Inside the Career of a Master Online Community Builder, Elisa Camahort Page – Ep 50

Master community builder Elisa Camahort Page shares her insights and the ups and downs to starting and running a successful business that is built on community power.

Can you make a career out of building online communities? Our guest today has done just that. Elisa Camahort Page has been at the forefront of the social web revolution. Elisa has built value for women online and is a model for how to build communities. She co-founded BlogHer Inc. in 2005, which was bootstrapped for two years before successfully raising four rounds of $20M in funding, eventually achieving exit by acquisition to She Knows Media.

She is now the owner of ElisaCP. She’s a community builder, public speaker, board member, business catalyst, consultant and so much more. She’s also writing a book right now called Road Map for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy for All.

Question: You helped to build the biggest community of women bloggers in the world at the time. What gave you, Lisa Stone and Jory Des Jardins the idea for BlogHer?

Answer: Back in 2005, there were a lot of conversations about having more women represented in tech, business and politics. Jory des Jardins, Lisa Stone and I came together somewhat serendipitously to start BlogHer. We were so tired of all the excuses for why women weren’t speaking and women weren’t being quoted. We had this idea to have a conference that was like any other tech or blogging conference, but all the experts would be women. There was always that kind of activist nature to what we were doing and we wanted to validate for these women who were finding a mode of expression. It turned out they were really good at building and influencing their community. The idea was to create opportunities for women to get their piece of exposure and community and at the same time, help them learn more about how to do it well and bring about some economic empowerment. A lot of the women were stay-at-home parents who were looking to contribute to their household income and do something that had meaning to them. 

Question: BlogHer was acquired by She Knows Media in 2014. How did that come to be and what did you do afterward?

Answer: We bootstrapped for two years and we grew organically, but in that two years, some traditional women’s media companies were starting to recognize there’s gold in women bloggers. They had deep pockets we didn’t have. Everything we were doing was really based on bootstrapping, bartering, going through our life savings and taking out personal debt. We realized that we could keep organically growing and have a nice business, but we didn’t want these folks to pay money to leapfrog over us. We worried that these newcomers didn’t come from the community and wouldn’t really serve the community. We had some fire in the belly, we wanted some world domination and we were thinking very big. That’s when we decided to go out and get venture funding. Every time you take outside investment, whoever is investing in you or giving you capital has expectations and an expectation of an outcome. You sign up for that when you take the money. Debt is not a dirty word. Most businesses fund themselves at some point through debt. The expectation for what you do to settle your debt is a lot different than the expectation of what you need to do if you take venture funding. Once you take venture funding, the expectation is you’re going to have an exit for that company that’s going to pay your investors back, and hopefully you, too.

Ultimately what happened and why we eventually did sell was because we’d been doing it almost 10 years at that point. We had done four rounds of funding. The reason we ended up taking more funding is because of two macro things. In the beginning, we were a little cocky and a little naive. We thought we knew what was going to happen and we thought we had a plan. We saw a path to profitability and we didn’t want to give up more ownership than we needed to, so we didn’t take that much funding. Less than one year after we took our first round of funding, the bottom fell out of the economy and we had the recession and we didn’t control that.

When we started BlogHer, the smartphone didn’t exist, there were no mobile websites, there was nothing. Think of all the things that happened in digital over the last 12 years and you could imagine that we had to reinvest in developing mobile solutions and video solutions. Those were macro dynamics of the market and the economy that affected us. After 10 years, we were looking at another point of inflection. We were creating video content when the sponsor was paying for it, but we weren’t set up to just be a video content company. We were looking at that point of inflection saying,  are we going to reinvest to do this or do we find a partner who’s already invested in this but doesn’t have what we have?

We had a community and conferences in a distributed network, so we fit the pieces together and it made a lot of sense. After 10 years we said, let’s share the load a little bit, let’s join another company, let’s get more resources that will help the community and will help them continue to make money and help them continue to get exposure for their work. Not only did we sign up for finding an exit when we took the money, but at a certain point of time it made sense for where the business needed to go and where we needed to go as founders.

Question:  You started ElisaCP and started working with entrepreneurs and with the NPR Podcast, How I Built This. You helped them build an online community and also organize an upcoming conference. How did that come to be?

