Anjali Sud, W’05 CEO, Vimeo. 2019 Joseph Wharton Award for Young Leadership
15 February, 2020
category: Joseph Wharton Dinner, Tech.
Video platform Vimeo is one of the most visited websites in the U.S., home to millions of high-quality videos (including many published by Wharton). With a powerful suite of tools that empower any business and creator to succeed with video, Vimeo is more than a viewing destination — it’s a technology platform. Anjali Sud, W’05, played a key role in developing Vimeo’s current software-as-a-service strategy, and has successfully grown its community of businesses and storytellers to over 150 million users. Anjali’s path is a story itself.
What drives Vimeo’s growth?
We see people using video in new and different ways. If trends continue, we expect video traffic to be over 80% of all internet traffic within the next few years, with the vast majority of that being mobile. Most of us spend our time on our phones, where we have a shorter attention span, and expect to see a video that is high-quality and engaging. Mark Zuckerberg shared that a video on Facebook will receive 75% of all the views that video will ever receive, in the first four days. That means that the shelf life of video is becoming shorter and shorter, and the need to make more videos is quickly increasing.
In the same way that Netflix raised the bar for quality content in television, the same thing is happening for online video. We as consumers expect the content, from a large company or a small startup, to be highly produced, to have great motion graphics, and the right music and compelling storytelling. That consumer expectation creates challenges for small businesses that don’t have those capabilities.
The precise challenge that Vimeo is trying to solve is to help entrepreneurs and small business owners increase the quality — and quantity — of the videos they create. What’s interesting is that it is no longer just video for advertising. We’re seeing more customer support teams answering customer questions, explaining how to fix something or showing how a product works, all with video.
For product demos, education and training, live content is very popular right now. Businesses and brands are livestreaming everything from their internal communications to their employees, to a product launch or an industry event. That makes a lot of sense because people today crave real-time interaction. When people who are not physically in the same place watch videos in real time, they perceive them as more authentic and engaging. As workforces become more global and distributed and as millennials opt to do more freelance and remote work, that need will only grow.
Beyond offering hosting capabilities, Vimeo provides tools to analyze your videos and gain deep insights into who is watching, the whys and hows to sell videos; and to distribute your work across the internet.
What kind of advice would you give to someone beginning to produce videos?
Start creating, and experiment — because video has applications for almost every aspect of how you communicate. I’m seeing businesses, big and small, across pretty much every industry, doing it — from yoga instructors livestreaming their classes to pastors livestreaming their sermons. Even Little League games — when you’re a parent and you’re going to miss your kid’s big game; you can experience that and see it through a video. Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart, recently did his earnings call as a video. Video is not just for marketing any longer — the applications are enormously varied. The question is, “How does one unlock the power of this medium that’s so expressive?” And that’s where Vimeo comes in.
What was your path from graduation?
I had a winding and unpredictable career path, and not an easy one. When I graduated from Wharton, I struggled, more than most, to find a job. I wanted to be in investment banking. I interviewed at almost every brand name firm, and I was rejected from all of them. In one of the interviews, the feedback I got was that I didn’t have the “personality” to be an investment banker. It was hard for me.
Then I had an unplanned and fortuitous event. Right before graduation, a startup investment bank was looking for its first analyst. I think I was the only graduate left who wanted to do investment banking and did not have a job. I joined that firm and learned a ton there. From that point on, I tried a lot of different things, and never had a view that I needed to be in one industry or another. I worked on mergers and acquisitions at Time Warner. I was a toy buyer at Amazon, and even sold diapers online.
When I look back at my career path, it is hard to see a common thread. I had a view that, the more varied my experience was, the more well-rounded a leader I could be. The more that I experienced totally different functions and different business models in different industries, the more I could hone my decision-making skills. Finally, I came to Vimeo five years ago.
How did you come into your current role at Vimeo?
I started at Vimeo as the director of marketing, with a team of five. Three years later, I became CEO, running a global platform with over 600 employees around the world and over 150 million users. Becoming CEO was not something that I even had imagined would happen. At the time I joined Vimeo, it pursued an original content strategy, similar to Netflix.
I developed a point of view for a different strategy that focused on technology and being a software provider, as opposed to a viewing destination. I asked our investors to give me a small team for a year to prove out that strategy. They gave me that opportunity — actually, they gave me a team of 50 people. We were essentially a startup within this bigger company.
How did your team’s new products gain such rapid acceptance from your users?
First, we looked to earn trust by building better tools and products. Our focus was on quality, velocity and solving problems that really mattered to the video pro community. In that one year, our lean team shipped more new features for creators than Vimeo had done in the previous three years combined. That led to our customer satisfaction scores (Net Promoter Score or NPS) almost doubling, which for us was the guiding light that our strategy was working.
