Starting a Online Community-Building Business

Interview with Holly Hamann, Co-Founder and Vice President of Marketing of BlogFrog

Blogs can often be a one-way conversation from blogger to readers. BlogFrog is a plug-in that expands the conversation by allowing blog readers to interact with each other. BlogFrog co-founder Holly Hamann shares her reasons for joining this woman-centered business.

Interview with Holly Hamann, Co-Founder of BlogFrog.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

BlogFrog is a web 2.0 start-up that lets bloggers and websites add an instant community forum to their sites. The company's widget (also called a plug-in) lets all the readers of a site interact with each other; in the past, readers could pretty much only interact with the author. The tools work for any blog or website but the company has intentionally focused on serving the women/mom blog space first because women are 1) very underserved, 2) the fastest growing segment of social media users and 3) intuitively community-oriented. Having a BlogFrog community on their blogs drives more traffic, motivates readers to stay longer because they can interact, engages readers with more content on the site, and bloggers can earn more revenue. Within a year of launch, the company has grown to be the largest network of mom bloggers in the U.S. The company currently has 24,000 members, who form communities and can then ask questions, share advice and support, and interact with each other.

When did you start the business?

Rustin Banks (the creator and CEO) had the original idea for BlogFrog and built the early test versions during nights and weekends as an engineer for an aerospace company. I became Rustin's business partner and co-founder in January of 2009. In April of 2009, we both quit our jobs to form the company in Boulder and work on it full-time.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

Prior to BlogFrog, I worked as vice president of marketing for a tech start-up in the social media space. We were building a social music network and one of my campaigns involved managing dozens of bloggers across the company who were blogging about the music scene in their city. I had been writing my own blog since 2007 and really grasped the power of community building for blogs from this campaign.

Prior to that, I spent the past 15 years helping to launch and grow tech start-ups in the Boulder/Denver area, which much success. Three out of the five start-ups I helped launch have been acquired by larger companies in the space. While I have spent many years in the start-up space, this is the first company I have founded.

How did you come up with your business idea?

The idea for BlogFrog came about as a solution to a real-life problem faced by my co-founder Rustin's wife, Tara. Tara and her friends and family members all started their own blogs to share pictures of their children and stories about their experiences as new moms. However, these moms had no way of linking their blogs or interacting with each other to share their stories and advice. Rusty, a lifelong engineer and software developer, created a homemade solution to help Tara and her friends form a blog "community" where they could link to each other's blogs, ask each other questions and support each other, all through their blogs. As their community grew and the idea caught on among other mommy bloggers, the idea for BlogFrog was born. Rustin asked me to help form and launch the company to the market.

For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur? Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?

I would strongly encourage young women who would like to become entrepreneurs to do so. Starting a business is full of challenges and personal sacrifices, but there are few things more satisfying and rewarding than taking an idea you believe in and creating something from nothing. I also believe working for yourself can far more rewarding than working for someone else.

At BlogFrog we work with women entrepreneurs every day. Our 24,000 mom blogger members are almost all entrepreneurs at heart. Their lives and knowledge are the "product" they offer to their online community of readers and they take risks everyday putting themselves out there and sharing their stories. I would encourage young women, specifically, to find a network of other women who share your entrepreneurial spirit. Women naturally tend to seek out relationships, communities and conversations with others who share in their interests. This kind of support can be very helpful for remaining motivated and creative when starting or growing a business.

Advantages? Even in this age of equality, there are far fewer women entrepreneurs than men, especially in the tech space. This means that women entrepreneurs who are out there making it happen have lots of opportunity to influence, motivate and inspire others. There are lots of women who might be contemplating entrepreneurship. Having access to success stories, women mentors and support communities can have a huge impact. Ironically, because BlogFrog's business is all about helping women and moms create community online, being a women (and mom) has been the ULTIMATE advantage.

With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?

I feel very qualified to talk about starting a business during a down economy. I quit my job to focus on BlogFrog full time in April 2009 - right at the height of the recession. Funding was difficult to come by, and both Rusty and I were prepared to work for several months without a paycheck. While starting accompany during a recession has its challenges -- funding is harder, skilled employees are less likely to leave their jobs for a risky venture, and consumers pull back on spending -- there are aspects that entrepreneurs should definitely take advantage of.

There are pools of extremely talented people who are looking for work and willing to take below-market salaries to join a great team. Employees are more flexible about relocating, work hours, and job sharing. Commercial property rates are lower and the cost of travel is down. The challenging economy also means fewer companies will start new ventures, which results in fewer competitors.

From a product perspective, a tight economy and skeptical investment climate forces you to be ruthless with product development. If you don't have the luxury of going in ten different directions and chasing features that are cool but way outside your core vision, you are more likely to stay focused. Competitors with more money and resources will eat your lunch if you take your eye off the ball for a minute. That can condition you to think fast, test often, be brutal with priorities and involve feedback from real customers every step of the way.

Although it seemed tough at the time, looking back I believe that starting a business during an economic slump was perfect timing for us. People tend to be very smart and creative when times are tough and money is scarce. My advice would be to take a hard look at your expenses and, if you can do without something you can't afford, get rid of it until you really have the budget for it. If you can't afford office space, start out working from home. If you don't have the money for equipment you need, get creative about working without it. I made our conference room table out of a $50 door from Home Depot to help save money for our company. Don't be too proud to bring your lunch to work, buy used office supplies, or use free parking even if it means walking farther. Negotiate your office space, employ student interns from a local college, and hire cheap labor for simple projects, like painting. You don't need to print nearly as much as you think you do and coffee shops are excellent sources of free wi-fi.

Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?

Absolutely. Our business is in the social media space, and we've gained 24,000 members in less than a year almost exclusively through social marketing. Women bloggers, in particular, are one of the most influential and active groups in the social marketing realm. Social marketing is a very effective way to generate business for your company as long as you're actively engaged in social media yourself and can remain authentic and sincere. We use social marketing for every aspect of our business including marketing, PR, customer support, and even product management. We post mock-ups of new features on blogs, Twitter and in online communities to get early feedback before coding. As a result, our users feel cared for and connected as a user base. They know Rustin and I individually, which creates affinity for BlogFrog and helps us reach more potential members.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

One of the most important things we've done that has helped grow the business is to continue to provide the personal touch we brought to this company on day one. Even though we have 24,000 members, we still answer every phone call to our office personally. I spend 30 minutes every morning reading and commenting on our newest members' blogs, and I actively engage in the BlogFrog community. I interact with bloggers on Twitter and Facebook throughout the day to stay as connected to them as possible. I learn new things about bloggers every day that helps me serve them better. Sometimes it's easy to want to disconnect and go work on some feature or project in a vacuum but it doesn't serve us in the long run. Knowing so many of our users individually keeps me accountable for making sure we give them what they need. Some days it feels like I'll never get anything done, but connecting with other mom bloggers is the foundation of our company. It keeps me motivated and in-touch with our members, and nothing in my In box is more important than that.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

The single most important piece of advice I would offer to someone starting a business is to go into business doing something you're passionate about. Starting a business from the ground up is a big undertaking that will impact you personally, financially and emotionally. You'll be happier and more successful if you're pursuing a business opportunity that you are truly passionate about and devoted to. In spite of obstacles, competition, and other challenges, you will need to authentically sell and be a dynamic evangelist for your product. In this age of transparency, customers and partners will know if you don't believe in your own product. I have been an advocate for empowering women to reach their full potential by sharing their stories with communities for my entire adult life. The idea of running a company that creates an easy way for women bloggers to create community online was something I just had to be a part of.

Women supporting women is a great idea. Thanks for talking to us today, Holly.

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