Rashmi Sinha left a PhD program in cognitive neuropsychology to become an entrepreneur. Having been part of a modestly successful start-up, she wanted to aim higher by building a product that could reach many more. The result – SlideShare – is, according to many, the “YouTube of PowerPoint presentations,” providing a rich online source of content and different levels of advertising channels and lead generation for users. In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton, Sinha describes the history of SlideShare from its inception and her own journey from India to San Francisco.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
India Knowledge at Wharton: At SlideShare, the business revolves around PowerPoint. Almost everyone in business has used PowerPoint and everyone has an opinion about it. From your vantage point, what is it about PowerPoint that makes it such a powerful medium of communication?
Sinha: It is powerful because it’s visuals and text together and everybody in business uses it. It can be a great vehicle for communication. In many ways, it defines business communication today and that ubiquity is the basis of SlideShare. We have taken a medium, a cold format for business communication, and made it social. We believe that transformation is really powerful and brings together a certain kind of audience.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Does any document format rival PowerPoint, or is it in a class by itself?
Sinha: It is in a class by itself. The history of PowerPoint is quite fascinating. PowerPoint was invented by Robert Gaskins, who was based in Mountain View. He had the idea of automating traditional slideshows and built PowerPoint in a way that allowed non-designers to design slideshows. He wanted people to do all these cool things on their own. It is so powerful that it is easy to use. [People sometimes] make atrocious slideshows with it. Pop culture makes fun of it, and at SlideShare, we like to highlight that too. One of our very popular documents is called ‘Death by PowerPoint.’
India Knowledge at Wharton: PowerPoint is clearly the most-used method today. Is there anything you see coming in the future that could replace PowerPoint?
Sinha: Video is really interesting in terms of web communication. Video is becoming such a dominant force in all sorts of communication that it is hard to disregard it. So, yes, I can imagine other presentation formats. But I haven’t seen anything yet that has the potential to be as ubiquitous as PowerPoint is today. At the same time, there is a lot of room to improve upon PowerPoint.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You had mentioned that for SlideShare, the space you’re in is a bit undefined. Where would you put SlideShare on the map?
Sinha: SlideShare is a next-generation business media site meaning that, unlike traditional business sites, we don’t have editors creating content. Instead we have users who upload their own content, and others who favorite, tag and comment on it, to curate it.
Also, SlideShare is part of the same ecosystem that is made up of companies like Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites. More specifically, SlideShare is focused on business content and business networking. I like to define SlideShare as a site that enables networking over business content. On LinkedIn, a user will make a connection directly and I might add you to his or her network. On SlideShare, I might find your content interesting and tag it as a favorite. It’s a subtle difference, but it is a powerful way of networking.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Would it be fair to say that SlideShare is the YouTube of slides?
Sinha: Yes, it is a fair analogy – there are lots of differences, but there are similarities. What I like about that analogy is that it helps people immediately understand what we are doing at SlideShare.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How did SlideShare build a community of users who were interested in sorting through all this uploaded material? That’s one of the hardest things for companies to do, and many companies end up spending significant funds on acquiring users.
Sinha: SlideShare has never used advertising to build its community. It is all viral and organic traffic. I believe we achieved this by having a great product that is immediately useful: within five seconds of getting there, the site is useful. Oftentimes people find SlideShare through somebody else’s blog, or they come to a particular presentation page through search, start navigating related slides and eventually realize they can find a wealth of relevant information. This type of value keeps bringing people back.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Does SlideShare relate sites automatically? Is there policing of sensitive or inflammatory material?
Sinha: Yes to both. We have algorithms at the backend, which find related content. Also, we have community flagging for inappropriate content, which is very effective. We immediately get an email if anybody flags content.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s talk about SlideShare’s business model. What percentage of revenues comes from advertising? And, could you tell us more about Branded Channels, LeadShare, and AdShare.
