbauer: It starts with a plan. You have to know where you’re going. Whether you get there through sheer insight or analysis and strategic thinking, you have to have a plan.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And then secondly, you have to build a team around you who gets bought into the plan and shares that with you. And often, finding those people, selecting them, that’s hard and that’s a lot of fun. It’s a part of what I spend a lot of my time on.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Often, the best people for those jobs aren’t the ones who’ve done it before. It’s sometimes the people who really want that as a next step in their career and they have a lot to learn. So that process of building the team is super exciting and it’s, at the end of the day, the most important thing.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I think finally, when you have a plan and a team, it’s about being nimble on your feet. It’s about testing, learning, evolving, pivoting, and solving problems every day.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Well, failure is a long topic. I’ve had my fair share of those. I think one category of failures is such interesting to talk about, it happened a couple of times in my career.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Once at Motorola in the 90’s when I launched a product that worked technically but nobody bought it. There’s no market for it, pre-cursor of what came later as smartphones but way too early for its time.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Sometimes you could have a great plan and you can have great people and great execution and you still don’t get any sales.
Thilo Semmelbauer: It happened to me also in ’99 when I was working with Sotheby’s to launch their online auction business. Now, many years later, the stuff is largely working. But at the time, again, the site, the capabilities were there, the dealers were lined up and the business just wasn’t there, It was timing.
Thilo Semmelbauer: So I think failures of timing are interesting failures. I think that they’re just to be expected. It’s something that I really look out for now and in my recent jobs.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I think we try to be more careful about selecting to be part of things that were the time is right because that’s an important element of success and hard to control, except to select or deselect.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I think other failures have come from external events. I mean, one of the best things that ever happened to Shutterstock was when hurricane Sandy hit. And we were at a downtown office, right by the stock exchange. The office was flooded as what’s most of downtown, everybody knows what happened. And we had to scramble and find other space in midtown and people had makeshift offices in Brooklyn, in New Jersey.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And it was a failure of lack of preparedness at the end of the day because we didn’t anticipate something like that and the tech team was scrambling to put services in the Cloud.
Thilo Semmelbauer: It all worked, we never missed a beat in terms of serving customers and having the website running and even moving our projects forward, but during something like that, you really learn about the people on the team and who gets creative and figures out a way through that hardship and who kind of checks out and doesn’t show up for work.
Thilo Semmelbauer: It’s a very interesting learning experience so I think crisis can actually be very helpful for a company.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I think another failure, kind of on a personal level, I think earlier in my career, I probably was too afraid of failure. I think what was drilled into me in school as an engineering-oriented person and analyst.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I’ve viewed my success as getting to the right answer and not making mistakes. And I think it took me a while in my career to get comfortable with, failures as a necessary part, hopefully, small failures as a necessary part of the creative and building process.
Dave Carvajal: Thilo, what is the impact of some of your greatest achievements? What are you most proud of?
Thilo Semmelbauer: Yeah, well I mean, I think at Weight Watchers, the whole brand is around helping people so that’s something I really connected with. I mean, helping people lead healthier lives, lose weight, make personal transformations.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Weight Watchers had been doing that for 40 years but we were trying to bring that into the online experience as well and I think one of the most exciting things that happened after we built and launched the product was seeing people purchase it online. I mean, watching the ticker that people were actually buying what we built.
Thilo Semmelbauer: But, I think that paled in comparison to hearing stories of people months later and over the years that had success with it, with either right in or…
Thilo Semmelbauer: I would meet users, after having millions of users, it was not so hard to people who would just come up to me and say, “Wow, you were involved with Weight Watchers online. It really helped me, I lost 30 pounds. I became healthier. This happened, that happened.” And to hear those stories that people’s lives changed in some way, that made me feel great.
Thilo Semmelbauer: It happened at Shutterstock as well, although in different ways. I mean, even before I got there, the concept behind the Shutterstock subscription offering was very appealing.
Thilo Semmelbauer: But once we blew it out and got a lot more users on the platform and made the product better and improved the content, one woman came up to me who’s a customer who said, “We used Shutterstock so much we’ve turned it into a verb. In office, when we have a creative problem we say, ‘Hey, let’s Shutterstock it.’
