Episode 34

#34 Focus on the Things You Have Control Over: Gina Bianchini, Founder/CEO of Mightybell

Gina Bianchini is the Founder and CEO of Mightybell, a platform that enables you to build a community and a business on your own branded mobile apps. She is also the co-founder of Sheryl Sandberg’s leanin.org, an online community dedicated to supporting women’s career development. Bianchini has been featured as one of Fortune Magazine’s “40 under 40”, Huffington Post’s 10 Technology Ultimate Game Changers, and more. Bianchini shares the lessons learned from her first couple of startups, how that experience shaped the founding and development of her current startup, Mightybell, why there’s a real need for another social network, and her takeaways for founders raising capital.

Show Notes

Mightybell

Sheryl Sandberg Launches ‘Lean In’ Organization As A Global Community For Workplace Equality by Colleen Taylor, TechCrunch

Airbnb, #BlackLivesMatter and the Secret Behind the Most Successful Movements by Gina Bianchini, LinkedIn

Building Better Social Networks: Beyond Likes, Follows and Hashtags by Gina Bianchini, LinkedIn

How’s Mightybell different from Facebook groups? Quora

Mightybell Wants To Help Businesses Build Mobile Communities by Leena Rao, Fortune

What the Seed Funding Boom Means for Raising a Series A by Josh Kopelman, First Round Capital

Glam Buys Ning for $150M, Andreessen Joins Board by Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch

Guest bios & transcripts are available on www.broadmic.com.

Bio

Gina Bianchini is an expert in community entrepreneurship. Before founding Mightybell, Gina Bianchini co-founded and led Ning, the largest social platform for communities, started in 2004. Under her leadership, Ning grew to 90 million monthly uniques and 300,000 monthly active networks across entertainment, politics, education and specialized interests.

She’s appeared on Charlie Rose, CNBC and CNN and serves on the board of directors of Scripps Networks Interactive (NYSE: SNI). She is also the co-founder of Sheryl Sandberg’s Leanin.org, where she crafted and launched Lean In Circles.

Transcript

Gina: We look at Facebook Groups as the gateway drug to a Mightybell network. If you're a brand or you have a large following, you don't get any of the data, it's Facebook's.

I am an entrepreneur.

Be inspired.

We are incredibly powerful.

Color outside the mind.

Open your mind.

Dream big.

Be bold.

Take action.

The narrative needs to change.

We can fix this, we can change this. I know we can.

Think broad.

Think like a broad.

Think broad.

Kelly: Today I'm in the studio with Gina Bianchini, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Mightybell, the dominant platform to create your own modern social network for anything in the mobile era. She's also the Co-Founder of Sheryl Sandberg's leanin.org, the online community organization dedicated to supporting women leaning in to their ambitions.

Gina has also been featured as one of Fortune Magazine's 40 Under 40, Huffington Post's 10 Technology Ultimate Game Changers, and more.

We will be discussing how Gina's experiences with her first startup, Ning, shaped her launch and development of Mightybell, why we need another social network, and her key takeaways regarding product development.

Gina, thanks so much for joining us today, it's really great to speak with you.

Gina: Thanks for having me. I'm excited.

Kelly: Yeah, we're very, very excited. You know, you've had such amazing experiences during your career. We can't wait to learn more about, you know, what you've learned and share that with our community. But first I'd love to learn a little bit more about sort of your, you know, formative years. I know that you grew up in Silicon Valley. Were you involved in the tech scene from a young age, or at least aware of what was going on there?

Gina: Well, it was hard to not be aware of what was going on in, you know, Cupertino and Silicon Valley, you know, in the '80s and...'70s and '80s, given the fact that it was such a revolution. That being said, no, you know, I was not an engineer by nature, I was not an engineer by nurture. I was really fortunate to be the daughter of a history teacher and total hustler of a mother, in terms of side projects and always having sort of a small business angle going on. And specifically the combination, and for me what was really special about my formative years was that I was always obsessed with, how do people organize? How do people create change? How have movements started and been executed in the past? How did we move from, you know, one world to another?

