Newsrooms made me a better entrepreneur: Of BlogHer Inc. and building movements

Arm your movement with data. Refuse to profit from hate and harrassment #FTW. Radical inclusivity is an enterprise superpower. Storytelling has a kernel code. And yes, you must kill your darlings as CEO. More below…

When I originally had the idea for a conference to answer the question “Where are the women who blog?” I was an experienced journalist and an inexperienced single parent who fell in love with code as printing press (hat-tip: Jay Rosen).

I didn’t expect to start a company. I also didn’t anticipate that newsrooms had prepared me to be an entrepreneur. For the past 11 years, I’ve been one of three co-founders as well as CEO of BlogHer Inc. After our first 2005 conference for bloggers accidentally made money, Elisa Camahort Page, Jory Des Jardins and I formed a company to serve the publishing needs of bloggers who blew our minds — in sheer reach and beautiful quality.

Turning an idea into a company isn’t new in Silicon Valley. But BlogHer’s ability to reach 100+ million people a month via 3,000 blogs and 17,000 social influencer profiles by women, based on an open-source technology platform (Drupal) we customized to prove the power of women as content creators and social conversationalists? That was new. Hence our delightful merger and acquisition by SheKnows Media and my amicable exit Dec. 31.

But I owe it to the Silicon Valley community who supported us to add the following: First, as a veteran of four media start-ups, I’ve had a terrific experience as a VC-backed entrepreneur (#choosepossibility). Second, I’ve learned that it’s possible to grow your business by doing the right thing even when some people tell you you’re wrong and can’t. So this post is my mitzvah — especially for those entrepreneurs who are working to make a difference — in health, equal pay, education, and inclusivity, be it entrepreneurship, hiring, networking, or investing, here and globally.

The short list? If I turned these insights into an animated GIF, I’d dress up as Banksy for Halloween and spray paint the word “MOVEMENT” over the word “marketing.” Everywhere. Like great investigative reporting sourced across field experts, powerful movements in social media are created with the user, not broadcast at her. I’m not talking semantics. I’m talking about the difference between arms-length messaging versus working in the trenches with the user.

There’s no faking a mission or your intention. A movement can be about anything, from software to human kindness. BlogHer’s movement was about amplifying stunning writing by women on everything from parenting to politics. Actually, I’ll add stunning commentary by women to that list, as proven during the #ObamaTownHall I moderated between President Barack Obama and members of our community.

Here’s the long version of what has worked for BlogHer in scaling a movement right and tight, every day after day, in a way that builds user trust:

Arm your movement with data.

In 2005, many were skeptical women would blog. But our data were solid: Women already were addicted to writing and reading women’s blogs of staggering scale and quality. First we used data to beat external stereotypes, second to burst our own assumptions, and ultimately to inspire our community. That’s how we paid more than $36 million to nearly 6,000 bloggers and social media creatives FY 2009–2013. Keep the data coming.

Refuse to profit from hate and harassment #FTW.

BlogHer’s policy, which I authored for our 2006 site launch, helped us train our community to lead robust, civil disagreements across blogs and social media. IMO we didn’t sacrifice any of our community’s First Amendment rights to throw down on any issue. However, we did decline to profit from hate and harassment. Our goal was a quality of conversation that one would expect from world-class content creators — one that would both raise the quality of discourse between users and command respect — from peers as well as from advertisers who would help us pay creatives. Retention and recruiting of reach and revenue accelerated. Everyone wins.

Radical inclusivity is an enterprise superpower.

We wanted to protect our mission from our own unconscious biases. We didn’t trust ourselves as our own ombudsmen — every medium was littered with failure — and we were tired of content and voices broadcast from ivory towers, publications (from print to ‘zine to sites) cast in the creators’ own images. So we adopted diversity as a core value to help us build more robust communities, content, events, products, revenue streams, teams, advisors, technologies and uses of social media. Because we didn’t succumb to investor pressure to sacrifice that value, BlogHer developed the movement and tech platform we used to attract top voices and Fortune 100 sponsors from finance to fashion, from blogs in our network to keynoters at our annual conferences.

Storytelling has a kernel code.

Whether it’s tucked into a text ad or bedazzled on a t-shirt, storytelling is how users fall in love with a movement. There’s no one way or place to tell stories humans will retell. What every shareable story needs to be is inclusive —invite your community into the telling — and accessible, so she can play with you across media types. But don’t bother without quality characters. What’s quality? Depends — see “data” above.

“Kill your darlings” and ask experts for help.

As CEO, I learned to wield my weapons and pour the tea, navigating the pressure and the worlds of team, investors and customers with no apologies and little sleep (hat-tips: Ben Horowitz, Jenny Lauck). How? Our family — having a life and, yes, children, outside the enterprise made me smarter. My gifted co-founders — now dear friends, who put fighting about product first and indulged in politics never. And my colleagues, including a kitchen cabinet of bloggers and other entrepreneur BFFs, who worked with me to constantly analyze, criticize and evolve everything about our mission-driven business model. Including me. If the newsroom taught me nothing else, it taught me this: Paint the bullseye on your own back and beg help from the toughest editor. (You all know who you are — thanks).

So — what did I miss from your experiences? How does one actually build a movement? Ah. That requires social anthropology. And another conversation altogether.

Derived from a post that originated on BlogHer.com.

Lisa Stone is an entrepreneur and journalist with 20 years of experience developing technology, content and user behavior to create digital media businesses via storytelling and conversation.
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