Socializaton on the web is big and for many, finding a social and/or business network to compliment business goals is a must - especially for entreprenuers and small businesses. Well today, marketing fans, we are in luck!
Dan McComb, co-founder of Biznik, agreed to speak with me one-on-one about the building and marketing of Biznik - a start-up business network that is gaining momentum as one of the most creative and active business networks online at the moment.
Q. You are one of the co-creators of Biznik. What was the reasoning behind it?
I'm a web developer in Seattle (a town where you can hardly throw a rock without hitting someone with my skills). I started freelancing full time in 2000, and for many of those years I was barely surviving, but having a great time.
After I got married in 2004, my wife, who's also self employed, started saying things like, "um, honey, don't you think you should maybe do a little more networking, you know, grow your business?" I gave in and attended some BNI meetings, which I found to be horribly structured affairs at ungodly hours of the morning.
Much to my surprise, most of the chapters I visited weren't interested in having me as a member: my spot was "already filled" (they don't allow people from the same profession to belong to the same group.) I thought that was a little odd, since most of the referrals I've ever received came from people in overlapping professions. Also, I didn't really like the people I was meeting at these events, but I was determined to find a good fit, so I kept looking.
Finally I did find a chapter that had room for me, and I was all ready to, as they call it, "lock out the competition" by giving them a $400 check.
But then a thought struck me: I don't really like the people; I don't agree with their philosophy of exclusion; their website is an embarrassment; I hate getting up early and being treated like I'm in kindergarten. And I'm going to pay them $400 for this? What the hell am I thinking? I could build something better than this in my spare time!
Q. Who else was involved and why?
Well, when I shared my revelation to Lara Feltin, my wife, she wasn't particularly impressed. I think she had an immediate grasp of how much work it would be. Besides, BNI had been working fine for her for about six years. I told her, "If we could get 400 people to show up at our wedding party, we can get a dozen to show up for a business networking event."
She agreed to give it a try, and we got a dozen people at our first event. I threw together a website that began essentially as an online membership directory, and she started out facilitating the meetings. I added features in my spare time, and it's been growing ever since.
Q. How did you grow it into the network it is right now?
We didn't have very much imagination when we started this, so at first we pretty much copied the old-school approach and had breakfast meetings at insanely early hours of the day. That didn't go over very well in urban Seattle, so we adjusted and tried lunch meetings. Still not a winner.
It wasn't until we began doing happy hour events that people started paying attention. But the real breakthrough was realizing that a lot of our members had fantastic skills that they could share with other members.
How could we tap that?
We created simple tools on the website that allowed members to create their own events and host them. To sum it up, I think we're growing by allowing members to decide what type of events they want to have, and when they want to have them.
We're also free - sort of. We have a paid level of membership, which offers more features, and more visibility, for $100/year. I also put a lot of time and effort into optimizing member profiles for search engines, and you'll find that most of the members on the first page of the membership directory are #1 on Google. That's a byproduct of participation in this network, but a really valuable one for many members.
We're also very urban, and have a progressive attitude that lots of people here find appealing, even refreshing. We emphasize authenticity, and we don't force members to do anything they don't want to, and they appreciate that.
Q. There are other business networks out there like linkedin, for example. What do you offer that they don't?
LinkedIn is a corporate networking tool. It's really designed for people who are ex- or current employees of big companies for keeping track of their contacts. I'm sure it's great for people like that, but I got hopelessly confused by the privacy/permissions system when I joined, and gave up trying to figure it out.
Biznik is designed by and for indie business people. As such, it's really simple - we don't care about privacy - we care about getting noticed. So everything is designed with that in mind.
Here's the really big difference - LinkedIn is purely an online network. Biznik is about face-to-face events, which the online social network supports . You simply can't build trust - the foundation of every successful business relationship - online the way you can face to face. So Biznik is about bringing people together online and then cementing those relationships with face-to-face events. And it really works.
Q. I'm curious about the marketing of Biznik. Do you have a plan of attack or a strategy for your online presence other than making it very SEO friendly?
