Livemocha’s New CEO, Michael Schutzler, on Company Challenges, Culture, and the Evolution of Social Networks

6/9/10Follow @gthuang

Michael Schutzler knows a few things about building online communities and profitable companies. The new CEO of Livemocha, the Bellevue, WA-based language-learning startup and online community, is perhaps best known for leading Classmates.com through its post-bubble growth phase to become a nationally recognized social-network brand, before its sale to United Online for $150 million in 2004. He was also a senior executive at RealNetworks and Monster.com before founding CEOSherpa (formerly called BlueSeven Partners), a Seattle-area business coaching firm.

I caught up with Schutzler yesterday to hear more about his new job at Livemocha. But in addition to the company story, I sought some deeper insights into what he has learned from studying and contributing to the evolution of social networks and digital media over the past decade—including his thoughts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Schutzler talked about the lessons he has learned from his previous companies, how he will apply them at Livemocha, and why he predicts his new company “will be making a lot of noise” in the future.

Here’s the transcript of our Q&A, conducted via e-mail:

Xconomy: What attracted you to Livemocha, and what do you see as the biggest challenges ahead?

Michael Schutzler: My parents are immigrants—so language fluency has always been a big part of my life. When I checked out the company, I immediately fell in love with the vision: Livemocha will not rest until every person on the planet speaks at least two languages fluently. Then I met the founders—Shirish Nadkarni & Krishnan Seshadrinathan—and really admired their intellect, passion, and skill. And on top of that, they are really classy professionals.

The biggest challenge in the near term is brilliantly serving the 6 million members we have. The biggest challenge in the coming years is reaching language learners on many different platforms—not just the website, but on the iPhone, Droid, at coffee shops. Everywhere.

X: What specific lessons do you take from your time at Classmates.com, Monster.com, and RealNetworks?

MS: Classmates taught me how the subscriber model works, and how it doesn’t. We were also among the first to apply a rigorous analytic discipline to online marketing—and in the process we built a highly profitable company. That will serve us well at Livemocha. Monster taught the world how to create a free but high-value service for consumers while generating over $1 billion in annual revenues from corporate customers and a premier brand. That lesson will also serve us well at Livemocha. As fun as all those projects were, Real Arcade was the most fun. We served hundreds of millions of people around the world with original games that provided stress relief. We started out thinking we were selling games to young, white American men. Turns out middle aged women from every country were our best customers. Finding our “best” customer at Livemocha and giving them a fantastic, immersive experience will be an exciting challenge.

X: As a CEO coach, what is the best advice you would give to yourself?

MS: Listen. Listen some more. Share my passion openly. Find the best people and help them succeed.

X: Can you talk more broadly about how social networks and online communities have evolved during your career? What are you seeing now in terms of revenue models, strategies, etc., that are interesting or surprising?

MS: I remember sixdegrees.com and about.com in their first implementations. Both were brilliant attempts but way ahead of their time. Both suffered terribly from the Internet advertising implosion in 2000. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn.com is one of my heroes—he created an experience in which the website served as a match-making host for professionals, set up clear and professional rules of engagement, and let the members teach the company what to build. His patience (and the patience of his VC backers) created one of the few inherently profitable engines in social networking. When Facebook opened its doors in late 2007 to non-college members, I remember thinking, uh-oh, that will require Classmates to retool. Facebook hasn’t figured out how to make money on reunions and re-connections, and Classmates still has some aces up its sleeve. Finally: Twitter. I love Twitter and think there might be an opportunity to work in some innovative ways with the service at Livemocha. It’s only day-two on the job, so we’ll have to see…

X: Last but not least, how will you continue (or improve upon) Livemocha’s noted ping-pong culture? Can you say a few words about what makes the company’s culture unique?

MS: Livemocha is filled with highly intelligent, driven professionals. Yes, we really have a ping-pong table in the boardroom. And an arcade machine in the kitchen. And like many other start-ups, we have way too many people in way too small a space. We will hire the best and brightest to help build Livemocha. We will hire only those who are passionate about our mission. Chances are pretty good we’ll outgrow our ping-pong room, but that just means we’ll have Guitar Hero instead. A start-up that isn’t noisy is soon dead. So we will be making a lot of noise.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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