And what was...where I was very lucky was to have this interest in really organizational design, systems design, and be physically present for the PC revolution. And...

Kelly: So, you talk about, you know, sort of organizational design and systems. Was that something you studied in school, or, you know, how did you get involved or interested in that?

Gina: Well, I was always interested in it, you know, ever since I was a little kid. I would sit in the library and read biographies and read books about history. So, I was always interested in learning about structural change and organizational change through the stories of people who actually made it happen. And then the fact that I was in Silicon Valley actually was this really interesting combination that I certainly would have never known while I was growing up that it was going to be so important, which was I was always comfortable being around engineers. These were my friends' fathers and my classmates and people that were always really excited about building things.

So, you know, my father, in addition to being a history teacher, restored old cars. So, we had model As and model Ts and, you know, he would get them in parts and then put them together, and we were all put to work. My grandparents owned a nursery in Cupertino, which is actually how we got there.

And so, you know, from my perspective, this really interesting intersection of systems design and people, system design and technology, I was just really fortunate to be able to have those two things feel very comfortable to me from a very early age.

And then when I was in college, I studied political science really with an emphasis on how did the war on poverty happen? How did we look at and see why Head Start succeeded when other projects of the great society failed? And I was always really interested in how does political change happen, and then I was always very comfortable around technology and around engineers and people who build things.

Kelly: So, you went to Stanford, right?

Gina: Yes.

Kelly: So, you know, from your experience there, how did you feel that the oncoming, you know, sort of revolution of technology and sort of what we were promised by technological advances reflected on, you know, sort of what you were studying around political change and, you know, sort of making sure that everyone benefited from improvements and, you know, gains from technology?

Gina: It wasn't an issue when I was in college. You know, it was...you had personal computers, but you didn't have the internet. And so, you know, for me that was somewhat irrelevant. I was passionate and interested in how do systems of people exist and organizational design work? And looking at it through the lens of politics. And then, you know, I graduated from college and the internet happened. And what I saw and what I thought was so interesting was it all started to make a lot of sense.

Kelly: So, you know, you graduated, obviously stayed in Silicon Valley. For your first company, Ning, your first co-founder was Marc Andreessen. So, that's pretty exciting. How did you meet him and develop a relationship with him that led to starting a company together?

Gina: So, when I graduated from college, I actually went into investment banking. I worked at Goldman Sachs, I was a financial analyst in the high technology group in San Francisco, I spent probably eight, nine months in New York, and then I came out to San Francisco. And at this point in time it was still viewed as sort of the backwater of investment banking. You know, the IPOs were only $25 million. So like it wasn't interesting to anybody.

And then in 1995, I think it was the fall of 1995, Netscape went public, and that changed everything. And so I just...I was very fortunate to be in a situation where I was, you know, the lowest person on the totem pole, but had such exposure to different deals and different companies and different types of technology from the lens of capital. Capital raising, you know, IPOs, acquisitions, mergers, and that was a really fortunate situation.

So, one of the deals that I worked on when I was at Goldman Sachs, was a company that we took public called CKS Group. And CKS Group was started by three guys out of Apple, kind of during the wilderness years of Apple, in between when Steve Jobs left and Steve Jobs came back. And these three guys, one was the former Chief Creative Officer of Apple, and two others were executives there, created really one of the first web development and web design firms, and did some tremendous branding and graphic design work as well.

And so, CKS, we took them public at Goldman, and the CEO and CFO recruited me to come over and run acquisitions and equity investments and new business unit development when I was 20...I guess I was like 24 or 25. And so I did that for two-and-a-half years, just had an incredible, you know, experience running deals and interacting with some just fantastic people.