Sinha: Currently most of our revenue is through advertising from big brands like Webex, Microsoft and Adobe. But we are building several services for users to market their businesses more effectively. Products like Branded Channels, LeadShare, and AdShare are starting to get traction. With Branded Channels, the basic idea is that once you have all your information on SlideShare, businesses want the look and feel of their own brand. Branded channel gives them another landing page on the web, apart from their own website. Brands seem to like that.
LeadShare is based on what we observed users doing on SlideShare. Some people would upload their content and then hold back the download of the file and encourage viewers who were interested to contact them directly. Nobody ever passes around a white paper any more. Some might do it in email, but very few send the link. With SlideShare, documents get passed around and shared quite often. Finally, with AdShare, the thought is that if people want their products or services to get more promotion than they are getting organically, they will want it in a contextual manner. Let’s say I have a presentation about my email marketing consulting service. I want to show up next to other email marketing services or in an email marketing content. Therefore, AdShare allows you to expose your content next to other related content and pay for it on a per-click basis.
India Knowledge at Wharton: It seems as if SlideShare has set up a dual model with individual users able to use the service for free or a nominal charge. But for B2B services and lead generation, the opportunity is quite big?
Sinha: Exactly. Our basic service is always going to be free. However, there are businesses who want more efficient communication, more branding, and greater reach. They want to have direct email communication. We will charge for all of that.
India Knowledge at Wharton: How does SlideShare have angel investors as diverse as Mark Cuban [owner of NBA team Dallas Mavericks] and Hal Varian [chief economist at Google]?
Sinha: We found most of our angels through our site. Mark Cuban was using SlideShare and my co-founder reached out and invited him to our angel round. Hal Varian is a personal connection from my time at the University of California, Berkeley. Hal was our first investor. He knew that SlideShare was growing. SlideShare is one of the two companies that he invested in.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s step away from PowerPoint and SlideShare to learn a little bit more about you as an individual. You’re the first technology entrepreneur I’ve met with a PhD in Cognitive Neuropsychology. How did that doctorate turn into SlideShare?
Sinha: People follow a path, and my path just led me to SlideShare. I have always been technical, even though my PhD was in Cognitive Neuropsychology, I dabbled in Computer Science. I came to Berkeley for a post-doc and started learning more about the web and fell in love with it. I met with some professors in the information sciences department and told them about my interest. Pretty much the next day I transferred departments. At the information sciences department, I worked on search engines and recommender systems. I loved the work, but didn’t like the pace of academia. I started consulting. A year after that I founded the first company with my husband, who is a software engineer and had just finished with CommerceOne, which had a crazy B2B ride. I was working on a project for eBay and he joined me. While working on that project together, he realized the methods I was using could be translated into software. So we built our first software called MindCanvas for game-like customer research. We had offices in Delhi and Mountain View and did very well. It was a SAAS (software as a service) model and we sold MindCanvas usage to companies like Microsoft and Yahoo.
MindCanvas was doing well, but didn’t reach millions of people, and we wanted to do something that would have much broader impact. We thought of many ideas till we hit upon SlideShare. We built the prototype in a few months and launched it. It took and eventually, we shut down MindCanvas and started focusing on SlideShare.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s step back further. Please tell us how you came from India to America.
Sinha: I was born in Lucknow and grew up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and then Allahabad till my early 20s, when I left for the U.S. I come from a large family, with four brothers and sisters. I did my undergraduate in India, in cognitive psychology, literature, and history. Then I came to America for a PhD at Brown.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Were there any entrepreneurial influences in your life?
Sinha: I won’t say there was any real entrepreneurial influence. We were very much a professional services family, with doctors, civil services, and so on. I was very strong minded, so my family always knew I would do exactly what I wanted to do. I started off wanting to be a journalist. I think it is going to be hard to trace a specific event that made me want to be an entrepreneur. I like independence. I like to build things. Being an entrepreneur allows me to do both.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think, over time, there will be more female Indian entrepreneurs?
Sinha: Yes, I do. I base that answer on evidence, actually, from what I see at all the events I speak at. I’m seeing more and more technically-inclined Indian women nowadays. There is definitely potential to bring that talent, with a little bit of mentorship and encouragement, to foster a wave of female entrepreneurship.