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TMBA601: Creating Meaningful Online Communities

We’ve learned over the years that being a part of a community of like-minded people is one of the most valuable experiences that you can have as an entrepreneur.

This was our core motivation for forming The Dynamite Circle, our own online community of location-independent entrepreneurs, back in 2011.

We originally built that on a platform called Ning, largely because it was the best option on the market at the time, and it served us well for many years.

She recently decided to leave that company to create Mighty Networks, a sophisticated platform aimed at helping creators build their own online communities.

We’ve invited Gina on to the podcast today to talk about the challenges of building and running online communities in 2021, how communities on the internet have evolved over the past decade, how to grow an 8-figure remote business, and more.

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Do you have ideas for things you’d like Dan and Ian to discuss on future episodes?

Our producer Jane would love to hear from you at [email protected] or leave us a voice message using the record button below.

Dan: Happy Thursday morning, welcome back to the podcast. I join you this morning, like I have so many times in the past, from a random hotel room on the road. I’m heading back to Austin, Texas. But first, I want to share this interview with you. Just a few themes I want to flag up. Today’s show is going to be about community and a person who has played a big role in ours, the Dynamite Circle. And that community all started when we came on this podcast every week, many many years ago and shared a remote first journey, a lifestyle business journey around an e-commerce business. And it turned out there were so many others who shared our values in that journey. And that’s been incredibly assuring and affirming. It’s awesome not to have to explain what you do all the time. So I love community.

But there was like a dual purpose in having today’s guest on, which is another theme we’re exploring this year on the pod, which is how do you do remote first bootstrapped? But also put yourself on the path for generational wealth. How do you build an eight figure business? How do you create an exit that would, as Jason Cohen says, shelve financial questions for a lifetime. So that’s one of the themes that’s going to be underlying the pod this year. Just wanted to point that out.

Now, we originally built the Dynamite Circle forum, back in 2011, on the platform Ning, which had a lot of pros and cons, but at the time, there was very little choice. So I’ve been super interested over the years to watch this sort of community software space. And last year, today’s guest former Ning CEO Gina Bianchini founded ‘Mighty Networks’ with a team of 24. And last year, they had incredible growth, that’s up to 100 now and they have 10,000 paying members on top of those who are using their freemium offering. So definitely we’ve got a serious business on our hands here. Some of the things that Gina and I get into today really go to the core of what it’s like to run and create a network, many of which we face in our own forum. And the temptation to overestimate the lure of bigger platforms like Facebook. So I started out by asking Gina to describe who ‘Mighty Networks’ is aimed at.

Gina: So our customer is a creator, they’re a coach, they are a brand that wants to build a new kind of online business that’s powered by community, and specifically a community that gets more valuable to every member with each new person who joins and contributes. So the way that our product works is, this ability to create online courses, to run paid memberships, organise events, all in one place, all under your brand, instantly available on every platform but that community is built into everything.

Dan: You live in Palo Alto, so it’s kind of famous to say like, it’s like this, but like this, or you do the XY comparisons to something so you might hate me for this one. But is ‘Mighty Networks’, like a private Facebook, that you can control and own?

Gina: The thing you said that makes me very happy is, ‘It’s your own Facebook’, it’s not your own Facebook group. And the reason it’s your own Facebook is actually because your members can have, whether it’s courses or whether it’s groups, they actually can bring all of those things together in your Mighty Networks main feed, so it becomes really personalised, which means that it’s really scalable and everybody can have the most relevant experience to them. We’re not trying to have a discovery platform, we’re not trying to be the brand, we really look at our analogy or comparables is what Shopify has done for e-commerce, we want to do for digital subscriptions and the things that you would actually pay for and using that for engagement, whether that’s again, community online courses or memberships.

Dan: I want to walk through your timeline a little bit here in a moment. But one of the things that I think is really powerful about these platforms is when I saw the Ning feature set in 2011 within six months, it allowed me to turn this podcast into a six figure business. I’ve explored Mighty as well. I’m curious, what are you seeing, who are the customers that get the most value instantly out of it? Who can go to Mighty Networks and sort of start a business? What is that kind of class of customers for you guys that are getting this sort of enormous benefit right away?