And then I went to business school at Stanford, and in my second year of business school at Stanford, the CEO from CKS had moved over to a venture capital firm called Sequoia Capital, and called me up, and was like, "Gina, let's start a company," and specifically a company that we called Harmonic Communications, that really did a fair amount of work in advertising, tracking, measurement, and optimization before there was AdWords and AdSense and Google was taking off.

So, we started that company in March of 2000, and as you know, April of 2000 bad things started to happen. And I met Marc Andreessen in that context when he invested in the company and joined the board. And so I knew him through the whole, you know, just dot-com bust and watched, you know, him act with integrity, his partner, Ben Horowitz act with integrity in the Loudcloud/Opsware situation, and, you know, how they grew that company.

And then in 2003-2004, we sold Harmonic to one of our partners, Dentsu, a large Japanese advertising agency, and I was really intrigued by something that was kind of going on with a number of my friends, that they were involved in around early, early social networking. At the time it was called user-generated content, and there were just all sorts of really interesting things happening.

There was this new company that, you know, a college kid had just moved out from Boston, it was in Palo Alto, a friend of mine was starting a...you know, a professional network which ultimately became, you know, respectively Facebook and LinkedIn.

And as I was kind of just in the midst of all of this stuff, you know, Marc called me up and was like, "Hey, let's start a company." And specifically, if we look at the fact that with a Facebook or a LinkedIn, there is a narrow and fixed view of what people can do with it, it looks a lot more like AOL or CompuServe or Prodigy. And what we saw was just this massive expansion of when those online services became websites and web platforms, "Let's do the same thing for social applications."

So, he and I started Ning in 2004, the first year-and-a-half was really around, you know, how do we put out a programmable platform for anybody to create their own social applications? And what became really clear to me was that there were lots of humans out there that didn't know how to do development, and that actually what might actually be a better product and one that could really, you know, deliver what people wanted from us, which was the ability to create your own social network, where you had, you know, the option of pulling in photos or videos or blogging or take those out.

And so we really made and created with Ning and Ning Networks, which we launched in February of 2007, this idea that you could drag and drop a feature set into creating your own branded social network for your specific purpose, for your specific interest, for your specific, you know, tribe of people. And when we launched Ning Networks in February of 2007, you know, we just saw it take off overnight. We had something like...I think it was like...something like 30,000 of these Ning networks created in 10 weeks. And you know, the uses and purposes of them, you know, really ran the gamut from entertainment to education and teachers not only using a Ning network in their classroom, but also connecting really for the first time online with other English teachers, or other STEM teachers. And that was really where we just started to see a tremendous amount of magic, and that's what we did.

Kelly: Very cool. So, you obviously raised a lot of money for Ning, and I'm sure as a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, this was probably not totally new to you. So, can you tell us about what that experience was like?

Gina: Yeah. I mean, I think there are a lot of really good things about raising a lot of money, and actually I think some downsides to it that are not totally obvious. So...or maybe they are to everybody except, you know, the people that live in the bubble of Silicon Valley. So, you know, there's...

Kelly: No, I agree, they're definitely not obvious, so we'd love to hear your take on it.

Gina: Yeah. So, you know, on one hand what's really exciting is that when you raise money, you can continue to build on the momentum that you have when you achieve product market fit. And with Ning Networks, we achieved product market fit. And that was fantastic. And you know, the fact of the matter is we were able to put together a world class team at Ning, with, you know, engineers and engineering leaders who have gone on to...you know, to run engineering organizations at pretty much every large technology company in Silicon Valley and a number of startups too. So, that was actually really exciting.

I think the team we were able to pull together, the really strong networks that were built, and what we learned about building these types of niche networks or, you know, we think and call them and think about them today at Mightybell in terms of identity networks or networks that are built around a strong identity or a strong interest. The downside is that sometimes if you raise enough money, you can end up betting on a business model that comes much later, versus the business model staring you in the face. And in the case of Ning, we had our Ning network creators who were willing to pay us a lot of money for, you know, flexibility and the platform and additional options. And we didn't offer anything more than a subscription that you could pay up to...I think was like $36 a month.

