From Group Chat to Group Slack: An Interview with No Plans, Inc. CEO, Alisha Ramos
2020 was quite the year but the Internet played a huge role in fostering online communities when it was unsafe to gather offline. Slack groups and Discord chats were on the rise as people craved interaction with those who shared similar interests. Alisha Ramos is well versed in fostering community online. As a self -dubbed “online person,” she started a newsletter, Girls’ Night In, as a celebration of staying in. With the world forced to shut in due to COVID-19, Ramos and her team launched The Lounge, an online community for avid readers of her newsletter.
In this interview, Ramos shares her tips of navigating the founder journey, the importance of building sustainable communities, and how she is staying cozy during quarantine.
What inspired you to start Girls’ Night In?
Alisha Ramos: I started the Girls’ Night In newsletter at the beginning of 2017 and it’s actually kind of funny that we’re talking about it now as we sit here waiting for election results. At that time, I was working on healthcare.gov as a designer, but once the election happened, my colleagues and I found ourselves unable to do our jobs.
I fell into this period of anxiety and a little bit of work burnout. This led me to want a new creative outlet for myself. I had always wanted to start my own company and had kind of dabbled in entrepreneurial forays in college and even circling the startup scene.
With all of this creative energy pent up, I wanted to start something but took the time to reflect on it by asking myself, what am I passionate about? What do I care about right now? At that time, I was in my late twenties and experiencing work burnout coupled with anxiety. I am also an introvert, and I got to this period of life where I was no longer going out and staying in, exuding strong hermit energy.
One thing that I kept coming back to was that I loved hosting a girl’s night in with friends. So that’s how it started. The original idea was to build out products for everything you might need for a perfect night in, but I didn’t have money to do that. Instead, I leaned on what I did know, which was writing. I know how to send out a newsletter. Prior to the GNI newsletter, I actually had written a newsletter called “mixed feelings” about multiracial identity.
I combined all my passions into one project and got cracking. I wrote the very first issue as if I was writing to my best friends and catching them up on what I was up to. I would include things like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing during the night, here’s how I feel about window shopping, these are some Dutch ovens I’m looking at, etc.” This went to about 300 people and the word just kept spreading from there. A lot of my friends kept saying that the newsletter was so needed at a time when there was so much anxiety.
Four years later, we are still going with our newsletter that reaches nearly 200,000 people each week, along with our membership community, The Lounge, which now has over 1,500 members, and our sibling e-commerce brand, Whiled.
That’s fascinating. You now have three brands under your belt, so what was behind the process of slowly expanding Girls’ Night In into The Lounge and now to No Plans, Inc.
Alisha: I think it all kind of just comes back to me as a founder, what I cared about, what I am passionate about, and what I wanted to put my energy towards as I grew my company. I just couldn’t get out of my head the original vision of wanting to create tangible products that people could enjoy in their homes. I think the road to getting there was different. It took a very organic path, whereas I started writing the newsletter and as the readership grew, I think that was a really big turning point for me because I realized that while it wasn’t my original vision, something was clearly sticking and growing, so let’s keep at it.
As our readership grew, out of it came a community that I appreciated so much. I’m definitely a child of the internet. As a kid, I would code websites for myself, be active on LiveJournal, and meet friends on the internet. Part of my DNA loves using the internet to bring people closer together and to build cozy communities. This idea of connecting on the Internet combined with our readers yearning to meet other subscribers brought about our online community, The Lounge.
In the “before times,”we had in-person book clubs that happened organically across ten cities in the U.S. and Canada but the next question was how can we make this in-person community accessible to other cities. We had members from Tennessee to Portugal who wanted to be part of this community and now they can because of The Lounge. This feels like a gift to our readership community and I’ve loved seeing the bonds that happen in our Slack community and the gatherings that have been curated.
Now that we have Whiled, our commerce arm of the business, it’s interesting that it took a while to get to my final vision but I couldn’t think of any other pathway that would have gotten us there. I think it would’ve felt disingenuous because I think everything we try to do on the team is listening to our community, understand what they need, and make sure that everything we’re doing feels authentic and true to ourselves. It may sound corny but it is just how I’ve been leading and growing the company.
Do you think scaling this way is just a result of your personality as a founder or is it an embodiment of the ethos that you’re building around No Plans?
Alisha: I think the interesting thing about my founder journey is that there have been points in this process where I really had to take a step back and ask myself if I am actually living the values that my company is about. These are, of course taking care of yourself, relaxing, recharging, and building community.
Towards the beginning stages, I struggled to answer that question because I was a solo founder for a little while. When you’re the only person wearing so many hats, you do end up hitting burnout. So there have been instances where I’ve been actually grateful that we have such a strong mission statement and values because I can constantly check on those and reflect on how I’m living my life as a founder.
Our mission statement has caused our team to re-examine the norms of startup culture. For instance, during quarantine, we started this ritual called Breaksgiving, where we collectively take time off to recharge. In Q3 of this year, we’ve taken about five days off which has been rejuvenating. These little things are almost at odds with startup culture that promotes this idea of on the go culture and scaling at all costs. What we’re building with No Plans is community-first and community-led so there are no shortcuts to building something great.
It takes a long time to build trust and build key relationships when it comes to community. No amount of venture capital money can build that intentionality in a short time span. Some brands might be faking it in a really good way, but I think time will tell. This is something that our brands embody. My goal as a founder is to build something that is sustainable and has longevity not something that is just around for a quick buck or two.
I think the interesting thing about my founder journey is that there have been points in this process where I really had to take a step back and ask myself if I am actually living the values that my company is about.
One thing that I enjoyed about the Lounge was how quickly you set safety guidelines and standards for your community, something that others wait to do when something terrible happens. What are some lessons or things that you believe people should be mindful of as they build communities?
