From Microsoft to LinkedIn to Pandora: Kiwi tech star Sara Clemens on working for the juggernauts

For the last 20 years, Sara Clemens has made an international name for herself in the tech industry, working for the likes of Microsoft, LinkedIn and now Pandora, where she was appointed chief strategy officer earlier this year.

And while this title alone would be enough to intimidate some employees, Clemens thrives in these high-pressure positions and actually enjoys the challenge.

“People often ask me, ‘Why do you do it?’ and it’s honestly because I love what I do,” she says during a short business visit to New Zealand.

Doing what she loves has seen her climb up the corporate ladder at an immense rate, taking up a slew of senior positions at Microsoft before being appointed the vice president of corporate development at LinkedIn in 2012.

And, as she explains, she’s left a significant mark during her stints at both these companies: “LinkedIn is one of the world’s largest publishing platforms for professionals and that was a lot of the strategy that we worked on while I was there. And when I was at Xbox, we took what was a hardcore gaming platform and made it a mass market video consumption platform. It was about enabling people to find content that they loved and playing it in their living rooms.”

Although Clemens admits that it’s rarely easy to substitute one high-powered position for another, she says that Pandora founder Tim Westergren was quite persuasive.

“Being invited to work at Pandora by Tim Westergren is like being invited to Disney Land by Mickey Mouse—you just can’t say no,” she says.

“He’s an incredibly talented, humble individual. He is utterly passionate about the opportunity for technology to help musicians and he has spent 15 years of his life single-mindedly working to execute that.”

As someone who forged her early career as a broadcasting and telecoms policy advisor for what was then called the Ministry of Commerce, Clemens describes her move to online radio as something of a homecoming.

“I did my Masters thesis on the deregulation of the broadcasting market in New Zealand, and then I started out allocating licences to small non-commercial radio stations. And the reason I loved doing that was because [it was a way]of making sure that there is culturally relevant content and information pieces available for everyone in the population. And I think of that as a foundational facility in democracy.”

She says that the emergence of the internet shifted her focus from traditional media, because she saw it as something that would have major impact on how people consumed content. 

“Suddenly, there was this platform that was going to enable people to really go out and find the information that they wanted. And so, I’ve oriented through twenty years around roles that were targeted on that objective … For me, Pandora is like coming home. It’s personalised radio. It’s exactly what community radio has been trying to achieve for all those years.”

Clemens’ return to the radio comes at a very different time in both her career and in the way the industry operates—something clearly evidenced in her role, which she says involves two core responsibilities.      

“The first is the functional effort, so corporate strategy, which is about thinking about the opportunities for the company, where we double down and invest, what the growth areas will be as we move from being a ten-year company to a hundred-year company. And the second, corporate development, is how we use partnerships and acquisitions to accelerate our road map and execute on our strategy more effectively.”

Whether it’s Facebook purchasing Instagram or Twitter buying Vine, the acquisition of companies is a common practice among young tech companies that are looking to grow and become profitable.

Clemens explains that one of the reasons why Pandora created her role in the first place was so that she could facilitate acquisitions in the future.

“One of the great tools for accelerating momentum is acquiring companies to execute on your strategy. [Pandora chief executive] Brian [McAndrews] had used that tool very effectively when he was at Quantive, which was a digital media and advertising business that was sold to Microsoft in the mid 2000s. And so he certainly saw it as an important part of the chief strategy officer’s role.”

At this stage, Pandora has still not finalised any acquisitions, but Clemens says that the team is currently weighing up a few options.  

“We’re beginning to work with companies across the market and starting to think about what types of acquisitions might be interesting for us,” she says. “But it really starts with your company and product strategy and then thinking about how you use acquisition as a tool to accelerate that.”

Like many tech start-ups, Pandora is still not a profitable enterprise on account of the fact that all revenue is reinvested back into the business in order to grow the offering.

And while this isn’t ideal, the extent of the losses are decreasing, with a recent Silicon Valley report saying, “The Oakland streaming-music company … had cut third-quarter losses in half to [US]$2.02 million … on revenues of [US]$239.6 million, 42 percent higher than a year ago.”

“The revenue that we earn from advertising is increasing, which effectively reduces the cost of people listening to us,” says Clemens. “And this, over time, will translate to profitability. We feel very good that our trajectory is right and that the foundations we’ve built over the last ten years are really coming into their own.”

Interestingly, Clemens doesn’t see at her role as necessarily requiring the discovery of opportunities but rather the identification of those that are the most commercially viable.   

“For a strategy officer the question isn’t what we do next; it’s what we don’t do next,” she says. “In many regards we have more opportunities that we would be able to address, so it’s a case of focusing on and prioritising the initiatives that we can achieve.”

This approach is clearly evidenced by the fact that Pandora has thus far only expanded into the United States, Australia and New Zealand, while Spotify have been prolific in its expansion moving into scores of countries across the world

So why has Pandora been more cautious when it comes to putting up its flag across the world?

“When we look into international expansion, there are a handful of conditions that make markets attractive: technology adoption, smartphone penetration and then the sophistication and maturing of the digital markets. Those are all necessary conditions, and Australia and New Zealand punch well above their weight in each of those regards. New Zealand and Australia are both sophisticated consumers and adopters of technology in the digital media markets and continue to evolve.”

In addition to the technology issue, Clemens says that licensing also plays a major role in determining the viability of expansion.   

“We were able to negotiate licences with the collectives down here to enter the market, and again I think that illustrates the progressive nature of those markets. These regional industries are already thinking about how to embrace these new technologies and use them to help grow the opportunities for artists.”

This emphasis on artists is an important one for Pandora, because the willingness of artists to have their content on the platform is integral to its success.

For this reason, Pandora has also introduced an artist marketing tool that gives artists the ability to communicate marketing messages to fans.

 “It allows the 125,000 artists that have their music on Pandora to log in and understand what’s happening with that music,” says Clemens. “So everything from how many people have created stations with my music, what songs have they thumbed up or thumbed down, where do they live. And then it’s also about using that intelligence to actually plan how they engage with those fans.”

Clemens says that this tool has already given several Kiwi bands data insights that would previously have been unattainable. 

“Villainy, which is one of the Kiwi bands that was on the beta version of the product, discovered that they had a 300,000-strong fanbase in Los Angeles. So it’s incredible what type of intelligence bands can get through the service.”

She adds: “We’ve had stories about bands changing tour schedules and thinking about releasing songs on albums in a different order than they might otherwise have done, based on the thumb data. And as we go forward with the artist marketing platform, we’re starting to build toolsets to help artists promote themselves to fans.”

And this, says Clemens, is only the start of the “goodness to come in 2015,” with the company currently finalising plans to augment services and increase the level of personalisation available through the platform. And this will certainly keep the talented Kiwi busy.      

A few days after her conversation with StopPress, Clemens hopped back onto a plane and took the long-haul flight back to Oakland, a place where she has already proved her more than equal to the task of going toe to toe with the ever-increasing number of tech start-up geniuses that occupy the region.      

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