Since 2009, Clara Shih has published a bestseller, co-founded a fast-growing startup, and joined Starbucks’ (SBUX) board of directors. None of it would have happened if she’d followed some lame advice when she was writing her book, The Facebook Era, a how-to guide for using social media in business. “My editor wanted me to rename it The MySpace Era,” says Shih, 30. “I guarantee you I wouldn’t be sitting here if I called it that.”
In a short time, Shih has become one of the world’s top experts on how companies can navigate the new world of tweets, profiles, and pokes. She saw the opportunity while working at Salesforce.com (CRM) in 2007. That year, Facebook started letting outside developers build apps for its site. Shih noticed that no one was making business apps. Using her spare time and programming chops—she graduated at the top of her class in computer science and economics at Stanford—Shih built Faceconnector. The app pulled personal details from Facebook profiles into Salesforce software, so sales reps could learn the favorite music and other interests of potential customers. Faceconnector helped inspire a dialogue about social media in the hallways of Salesforce, which went on to create the Chatter messaging service for businesses. And it transformed Shih into a social media expert, delivering keynotes at tech and marketing conferences and winning a book deal.
While researching the book, Shih came up with the idea for Hearsay Social, which she co-founded in September 2009. The startup helps large companies control how workers interact with customers on Facebook fan pages and other social media outlets. For over $100,000 a year, customers such as 24 Hour Fitness get a dashboard to monitor the activities of their workers on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ (GOOG), and LinkedIn (LNKD). Hearsay’s software looks out for compliance violations (such as bankers discussing a deal) and keeps tabs on which branches and employees are best at bringing corporate messaging to the Facebook-friend level. The almost-70-person company has raised a total of $21 million and became cash-flow positive in 2010, Shih says.
Farmers Insurance (ZURN:VX) signed up for the service in 2010. “Having thousands of agents on Facebook posting things we have no insight into can be a challenge to the legal team,” says Ryon Harms, director of social media at the insurer. Hearsay alerts management if agents ask customers for Social Security numbers over the Web—a potential regulatory violation—and helps pinpoint which are best at using Facebook to get new business.
Shih continues to play public evangelist for social networking in business, and dedicates a quarter of her time to doing press and speaking. Her latest fan is Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, who named her to the board as part of an effort “to amplify the online experience” at the coffee chain, according to a press release. Executives “are looking for more than technology,” Shih says. “They are looking for answers.”