Alisha: For community building, a big lesson I’ve learned is when you’re struggling with an idea or a question, ask the members of your community. By asking them what they want and truly involving them as participants and as co-creators, you will yield some of the most successful projects.
For instance, we have an edition of the Girls’ Night In newsletter for our 1,500+ members of The Lounge. It’s one of my favorite newsletters that I’ve built because we were able to pass the mic to our community. Out of this, we created our first cookbook curated by our members who are interested in food! I love it so much!
I think it’s important to build your community alongside your members. As a team, we get a lot of questions around scaling a community. Our Director of Community, Olivia Rogine, who is probably better suited to answer that question, uses this incredible analogy:
Community building is a lot like starting a fire. One person has an idea, they are essentially the kindling. A couple of other people then pass the torch of ideas on to a couple of other people, and then it spreads and spreads and spreads to create a fire. The challenging part of community building is figuring out who is willing to take on that torch. It’s also important to build out the mechanisms and empower the people in your community to take on the torch. At Girls’ Night In, We make sure to build our community alongside our Lounge Hosts, community members who host our gatherings.
We won’t pretend like we have figured everything out, but knowing who the leaders are in our community but our Lounge hosts have helped us grow this community in an impactful way.
Lastly, it’s important to think early on about the ground rules and the values of your community. One common mistake in community building is that establishing these ground rules can happen too little too late after the fact that something goes wrong. It is really important for community builders to think about this idea and think critically about who you want in the room before you open your doors to your community. Make the implicit explicit around what you will or will not tolerate.
Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, has this really funny quote about community. She says [the famous nightclub] Studio 54 worked well because it was a democracy on the dance floor but a dictatorship at the door.
She is trying to point out that you have to be intentional about who you are allowing into your community. In this day and age, exclusivity gets a bad rap when it comes to community building because everyone is striving to be inclusive. However, I think it’s important to consider exclusivity as you define who you are serving with your community. We certainly have done that at The Lounge to make it a safe space. That’s what we want it to be.
Community building is a lot like starting a fire. One person has an idea, they are essentially the kindling. Then a couple of other people pass the torch of ideas on to a couple of other people, and then it spreads and spreads and spreads to create a fire.
Are there any lessons you’ve taken from your time working in tech as an operator to your work as a founder?
Alisha: My mind immediately goes to team building and just working with great people. As a person working in tech, I had experience managing people. I think it’s one thing to be a manager and another thing to be a founder and CEO. One thing that I’m still working on and still learning is making sure that I am setting a clear vision for the company at all times. It’s important to ensure that I clarify and re-clarify the mission statement that I’ve set for the company.
Another lesson that I’ve learned as a founder is being more open to asking for help! Personally, I’m a very independent person and have always figured things out on my own. However, it’s a completely different ball game as a founder. I have actually leaned on a lot of my fellow founder friends to get me through this journey. A lot of them are on speed dial so they are a quick call or text away from a venting session.
I cannot underestimate the importance of having that founder support network. I know that’s a piece of advice that I’ve certainly heard before and I would shrug at it. Now that I’m in the thick of it, I totally understand the value of sharing your trials and triumphs with other founders. Many of us face similar challenges, so it’s super helpful to hear how they’re handling things. It’s reassuring to know that you are not alone in the journey.
The last thing I would say I’ve learned as a founder is that focus is so important. In the first couple of years of establishing Girls’ Night In, I had so many different goals that I’d set out to accomplish. When you set too many goals for yourself, you are certain not to reach all of them. As a team, we’ve tried really hard recently to come together and set quarterly goals that feel realistic. We also have a person driving that particular initiative so we hold each other accountable. It sounds very foundational but it is something that we are getting into the habit of making it part of our company planning.
What we’re building with No Plans is community-first and community-led so there are no shortcuts to building something great.
Writing is the foundation of your company considering that the Girls’ Night In newsletter was the start of your company. Do you have any tips and tricks that helped you develop your writing voice?
Alisha: At Girls’ Night In, we write the newsletter as if we were writing to friends. In that instance, it feels very natural to me because I’m constantly in a group text with my friends or emailing them suggestions.
This sounds really lame, but just start writing. I write the newsletter as a stream of consciousness of anything that’s on my mind and then I’ll just dump that into a note document.
Shortly after, I’ll just flush out the bits that feel like there’s some substance behind them. When you’re trying to write for the public and in a voice that feels like your own, it can feel like you have so much pressure to execute. So try to do something that takes the pressure off. Open up a private note pad, dump all your thoughts there, text and email out to your friends, and see what sticks. I have definitely fallen into the trap, especially with writing the GNI newsletter where I’ve caught myself falling into a very formal tone of voice and have had to check myself because it doesn’t sound like me. With practice and consistency, you will find your voice and figure out if a piece needs more of your humor and personality. Taking the pressure off and seeing what sticks makes for a great writer.
My goal as a founder is to build something that is sustainable and has longevity not something that is just around for a quick buck or two.
I always enjoy your recommendations in the Girls’ Night In newsletter so its only fair to ask what three cozy things are getting you through quarantine?
Alisha: I wouldn’t be a good founder if I didn’t plug the Whiled puzzles. We have some great ones and all the designs are made by talented artists from around the globe.
Candles are definitely a must have. Recently I’ve been really leaning into tapered candles for mood setting and vibe setting. They’re all over my home, on our coffee table and our dining table. A personal favourite is the №4 by Maison Louis Marie.
The third one is an Instant Pot. My partner and I have been whipping together some cozy soup recipes. We made a big batch of chili which pairs well with a great show on Netflix or a Nancy Meyers movie.