“Every single time I have ever gotten stuck on ‘this is how we do it,’ I am always wrong.”
—Gina Bianchini, Mighty Networks CEO and Founder
In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard speaks with Mighty Networks CEO and Founder Gina Bianchini about how to launch and lead a business when the future of that business is yet to be defined. Gina shares the story of how she spotted the market opportunity for Mighty Networks, built the business through experimentation and co-creation with the community, and continues to lead her team to push the boundaries of innovation. This is part one of the conversation.
Gina Bianchini has spent years building and investing in new business ventures. She co-founded early social network Ning in 2005 with Marc Andreessen and co-founded LeanIn.org with Sheryl Sandberg in 2013. Now, she’s the CEO and founder of Mighty Networks.
As technology evolved, Gina spotted the opportunity to give internet businesses and brands a platform that would meet their needs, and Mighty Networks was born. Having recently closed an $11 million Series A funding round, Mighty Networks is poised for growth in the $30 billion “experiential commerce” space.
Gina has always been passionate about creating thriving communities both online and off. The key, she says, to founding a successful business is starting with a strong mission and clear purpose. When you can crystallize that mission and connect it to a business idea, “you are, by definition, seeing a world that should exist and doesn't exist yet, and your purpose for bringing people together is to make that work, make that happen, make that world exist,” Gina says.
Now eight years old, Mighty Networks has grown and evolved considerably, and Gina has learned a lot along the way. Here are the five biggest lessons she’s learned about how to build and grow a successful business. Future founders, take these tips to heart.
Look for the need to spot the business opportunity
Creators have countless tools at their fingertips to organize online experiences, share information, and build community. But they’re often forced to spread their efforts over many different platforms, and even when they’re successful in gaining traction, it can be difficult to monetize these efforts and make a living doing what they love. Gina saw that 147 million people have over 10,000 followers on Instagram, five million WordPress sites have subscriptions turned on, and 68 million people have Facebook groups with over 20,000 members. It felt like the need was there but no one was giving these people the tools to build their businesses. The opportunity to build a platform around “experiential commerce,” enabling creators to sell experiences online, was ripe for innovation.
Find inspiration in analogous experiences
There are other tools for community building online, but Mighty Networks is different because Gina looked outside the orbit of the internet when building the key features of the platform. Instead of other online groups, she took a step back to consider “What do we do as people when we get together in a room?” In workshops or seminars, there’s often an introduction moment that kicks things off. And the host at a party is critical for connecting guests and sparking conversation. She worked with her team to recreate those human interactions through software to elicit powerful connections.
Prototype early on
“Our first two or three prototypes at Mighty Networks were totally wrong,” Gina says. While it’s hard to throw away a prototype when you’ve already raised millions and spent hours working toward one idea, it’s the surest way to save money down the line and avoid going to market with a product that doesn’t meet your customers’ needs.
“Was it fun? No,” Gina says about embracing failed prototypes. “But I knew at that moment that the mission was more important than my own ego.”
Get specific with what you’re testing, Gina says. Ask yourself “What’s the one use case we’re going to get right?” Their first prototypes at Mighty Networks were not specific enough to help with feature development. The insights began to flow when they zeroed in on things like group size. Gina’s team prototyped small groups because they saw in-person meetings thriving with fewer members. But their prototypes quickly revealed that in an online setting, “you need density when you are creating a community.”
“Your mission is the destination you’re working toward, but the path to get there may take many unexpected turns.”
Balance data with community feedback
When building a new business, you often have more questions than data points to answer them.
“Numbers are only helpful at scale,” Gina says. They can be misleading when you’re pulling from a sample size that’s too small.
In the early stages of a business, your community of users is an even better source of feedback. They can help connect the dots between what the data is telling you and what’s really happening.
Gina remembers an early moment at Mighty Networks where the data showed there was a big gap between the vision for the company and how people were actually using the product. The team talked to the community via email and live events, paid attention to questions that consistently came up, and watched how users were engaging with the tools. They found that they were building the right things, but people weren’t getting enough instruction on how to use them. If they had just followed the data, they might have made changes to the product instead of building up a better communication flow. This open feedback channel eventually led to more co-creation of features on the Mighty Networks platform—another benefit of a strong community.
Focus on why, not how
Your mission is the destination you’re working toward, but the path to get there may take many unexpected turns.
Gina admits, “Every single time I have ever gotten stuck on ‘this is how we do it,’ I am always wrong.”
You may have started out with one idea of how to bring your mission and vision into reality, but it’s likely not going to work out exactly as you had planned. Successful founders stay open to new approaches and insight from others.
“It doesn't matter where the good ideas come from,” she says. “Everybody can contribute them.”
But you have to start somewhere. Launch an initial product offering and gather feedback while you iterate. With experiential commerce at Mighty Networks, Gina says “It's a good example of where the mission is clear, the world we want to create is clear, but in how we get there, we are very open to taking multiple paths.”
As you work toward launching a business, or scaling an existing one, keep these lessons in mind.
This is part one of a two-part recap of our conversation with Gina Bianchini. Stay tuned for our next post where she talks about growing Mighty Networks by connecting the mission to daily execution and leading others through the ambiguity of scaling a mission-driven business.
Want to learn more about matching market needs with business ideas and creating a blueprint to create, capture, and deliver value? Check out our online course Designing a Business.