Thilo Semmelbauer: And they go on the site and they got lots of ideas. And I had never thought about Shutterstock that way but the fact that it was getting such heavy use and had such appeal for creative people. That was very powerful.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And I think Shutterstock, being a marketplace business, equally powerful where some of the stories on the contributor side. I mean, photographers, videographers all over the world.
Thilo Semmelbauer: One woman, I remember we invited her into the office, who worked from her home in a small town in Siberia halfway around the world selling her images and her illustrations to customers all over the world and she was making a living doing that.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And there’s probably no way she would be able to pursue that passion without Shutterstock, so again, maybe small ways but important ways of touching people’s lives. I mean, that’s exciting.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Well, I think leadership always starts with a vision, a plan, I think. It can come from great inspiration or it can come from hard analytical and strategic work but it always starts with clarity of vision.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And I think the second part is getting other people on board. And that ultimately, I think, great leaders have a way of getting to know the people around them and motivating them.
Thilo Semmelbauer: You can’t motivate people who are all motivated by different things unless you get to know them, which requires listening, learning, observing, communicating–all those things to really connect so you can’t do it by yourself.
Thilo Semmelbauer: So I think it’s that combination of knowing where you want to go and being able to, at the end of the day, get others to follow. I think that’s what leadership is all about.
Thilo Semmelbauer: There’s a deeper thing perhaps underlying leadership that I didn’t mention and you’re making me think about it now. I think it’s kind of at the basic level of caring. So what does that mean?
Thilo Semmelbauer: I mean, caring about people. The people are going to help you. The people, together, are going to make it happen. And if you don’t care about them, it’s not going to work as well. It’s only going to work for a short time period.
Thilo Semmelbauer: So there’s something I don’t know quite to how to put words around it. But the teams that I have built and the people I’ve worked with, it’s like a relationship. I care about them, I want them to succeed, they want me to succeed, and there’s a bond there, I think, that makes it special and sometimes makes it work and you can build magic together.
Dave Carvajal: And it’s amazing how that leadership, Thilo, has inspired so many people in their own leadership growth and how they choose to lead and the active decision that they make in understanding how to be a better leader, creating value in the world.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I hope so. There’s a lot of people that I’ve worked with over the years that I’m still in touch with that are in leadership positions and they call me and ask for advice and I give them what I can.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Most of it is within them and they maybe need some help bringing it out. And that’s very gratifying, to see people move on and do amazing things. That’s part of the fun for me.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Yeah, it’s building great products and having impact on people’s lives but it’s also the relationships with the people you work with that is very gratifying.
Thilo Semmelbauer: You know, there are stylistic differences and cultural differences across the generation but I think what makes good people in a workplace is largely, I think, has not changed significantly. I would argue, I will argue.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I think simple problems are easy problems in a company can be solved by one person. Hard problems require people to work together.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Well, if they’re going to work with each other successfully, they need to have an ability to respect each other, they need to communicate well and they have to have some shared goals.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I think that is evidently possible and I’ve seen it over and over again across generations. So I put the commonality across generations of people who are effective in a workplace. To me, that is the most important thing.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And yeah, of course, then you’re getting to some of the stylistic differences and it’s common today that you go into a meeting and everybody has some sort of a screen or device in front of them.
Thilo Semmelbauer: 15 years ago, that was considered bad behavior because you could be doing something else instead of paying attention. But today, it’s a way of paying attention. Maybe people are taking notes on their laptops, who knows.
Thilo Semmelbauer: So those things, I think, are more superficial. For me, on the precipice of my 50th birthday, I love working with young people. For me, it’s very energizing.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I remember there was a moment at Shutterstock, I won’t go into the whole story but suffice it to say that we needed to get a hold of some BitCoin. And all of the 40-year olds were looking around the table like, “Uh, I don’t know how to do this.” And of course, the 25-year old at the company wound up producing the account and knew exactly how to navigate that world.
Thilo Semmelbauer: That’s one plus one equals three when you have that diversity around you and you can tap into different generations.
Thilo Semmelbauer: At its core, I think value most the ability to get stuff done, the ability to have impact, sort of “talk is cheap so let’s see what you can do.” And I think that is the way I judge myself. I think ultimately, what’s most important in others is that impact potential.
Thilo Semmelbauer: In order to have impact, you have to work out with other people. So a lot of other things follow that, including an ability to listen, which I think is rare.
