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Houseparty elevates its chief operating officer to CEO

Sima Sistani becomes one of very few women to run a venture-backed social networking company

Houseparty, the video chat app that has recently begun exploring gaming and live entertainment, has a new CEO. Sima Sistani, who co-founded the app and is its chief operating officer, is taking over the top job today. Ben Rubin, who has led the company since before its earlier incarnation as the live-streaming app Meerkat, will join the board and continue to advise the product teams.

In an interview, the co-founders said the move was designed to reflect the company’s upcoming push into gaming and other media partnerships. In January, Houseparty added the popular mobile game Heads Up, offering in-app purchases for the first time. It’s part of an effort to build a social network around something other than advertising, at a time when scrutiny of ad-based business models has intensified.

“We made this decision that the strategy now is games and media, and we’ve got the best person in the house to do that in Sima,” Rubin said. “As a product CEO and a founder, you have to step away.”

On April 1st, Houseparty plans to introduce a new trivia game as part of its investment in entertainment. It will also begin to let users share their screens with one another, so they can chat about whatever they’re doing on their phones. (An app called Squad launched earlier this year with similar social screen-sharing features; but Houseparty says screen sharing has been on its road map from the beginning.)

“When people are hanging out on Houseparty, they’re already engaging in these companion experiences,” Sistani said. “They’re watching Netflix, they’re shopping, they’re doing homework.” Screen sharing will make all of those activities easier, she said.

Houseparty says that users have played 10 million games of Heads Up since January, and that players of the game use Houseparty twice as much as the average user. Sistani, who previously served in media partnership roles at Tumblr and at Yahoo, said the company plans to add other games soon.

With her move to the top, Sistani becomes one of a vanishingly small number of women to run social networks backed by large venture capital firms. (The company has raised about $70 million from Silicon Valley stalwarts including Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners.) Sarah Friar, who became CEO of neighborhood network Nextdoor last year, is perhaps the most high-profile example of a woman leading a social app that has millions of users.

“It’s awesome to be able to work with a company with two great founders who have such complementary skills, and can hand over the reins from one to the other,” said Mike Vernal, a partner at Sequoia and a member of the Houseparty board. “We feel lucky to work with Ben and Sima.”

Houseparty declines to say how many users it has, other than that it is a number in the millions. The company’s app for live video chatting with close friends has made it a destination for groups of teenagers and college students who use it to hang out when they aren’t physically together. It makes apps for Android and iOS, and introduced a Chrome app earlier this year.