Tech entrepreneurs may seem like the Star Trek flight crew, venturing into unexplored territories with only their wits and insider knowledge of cutting-edge technology to protect them from the unknown dangers that abound. But, the truth is, it's not necessary to be super tech-savvy to launch an Internet venture. You just need someone on your team--who you’d trust with your life--who's a techie. Your Spock, if you will. Gina Bianchini, co-founder of the social networking service provider NING, ought to know.
In the case of her second Internet start-up, NING, which Bianchini launched with partner Marc Andreessen (the co-founder of Netscape) in 2007, her lack of deep technical expertise was actually her source of inspiration. She wanted a custom-designed social networking site, like her engineer friends had built for themselves. She envisioned the software equivalent of Home Depot, where users could find everything they'd need to build their own social Web sites and social networks without any special knowledge required.
The partners had a little seed money to get started, as well as a crack team of engineers. The company has taken off from there. NING now has 90 employees and hosts roughly 430,000 social networks, with about 2,000 new networks added every day.
What we learned from Gina: "The only thing you can really do on some level is build something that you think is useful to you and hope that it’s useful to other people."
Simple Is Better
"The idea behind NING was really simple. Both my co-founder and I were really intrigued and passionate about all of the things that were happening in terms of social media back in 2003-2004. We came at it with the approach of, well, why don’t we build it out as a platform and give people the freedom and opportunity to create their own social networks?"
I Want That
"I was looking around at all of the things that developer friends of mine could do, and I'm not a developer, and I was like, well, I want to actually be able to say, 'I want this feature but not that feature.' The option and the freedom to customize themes, and choose different things ourselves, was something that was really important."
Build It (for Yourself) and They Will Come
"In terms of knowing it was a need [that wasn't being met], we kind of built it for ourselves. So on some level, the product that we have out there today--your own social network for anything—was, in part, what our small team of people wanted for ourselves. We sort of took it from there.”
"This is my second start-up. But I'm not a serial entrepreneur. The first start-up was a company that we ended up selling for a very modest amount to Dentsu, which is a large Japanese advertising agency, and it's how I actually met Marc Andreessen, and then we started NING together. I'm so passionate about what we're doing with NING that, when you hear people talk about moving on to the next idea, it just doesn’t apply to me. I don't have any more good ideas. This is it."
Finding the One: Is This Idea Launch-Worthy?
"I think that it really depends on the scale and scope. So, what is it? Is it a consulting business? Is it a product business? Is it a business that requires a lot of capital, or a little bit of capital, or that you can work on with no capital? It depends on what you're trying to do, and how you're trying to do it. I think the most important thing is [to ask yourself] if this is something that you think about, but you don't think about it as a job. I think that's the biggest thing. It's really, really challenging to start any kind of business when you're looking at it as a job.”
Do It on the Cheap
"The great thing about the Internet today is that there are so many ways to get up and running with businesses for a very, very modest amount of money, and with, quite candidly, very little technical ability as well. I mean, that's one of the things that I think NING is very cool for, is the fact that for $19.95 a month, you can run your own ads, or do with it what you like, and it's your brand. It's your choice. It's certainly a low-cost, low-risk way of getting up and running with your own thing, compared to building a technology product from scratch and needing to hire 25 engineers."
"I don’t think there's any way that you can create a technology business without an incredibly strong engineer. I am so fortunate that I have very, very strong engineering leaders, and people who can vet things that I can't, or see things that I can't. There's no replacement for that."
It's a Lonely Road
"When you're sitting there by yourself, or with your co-founder, and it's just you guys, it is not nearly the most fun part of the job. We're three-and-a-half years into this, and we're a team of 90 people, and we have a product that people really seem to like a lot. And we're humbled by that. That's fun. But when you're sitting there, and it's just an idea, it at times can be very lonely. The highs are really high, but the lows are really low, in part because it's still so much in one's head and in one's thoughts, as opposed to something that's been acted upon at that point."
Social Networking for Entrepreneurs 101
"The number one things that make social networks successful--and separate the powerful from the dead-on-arrival social networks--are authenticity and passion. It's really amazing to me. The things that people have authentic passion for are not the things that you necessarily would expect. It really just blows my mind most of the time, in terms of the things that are working, and the things that aren't working that you'd expect would be working. It all comes down to one individual who has a passion for something and is out there sharing that passion with the world."
No-Nos Make for No-Gos
“Don’t fake it. People aren’t stupid. Don’t think about them as being stupid. I think that’s always a huge mistake, especially online, and especially in the context of a two-way conversation. You cannot assume the people that you’re speaking with are idiots.”
Make Use of Your Users
"I think the best ideas we've seen are coming from the people who are passionately using NING today. And, you know what, there's a lot of things that I may not agree with, but they're argued very intelligently, and the points are made in such a way that I'm just like, man, we're better because we're having an open conversation with the people who are using our product and service. The Internet is two-way. You're having a conversation with people, and they're going to tell you some very, very smart things."
Learn to Feed on Your Feedback
"I think you have to listen, and you have to be very respectful of the feedback people are giving you. But it's also not necessarily a good idea to take your business into places and spots that may not make sense for you."
Work Smarter to Have a Life
"I got married in December, and I have an incredibly wonderful husband who is very supportive and also works pretty hard himself. I have not seen, amongst other entrepreneurs, a way to do this kind of thing and have other priorities and other things pulling at them. I think it's very challenging from that perspective. Something has got to give if you want to start a successful company, in my opinion. So my strategy has been to really reduce and edit my life in such a way that I maximize the amount of time that I work and don't feel guilty about it."
Whether you're super tech-savvy or a Web beginner, Gina Bianchini is proof that technology can take your business to the top. Join the Ladies Who Launch Women in Technology group to get in on the action.
This iMag content has been provided by Ladies Who Launch, the first company to define entrepreneurship as a lifestyle choice and connect women online and in person to foster creativity, community, and support. Women are launching businesses at twice the rate of men, and they are doing it primarily for lifestyle reasons--they want more freedom, flexibility, and control over their lives. And where is the place women go to find opportunities and resources when they decide to launch? Ladies Who Launch, the ultimate source for tools, tips, resources and connections for entrepreneurs and small business owners.
This Featured Lady was profiled by Sarah Tomlinson, a freelance writer in Los Angeles.