20 QUESTIONS: Shafqat Islam, CEO of NewsCred

The founder of the content marketing platform talks life behind the wheels of steel, the misery of data entry and space travel.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 02 Jan 2014

1. If you had done something else, what would it have been?

I would actually be a DJ. In college I paid my way through college as a semi-professional DJ in the Philadelphia night club scene. Instead, I ended up getting a job at Merill Lynch, mainly to make my parents happy, and then I did NewsCred, to make myself happy.

2. What else would you have called your business?

Every time we bring on a new round of investors, literally every single time, four times in a row, they’ve asked us to change our name. We would keep it, mainly because given how long it’s been and how hard a slog it has been for us, it kind of reminds us of the perseverance and dedication required to get here. So that one is non negotiable, as I tell all my investors.

3. If you could be based in another city, where would it be?

Santa Monica, near LA. I love the area - the beach, the water, the perfect weather. But also, there’s a lot of amazing talent there. Traditionally, technology companies would say San Francisco, but I like to do things a little bit differently. You’re not competing with every other tech company.

4. When you started, how did you raise money?

The very first angel round was actually my old bosses from Merrill Lynch. They asked me not to quit, but when they realised that I was serious they said that they would invest $250,000. For our first institutional round of financing, we were a couple of weeks from running out of money, I made a last minute, desperate trip to San Francisco from Switzerland, where I was living. I didn’t know any investors, got quite lucky, and raised $750,000.

5. What has been your most important decision?

Our most important decision was to always have a social mission. Our social mission is to drive as much revenue back to news & journalism as possible. A lot of people work at NewsCred because they love the idea - people don’t just want to come to a job every day. It’s definitely helped to us to attract and retain talent.

6. What has been your biggest mistake?

We started the company in 2008, and I spent the first two years in Geneva, Switzerland. It just wasn’t a great place to start a company, especially as technology start-up. So finally, after banging my head against the wall enough times, we realised let’s just move to New York. It changed everything for us. I wish I had realised that on day one.

7. What idea do you wish you had come up with?

Uber is a massive company in the US. You can call a car or a taxi from your mobile phone. What really is remarkable, is every single driver says that it’s changed their lives. It’s made them more money, it’s let them work when there wasn’t work before, it’s let them meet interesting people. I think that’s amazing.

8. How do you handle stress?

When I spend time with my family, I make sure it’s not about work. The second thing is to try and spend time with children. How excited they get, how they’re so carefree, kind of puts things in perspective – that’s how you should be living your life.

9. What was your first job?

Right before I started djing, I did data entry at the children’s hospital in Philadelphia, which was a mind-numbing job.

10. What was your worst job?

Data entry was the worst job. I kept doing it, for maybe 9 months, because it was at the children’s hospital in the research unit. I had convinced myself that by entering the data correctly maybe I would help some researcher somewhere come up with a cure for some important disease. But eventually it felt like my brain was going to explode.

11. What was your best job?

The djing that I did for a few years. By putting on the right track, at the right time, you can make hundreds of people go wild, and be ecstatic and happy. It feels really great to make other people jump up and down in happiness because a great song came on.

12. If you were on The Apprentice, what would your team name be?

I’ve never watched it. The word that comes to my mind - it’s a little bit cheesy - is perseverance. In any sort of entrepreneurship, that’s the most important trait.

13. Which company would you invest in?

I would put some money in SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rockets company. I think space exploration is a really crazy and ambitious adventure. I think there’s a lot of opportunity that we haven’t even thought about when it comes to rockets and travel outside of the Earth.

14. Apart from property, what is the most expensive thing you've bought?

I don’t buy anything expensive except for shoes. I’m on my feet every single day, every day of the year. For me, it’s the most important thing to buy, to treat my feet well because I’m on them on all the time.

15. Suits or jeans?

I’ll often wear jeans with a suit jacket, because I’m trying to hedge, based on who I’m going to meet during the day. In the office it’s definitely jeans. For some developers, I’d say it’s jeans at best, maybe even shorts.

16. Flexible working or office hours?

I favour extremely flexible working, to a point where we don’t have actually have a vacation policy. It’s simply two words - be reasonable. I like to treat others how I would want to be treated. As long as they get their work done, that’s all I care about.

17. What is the best thing about your office?

We have an office where we’re completely overflowing – everyone’s pretty much sitting on each other. I actually love the fact that we are all so close together. There’s a ton of energy, there’s so many serendipitous encounters that happen. It feels like you’re really one team, versus if you had a luxurious office spread over tens of thousands of square feet.

18. What app can't you live without?

I love Sonos. It’s an app that allows me to control music anywhere I want in my house, in any room, in my office. Having music around all the time, makes me happier.

19. Who is your business idol?

I would say Elon Musk again, the guy who founded Tessler, SpaceX, PayPal. He has such ambitious and audacious goals, outside of just building good software. Rockets, electric cars, and solar grids – he’s solving real, ambitious structural issues in the world.

20. If you were president for the day, what would you change?

I would change how foreign aid works. It’s such a shame that the percentage of the budget in a country like the US and the UK that goes to helping out people who are really in need around the world is just so small. There’s a lot of countries that do it really well, that we can learn from.

NewsCred has just launched its new product, the Content Marketing Cloud.

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