Second, we looked to engage directly with the video pro community to build more empathy for their needs. We invested in hosting more events and workshops, getting more direct feedback from creators on what they wanted, inviting them to test beta versions of our tools and give feedback on our roadmap, and more. We celebrated that community as well, from giving them Staff Pick awards at film festivals to highlighting their incredible work to our global user base.
Did you have an engineering background when you initiated this technology startup?
I wasn’t an engineer. I had never run or managed product or engineering functions before, but suddenly, I had a full team, and we ran it like a true startup. We began to invest in tools for video creators, and we saw enormous results, both for our users and for our business. After one year, I was able to make a clear case to our investors that this was the course Vimeo should go. Then they made the decision to let me run it. Interestingly, my boss, Joey Levin, ENG’01, W’01, a Wharton alum, has also had an accelerated career. He’s running our parent, IAC, a publicly traded company at the age of 40. He sponsored a culture that prioritized talent over experience, being willing to give people opportunity by throwing them in the deep end and seeing if they could swim.
Is that a culture you continue to cultivate?
Yes. Because I genuinely think that, in the world of tech, our industry changes fast. We don’t need to have a playbook. In fact, a playbook is something that I try to avoid because we’re trying to build a new market and do things differently. Having a fresh perspective is how we innovate. I try to find people who have those innovative ideas, and give them the platform to make those ideas happen. That’s a competitive advantage.
You spoke about innovation and technology. What new technologies are embracing video today?
Video is the most expressive medium for communication today. It’s what makes it a challenging industry to work in. What excites me is the democratization of professional quality video — making it more accessible and achievable for anyone to benefit from this medium. We’re focused on technologies that empower more people to be video producers, particularly small business owners and entrepreneurs who now need to use video to grow their businesses. Vimeo is investing in everything — artificial intelligence, machine learning and creative marketplaces — all designed to provide inspiration, community and insights to lower the barriers for professional video for those people.
What did you learn at Wharton that has played a role in your business and life?
Two things. First, Wharton taught me resilience. I had a wonderful, wonderful experience. Those four years were the most fun I had had in my life. But it was also hard for me. Wharton is an intense academic environment. I was intimidated by my peers. I sometimes struggled in my finance classes. Then, as I told you, I really struggled to find a job in investment banking after graduation.
Perhaps the thing that I learned was to have confidence in myself, that I could graduate from this institution with all these brilliant minds. That I deserved to have a seat at the table and that I should believe in myself — to keep trying — even as employers kept rejecting me. That resilience means that you don’t stop, and I think that came largely from my experiences at Wharton. Since Wharton, I’ve had big doors opened for me, and I’ve opened doors for others.
The other thing I think I learned at Wharton was the power of authentic, real relationships. We talk about networking. What I believe deeply is that the networks that matter for you, that will really impact you over time, have little to do with what industry you happen to be in and they are not transactional. They’re real. I developed deep friendships while at Wharton, and those people are the ones I rely on today for both personal and professional advice. They are my support network, who I trust, and who played a huge role in helping me get to where I am.
What’s your focus outside of work?
As of 11 months ago, I am a new mom. So, frankly, when I’m not running Vimeo, I’m trying to spend as much time with my son as possible. I became a mom while being a first-time CEO. I remember being worried about how I was going to manage it all, whether it would have an impact on my performance.
What I will tell you is that, through the experience of parenthood, I developed a whole new level of empathy for what so many working parents go through. It is not easy. As companies and as leaders of companies, we need to do more to support working parents. Because the more that they are able to be the parents they want to be and be the employees they want to be, they can be more productive, and it’s good for the business. This is something that I do think about.
I really enjoy motherhood. And I love my job. Every day, I am grateful, excited and passionate to be at Vimeo. I also recognize that, as the boss, it’s easier for me as I have the resources to have child care and have such a supportive partner.
You mentioned your family impacted the person that you have become. What did you learn from your parents?
I grew up in the Midwest with supportive and encouraging parents who are immigrants from India. My father is both a doctor and a small business owner in Flint, Michigan, and his entrepreneurial spirit greatly influenced the direction of my career path. My dad read The Wall Street Journal religiously, and always left article clippings for me by my bed. He dreamed of one of his kids making it by going to the same school as the prominent leaders whom he read about. So, it was surreal when I got into Wharton. A few months ago, The Wall Street Journal did a feature article on Vimeo’s strategy and on me, and yes, my father has it framed literally in every room of our house.
My mother is also a doctor, and one of the hardest-working women I know. They are both philosophically dedicated to contributing and giving back to our community. Because of them, I developed an early belief in the power of business to positively impact an entire community. It is what drives me most as a leader today.