Gina: Very simply, you know, people that are starting from scratch, it turns out, we’re a really good platform, if you are building your first online course, or you’re building your first membership subscription. We also have been a great platform for people moving a free group, to a Mighty Network where they still want to have a freemium model, you know, so the community or front door is free. But then there are paid programmes, whether that’s, again, online courses, or, you know, weekly events. The fact that you can quickly set up a freemium website, essentially, with payments built in, with the different features that you would want to bundle together to create an offering around a paid subscription or a paid purchase. Again, a great example would be ‘Yoga with Adrian’, great YouTube channel, also has a video streaming app that they sell as a subscription. And then their community that really supports their business is on Mighty Networks, and it’s called ‘Find What Feels Good Kula’, they have over 200,00 members, they actually moved over to a Mighty Network from a 25,000 person Facebook group about three years ago.

Dan: And they grew from there.

Gina: They grew from there

Dan: So Facebook is the growth option, and then Mighty is kind of a paid specific option?

Gina: What they actually found was, the Facebook experience was so toxic, because you’re the idea that you are getting out of the sort of social media train, where it’s outrage, followed by your family followed by like what you’re doing in terms of your yoga practice? Well, the way Sarah Bowman describes it, is that people were showing up hot on Facebook. When you are having all of this kind of outrage presented to you in your feed, and there’s no control over where and how you see someone’s group, the level of vitriol over a topic like yoga can just get out of control. And so when you actually create your own community on your own destination, you see a different culture emerge that just isn’t what happens on a Facebook group.

Dan: Could you bring us back to … like to help us relate to your story? Because you’re speaking very confidently you’re running this big, fancy, successful company. If you were to challenge me and say, ‘Hey, go build a business like Ning right now’, I’d be like, ‘Well, that’s pretty challenging’. But you did it back in the early 2000s. So tell me like, how did you arrive at that moment where you had that vision, the ambition and the resources to build a company like Ning?

Gina: So I had the resources and ambition before we had the vision, I would say. So the initial idea for Ning was – let’s go create a programmable platform for social applications, the way that the web and HTML is a programmable platform for websites, or the browser is a programmable platform for websites. The interesting thing was that, after about a year, we saw that the real opportunity wasn’t with developers. It was certainly meant to be a ‘low code’ platform in today’s parlance, but actually, it was, ‘Oh, wait a second, there’s all these people out there that don’t know how to code and want to build their own social network for anything’. And we had started Ning where you had different primitives that you could pull together and then there was like, the idea was that you could have a photo website or a video website or a wiki website or a blog website. And what we found was that people didn’t want individual features, they wanted to bring them all together. But that actually speaks to how early-stage it was in terms of the development of social applications.

Dan: It was even like a Twitter feed, more or less, like the activity feed, that would give you a running tally of everything that was happening amongst all the applications you had pulled together. And in fact, this is something that still exists in our community today, because our community was so passionate about that feature in Ning that we had to hard code it into our new solution. So it’s funny how things have sort of a historic resonance like that. overshare

Gina: Well, and that was certainly what we built as the second version of Ning, so the first version was this programmable platform. And then the second version was actually just drag and drop these things into a solution into your own social network for anything. And then, as you mentioned, Dan, like you can have an activity feed of all of the different things that are happening across your Ning network.

Dan: And so you guys were pretty precinct about the future at that company. What ended up happening with Ning, I remember, I was like a power user. So it felt a kind of drama in the tech press about Ning, generally speaking, it was something worth talking about. What was the experience like there for you running that company? And how did you eventually exit the company?

Gina: When I look at and think about Ning, I think the main takeaway was, for me at least, it was that these are amazing people to serve. The Ning creator, we called them Creators back in 2007. And the second thing is, you know, we thought Ning would be an advertising based business, we did not think that it was you know, about subscriptions, or running a SaaS company. And yet, what was interesting is, we had sort of this throwaway, you could pay us like $36 a month, and we’d like, like, you could remove the Ning branding, And yet, we had very big customers who were using Ning in some very, very interesting ways. And so when I left Ning at, it was really in the spirit of, ‘Okay, I want to continue serving this customer. I want to create a SaaS business, and it needs to be mobile first’. And what was fantastic is that I have been able and we have been able, with our team at Mighty, to continue that same vision of Ning but take it forward. There is no better time to take full advantage of not just technology, but also just how culture has evolved and developed. There are certainly dark and negative aspects of social media that I think, you know, have been ….

