At the age of 13, Anjali Sud wanted a different life experience and a better education than what was available to her in her hometown of Flint, Michigan. She went to a local bookstore with her father and bought a book about schools in the U.S. After completing 15 applications, she moved to Massachusetts to attend boarding school the next year. Leaving home was hard, and so were the academics at her new school – she failed her classes the first half of the year. As a result of her teachers’ and community’s support, she caught up, graduated and went to college.
Her failure at such a young age created a resiliency that Sud continues to tap into today. She has taken this spirit of exploration and experimentation to Vimeo, where she is now CEO, and is focused on enabling a community of storytellers – who she calls creators – to succeed with video.
On Tuesday, January 29, 2019, Bloomberg Television’s Scarlet Fu discussed the company’s obsession with creators, the evolution of video, and corporate cultures that encourage experimentation with Sud as part of the Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg Speaker Series at Bloomberg’s Global Headquarters in New York City.
Sud was exposed to entrepreneurialism at a young age. Her father had a plastics recycling plant in Flint, Michigan, that’s still there. But, rather than build her own company, she wanted to leverage her talents to grow an existing business. She loved the idea of supporting entrepreneurs and people passionate about their ideas. To become an operator, Sud was very deliberate with her career path and the skills she would learn along the way.
Because she had grown up watching her father run a business that had very thin margins, Sud realized that she needed to be fluent in how value moves around, how to manage businesses in a sustainable way, and how to invest and make big bets. Because of that, she started her career in investment banking — specifically mergers and acquisitions — and focused on identifying the patterns between the acquisitions that add value and those that don’t.
Moving from role to role to transition and learn required a good amount of creativity. Sud went from banking to internal M&A to business development to a role developing strategic partnerships at Amazon, taking a break along the way to attend business school, before landing her first operating role as a toy buyer, a role in which she ordered products and negotiated prices for Amazon.
In the meantime, Vimeo was a video platform that was experiencing product- and user-driven organic growth. The company had a very unique software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model that, unlike other platforms, was not ad-supported. Plus, video was going through a tremendous innovation cycle. Sud joined the company in 2014.
Scale by Using Data to Engage
Delivery channels for video had changed. To compete, Vimeo started building tools for creators, then those creators brought their content to Vimeo and that content drew audience and eyeballs. “Suddenly, you’re sitting on a platform that has hundreds of millions of viewers,” said Sud.
While everyone was investing billions of dollars in original content and were focused on the viewer experience, Sud saw an opportunity to focus on the people behind the camera. “What we found was that the definition of a video creator had changed,” she said. “It used to be that you had to be a filmmaker or an AV professional. Now, it’s really anyone with a phone.”
Across these content makers – be they filmmakers, large brands, small businesses, or YouTube stars – there was a strong desire to create professional quality video because that’s what audiences expected. “Today if you want to have a video strategy as a small business, you need to be creating video for social media that has a shelf life of five days and that video has to be engaging and high quality,” said Sud. “The stakes have just changed and technology has made it possible for us to lower the barriers for quality storytelling.”
None of the other platforms were focused on empowering creators with technology. Sud and her team were looking where others weren’t and figured out a low-risk way to validate their new strategy. Vimeo started investing more in tools for creators as Sud’s team grew from five marketers to more than 50 employees across product, engineering, and customer support.
Customer satisfaction scores doubled within six months, and the business really started seeing traction. The combination of skyrocketing costs and increasing competition around original content was why Vimeo’s ‘creator first’ strategy made sense. Understanding how people behave on the site, the tools they use, and which videos were being viewed provided the team with the insights needed to help them build the right products at scale.
“We launched a tool that allows you to natively publish your videos from within Vimeo to all the social media platforms – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube,” explained Sud. “Now, we collect all that data back, and we can use that to help you as a creator know that, if you make these tweaks to your content, you will get more engagement and more clicks on these platforms.”
Vulnerability Encourages Ideas
Having dealt with different stereotypes throughout her career, Sud rejects that notion of conformity. “Something I do very explicitly as CEO of Vimeo is to try and really be myself and hopefully create a culture internally where there isn’t one definition of a strong leader or what confidence means – everyone should feel comfortable being themselves,” she stressed.
For Sud, tapping into her own vulnerability has been an incredibly useful way to lead the company. “I learned that, as a leader, it’s your job to make the hard decisions so that your team doesn’t have to,” said Sud. “As a leader, you want validation that your decisions are right, but in many cases, you don’t have perfect information and you can’t have that validation. You have to do the best you can with the inputs you have.”
Leaders can’t be the only source of ideas though. A culture that allows everyone to provide input is key, because ideas can sometimes transform a company and lead to someone getting promoted, and then their next idea might lead to a launch — and both change the company’s strategy. There are formal and informal ways a company can do this. For example, Vimeo holds hackathons — called Vimeo Jams — where they explicitly encourage people to work with other teams to come up with new ideas.
Sud also encourages informal pitches. If she likes the idea, she’ll give someone a small team to pursue that solution, like she did with Vimeo Stock, which gives creators an opportunity to license their content raw footage, b-roll, and landscape footage to Vimeo so it can be sold royalty-free. This product was launched because the person running Vimeo’s video production team struggled to create Vimeo’s own marketing videos. They couldn’t shoot all the footage themselves, and existing stock footage was subpar. They developed a marketplace to elevate the creative standards of stock footage in a cost-effective way, while also putting money in creators’ pockets. Now, that person oversees Vimeo Stock.
No matter how people come up with their ideas, they need to be able to pitch them because “you never want to be the only person in the room with the ideas – that’s not a good place to be,” said Sud.
Not every company is open to creative business ideas though, and there are numerous informal signals that help someone determine if a company’s culture will match someone’s goals and ambitions. When deciding to leave Amazon, Sud looked at the LinkedIn profiles of the senior executives at Vimeo and IAC, its parent company. She noticed that people without a lot of experience held senior positions. “That was my signal that there’s something about the culture here that seems to reward talent over experience,” said Sud.
You can watch the entire discussion below: