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Communicating Company Strategy at Scale at Vimeo

In this episode of Uniquely Led, Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud recounts her non-linear career path — explaining how not being a founder helped her pivot Vimeo’s company strategy. Hear how she uses her marketing background to communicate to the broader company during a period of incredible hypergrowth, and learn why Anjali believes that acknowledging limitations is key to great leadership. 

Anjali Sud: When I stepped in as CEO, it was literally to pivot the company. So the day I walked in and we announced it, there was a new vision, a new mission. We were changing people’s teams and roles. And I could do that with speed and conviction because I knew the business.

Jack Altman: Hi, I’m Jack Altman, the founder and CEO of Lattice and welcome to our series, Uniquely Led where we sit down with wonderful business leaders and we talk to them about their unique styles and how that impacts their culture. Today we’re really excited to be sitting down with Anjali Sud who is the CEO of Vimeo, which is a software platform that businesses manage, share and create videos. So Anjali, thank you so much for having me here today. Really excited to have this conversation.

Anjali Sud: Thank you, Jack. It is awesome to be doing this with you.

Jack Altman: So I’m going to start with the hardest question.

Anjali Sud: Okay.

Jack Altman: Which everybody hates to answer, which is, what would you say are the things or the thing about you that most distinguish your leadership style?

Anjali Sud: I think it’s probably a couple things. One, energy. Everyone, I think who’s a leader has passion. You have to have passion for something to lead it well, but I probably bring a totally another sometimes overwhelming level of energy. It’s just who I am and how I interact. And I think everyone I’ve ever worked with has called it out as something and hopefully that energizes others, but I’m a very high energy person. And then probably the other piece is I try and be very real. I’ve never been somebody who can filter myself, whether I’m answering questions in a town hall or in a meeting. I try and be myself and sometimes that’s like, can be awkward or it’s not what most people think of when they think of a public company CEO. But for me it’s just, I know no other way to operate and it’s actually become a big part of the culture of Vimeo and something we’ve tried to promote.

Jack Altman: Do you ever have times when your energy just isn’t there and that’s hard for other people because they’re expecting it or do you find that people are accustomed, whether you’re bringing your a hundred percent energy or not?

Anjali Sud: I don’t think I’ve ever been at work and not had a ton of energy.

Jack Altman: Wow.

Anjali Sud: And that’s why I think it’s a bit of a distinguisher and I just don’t know why. It might be because I don’t have that many hobbies outside of work. So I just like, this is my thing and I love it, but I don’t think I’ve ever showed up in a meeting without a ton of energy. And like I said, it’s just very deeply ingrained and how I interact and actually pre Vimeo it was hard for me because it’s so many parts of my career, I was trying to tamp it down a little bit and now I’m just allowed to be as sort of high energy as I really am.

Jack Altman: And you also mentioned how being real is a big part of what you do and how you’re sort of your authentic self. Can you talk about how that shows up?

Anjali Sud: So I think it’s two parts. One is when we’re making decisions in meetings, if I don’t agree with something of, I think we can do better, I’m really honest about that. And I think in some ways I hope that destigmatizes the honest conversations and makes it easier for people to admit like this isn’t as good as it can be, or we can do better. Another way is just whenever I have to stand up in front of the company and answer questions about decisions that I’ve made, I always want to not just say, here’s the decision we’ve made, but why. What am I seeing? What is the information I have?

What is the context that’s leading me to that decision? And it’s hard sometimes. You can’t always share all the information and all the context, but I really, really try to, and then the last piece I think of it being real is just I remember so many times in my career feeling like I had to adapt how I talk and conduct myself and even dress to look like a CEO or a leader. And I’ve really tried to just embrace me in this role. And I do believe that leadership takes many different forms and there’s a lot of different styles and ultimately it’s about empowering people and delivering positive outcomes. And so I do try and do that. I remember when I was running around pregnant when I first became CEO and I just was really real about what I was experiencing and what it was like. And yeah, it’s just something that I’ve really been able to bring my real self to work and I find it so freeing. And so I want other people to have that experience because I think a lot of people don’t.

Jack Altman: Yeah. That’s awesome. And I’m sure employees really appreciate that. That like, even as a public company CEO, you’re still being yourself, still being vulnerable, still sharing the real story behind things.

Anjali Sud: Trying to.

Jack Altman: You’re a little bit unique among tech company CEOs in that you’re not the founder, which I think these days is sort of like the less common path. Can you talk about how you got here?

Anjali Sud: Yeah. Really probably unique career path, very non-linear career path. I never would have predicted that I would be in this position. For most of my career I did a bunch of different things from investment banking and mergers and acquisitions to, I was a toy buyer at Amazon to business development to marketing. And I came to Vimeo actually as the director of marketing, managing a team of five, squarely in kind of middle management. And three years later actually was promoted to CEO because I had championed internally a strategy that was a bit different for the company. It was shifting Vimeo away from being a viewing destination that competed with YouTube, to being an enterprise SaaS company that built video tools for businesses. And so it was a really unique kind of path and story that I actually hope many more people experience in their careers.

But yes. In some ways, if you look at me on paper, yeah, very unique. I’m not a founder. I’m also not a product and technology background, which is also rare in this industry. And I probably look a little bit different from a lot of CEOs, but I think in many ways, myself and the team, we were sort of the founders of the strategy, so I think there are a lot of parts about being a founder that I and others have brought to the company, but there’s also some things that I think are unique. One, Vimeo is not something that I built. It’s a 16 year old platform, but it’s not something that… was not my baby that I built over 16 years.

And in some ways I think that’s helped me maybe be a bit more dispassionate when making tough decisions and being a bit more comfortable ripping off the bandaid and pivoting and shutting things down when they aren’t working or even just embracing a totally new culture and DNA to be successful in this next phase. And so in some ways I think that try and bring the passion and the ownership of being a founder to the company, but also there are benefits to sort of having a background that’s a bit different.

Jack Altman: Yeah. It’s so fascinating because nobody really talks about what you just described as some of the advantages actually of not being the founder. So it sounds like you were able to come in and bring a new energy and a dispassion in some ways to some of the decisions you had to make.

Anjali Sud: Yeah. And I’ll give you another example. So I was also internally promoted which you don’t always see. Sometimes you see someone coming in from outside and think about the vantage point that I entered as a leader of the company. I knew every single person I had worked with them in the trenches for years. I knew the business inside and out from a very bottoms up. Like I had been on the ground. Like I was at the Trade Joe’s talking to customers. I was in the data every day. And that perspective is actually a unique one when you step into the leadership role, usually if you’re hiring someone externally, there’s a lot of information asymmetry. And they have to get up to speed. I had the benefit of having been at the company for a long time.

And I think that really helped. And then like I said, yeah. When I stepped in a CEO, it was literally to pivot the company. So the day I walked in and we announced it, there was a new vision, a new mission. We were changing people’s teams and roles. And I could do that with speed and conviction because I knew the business and I wasn’t so wed to the past that I was too precious about keeping things that were legacy when they weren’t the right things for the company.

Jack Altman: Do you still have connections to sort of like the ground realities in those sorts of ways? Like is some of that left over?

Anjali Sud: That is probably the thing I worry about most Jack. It’s, as you scale… I joined Vimeo when we were under a hundred people. We’re now almost a thousand in offices around the world. And the information asymmetry that I now experience is really, really challenging. And it’s the same way that I kept a pulse on what was happening when we were smaller, just doesn’t work. It breaks at the scale. And so actually what I’ve been learning to do and been forced to do is develop much more sort of an operationally, intentional ways to have a pulse on what’s happening.

And that’s everything from the right surveys, the right feedback forums, creating a culture where people are comfortable telling you that you’re wrong or they disagree. And I can tell you, even with all those things, there’s still way more abstraction at every level. And I think good CEOs of large companies that are in hypergrowth mode understand that that abstraction and information asymmetry exists and they account for it in their decision making.

Jack Altman: And by the time you hear of a problem, you’re usually way too late.

Anjali Sud: The way I think about it is by the times a problem has hit me, it is probably caused so much pain along the way that I need to react and make a decision fast. We can’t do is spend now six months being like, Hmm, let’s investigate this and that because usually by the time it’s getting to me, we have a real problem, but I also do think there are ways to more proactively have a pulse. And I will actually tell you some of it is process, but I do think a big part of it is culture. Probably one of the things I think I did well that I’m always trying to do more of is just surround myself with people at the most senior level of the company who will shoot me straight. They’ll tell me what they think. They’re not going to just kind of follow the marching orders and I actually think that’s super, super important if you want to avoid blind spots because the blind spots, they amplify the bigger that you get.

Jack Altman: Do you try to stay in touch with the company through hearing from people, like asking questions to people like your senior leaders you described or do you go in directly audit things yourself? I always struggle with this balance of like, to what degree should I do a listening tour and survey and just hear people commentary versus go in and get to the ground truth and do the work to dig down myself?

Anjali Sud: I think you have to do both those things and many things. And it really depends on the context, but some of the things we do, certainly we do a lot of survey and that is a scalable way to figure out if there are certain patterns or issues. I do anonymous Q and A in our town halls every two weeks. People can transparently in real time up vote, down vote, ask questions. Sometimes that’s hard, but it’s a great way to get a sense of sentiment and how people are feeling.

I will tell you there are many times when I either sense that there’s an area that needs deeper investigation, or it’s raised to me that I will go super deep. I will literally speak with every single person, I will get into every part of the data. And I think there are times when you just have to that’s important. And in some ways I think that’s the delicate balance of this job. It’s being able to go super, super deep when you need to and being able to stay high level and empower others and set up things for scale that don’t require you when you need to.

Jack Altman: You have spoken to me before about how, like as you’ve grown, you’ve needed to change the way you communicate at scale, the way you set goals, the way you do feedback, what are some of the most noteworthy things now that you’re at a scale of about a thousand employees that you’ve said, okay, I need to readjust the way I’m doing things.

Anjali Sud: Now. I mean, I think the hardest thing is when you’re hiring a lot and you’re growing fast, you need everyone to be rowing in the same direction. So everyone has to have not just a sense of your mission and your values, but why is this our strategy? What are the objectives that we have to execute on? How are we doing? And it just gets really hard to do as you scale. And so we’ve invested a lot in everything from consistent frameworks to talk about what’s working, what isn’t. We have like a one page summary of our strategy that I open every meeting with. We go through what’s working and what isn’t my top three for the comp every single meeting. And so that’s become really important OKRs. Everyone talks about however you’re designing your goals and objectives.

How do you roll that out across the company so that it’s both bottoms up and tops down and it’s transparent. Those are all areas we’ve invested in heavily. I will say I’m a marketer background. And I do think one of the keys of marketing is how do you communicate really nuanced concepts in a substantive way while also having it be simple and repeatable. And I think that is a skillset that every CEO needs. So how do you balance that? I mean, I put my marketer hat on. I spend a lot of time thinking about how do I distill what we’re trying to do into one slide into one sentence, into a couple words. And how do we constantly repeat that over and over? Because again, as you scale, you have new people joining all the time. Everyone’s gets mired in the details of their day to day and it’s really important.

And so, but at the same time, you don’t want to lose a substance. You have to get specific. And so I think for me, it’s always been about having the right things to open up conversations and meetings with consistent frameworks of summarizing what we’re doing and then having this very thoughtful process of rolling out how the company’s goals then directly translate to every single person at the org. And by the way, we have not mastered this, let me be clear. It’s a journey it’s really hard, but I didn’t, you have to be very intentional in how you design and roll it out and you’re going to constantly have to kind of get better and better.