Dan: Let me talk about that. Recently you said, ‘Facebook has been gaslighting us’. What do you mean by that?

Gina: So that was actually I wrote that piece about two years ago, maybe even three years ago, like time in our post COVID world has merged – it’s like it’s still March of 2020. So basically what was happening at that point in time was that this was like, after the 2016 election, and Facebook came out and they were basically like, ‘We’re going to be all about groups’.

Dan: I remember.

Gina: And it’s all about meaningful communities. And we can’t wait to do this. And this is amazing and everybody should have groups. Here’s the thing that I watched, when Facebook first came out, the story that they told brands, for example, was, ‘Hey, everybody, come and create a page on Facebook and get people to your Facebook page’. So that was when you started to see brands say, ‘Follow us on Facebook’ or ‘“ike us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter’. But the promise at that point in time was that you would get a like, and then that person would be someone that you could talk to. And the brand could send them messages or, you know, show up in their feed, or their page was going to have …. basically, everybody was going to essentially have a branded website, on Facebook. So then what Facebook said is, ‘Actually, we’re gonna change the rules. So I know that you’ve just been spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars telling everyone to like you on Facebook, you are trying to move more and more of your efforts to Facebook versus, at the time, creating your own communities, or your own social networks. Everybody’s on Facebook, we have to be where everybody is’. And then what happened was, Facebook changed the rules again and said, ‘We’re going to stop sending people to your Facebook page’.

Dan: Yes.

Gina: And you’re going to pay to reach all of those people that we told you before you only had to pay to get to your page once. And then you could organically reach them. Well guess what? You now have to pay us to reach those people. And the brands were almost like, ‘We’re already in this thing. Like, I like, I’m gonna look like an idiot, if I just say I don’t believe in Facebook, even though they’ve actually changed the rules, and I’m renting this audience. And I don’t own any of it’. So my only point with this piece was, one, I had a strong bet that the moment of Facebook groups, in terms of Facebook really investing in them, was more PR and marketing than product. And I was right.

Dan: That’s important for your customers too, you understand your customers because for me, like, I was really scared of Facebook groups there for a couple years, like they’re gonna destroy my business because they better.

Gina: And did they?

Dan: No.

Gina: But you’re not the only one. And even today, you know, Facebook says anything, and people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I guess they’re gonna own X, Y or Z market’. People give large companies a lot of credit and sometimes more than they necessarily deserve. But the bigger point is, so no product changes happened with Facebook groups, they actually disbanded the like a dedicated Facebook groups organisation within Facebook. The second thing is, if you think about how Facebook works, like the group organisers are actually just brands 10 years later. Meaning, okay, so you invest in your Facebook group, and you’re making all of these things, you’re trying to do it on Facebook. One, Facebook markets competitive groups to your members. And that’s By the way, if you even get somebody to your to your Facebook group page, for the most part, it’s whatever randomly shows up in the feed, which means that the relationship that you’re building with your members or the members are building between each other is happening, in three second chunks in their newsfeed with no control by the host, by the group admin. It’s the equivalent on some level of trying to do an off site or go to like a retreat in the middle of Times Square. It doesn’t work that way.

Dan: In this case, the medium is the message in the sense that we consider our community we call it like a slow community, like we reward people for producing long form content and things that – we set the expectations with our members like, ‘Hey, if you write a piece, important people will read it, they’ll change their lives, they’ll meet with you in a few months about it and tell you what happened. But they might not put a heart on it, we’re not going to let it become that’. And I think, you know, the past 10 years on the internet, we’ve just assumed that this is like the way reality is, which is actually the way like five companies in Silicon Valley are. That’s something I always try to keep in mind as we run our community, to keep in mind the real people behind the profiles.

Gina: Yeah, it’s well said,

Dan: You mentioned that Facebook gets people hot and toxic. And I agree with that. But our team does a lot of moderation. And we had a topic last week that got completely out of hand, it was to do with cryptocurrencies, and people got really angry with each other. And they got mean, it’s so interesting to see how in communities it’s the two sides of the sword – they make you feel so empowered, and so positive, and like they change your life, but they can make you feel terrible, too, if you get the realisation that maybe you don’t share values with somebody or they treated you poorly. I’m wondering how you guys think through that I’m sure, I have a few grey hairs because of managing a community for over 10 years.

Gina: I got very comfortable with, ‘I’m going to run communities that aren’t going to be for everybody. Mighty Networks as a platform that is not for everybody and that’s okay’. The ways or assumptions that kind of steer people wrong or create that pain in community design is one where it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to make everybody happy’. It’s like having a guest at my house and I need to make them feel super welcome even if they’re a jerk. If they were at your house, and they’re mean to your other guests, you would probably be like, ‘I think you actually have to leave’. And yet there’s this expectation in online communities that it’s okay. It’s not okay. The second thing is that any topic is okay. Meaning, like if people want to show up and start talking about something super controversial, they should be allowed to do that. And if you’re like, no, you can’t do that here ..

Dan: They’ll say that’s censorship.

Gina: Sadly, if you think about What Facebook has become over the last 10 years, and it’s not the last, you know, five minutes, it’s over the last 10 years, it has become an infinite series of A/B tests around language that is being tested to be as divisive as possible. The use of arguments and language to divide people and to exploit tribalism. And it is a decision that any of us make as community designers to say, you know what, there are plenty of places on the internet, where if you want to go have a conversation that is super controversial to go, go to those places, that’s not what we’re doing here. And again, with whatever people throw at you, ‘You’re censoring me, this is about free speech’. We are all private enterprises, the place where free speech is protected is censorship by the government, not by private enterprises and private communities or even public communities. And the other thing is that there is a silent majority. For everybody who is taking extreme positions and just playing out the same narrative. And it’s been, it’s been maximally precise, and maximally designed to divide us.

Dan: And a lot of the members of our communities, they’re learning this stuff, it’s bad faith acting by them, they’re trying to get attention, or work out their anxieties in public.

Gina: Exactly. And the weaponization it’s like, any one in five minutes or five seconds can go find 75 memes to throw into a conversation. It’s the equivalent of a verbal, or written DDoS attack, you know, denial of service, because they’re not going to let anybody talk and they’re just gonna flood the conversation and flood the thread. If we are participating in a weaponized conversation, where we’re just parroting what’s out there, we don’t even know where the arguments have come from. And that is distracting us and tearing people down. And I keep coming back to? Is this a conversation that is going to help each and every one of our members? Which, by the way, we’re also really clear what is the community we run it for Mighty House, what is it for and what is it not for? It’s not for self promotion. It’s not for a lot of political discussion.

Dan: It’s not for you getting heard. I love that that’s where community is its strongest, when it can focus on helping the members get the objective they’re there for, which is so rare in today’s society, because you are bombarded by things all the time. I got two more for you. I appreciate your time here today, I know you’re very busy. But there’s two parts of our audience, we’re all remote. First, about 80% of us are business owners and 20% of us are aspiring business owners and remote workers. So I’ll start with the business owners. One of my goals is to reach my full potential as an entrepreneur. And I’ve always sort of been stuck in the low seven figures, I’ve always built these businesses that are, you know, had a really nice team of 10. And we’re productive, and it’s cool and stuff. But we’ve never really got to that point where we broke through and got on the radar in our industry or anything like that. There’s a lot of us like that who listen to this show. And you’ve managed to do that. So I’m just curious, like, what are some general principles or points, advice you’d have for us on how we could progress to get to that next level of entrepreneurship?

Gina: It’s a good question. On some level, the entrepreneurs that I have the most respect for are the ones that have built their own businesses. There’s so much like in terms of Silicon Valley businesses, and the particular game of growth, equity and tech entrepreneurship, that are kind of horrible, not that cool.

