Neil Patel

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With creativity and tech, Gina Bianchi from California has created multimillion-dollar companies. She continues to pave the way for startups entering the market. As she continues to pave the way in the tech industry, everything Gina touches seems to turn to gold. She is bringing communities from various cultures together to learn from each other, and to provide an online platform where they can feel like they belong. Her venture, Mighty Networks has acquired funding from top-tier investors like Marie Forleo International, LionTree, Great Oaks Venture Capital, and Owl Ventures.

In this episode you will learn:

  • How the community can aid in a startup’s success
  • The best way to use consumer feedback to achieve success
  • How to co-create with your customers to create and improve your product or service
  • How to capitalize on a thriving business

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    Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400 million (see it here).

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    About Gina Bianchini:

    Gina Bianchini is the CEO & founder of Mighty Networks. Her mission at Mighty Networks is to usher in a new era of digital businesses built on the power of community.

    With a Mighty Network, a brand or creator brings their content, community, online courses, and digital subscriptions together to build a network that gets more valuable to every member with each new person who joins.

    Before Mighty Networks, Gina was the first entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz.

    Prior to A16Z, she was the CEO and co-founder of Ning, a pioneering global platform for creating niche social networks she started with Marc Andreessen in 2004.

    Under her leadership, Ning grew to ~100 million active users across 300,000 social networks led by brands and creators across subcultures, professional networks, entertainment, politics, and education. The company was sold for $150M in 2011.

    In addition to Mighty Networks, Gina serves as a board director of TEGNA (NYSE: TGNA), a $3.4 billion dollar broadcast and digital media company, and served as a board director of Scripps Networks (NASDAQ: SNI), a $14.6 billion dollar public company owner of HGTV, The Food Network, and The Travel Channel purchased by Discovery Communications in 2018.

    Gina and Mighty Networks have been featured in Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Wired, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, and The New York Times.

    She has appeared on Charlie Rose, CNBC, and CNN. She grew up in Cupertino, California, graduated with honors from Stanford University, started her career in the nascent High Technology Group at Goldman, Sachs & Co., and received her M.B.A from Stanford Business School.

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    Connect with Gina Bianchini:

    Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:

    Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. I’m very, very excited today. We have an amazing founder. I think that we’re going to be learning a lot about building, scaling, exiting, and, you name it—the full cycle. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Gina Bianchini, welcome to the show.

    Gina Bianchini: Thank you for having me. That was like one of the most excited—I thought I had high energy, but you are taking it to an 11.

    Alejandro: I love it. Gina, let’s have a little bit of a walk through memory lane. You were born there in the area, and you haven’t really moved much.

    Gina Bianchini: Yeah. I was born and raised in Silicon Valley in Cupertino, California, in the 70s and 80s when it was basically orchards, some engineers, some college students, and what was so special about that time and that place was that everyone had an interest. Everybody had a hobby. They were tinkerers. About two miles away from where I grew up was the Homebrew Computer Club, and the guys that were meeting were taking apart personal computers and putting them back together. What ultimately came out of that pub was Apple Computer. For me, in my life, my parents weren’t engineers. My father taught American history, and my mom was a jack of all trades in the best possible way. Yet, what really drove both of them were their interest, their passions, the things that they loved, not just within work but outside of work. For my father, that was restoring old cars, old Model A Fords. Then he moved up to Porsches and Mercedes, all on a teacher’s salary. My mom raised and showed guinea pigs and then rabbits. What I learned from that era and certainly what I was instilled with from a very young age—my grandparents lived around the corner from us and were the founding members, at the time, of the Lion’s Club and the Women’s Club of Cupertino called the Deira Club. My family built community, they benefited from community, and it was always something that was a key part of my childhood. The other thing for me was that my passion was, while I grew up around technology, I always had friends who, again, were tinkerers and engineers and who loved to build things and play on their computers. For me, it was an obsession with: how do people-systems work? How do social movements work? How do we go from a culture that is influenced and says smoking is sexy and glamourous to a culture that says smoking is gross? How does the world evolve? Fast-forward, I was fortunate enough to play field hockey at Stanford, and that was actually as important as going to Stanford to me, this opportunity to be an athlete and play on teams at a competitive level. For me, when I graduated from Stanford, I decided to go into business because I knew nothing about business. So I threw my resume into a position that Goldman Sachs had opened up late in their process for an analyst in their high technology group in San Francisco. That was my first job out of college. Fast-forward, I worked on some incredible IPOs and sales of companies and really started to get immersed in the technology side of Silicon Valley. And, again, I just happened to be from the area. Then in 2003, when the earliest days of social networks and user-generated content, which came to be known as Web 2.0, emerged, I had friends, and we were all in the right place at the right time. One of my close friends at the time founded LinkedIn. Another of my friends invested in Facebook. Another was interested in the early days of blogging and all of the other things that came with that really creative period. For me, what was so special about it was that I had spent the prior, at that point in time, eight years of my career in technology. When people and connecting people became the focus and function of technology, that just made sense to me. It certainly wasn’t one day and one moment, but just at that really creative, interesting, and engaged period. This was right after the dot-com bust, so people had moved away. It was viewed as not a sexy thing to do the way that it is today, but a core group of us were here in Palo Alto and in San Francisco building out of the ashes of the dot-com bust a whole new set of companies.