Jack Altman: Yeah. It’s a very important thing you’re describing though, because coming up with strategies are not simple. Like they are complicated and the interestingness and the opportunities are in the nuance, but then you need to remind people in this sort of like headliner.

Anjali Sud: It’s not enough to have a headliner. Every person at the company, they deserve to have us carve out the time to walk through the nuances of what we see. And again, the why of what we’re doing. And we do spend time. We do it in our annual planning and our quarterly check-ins. Really, it’s taking stock of the market. In our case, the video marketing is exploded. It’s changing dramatically and we have to be adapting. And so whenever we roll out a strategy, we spend a lot of time on, here’s why we think this is the right strategy. Here are the signals we’re seeing in the industry. Here are the signals we’re seeing in our users. Here are the signals we’re seeing in the data and our platform. And again, this is where transparency helps. Like being transparent that, hey, competition is coming in or we’re worried about our growth.

And so this is why we’re going to do what we do. You have to give people that context, if you really want them to imbibe the strategy and to be the right stewards of the strategy. So I think sometimes a mistake, I’ve seen this at other companies that I worked at is isn’t actually when leaders don’t take the time to give employees context and just expect folks to kind of take the headline thing and run with it. And I just don’t think that’s going to be the reality of the future of work, especially in tech.

Jack Altman: So connecting back this conversation about strategy to the way that you transitioned from being the director of marketing to the CEO, one of the reasons among many others that you got the role was because you sort of championed and you saw a strategy, which from the outside, I think was not a very obvious one where you basically took Vimeo from being something that was like in the realm of YouTube, something that was really now a software company. How did you see what you saw? What was the process to get there?

Anjali Sud: First I’ll say it definitely was not just me. So I was the champion, but there were a lot of people at the company who were seeing what I was seeing. I think what I was able to do was kind of bring all the signals together into something that could be basical internally marketed to our investors. And then we were able to prove that it was going to work, but the signals that I really honed in on, I actually remember the moment it sort of clicked for me, but when I came to join Vimeo, I was the head of marketing. And my job as a marketer is to obviously speak to our customers. So the first thing was I had to understand who our customers were. And I spent a lot of time just in the data, looking at who were the users who were coming to the platform, who were they and what were they looking to do?

And we could see very clearly a trend where organically more and more of our users who had previously been filmmakers or created professionals. We were seeing more and more businesses just naturally coming to the platform and the things that they were doing was they weren’t uploading a feature length documentary film. They were uploading really short form video for marketing. And if you looked and surveyed them the things that they were asking for, they were asking for ways to have calls to action in the video player or use video in their emails and or use video for collaboration. And so a huge part of it was just understanding what was happening in the base and seeing that our own users were kind of shifting naturally. The other piece lens was the industry. What’s happening in the industry? And this is where I did spend a lot of time speaking with other companies being out at the trade shows, just being part of the video space.

And you could pick up on some of those signals and was really combining those two things with some kind of business sort of thesis. And I remember for me, the moment it really clicked was when I was at a Trade Jone, I was on the floor answering questions about our product and a marketer came to the floor and was asking about these tools. And she said, I really want to use video the same way I’m using text posts and images, but it’s just so hard and such a simple, obvious thing. But that’s when it clicked for me that actually there was this whole market that video was previously just was a form of entertainment that was in the hands of Hollywood Studios and filmmakers, then it became a form of personal expression for consumers because of social media and iPhones. And it clicked for me that I think the next phase is going to be business communication and video being used, just like any other form of mediums for us to reach our customers and employees.

Jack Altman: Yeah. It’s so similar to so many other people I’ve talked to who I think have done a wonderful job with strategy that it’s not one defined process, but it’s rather situational awareness and sort of like a prepared mind that you then combine with your own intuition about where the market’s going.

Anjali Sud: Yeah. Absolutely. And it’s funny. The data’s never going to just give you an answer. And similarly, just being gut and instinct driven is never going to just get you to the right place. It’s absolutely like a symphony of the two. And I will say, I think my biggest lesson from all of that is it’s obvious talk to users like have that sort of gut and instinct. And it’s obvious, look at the data and understand the market, but I’ll tell you is I actually think there’s so much, you can get a huge signal by just looking at what other startups in your space are doing. It’s actually something I spend to this day, several hours a week talking to different startups in video and just getting to know the founders and seeing what they’re excited about. I have found that to be really valuable and underutilized signal when you’re in an industry that is going through rapid change and transformation, because these are the people who are on the ground, who are literally building up so much conviction in an area and you can often get really good signals by talking to them.

Jack Altman: That’s interesting. That’s something I haven’t heard much before. So you took the company on this journey of we’re going to do this new strategy. We get everybody, you know, excited and we’re going to push forward. And now your CEO, what does that mean for the culture? How do you bring that to match what the new company’s either values or the ways that people do business? Like what had to change and how did you navigate that? I

Anjali Sud: Think the biggest change and actually it happened four years ago when I became CEO was again, we were going from being this entertainment destination to being this enterprise software company. And if you think about most of the people that had joined Vimeo, their passion was for serving storytellers and filmmakers. And we had to build a culture that had the same level of passion and love and care for helping businesses. And it’s a totally different persona and type of thing. And so I would say initially the biggest thing was building that passion for serving this new type of creator, which was the business. And that came not just from having the right mission and values, but also, we invested a lot in consumer insights, business intelligence, really kind of trying to bring the personas to life. We would have target customers come and speak at our town halls.

We would use video all the time to kind of show here’s why the work that they’re doing matters. And I thought at the time that was really critical and by the way, we also hired a lot of people who came from that space and loved it. Today I think where we are, it’s almost funny, it’s almost a little bit of the opposite. So we’ve really clearly repositioned ourselves. And we’re now several years into this new strategy. And actually sometimes I look at what we’re doing and I always think we’re not just an enterprise software company. We are still an incredible creative community. And the marriage of the two is what makes Vimeo special and unique that no other company can do.

Jack Altman: And now you have to remind people of the roots almost.

Anjali Sud: And now I have to remind people of the roots. And I think it’s actually trying to make sure that you’re bringing both of those things together. And how can we help businesses not just succeed with video, but be creative storytellers and unlock the power of this medium that’s so emotive and engaging. And so in many ways, I think now the challenge is how do you bring those two pieces in and create that sort of it’s this wildly creative world, but also a very kind of business oriented.

Jack Altman: Totally. And that also connects back to the point you made about the importance of both the headline message and the nuance, because I’ve experienced this where you’re like, we’ve been heading north and now we need to start going more west. And then everyone’s like, okay, we’re going west. And you’re like, no, no, no, we’re going Northwest now. And there are those moments where you have to remind people like both things can be true, but I’m trying to remind the main change.

Anjali Sud: Yeah. I used to think probably naively that good leaders were fairly dogmatic, had a perspective. This is how things are done because they had that clarity of thought. And now I really believe again in industries that are changing fast. When there’s not a playbook, you’re trying to literally create a market or define an industry. You have to be adaptable. And I always say the way we organize, the way we design culture, the way we design processes, the only thing that’s sacred is that we will always adjust based on what’s right for the business and for our users. And again, I think if you take the time to always be looking at that and explain why you’re making an adjustment, I think people, at least, I know the Vimeo team has proven to be incredibly flexible and adaptable. And I think we all experience this in the pandemic. Think about how much change we’ve all gone through at companies and at work over the last 18 months. Like human beings are very resilient. Like we’re capable of pivoting quickly. And it’s a muscle that when utilized well, I think can be a competitive advantage.

