Growing up on a farm in Southwest Missouri, Elaine Wherry wasn’t the average kid. While her classmates were riding horses and raising cattle, she was buried in math books, playing the violin and building a science museum in her bedroom. Her father used to tell her, “What you want to do doesn’t exist yet.”
She graduated from high school in 1996 with a full-ride music scholarship to a local college. Her initial excitement turned into nerves and she backed out just two days before freshman initiation. A year later she was on a plane to Palo Alto to attend Stanford University with a double major in music and economics. Her plans flipped, though, in less than three months.
“All of my friends were interested in computer science and psychology,” she remembers. “I had never even owned a proper computer at that point.”
Wherry changed her major to symbolic systems, a focus on computer/human interaction, landing a related job after graduation. Two years into her career, though, she wanted to build something from the ground up and teamed up with former Stanford classmates Sandy Jen and Seth Sternberg to work nights and weekends on a new company. The process was shrouded in failures.
“First, we built a product for online backup but discarded that idea after a year,” says Wherry. “Then we built a site for data collaboration, but that didn’t work either.”
It had been two years and the trio was feeling burnt out. Just as the idea of giving up was moving into the discussion, they created an instant-message aggregator where users could connect to Yahoo, Gmail, MSN and AIM on the same page without a download.
This project felt different, says Wherry, adding that she would take vacation days just to work on the site. She and Jen quit their technology jobs (Sternberg was getting his MBA at Stanford at the time) in July 2005 and launched the aggregator, titled Meebo, two months later.
By launch night, Wherry and Jen were too tired to stand up. Both went to bed and woke up the next morning to a shock. “We already had 500 Diggs and our two servers were literally melting,” Wherry says with excitement in her voice. “We knew we’d come up with something big.”
Meebo moved out of Wheery’s apartment and into an office a few months later, landed angel money and a Series A from Sequoia Capital and was off and running. Over the next several years, the site would get bigger and change focus. Instead of operating exclusively as an instant message aggregator, Meebo added IM to company websites, making money by splitting advertising revenue. The team developed the Meebo Bar, where with only a few lines of code, a website developer could add Meebo to any page. The company collected a bevy of awards and grew exponentially.
Wherry was riding the wave of success along with her two co-founders until fall 2011 when she found herself managing people more than working on product development. As a firm believer that a co-founder’s objective is to, “Hire oneself out of a role,” she’d done just that and started to transition out of the business. By early 2012, she was no longer a member of the Meebo team.
“I’m really proud of the team and still see them often,” she says. Wherry is especially proud of Meebo’s supportive and tight-knit culture, and attributes it to her, Jen and Sternberg’s dedication and clarity to their initial purpose.
“I think as a founder, it is important to identify what brought you together, be it your passion, personal values or quest to change the world,” she says. “Sitting down for two or three hours to hash that out is so important and can help you in the millions of tiny choices you will make later on regarding culture, hiring and general business decisions.”
When should a founder leave his or her company? Wherry says making an exit can be emotionally difficult, but when you’ve already done 110 percent of what you can do, it may be time to say goodbye. She says the decision is a personal one, different for each entrepreneur and should never be decided based on personal conflicts.
“But when you get to the point when you realize, hey, I’m not entirely sure if my 40 hours are as productive as they used to be,” she says, “Then that is a new conversation.
Today, Wherry is catching up on “7 years of sleep deprivation,” and involves herself in the local startup community. Looking ahead, she’d like to get back into entrepreneurship, but is taking it slow.
Read more in our Building an Empire series.
Note: Meebo was acquired by Google in June and is now integrated as part of Google+. Wherry was not part of the acquisition.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Wherry