Our only marketing strategy up until this point has been to create something remarkable, so that people will talk about it. And that's worked, but growth has been relatively slow. With the upcoming release of 2.0, we need to do more.
We're planning a private beta, and we'll be inviting bloggers from all over the place to participate in that, and also newspaper and magazine writers as well. So we hope to get some ink and blog coverage by inviting key people to be involved early in the release cycle. I'm sure there's more we could be doing - got any ideas for us?
Q. About how many members does biznik have right now?
As of today we have 2076 members in 52 countries. A year ago we had 109 members on Dec. 31, so if you think about it, that's actually pretty significant growth for one year. We expect much faster growth this year after we release 2.0 in March. By the way, you can always tell how many members we have - and exactly where they are located - by visiting the Biznik membership page, and then view by location.
Q. Is this a money making endeavor for you?
Until now, Lara and I have been creating and running Biznik in our spare time (although truth be told, it's been making full-time demands on our time since last summer). We introduced a paid level of membership in late August, and so far we've got 76 paying members. Many of the new features we'll be introducing in 2.0 will only be available to paid members (for example, only paid members will be able to create groups, although free members can join existing groups). We're committed to making Biznik available to everyone at a basic level at no charge at a philosophical level.
We're also totally committed to making this a commercial success. As the relevance, credibility and value of what we're doing continues to increase, we're confident the money will follow. In addition to memberships, we also make money through event fees, and we provide web hosting for quite a few members.
You'll notice we don't have any advertising on the site - ads annoy the hell out of me, and no members have requested them yet, so don't expect to see them any time soon.
Q. Based on your experience with creating and maintaining Biznik so far, are there any tips or tools you'd suggest for someone wanting to create an online community?
As important as community is to me, I'm a little leery of the word itself. Everyone wants to shout about how great community is - banks, mega corporations, churches, you name it. I think the term has become something of a devalued currency. But when you're part of an authentic community, one that nurtures you and gives you wings, rather than clipping them, it's just amazing.
We didn't really set out to create Biznik as a community, but because community is so important to both Lara and I, it's sort of ended up that way (although you don't have to engage with it that way). We're both very active members of the creative community in Seattle, so it's just part of who we are, I think. We love people, we love helping people connect. It makes us happy.
So as far as tips go, I'd say: find ways to show the love. Care, really care, about the people around you. And don't be afraid to be different. How you're different is what makes you interesting, and memorable, and attractive. We choose terms like "indie business," "business networking that doesn't suck" and "radical self promotion" intentionally. They filter out the wrong members, and attract the right ones. That way, you get members who "get it," and who are really excited about being part of it.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with Biznik both personally and professionally?
When Friendster came out a few years back, I created a profile and was amazed at how quickly it became an index to (not a replacement for) my real-world social life. And I thought, wow, it would be cool to work on a project like this. I've watched the rise of social networks from the perspective of a user, so to now be actually building something like this is very exciting to me.
I'm also a big fan of "indie business," a term I use deliberately: indie film challenges Hollywood by creating smart, low-budget films. Indie rock is edgy music with an attitude. And to me, indie business is business that does a lot with a little, business that isn't afraid to challenge the status quo, business that's smart and social responsible and fun and interesting and a little bit radical. And I want Biznik to be a tool and a community that empowers more people to thrive in those types of businesses.
Q. You've mentioned Biznik 2.0 is being released in Feb. '07. How will that be different than the current Biznik Network?
We set out to create a business networking group that we wanted to be part of. And we've achieved that goal in Seattle. Now, we'd like to do that elsewhere! So Biznik 2.0 is all about localization. After the release, which is now scheduled for early March, a visit to biznik.com will show you what's happening in your local network, rather than what's happening in Seattle.
You'll also be able to form local groups, which is something members have been requesting for a long time. We're also going to have a lot of emphasis on business development and education. We're building the whole thing on Rails, a fantastic platform that allows us to take advantage of the latest in web technology.
By the way, all supporting members will receive an invitation to the private beta, when it begins in February, so we're looking forward to having a lot of community participation in the final stages of development. See you there!
For more information on how to join Biznik or to contact Dan, feel free to visit the Biznik site.