Salone and I met at Fernandez & Wells for breakfast. We talk about her move from VP in banking to Founder and CEO of an innovative gaming start-up for a female audience - pushing on the status quo. The interview covers her thoughts on accelerators, hiring and fundraising advice as well as our discussion on the future of gaming.
Current Job CEO of Truly Social
First Job I was an analyst at KPMG in India, where I started my career, I was part of the transaction services team working on corporate M&A and diligence.
Education I completed my Economics undergraduate degree in India and I did my MBA at IESE Business School in Barcelona – the best two years of my life!
Favourite book The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – it is the most truthful account of what it is like to be a CEO of a company – I would recommend it to any entrepreneur.
Favourite productivity tool Trello
Recent inspiration The story of Yusra Mardini - a Syrian refugee who swam her way to Greece and then became part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team.
Top networking tip Be confident and ensure to follow up to establish your credibility that you keep your word.
Hottest tech startup in the UK right now Blippar
What was the motivation to leave the corporate banks behind to co-found TrulySocial - did you perceive it as a big risk?
I was so fed up, I had been in banking for over 6 years; I had pulled enough all nighters and was living such a bad lifestyle. What bothered me the most was starting to feel like a small cog and not feeling like I was having an impact. On the one hand you are paid well but on the other you don’t have the time to enjoy the money. At a point your learning curve also stops and that is when you start to feel that you want to do something meaningful. I was a VP when I quit and a lot of my friends and family asked me what I was doing! I thought I might want to try start-ups but I had no job nor plan when I left and at the time it did feel foolish.
What is TrulySocial & what was the inspiration behind it?
We are a casual mobile gaming studio – so we build mobile games. Sebastian, my co-founder is a passionate gamer and serial entrepreneur. He realised innovation was lacking in the gaming industry – people were just re-skinning successful game genres - no one was creating something different or new. We wanted to dispute the notion that gaming was a male bastion – that women don’t game. We wanted to come up with immersive, exploratory games for a casual female audience. At the macro level it makes huge sense - globally 55% of causal gamers are women who spend more money on mobile games than men. But the vast majority of games targeted at women are either puzzles or dress up! There is a market for something different. Our first title is this contemporary social world roleplaying game. It is very much like if your life was a sit com, what would it look like!
What was your experience of Startupbootcamp and what was your thought process behind choosing which or if an accelerator was right for you?
We took part in Startupbootcamp's mobile accelerator. It was helpful in a lot of ways. We were outsiders in the gaming industry, which is renowned for being a small, close-knit and complex community. There are probably only 10 incumbents who have been in it for the last decade and you need some serious backing to go up against a King a Tencent or a Supercell. So we thought an accelerator would be a great platform for credibility and grooming as we were first time entrepreneurs. It helped us think about the business and look inwards – that was the time that I took over as CEO. We met a lot of interesting people, however, very few people understood games specifically, most were focused more on tech, mobile and entrepreneurship generally and less on the nuances of games and that was a bit inadequate for us but it was a superb stepping stone and a great launch pad. I would encourage people to go through an accelerator program simply because if you are two founders it is a great stress test. It is in hindsight a lot of equity to give up but you make the best decisions at the time with the information available to you.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?
You have to drink your own kool-aid. If you don’t believe in your product, business and vision chances are people are not going to believe in you either. This self-belief is necessary. Another great piece of advice is to always look forward instead of going back and thinking you could have done things better.
What has been the evolution and milestones to date of TrulySocial?
- The fact that we came from outside the industry to a point where people know of us and know what we are building
- The fact that we have some of the best investors in the world involved. They watched us and monitored us for 12 months and even when they invested in us it was an investment in a hypothesis of what we wanted to do. The fact that they backed and believed in us makes me proud.
- We have some world-class talent in the company, passionate about our mission. It is a new team that has come together and delivering 100%.
- Our foresight. Our thesis that women are valuable as an audience is slowing being validated. We systematically looked at the problem that the mobile gaming industry faced. Building a great game is not enough anymore. Now you need to have a robust user acquisition strategy. You need to have distribution and go after un tapped markets. One was the Indian market – no one thought it was a viable market for gaming but it is a billion consumers. Now the fact is that there have been developments in India that have illustrated that in the next two years India is going to be a market of 600m smartphone users, who will be consuming a lot of apps and gaming is a natural progression. That was a thesis that we had early on. So we have partnerships and distributions and celebrities in place there. We are building influence and relationships there. We are innovating in our space in a number of different ways. The way we build our game, the way we do distribution, the way we approach user acquisition. Thinking about the full stack. It is important to break the hegemony of the app store of fb advertising. If you want to reach your audience, particularly a female audience who largely don't consider themselves as gamers, then you have to think of different ways.
How have you learnt and continually improved your CEO skills?