    Alejandro: Do you think that getting the MBA later from Stanford gave you that kind of mindset or that kind of push to go in that direction. You grew up around all these incredible amounts of innovation happening. The dot-com was happening all around you, so what was holding you from going at it in full motion into entrepreneurship? It took you some time, and you even went to Corporate America. Why did you do that?

    Gina Bianchini: That was actually the opposite. I started my career in Corporate America. Coming out of Stanford in 1994, going to Goldman Sachs was the equivalent of getting a job at Google or Facebook today.

    Alejandro: Yeah, I know. I agree.

    Gina Bianchini: I certainly have always been unapologetically ambitious. I started at Goldman Sachs in their high technology group, which was an entrepreneurial group at that time. It was five people. It was very small. It was working on the unsexy IPOs until it all changed a year into me being there. So this was 1994, 1995. Then I joined a company where I had worked on the IPO called the CKS Group. I went from banking, where you basically see a number of different companies, to working at one company to understand how acquisitions, equity investments, and new business unit development worked within a company as opposed to being on the advisory side. Then I went to business school out of the CKS Group. In my second year of business school, I was in business school during the height of the dot-com boom, so I was in business school from 1998-2000. In my second year of business, my boss from the CKS Group had moved over to a venture capital firm called Sequoia Capital—called me up and was like, “Gina, let’s go start a company.” So right out of business school, I started my first company called Harmonic Communications. It was an advertising, tracking, and measurement company that we raised money from Sequoia and Dentsu and ultimately sold it to Dentsu. It was at that point in time that the emergence of Web 2.0 social networks happened, at which point another friend of mine called me up and was like, “Gina, let’s go start a company.” It happened to me twice, which I’m super grateful for. That was when we started, which at the moment was Facebook and LinkedIn, and they were beginning to emerge. Our take on it at my company was called Ning, which was to create a programmable platform for building social networks, building social applications. That is what I did before Mighty Software, which is today Might Networks.

    Must Read: Hari Ravichandran On Building A $3.5 Billion Company And Raising $450 Million To Make The Internet Safer

    Alejandro: Yeah, your latest. In this case, when you started Ning, you had the experience of having done the IPO and exposure to what acquisitions look like. I find that people normally don’t start with understanding that it’s very important to have a clear vision of what the end goal may look like—that full cycle of building, scaling, financing, and perhaps exiting later on because, with money in, there are expectations of money out. So when you were tackling the opportunity of Ning, would you think that having had that full-cycle experience with your first company, Harmonic, did it give you more visibility or more peace of mind as you were tackling the execution?

    Gina Bianchini: I would answer that question very differently. 1) I have found in my life and my career that I’ve made the decision about the next thing I’m doing based on the people involved and what I want to learn next. I never thought about it as a grand master plan. It was like first, I needed to learn how ideas worked. I wanted to learn how to be a business person. I didn’t know how to be a business person, and when I met the people that showed up on our campus and were interviewing us out of banking and management consulting in some companies, but for the most part, the recruiters that I was talking to, I just wanted to be like them. I was like, “I’m going to learn a lot about business, and I don’t know anything about business.” At the time, Stanford didn’t have an undergraduate business program, and I was interested in the impact a business could have on culture and have on society. I was interested in it as another tool to drive action and impact. From my perspective, it was really about what was the next thing I wanted to learn? Then in the case of Harmonic, it was that I wanted to start a company. I hadn’t done that before, and I thought that was interesting. And in the case of Ning, I wanted to take all of the things I had learned in starting a venture-backed company at Harmonic and apply it to another company in another opportunity. When I started Mighty Software, now Mighty Networks, what I wanted to do was to take the things that I had learned at Ning, specifically around this customer, creators, small business owners, and entrepreneurs that are creating their own communities at their own destinations under their own brands with their own very flexible and no-code way of delivering an incredible experience for their numbers and members of their community. To me, that was what I really focused in on when I made the decision to launch my new networks.

    Alejandro: Let’s talk about that, and to close the loop, obviously, Ning—a good outcome of $150 million exit. So good stuff. Tell us about the process of incubating and really bringing to life Mighty Networks. Tell us how that came about.