Answer: Our first executive hire at BlogHer, who opened up our New York office, was Gina Rubo who is now the President and CEO of National Public Media, which is the selling arm of NPR. She heard they were thinking of doing a conference and she recommended before they do anything they talk to me. So I was brought in for a one-day engagement to do a strategy session and then write a report with some best practices and recommendations. Then they hired me for a couple of months to do more due diligence, and scope out the budget and plan.

I happened to know a whole team of amazing events, people from my career, and it was a win, win, win. NPR needed this help, my friend needed the contract, I needed the contract, so we all played together. That was just a couple months and then they came back and said they were pulling the trigger. What would it take for you guys to just help us produce this and build the program?

BlogHer started as a conference and then we said, oh there’s a community. What else can we do for this community? How I Built This started as a podcast, but they began to get so much feedback from people sending in their own companies and that’s how they started having at the end of every episode, the How I Built This segment, where they feature some of their community. 

Question:  You talk about harnessing the power of people as one of your skills. How have you done that to build successful online communities?

Answer: People desperately want to connect, to feel a connection, to feel validated, to feel purposeful. The other thing is they want to feel a sense of consistency. They also want a sense of expectation meeting reality. And I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong.

First of all, one of my cardinal rules of community isn’t about giving people a way to talk to you. I think that’s how people kind of interpret it. Not everyone’s going to get the answer they want, but they get an answer and they get some transparency about why things are the way they are. They can rationalize and say either, well, I understand I didn’t get what I wanted here, but I get why it is the way it is and I’m cool with that. So that’s sort of my cardinal rule number one is that you have to have some sense of call and response that they can talk to you and you answer even if the answer is no.

But the other seemingly contradictory rule thing is that people don’t always want you chiming in. I see brands do this all the time. Like anytime someone mentions them online they have to chime in. And actually, that starts to feel a little like big brother or big sister like. You may think it’s stupid, but a lot of us feel like we’re having private conversations even in public social media threads. So if I’m talking to someone on Twitter or on a public thread on Facebook, it’s still a conversation and I find that too many brands or organizations interrupt the conversation and make it about them in a way we didn’t intend when we were having a conversation. So a lot of times the hardest part of managing an online community is controlling yourself, that your input is not always required or necessary or desirable. They’re allowed to have their feelings. They’re allowed to be disappointed in you. They’re allowed to be mad at you. They’re not asking you a question or they’re not asking you for action. And I think it’s really important to recognize when people are asking you for information or action and when are they not, what are they’re just expressing how they feel.

Question:  What are your tips for those of us looking to grow an engaged online community to support our businesses?

Answer: I would say be human. Talk about human things. Don’t be afraid to say feeling words.

Be Responsive. Be Consistent. When you’re managing the community be transparent about why it’s managed the way it is. Really live that ethos of reciprocity, that nobody owes you.

Community is not a fixed asset. It’s a constantly living organism and it needs tending.

The last thing is to have a stated policy. What’s the code? What are the community guidelines? Then enforce it evenly and fairly. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make everyone feel understood and heard even if in the end you agree to disagree.

Some people are going to be nasty. That happens all the time, but that’s their prerogative. If someone is going to leave your community because they think you’re doing it wrong, in the long run, you’re probably better off. If you start to see an exodus of your community, that’s a problem you need to look into. What have you changed? What have you done to alienate the people who were your community? That’s a very important thing to figure out. 

Tools, links and apps mentioned:

How to reach Elisa:

Website: www.elisaCP.com

Twitter: @ElisaC

Instagram: @elisacp

Take Action

  1. Join the How I Built This Community
  2. Buy Elisa’s book
  3. Pick an issue that most touches you and be a little braver and integrate civic participation into your brand

How to reach Kami:

If you’d like to learn more about Kami Huyse, visit her website at www.zoeticamedia.com. You can contact her by email at kami@zoeticamedia.com or tweet to @kamichat.

How to reach Madalyn:

If you’d like to learn more about Madalyn Sklar, visit her website at www.madalynsklar.com. You can contact her by email at madalyn@madalynsklar.com or tweet to @MadalynSklar.

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