I learn a lot from my team who are brutally honest with me. I appreciate that they feel they can give me feedback. We also had an executive coach who really helped my co-founder and I define our roles and how we could harness our potential as founders. Every entrepreneur needs mentorship through challenges. I also have an early investor who serves as a great advisor and sounding board to chat through strategic decisions. Supportive ex-entrepreneur parents and their guidance also acts as a major anchor for me.
What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for both the business and your team?
There are obvious product specific KPIs when you are building a company to help guide decision making – how engaged players are, retention of the product, measuring early monetisation etc.
But the biggest KPI for my team is how happy people are – happy people create great products. How do they feel about the company. You constantly need to check in to see how motivated they are. How stressed are they? What can the company do to help? One of our values is we do well if we all do well – we take care of each other and we all thrive. We made it very clear that a person is an amalgamation of their personal experiences and their professional experiences – you bring both and that’s ok – you should feel comfortable coming to work and having a bad day. And if you are having a bad week that’s fine too.
We are also very careful about how we recruit. We learnt the hard way, as everyone does, and made some bad hires. We now realise the importance of culture and close-knit team and how one person can totally impact the team dynamic.
What values do you hold and what kind of company do you want to build?
When I used to be in banking you are constantly grilled the values – they were even the desktop screensaver! But somehow they don’t resonate. At TrulySocial we decided upon:
- Be nice
- Lead by example
- We do well if we ALL do well
We embody it to a large extent. It is something you have to be mindful of when we are growing. That is why recruiting is so important.
How have you scaled TrulySocial, what should other founders be thinking about?
Sometimes you feel like you need more experienced people when you are not from the industry to complement your inexperience. Sometimes that works very well and sometimes it doesn’t. Hiring people who are passionate, who have potential and the hunger will help you achieve your goals quicker than someone more experienced but less invested in the success of the company. The people we have hired are absolutely fantastic, exceptionally driven and committed to the success of the business and product.This means everyone goes above and beyond their roles and carries a lot of weight. It was also a very gut feeling – and founders should learn to trust their instincts.
Early on you want to work with people and investors who give things to you without asking anything in return. One of my investors, a female game lead at Supercell (one of the best game designers in the world), was introduced to me by my other investor and after just a conversation she said she loved what we were building and wanted to invest. She is passionate about the business and our vision and wanted to actually do something to support us tangibly; that was hugely inspiring. It is not a zero sum game – just because you are successful doesn’t preclude others from being successful too. The best relationships occur when people share.
What do you think the future of gaming looks like and in that context what is your long term vision for TrulySocial?
People are going to start taking games as a medium to reach out to users much more seriously. To be able to harness the power of games you have to ask what is the potential and I think with smartphones as the main medium for entertainment, games are going to start taking centre stage. As a brand and a consumer goods company I would be increasingly concerned that people aren’t watching television any more, people find video ads disruptive. So how are you supposed to reach your audience? I think these companies will pay more attention to gaming. There is a lot of talk of augmented and virtual reality with Pokémon Go becoming so popular. I am on the fence on that one – I think we need VR to become less cumbersome and tedious to become mass market. Then adoption with audiences, particularly women, it is a longer way off I think. Mobile took traditional gaming companies by surprise so it could happen but there is a still a lot more ground to be covered with mobile gaming I think.
The future of gaming has never looked brighter. Gaming companies will start thinking about new markets. China has been closed off to international players - but if this changes that is 1.3 billion people. India is another powerful market, whether the market monetises right now maybe not, but it will get there. We want to build sustainable games franchises on mobile for women and we want that medium to be more interactive for brands and influencers to reach out their audiences beyond social media. We want to build more inclusive games. We want the word "gamer" to become redundant and to ensure that even the unlikeliest of people will be "gaming" from a 60 year old grandmother to the 12 year old teenager.
Women in Tech
Can you share your fundraising history as well as your experience and advice for women looking to raise capital
It is incredibly stressful; it is important to stay calm, things never move as fast as you would like. I would advise all founders to take the lead in the fundraise. I am comfortable with financials, deals, legal contracts, models and leading a process. A lot of founders can get lost and let the lawyers take over but be mindful of what you are signing and the implications on your business. As a young start up unless you are cash flow positive you don’t have much leverage and the person sitting opposite has more – but you should keep in mind what your walk away points are. There will be times you sign things which are far from ideal but is the best you can do in that particular situation. As I said before, at any given point of time, you make the best decision with the information you have at hand, so I try to not berate myself over past decisions that don't go my way (which happens a lot in the life of an entrepreneur) and instead aim to always stay solution focused.
Do you consciously think about building a diverse team and how can we do better to attract and retain more women in those teams?
We don’t consciously think about it. Out of a team of eight four are women. Being a woman I don’t have that unconscious bias so that gets reflected in our own hiring.
What personal qualities to you attribute most to your success?
I think just grit.
You have experienced both big corporates and startups - what advice would you give to new graduates?
I don’t think big corporates are evil, they can be great grooming grounds. You can learn a lot in banking and consulting like self-discipline, analytical skills, take responsibility, work hard.