    Gina Bianchini: What do we do at Mighty Networks? We are a Software as a Service platform where an entrepreneur or a brand can show up at my networks, start a free trial, put in their credit card, and have their own community, online courses, subscriptions, memberships, events, together in one place and under their own brand and instantly available on every platform: iOS, Android, desktop, and mobile web. The reason that is so important is that if you are a creator or an entrepreneur or brand, you want to create a place all your own where you can deliver everything that your members or your customers want in order to master a new topic or master something interesting or important together. That’s why we bring these different pieces together in one place. The customer of my networks is actually very much the same customer that we had at Ning, an individual, or a small team, or a company that has what we talk about as your big purpose—a motivation and a reason to bring people together in their own place, their own website, their own mobile apps with content and courses and community and events together. It’s designed fundamentally so that each and every one of those creators, entrepreneurs, and brands can have their own community that gets more valuable to every member with each new person who joins and contributes. What is that in technical speak? It is a network effect. It is a network that gets more valuable to every member with each new person who joins and contributes, and network effects have created 90% of all software value over the last 30 years. It is the thing you want to build. When I started Mighty Networks, I knew that I wanted to serve creators, entrepreneurs, and brands. I knew I wanted to build a Software as a Service platform that was available on every platform, and I knew I wanted to work with an incredible team to deliver real value for people. The way that we think about Mighty Networks, just as an aside, is what Shopify has done for eCommerce. It built what used to be a very complex stack that you had to have security and inventory and processing and all of the things. It took them eight years to bring that all together in one place, and the result has been something pretty phenomenal. We’re doing the same thing, not for physical commerce, but for digital subscriptions and memberships, bringing together in one place all of the things that a creator or entrepreneur brand would need to be able to deliver a phenomenal experience that people pay for. That’s how I got here, which is that I fell in love with our customer at Ning, and when we sold the company and when I left, I wanted to serve this customer for the rest of my career.

    Alejandro: I love it. In this case, how did you go about capitalizing the business?

    Gina Bianchini: I raised a small seed round, and that got us through the first version of the product. What was interesting is that we always assumed and wanted, again, based on our experience at Ning, where we serviced three million Ning networks, and created 300,000 that were active on a monthly basis when I left, reaching nearly 100 million people around the world. The challenge was that in the context of Ning, we thought it was an advertising business when it was a SaaS company. When I started Mighty, it was very important to me. I’m like, “We’re going to do it as a SaaS business, and it’s going to be mobile first. What was so interesting about my experience at Mighty, the first version of the product was called. Mightybell. What we found was that the initial customers for Mightybell, people who wanted it the most, weren’t creators and entrepreneurs. It was actually large companies. Our initial capitalization was with a seed round, but very quickly, we started generating significant revenue from three big companies: American Express, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Intuit, which has always been a fantastic company in terms of supporting small businesses and emerging technology like Mightybell was. We did something that was a bit unorthodox, which was that we funded the company for three-and-a-half years on these revenue deals. So we basically had a bunch of non-diluted capital based on this revenue, always with the vision and expectation that we weren’t becoming an enterprise software company. We never hired an enterprise salesforce. We never hired an enterprise account management. We used these amazing partnerships to build out the underlying infrastructure and feature set in Mightybell. And then when the last of those contracts ended, we pivoted and renamed the company and put a little bit of a fresh coat of paint on it, plus offered new plans at the lower end of the market. We were able to very quickly almost come out of nowhere and start serving creators and entrepreneurs. By having and choosing a model that had lots more customers that we could serve, we started learning even faster. One of my favorite examples of what we learned was after putting out Mighty Networks as a new platform for SNBs, for creators, and for individuals, almost immediately, people were like, “This is a world-class platform for communities. This is better than anything else that’s out there, but you know what would make it even better is building online courses directly into the platform so that I don’t have to go use a separate course platform in addition to having a community.” We were taken by surprise with that. We didn’t think that was a thing, and we had never heard of these companies that our creators were talking about. So we did some research, and the first phase that we tried was to integrate with those platforms and make it easy for somebody to go back and forth. What customers told us was, “Yeah, that’s fine, but, no. We want it actually built-in because there’s no reason to have courses separate from the community or the community separate from the courses.” So we did that and saw great success. Then the same customers and new customers as they were showing up on the platform were like, “This is so great! This is the way that I want to charge for these courses or this community. I want to be able to sell a membership that’s bundled with a course. I want to be able to sell a course that was bundled with a membership. I want to be able to choose to have a membership, and then within that membership, I want to be able to add courses into that. All of these different combinations we then launched with our payments product, which is a feature integrated into the platform, and we saw more success. Then we launched the second version of our courses and community together in one place, and it just took off. Mighty Networks is a story of continued iteration, and I really think about it as we are co-creating with our customers, with those creators, and with those entrepreneurs and brands in ways that are invigorating and energizing and just simply so much fun.

    Alejandro: That’s amazing, and I believe that you recently closed your Series B, as well, this year. Is that right?