Jack Altman: And the last question I wanted to get your thoughts on is your leadership team. And so obviously you’ve been running the company for years at this point. It’s a big business doing lots of things. So your most important thing to think about as the CEO, arguably, is your leadership team. So I would love to just get your thoughts on how you think about recruiting, managing, working with that team.

Anjali Sud: Yeah. I mean, honestly, there’s no world in which I would be where I am, if it weren’t for my leadership team. And I’ve learned a lot along the way, a couple things that I think you must do well to be a good leader. And that I’ve tried to do. One is, and everyone says this, but it’s so true. Bring in people who are better than you like scarily better than you and be self-aware about what you don’t know and then create a culture where they can actually be successful because they are empowered to make decisions. And look, I can tell you, as as I said, I’m not the sort of typical background of a CEO. I’m not a founder and I don’t have a technical background and I lead a technology company. So one of the most critical things that I had to do was bring in strong partners.

And I mean, the that word partner really, truly who were founders, who were extremely deep in technology and product and give them a seat at the table that was as equal to mine as possible. And I can tell you, there’s no way we would’ve been successful if I had ends on that. And as I look to the future, I think that same approach is needed in every part of the business. We built up a sales force for the first time in the last few years. That’s a muscle and DNA that we didn’t have. And so it’s really important to bring in people who again, have done that and then give them the actual ability to influence and drive the company. So I think both in recruiting and managing, bring in incredible people, give them the space and create that sort of partnership like mentality, because I think that’s how you will ultimately drive better decisions. And that’s always going to be best for the business and the team.

Jack Altman: I love that you also mentioned bringing in founders and I know you’ve made multiple acquisitions since you’ve been CEO. And I think you said that many of those founders are still at the company.

Anjali Sud: Yeah. I think it’s probably something I’m really proud of and speaks to Vimeo’s culture, which is one, we have grown through both organically and through acquisitions. And for us, that was really important because we wanted speed to market and we were trying to be best in class in really complex areas of video. A great example is in my first two months as CEO, we acquired a company called Livestream that had spent 10 years helping businesses, livestream events. And you can imagine how that institutional knowledge became critical when the pandemic hit. And I’m really proud of the fact that we have founders from every company of those three acquisitions who are not just with the company today, but whose roles have expanded. A great example is our president and Chief Product Officer who was the founder of Livestream and is a incredibly critical partner to me.

And I think it’s not just that sort of the ability to bring in great people, but what it does is it forces the culture on the executive team to be a really healthy mix of what I’ll call professional operators and entrepreneurs. And I think you need both when you are again in a market that’s moving fast, but you’re also at a significant scale. So you need people who have run functions at a public company level and understand the sort of operational cadence of doing that. But you also need people who are like, I don’t care how many data points you show me. I believe this problem can be solved and I’m going to break through walls to solve it. And I think that’s the kind of mix that we’re trying to achieve at Vimeo. And I think both backgrounds are equally critical to do that.

Jack Altman: I love that. Well, Anjali thank you so much for having me to your office. Thanks for doing this conversation. Learned a ton. Really appreciate it.

Anjali Sud: Thank you, Jack.

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Uniquely Led with Jack Altman

Anjali Sud

Anjali Sud is CEO of Vimeo, the world’s leading all-in-one video software solution. Anjali leads a global team dedicated to empowering professionals and businesses with the tools to create, communicate, and collaborate with video. Anjali previously served as General Manager and Head of Marketing at Vimeo, where she oversaw the growth of over 230 million users to the platform. Before that she held various positions in e-commerce, finance, and media at Amazon and Time Warner. Anjali has been included in Fortune's 40 under 40, Crain’s 40 under 40, Adweek's Power List, and The Hollywood Reporter's Next Gen Under 35. She is a designated Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and serves on the Board of Directors of Dolby Laboratories (NYSE:DLB). Anjali grew up in Flint, Michigan, and now lives in New York City with her husband and son.