Sima Sistani Is Bringing Down the House

The founder and CEO of social networking app Houseparty is redefining the way we hang with friends. Here, she shares how her company navigated an unexpected surge of users.

sima sistani, founder of houseparty
(Image credit: From subject)

If Zoom is now the way we have long meetings-that-could-have-been-an-email with co-workers, Houseparty is where you go to blow off some steam afterwards with friends. Launched in 2016, the app lets users join “rooms” of up to eight people to chat with friends, play games, do workout classes, even participate in live-streamed events with celebrities—virtually, of course. Once a Gen-Z secret, the app welcomed 50 million new users globally (many millennials and older) in just one month this spring as shelter-in-place orders put the kibosh on in-person gatherings. Houseparty is now charting as one of the world's most downloaded apps, quickly becoming the way to stay socially connected while we socially distance.

The product is the brainchild of co-founder and CEO Sima Sistani, one of the rare women heading a major video-chatting platform. Here, she shares how she's leading her team of 100 through a surge in growth, balancing motherhood with working from home, and her vision for a more socially-connected future.

Marie Claire: Houseparty has seen massive growth in users since the onset of coronavirus-related stay at home orders. How is the company responding to that?

Sima Sistani: Our mission is to create the most human way to be together when you're not physically together. We've just never been more physically apart as a society, but people are still very much craving that social connection. For us, it’s such a big responsibility to keep people connected during this challenging time. We're really humbled to be to be in this position to help people maintain important relationships. I feel very fortunate that my family is healthy. My brother is a doctor on the front lines, so I get a daily reminder that what we're doing is important.

MC: What initially sparked the idea for Houseparty?

SS: The idea that we had all moved away from talking face-to-face to with each other. We've moved into more efficient forms of communication, which are generally asynchronous, like texting or liking or commenting [on a post on social media], but that's not delivering on the initial promise of social networks, which is to connect you to the people you care about most. My brother is in Tennessee, my parents are in Alabama, and my best friends are dispersed between Chicago, North Carolina, New York, and San Diego. Even if you might be in the same zip code, that doesn't necessarily mean that you are able to stay as connected, so to speak, because we all tend to spend a lot of time isolated on our devices.

MC: Especially now as people are using their devices more to connect with family and friends, how do you see Houseparty shaping that conversation?

SS: Ultimately, it's about shared experiences. There's the utility of a group video chat, but then there's also the authenticity of what would you do with your friends or your family in real life? Games was one of the first features we introduced in the shared experiences category, and over half of the people who are [actively using the app] are playing games.

The other part is the spontaneous togetherness of it all. With sending a link [for a video call], there are lot of of hurdles [like the logistics of setting up the call and logging in]. When you call someone, a lot of times their initial reaction is to just text back and say, "What's up?" With Houseparty, we're trying to just be a more organic way of being together. When I open the app, I'm saying I'm available. I'm saying that I have my wine. I'm cooking mac and cheese for the kids. Who wants to join me?

MC: It’s obviously a social tool, but has [your team] been using Houseparty for work?

SS: We do a lot of one-on-ones over Houseparty. We use Zoom [for big meetings], but Houseparty allows for that feeling of passing by somebody's desk and chatting, or grabbing [a co-worker] for a quick talk.

I want my kids to know the right facial responses to things—not just the right emoji.

MC: What are some new extensions that have been born out of the pandemic experience?

SS: Our roadmap hasn't shifted that much. To be honest, we're all hoping for things to settle down and go back to normal. Obviously, everybody's going to have a new baseline for normal. But [the pandemic] hasn't shifted our thinking and we're still very excited about shared experiences, as we always have been. I hope that we take away new silver linings. [My family] had gotten out of the habit of having family dinners; we’ve started doing those again. Once we go back to the office, I intend for us to continue to do them, because I've seen that it was really something that was missing.

My biggest hope and takeaway is that people will recognize that they actually have felt more connected and engaged with their friends and family because of the pandemic. It will be interesting to see the shift in some of our behaviors. I think one of those shifts already happening is that people are embracing face-to-face interactions again, and are seeing value in it. I built this app with my kids in mind. I want them to know the right facial responses to things—not just the right emoji. It's incredibly important that people connect face-to-face.

MC: What are the challenges you've faced as a working mom who's also leading a company through this moment?

SS: I’m homeschooling. When this whole thing started I had all these fancy white boards, and schedules. I'd be lying if I said that we were able to maintain it. My kids are definitely getting too much screen time and eating too much sugar. I'm having too much wine. We're all just trying to stay sane.

There's this constant psychological struggle for working moms. No time has that been more difficult than right now. It's okay that a lot of us feel out of balance. There are days where I feel like an A+ executive and a C+ mother, and other days where I feel like I earned a gold star as a mother and that I'm failing as an executive.

Sometimes you read [an interview with a female CEO], and it sounds like she’s got it all figured out. Like, no! The human part of this is so much more. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for another family or another executive. The thing that want to put out there is, just be real. Just say This is really, really hard. I'm failing a little bit as a CEO and a little bit as a mom. I try to tell myself that my best is good enough. Much of the time, we only fail because of the bar we set for ourselves.

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Megan DiTrolio

Megan DiTrolio is the editor of features and special projects at Marie Claire, where she oversees all career coverage and writes and edits stories on women’s issues, politics, cultural trends, and more. In addition to editing feature stories, she programs Marie Claire’s annual Power Trip conference and Marie Claire’s Getting Down To Business Instagram Live franchise.