Dan: Like what?

Gina: Any number of different things in terms of the game, but here’s what I would say – for any business, whether you’re in the six figures, seven figures, eight figures , it’s about looking at, what is it that I do? What is the value people are getting from it? And what are the different ways that we can scale it? And the good news today, is that you can scale with no code, or by just putting in your credit card with, you know, platforms like Mighty and others, in ways that were not possible, even even two years ago. I personally think that one of the most important things is just continuing those practices as the entrepreneur of, ‘What did I learn this week? What are the three or four things that come out of that learning? And how do I bring this into my next week?’

Dan: One final question for those looking to make a lot of people want to emulate what you’ve done with your career.

Gina: I would say, think twice about that.

Dan: Well, the hardest thing is like getting from, you know, having a job to like getting a business off the ground that can sustain you, you can own your own time back, what are some of your favourite ways that you’ve seen or you’ve done yourself, you know, entrepreneurs getting to the point where they can afford their own time and work on their own projects?

Gina: I think the number one thing I see is, and I was always pretty good at this and have become even more so. I think people do a lot of things because they think they should. And I’ve certainly been guilty of that. If anything, because of COVID, we are all hitting the reset button. And we get to move forward by saying, you know what, I don’t have to go to that thing. And if somebody sends me an email, and they want to talk to me, I don’t have to. How do I get much more disciplined about, ‘This is my purpose. This is where I get energy. This is the stuff that is a distraction’. And in any time, it’s like, well, I should, well, I should post more to social media, and I should have a big audience on social media, or I should take that call, they might turn into a new customer or I should go to this party, or dinner, or networking event or all this other stuff that is like in the past, it was like, oh my gosh. And because we all basically got our calendars wiped clean. Each and every one of us can build back with the things that bring us energy, and figure out a way to get out of the things that we think we should do that we don’t really have to do. And I think that that is very difficult for people. But I just think about how much more productive I am today with so many of those distractions gone. And to me that is just invaluable.

Dam: I love that answer. And it was the toughest part for me for sure – you’re bound into responsibilities and social connections that you have to break in a way that was meaningful to me at the time, but now it feels more natural. Gina, we really appreciate you taking the time to stop by the podcast today. Thanks for joining us.

Gina: Thanks for having me.

Dan: Big shout out to Gina for coming by the show. Of course you can find out more about what she’s up to over at Mighty Networks. I’d love to hear your experience of running or creating networks, drop me an email Dan at tropical MBA dot com. Also let me shout out our sponsor this week, Prisync dot com, huge thanks to them for making this show possible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately, over at the Dynamite Circle. We’ve had a lot of moderation issues during COVID. And just rethinking that charter of ethics. I thought Gina’s approach to moderation was super refreshing, not one I’ve shared over the years. And she’s just a boss. She has a very strong vision for what can and can’t be said. And that’s something we’re working on at the DC because we’ve been largely a virtual community during COVID times and honestly, that wasn’t ever the charter of our community. And it’s a necessary challenge for us to take on as things went more virtual during the pandemic. It’s a good prompt for us to improve that virtual side of the community. And it’s turned out well, we’ve actually had a net positive membership during the COVID times even though the charter of our community has always been In person events, something I’m just so very happy that we’re going to get back to here over the summer and in October, in fact, I’m going to meet a few members just this weekend.

So I’ll just leave you with this thought is – whether you just want to make a good living from your lifestyle business or whether you want to join Ian and I on this journey of trying to create an eight figure lifestyle business, I think finding your people, finding people that are sharing in that journey, being able to regularly meet them, run ideas by them, get critical feedback from them, is basically the biggest business hack I know about. We’re over 600 episodes now. And that’s basically it. Like embed yourself with people and the journey you’re on. And just be around them, earn their trust, earn their friendship, and build with transparency in their direction, good things are gonna happen. Speaking of good things happening, next week, Bossman returns to the show. And we’re gonna share some of the nitty gritty details of our, hopefully, eight figure business journey. We shall see. Join us for that. Thanks for joining us this week. We’ll be back next Thursday morning as always.

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