And instead, by raising money on the promise of an advertising business model, and having so much capital that we were like, "Oh, we'll worry about that in a year," we didn't actually take full advantage of the opportunity that was in front of us around subscriptions, you know, while we were building the momentum that we were building.

And so, you know, one of the key lessons, you know, I took away from that experience, is that when looking at interest-based or identity-based networks, while there is opportunities for sponsorships, it's really...that is the opportunity for the host of these networks, as opposed to the platform which is really...it should be a SaaS business model and a subscription business model.

Kelly: So, it sounds a bit like, you know, the...one of the challenges of raising a lot of money is that you're essentially not necessarily forced to kind of abide by a lean startup methodology, right? Like you can kind of afford to let things go in an unsustainable direction for a while?

Gina: I think that's too simplistic, and you know, and certainly we were running experiments and we were doing a lot that was sustainable, but I think we actually had an opportunity to be much more focused and crisper earlier, and that's certainly something that, you know, I'm accountable for.

Kelly: Well, do you think that most founders are truly prepared to handle the expectations that come with raising hundreds of millions of dollars today, or do you think that there are a lot of things that they aren't aware of?

Gina: I don't know, I think it depends on the founder. You know, I think generally speaking, technology founders today are significantly more sophisticated than we were 10 years ago. And really the reason for that is for all of the reasons why we exist at Mightybell, to enable people to join and participate in networks of like-minded professionals and similar professionals, as well as, you know, other people who share the same identity or interest. Because when you actually bring people together who are doing the same thing and it's a safe environment to share what they're doing, how they're doing it, you're gonna get better faster as an entire...you know, as an entire ecosystem. And that's actually what's happened in the last 10 years because of networks like...you know, for example First Round Capital and what they've done, you know, with not only their online community for founders and executives, but also the real world events that they put together.

And you see, especially with the seed capital dynamics where it's a lot more companies in portfolios, you're moving from, you know, a fund having 10 companies in their portfolio or 20 companies in their portfolio, to firms that have hundreds of companies in their portfolio.

So, I actually think there's a lot of learning that's happened faster because of this dynamic, and you know, commercial for Mightybell. This is why these professional networks around shared identity or interest are so valuable is because it allows everybody to make better, more well-informed decisions about their practice, about their companies, about what they're doing and how they're doing it.

So, I think people are much more prepared today to raise a lot of money, and there's a lot more infrastructure related to it than there was 10 years ago, and you know, that's a perfectly fine thing.

Kelly: Well, you know, I noticed too that you raised a lot less capital for Mightybell. You know, what were some of the factors that drove that decision?

Gina: You know, fundamentally we wanna build a fantastic product, we want to, you know, make our customers and their members incredibly happy, and we wanna build a real business. So, you know, we use those principles first and foremost in driving our...you know, our capital strategy. And to date we've been incredibly fortunate to have large partners where we have together created networks that are incredibly valuable. Like OWN IT with Intuit and with QuickBooks, a network of over 100,000 small business owners and self-employed professionals that are, you know, coming together to make better, more well-informed decisions based on the experiences and stories of their peers. And so, you know, from our perspective, it's about continuing to follow, what is the right thing to do in the business at this moment?

So certainly, you know, I'm not of the school that says, you know, we'll never raise...you know, I'll never raise lots of money again, or I only wanna, you know, raise X amount of money. But it's more about, how do we build a business and a platform that supports a strong and pervasive category of what we believe is really the next generation of what people wanna do together when 3 billion people are connected to the same internet with a supercomputer in their pocket all over their world, which is, come together with people who share an identity or interest, that they may or may not know each other already, but really participate in networks that they can download and instantly connect to members who are like them, members who are near them, members who care about the same topics that they do, and who, you know, can go deeper in smaller groups all within the same network. And that is, for us, what really matters.