    Gina Bianchini: We did. In April, we announced a $50 million Series B led by Owl Ventures, which is the largest EdTech fund in the world. What was fun about that was while we are not exclusively about education technology, the communities that are being created by hosts, as we call our creators and entrepreneurs and brands because after a while, even though I’ve done a pretty good job of saying three things instead of one thing, it’s just easier to say with three. [Laughter] Our hosts really run the full spectrum of larger companies and well-known brands from TED to BurningMan to Anheuser-Busch to amazing creators like Sophia Amoruso or Yoga with Adriene or Peter Diamandis. We see very large, but the other thing that’s been wonderful, and I think what our investors who joined us in the Series B really saw was, we’re also probably one of the most successful platforms for people who are starting from scratch. Seventy-six percent of the folks who start Mighty Networks and offer paid plans, whether that’s a course or whether that is a membership, successfully sell those plans in their Mighty Network. That is an extraordinarily high number. We see some of the most successful—you can create a sustained and scalable Mighty Network that runs itself with roughly 30 people. It’s a very different model and a different approach than the social media expectations of—you have to go build a massive following, a massive audience. At Mighty Network, you simply don’t have to do that in order to be successful. For many of our hosts, many of our customers, by starting first with a community that is getting more valuable to every member with each new person who joins and contributes, what they’re actually finding is that it is creating a foundation where they can see more revenue faster, more success faster, and allows them to grow faster because they’re starting with the strongest foundation possible.

    Alejandro: That’s amazing. Gina, imagine you go to sleep tonight.

    Gina Bianchini: I don’t even have to imagine it. I am going to go to sleep tonight at some point.

    Alejandro: But imagine that you wake up five years later, and you wake up in a world where the vision of Mighty Networks is fully realized. What does that world look like?

    Gina Bianchini: Fundamentally, it is a more interesting, it is a more creative, it is a more vivid, it is a more fulfilling world. Specifically, because we are living and operating in a world where there are millions of different communities that have their own cultures, have their own look and feel, and have their own features that they’re not limited by one feed to rule them all, which has been the definition of social media for the last decade. The next decade is going to be about freedom and creativity and also an evolution and innovation in the software that is going to make it even easier for a new member to show up to a new community and instantly connect to the most relevant members in that community—instantly understand what that new culture is that they joined—just be inundated with welcome messages and feelings that make them instantly feel like they belong. And they look around, and there are other members in that community that they want to get to know, that as those members are reflected back on themselves, they feel like not only do they belong, but they have meaning and purpose on a journey to master something interesting or important together. That’s just simply not what social media will ever get us, but individual and unique communities that are built around interest and passions and goals absolutely will.

    Alejandro: Gina, I love that. There’s nothing like the sense of belonging, and the sense of community is, ultimately, what contributes to having joy in our lives. So I can totally see that. Now, with the unbelievable journey that you’ve had as an entrepreneur building and scaling, imagine I put you into a time machine, and I take you back in time. I take you back to the moment when you were thinking about starting something. Maybe that moment where you received that call from your friend that was asking you to go at it on that first company on Harmonics. But imagine you have the opportunity of having a chat with your younger Gina, and you’re able to bring all of your knowledge, the lessons, the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything that you’ve encountered in this journey, and you’re able to give that younger Gina one piece of advice before launching a company. What would that be and why, given what you know now?

    Gina Bianchini: I love that question. The answer is actually very easy: don’t try to do it alone. The community, the relationships, making sure that I had even more diverse voices and people that I trusted around me so that I could problem-solve with not just one or two people, but I could problem-solve with ten people with different perspectives. I think that would have made a big difference in speed to success, the joy of success, and how I certainly feel with the beginning and founding of Mighty Networks. For me, it was very much about making sure that I immersed myself in a community of not just fellow entrepreneurs, but people that like me and love me for who I was as a person, not what I did or what I do and that I have a set of people that I can be myself with and be real with about the things that scare me, the things that I’m excited about, and sometimes, it actually has to be outside of your company because as a leader and as an entrepreneur, it’s absolutely okay to say, “I don’t know.” But, at the same time, having a strong point of view—they say that leadership is lonely for a reason. It is a cliche because it is true. I think that the moments and the worst decisions that I made were because I let myself get too lonely and get too isolated. And I have not made that mistake in a very long time, and I’m proud of that.

    Alejandro: That’s very profound, Gina, and as the saying goes, you can go faster when you go alone, but you can go farther when you go together. So, absolutely right. Gina, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

    Gina Bianchini: I run our Mighty community, which is just [30:37]. Or, while I don’t tweet as much as I would like to, I am at Twitter @ginab. I was early enough on Twitter that I got ginab.

    Alejandro: I love it. Gina, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

    Gina Bianchini: Thank you for having me.

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