Thilo Semmelbauer: But when I find it in people, I tend to think it’s a good sign because it shows that somebody doesn’t know everything, if they’re going to interact well with others to figure out the problem and perhaps even evolve their thinking because wherever their starting point was, it may not be necessarily right.
Thilo Semmelbauer: So to me, the ability to listen is critical to thinking and doing in a group but it’s not very common. So I do look for that.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I’ve sought out mentors, I think, over the years. I think many of them were my bosses and for some strange reasons, early on my career, I had lots of bosses who were yellers so there were lots of screaming.
Thilo Semmelbauer: It started in Motorola, in a production environment, it was a lot of yelling and screaming. And my boss was often very vocal.
Thilo Semmelbauer: In a production environment, it’s one of these no-win jobs where you either didn’t produce enough or there were too many people working on the shift so it’s too expensive or quality wasn’t high. You never get everything right, so there’s always something to yell at.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And I don’t think that my boss would say that he mentored me at the time but in a strange way, I think it toughened me up. So that was an early on experience.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I think later, I always try to learn different things from the people that I work with. Whether they were board members or my bosses, I sought that.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I don’t know if it was ever really formalized, I wouldn’t say that I had this kind of regular monthly meeting with a mentor but I definitely thought about picking out learnings from other people around me and trying to get better at being a leader myself.
Dave Carvajal: What has been your driving purpose, your noble cause maybe?
Thilo Semmelbauer: That’s interesting. I think I like solving hard problems that can be solved. I think at my core, I am a problem solver.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I’ve been involved in an organization called Action Against Hunger, for almost ten years now, that is dedicated to ending world hunger. You will say, “Okay, is that a problem we can solve?”
Thilo Semmelbauer: Yes, it’s a problem we can solve. It turns out that if you go back 25 years, in 1990, there were roughly a billion undernourished people on the planet out of five billion, so one in five. Just in the last couple of years when the stats were taken again, it was 800 million out of seven billion people, so one out of nine.
Thilo Semmelbauer: So actually making a progress now, it’s a tragedy that 800 million people around the world are undernourished but we know how to solve this. It’s about money, will, distribution, education, and politics.
Thilo Semmelbauer: It’s not about food production. The world has the capacity to fulfil these basic needs.
Thilo Semmelbauer: So I’ve been involved in that organization in part because I think it’s a problem that we can solve. It’s going to take a lot of time, maybe beyond my lifetime but that is worth doing. It’s a basic need and everything follows from that.
Thilo Semmelbauer: You can’t have a career without basic nourishment. So I mean, it is one of those things that I believe in. I think in a way, every business that I’ve been part of, there is some fundamental big problem to solve and maybe it’s not as big as world hunger but I get fascinated by the problem and trying to solve it in some way.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I do believe and maybe I’m not an optimist in this, like Diamandis that there is a lot of exciting possibilities around the corner. I think maybe more near in, if I think about the entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with and the ones I hope to work with over the coming years, I think there’s never been as an exciting time as now to start a business.
Thilo Semmelbauer: If I look back in my own life, when I was going to school that’s called the 80’s, the goal was get a job at a great big company and have security in that career.
Thilo Semmelbauer: With the internet, with software, with technology, with the availability of capital, the availability of information at everyone’s fingertips, I think the world is your oyster if you’re an entrepreneur today.
Thilo Semmelbauer: And I only wish I had gotten the bug earlier in my career. It came a little bit later but I think that’s one of the things that makes me excited. Also, about changing the world’s problems is the fact that if you have a great idea, you can basically go and make it happen today.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I’m very confident that with all of the smart brains and driven people that are out there, we’re going to make lots of great things happen. So that’s exciting.
Thilo Semmelbauer: I would like to be remembered as somebody who helped the world, who helped people and helped in some small way, maybe in some big way to come, was a positive force.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Maybe my father was sort of in my head on this question because he passed away a number of years ago that he would never let us complain at home, one of the things that we weren’t allowed to do was complain.
Thilo Semmelbauer: Yeah, maybe had they told me about it but then, it was always about “Well, what are you going to do that will turn it around, being a positive force and not a negative force?”
Thilo Semmelbauer: It’s like long-winded answer but I hope to be remembered as somebody who was a positive force in the world.