And you know, the capital strategy is secondary to ensuring that we deliver and build a new category of identity networks that take full advantage of the technology advancements that we've made over the last five years, and we're, you know, one of the few companies that are doing that.

Kelly: So, you know, it would be great to sort of understand, you know, just very succinctly, the primary problem that you're solving with Mightybell, and you know, any challenges that have come from new competitors that have entered the market recently.

Gina: So, we don't have new competitors who have entered the market recently. You know, our customers come to us actually for a really simple reason. They want to...they're a brand or they are an influencer or an entrepreneur who wants to bring a set of people together around shared identity or a shared interest, and they wanna do it because one, they wanna drive deeper engagement and longer retention amongst their fans and followers, they wanna create new revenue streams or new businesses with member subscriptions, or more opportunities for expanding sponsorships, and/or they want to drive new insights and new data that comes from creating an identity network that allows people who share an identity or interest to have conversations, to build real relationships, and to come back regularly around these new relationships that emerge from them having a lot in common.

Kelly: So, do you think Facebook Groups at all, you know, might be a substitute for this product?

Gina: So, we look at Facebook Groups as the gateway drug to a Mightybell network. So, specifically on a Facebook group, if you have...if you're a brand or you have a large following, you don't get any of the data. You don't get any of the email addresses, you don't actually have a way to drive member subscriptions or sponsorships within a Facebook group, it's Facebook's. And it's...you know, I always sort of look at it and say, sure, if you want your group that you're really investing in so that you can drive deeper, longer engagement amongst your fans and followers, where you get none of the data, you have none of the information that would allow you to monetize that, and then on top of it that you want Facebook to be marketing to those people when they're in that group, other competitive groups, just isn't actually a very good solution.

So, a Mightybell network is about creating a dedicated space for your fans and followers to meet and build relationships with each other in your own native apps, in your own website, in your own...under your own domain name, and to drive engagement and retention and really monetization such that you have all of the data, you have all of the access to analytics, you can see what they're doing, you can see what's working, you can see what's not working.

And so it's really just a, you know, a more powerful, more robust and more complete solution than anything you can get on other people's platforms.

Kelly: That's great. Yeah, no, I can definitely see the need for that.

You know, the other thing I noticed is that you've had co-founders for your companies. Do you think that having a co-founder is essential?

Gina: I mean, it depends. I mean, you know, I'm really fortunate in the sense that as a business person and as a product person, I always wanna partner with a really strong technologist, and in partnering with a really strong technologist, you know, the quality of our engineering team here at Mightybell is awesome. And so...and certainly that was true at Ning as well. So, I'm always going to look at the...you know, the opportunity to build a stronger team across more functions goes up significantly when you have a co-founder with complementary skills.

I think the mistake I see with non-technical people and, you know, when for example three friends create a business out of business school, is that they end up having like a CEO...or technology business I should say, they end up having a CEO, a CFO and a head of BD. That's...you know, that's where co-founders aren't probably that effective. So, I think that kind of the classic model of a CTO and a CEO in strong partnership is something that is just...you know, if you're building a technology platform, it's just a good idea.

Kelly: Okay, great. So, Gina, we're so excited to invite you to participate in our pay it forward section, where we're gonna devote 60 seconds to making our listeners smarter. So, this is like rapid fire answers. Okay?

Gina: Okay.

Kelly: So, what are your primary sources of information? These can be blogs, apps, news, shows, podcasts.

Gina: I love reading books. So, biographies. If I have to learn something, I learn it by finding someone's biography that I wanna read, and then I read that.

Kelly: Great. What book are you reading right now?

Gina: Right now I just finished reading a book called "Cooked," which is about...Michael Pollan is the author and he wrote about basically how he cooks and how he learned to cook with fire, with water, with air, and with earth. It was a great way of kind of getting a window into whether or not I'm gonna start cooking again.

Kelly: Well, then I recommend you watch the Netflix documentary as well. Right? That was also really good.

Gina: I did. I did. So, I read the book this weekend and then I watched the documentary. It was great.

Kelly: It was great. He's a great guy.

So, do you have any rituals or habits that you swear by?

Gina: Every morning when I get up, I love getting up early and sitting down with a blank piece of white, you know, printer paper, and just write out everything on my mind, plan for the day, but less about, you know, a specific to-do list, and more just ideas that I woke up with, and from that I always try to spend at least five minutes with what I'm grateful for.

Kelly: Who are three entrepreneurs or leaders that you admire?

Gina: Number one, Michael Bloomberg. I just think he's awesome. And I think, you know, what he's done has just been fascinating. I'm super impressed with Dee Terico [SP], who's the Founder and CEO of House. I think what she's done and how she's navigated, you know, Silicon Valley and what she does and how she does it is really impressive. And I would say my third kind of person that I've learned the most from is Sheryl. I think what she does and how she conducts herself is really a standard and a bar that I certainly aspire to.

Kelly: What's the best advice you've ever received?

Gina: Focus on the inputs. And what I mean by that is, focus on the things that you have...I have control over, and the things that I can directly impact, and then let the outcome, you know, happen. And be okay with the outcome as long as I can look at what I did, and look myself in the mirror and say, did I do everything in my power to make this successful? And when I've done that, you know, I can let go of whether it's a good outcome or a bad outcome.

Kelly: Are there any myths that you'd like to dispel for our listeners?

Gina: I think that one of the...I'm not sure if it's a myth, but I would observe one thing that is consistent across the entrepreneurs that I know who are women, is that they don't care. And what I mean by that is they are...they tend to be women who have such a strength of mission and vision that they actually aren't always great at the traditional, you know, female traits of, you know, being overly nice and overly sensitive and, you know, just...you know, I sort of think about it as they don't care. They come across like they don't care, and obviously they care a lot, but I think it's really interesting that, you know, the entrepreneurs I know who are women doing what we do, I almost feel like sometimes I care too much, relative to what they've been able to accomplish by caring less.

Kelly: Yeah, I hear you. What words of advice would you give to listeners about taking risks and closing the confidence gap?

Gina: Starting a company is incredibly hard. It's economically irrational. Take...you know, not only is it taking a big risk, but it's like, you know, you're working on it through like the struggle for...you know, anywhere from 3 to 7 to 10 years. So, I encourage anybody who's thinking about starting a company as this like glamorous job, to not do that, and actually look at it as like, are you so passionate about this idea, this mission, that you are willing to slog it out for 10 years? And if you're not, there are a lot easier ways to make money and have a life and meet cool people and, you know, do the things that you wanna do. So, I look at it and really sort of again, ask the question, you know, is this idea...like could you accomplish the same thing in any other capacity? And if you can, you should go do that.

Kelly: That's great advice. And the last pay it forward comment, what does think broad mean to you?

Gina: You know, the first thing that kind of pops into my mind is look for lots of inputs. Like I actually think it's super important, and all of the really, really smart people that I've known and have had the opportunity to work closely with, they are avid readers, they are avid consumers of media, they are always looking for lots of different perspectives and different points of view, so can read something, you know, super academic and, you know, abstract and then watch, you know, the Kardashians. And I think that those combinations of highbrow/lowbrow, combinations of pop culture and academic structural-type topics, it's when you allow yourself to suck up all of those different inputs, that you can actually really drive insights in a compelling way.

Kelly: That's great. Well, Gina, thank you so much for joining us today, it was really enlightening to learn more about your journey, and I know that our audience really appreciates all of the wonderful advice you've shared with them.

Gina: Great. Thanks. Bye.

Kelly: Thank you for listening to BroadMic. Find us on Facebook, or you can join the community and participate in the conversation around today's episode. You can also let us know what you think about the show or suggest future guests and topics. We want your feedback.

BroadMic is produced by Christy Mirabal, with editing by John Marshall Media. Our Executive Producer is Sara Weinheimer. Think broad.

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