Ning Co-Founder Gina Bianchini Talks Startups, Lessons Learned, and the Future of Social Media

Women in Technology, Gina Bianchini
When it comes to women in technology, Gina Bianchini is among the most respected in the field and someone I greatly admire. I met Gina in New York last fall. You know when you meet someone you really admire and they kind of let you down because they aren’t who you thought they would be? That wasn’t the case with Gina; in fact, it was the opposite. She was even more awesome than I expected!

Gina is the co-founder of Ning, the largest social platform for interests and passions in the world today. She ran the company as CEO from its inception to March 2010. On the day she left, Ning had 2.3 million Ning Networks created, 300,000 monthly active Ning Networks, 46 million registered users and touched 90 million unique people per month. She is currently working on a new company that is baking in Palo Alto as we speak and I had a chance to speak with her about women in technology, start-up lessons, the future of social media, and what she’s working on next.

Women in Technology

Natalie MacNeil: Gina, a lot of women look to you as a trailblazer for women in technology. Is that something you aspired to be when you co-founded Ning?

Gina Bianchini: I want to build amazing products that millions of people use in their daily lives. I don’t think we’ve ever been at a more pivotal point in being able to create software that truly matters to people around the world. I want to create. I want to build. I want to look at the things I’ve done and know that I’ve tackled them to the very best of my ability. That’s my aspiration. I don’t possess a lack of big thinking. If it encourages anyone to follow their dreams, then right on.

NM: As someone who has raised a significant amount of venture capital funding in a world where women get about 4% of money invested by VCs, what advice do you have for women wanting VC funding?

GB: Relentlessly surround yourself with successful people – especially successful entrepreneurs – and learn as much as you can before diving into it on your own. Be on an early team and work extremely hard. You’ll learn more this way than in any other context and meet the people who can help you the most when you are ready to do it on your own.

Then, when you do it on your own, build the absolute best product you can. Seriously, maniacally focus on the product and the totally obvious benefits to the people using it. Then tap those relationships with the aforementioned successful people to make it a reality, from financing to your early team, distribution, and a wide support network of people who simply want to see you succeed. All of these are important not only to your ultimate success but your sanity in the process.

Start-ups are really hard. There are a ton of ups and downs. It’s hard work and even then there is no guarantee that you’ll be successful. However, there are definitely ways to make this harder or easier on yourself. I recommend gravitating towards the easier ways first and building your foundation in entrepreneurship from there.

The Future of Social Media

NM: What is the future of social media?

GB: I think we’re at this interesting point in social technologies where people are OD’ing on friends. You pretty much have a met human need around “belonging” with Facebook and Twitter and the one million websites drafting behind them for social features. However, what we know though about the hierarchy of needs is that when people feel like they belong, the next level up is answering the question of what makes a human being feel unique, interesting, and special.

I believe that the future of social media over the next five years will be about social software that meets our human need for significance. That and the fact that we will see a massive amount of spending within social technologies and a fundamental definitional shift of what advertising means. Beyond that, it just another interesting day at the office…

Startup Lessons

NM: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from co-founding Ning?

Gina Bianchini on the cover of Fast CompanyGB: Where to start! Seriously, I’ve learned hundreds if not thousands of lessons over the past 10 years of being in the start-up ring. Many of the lessons are obvious. Many I’ve learned a second and third time. Some I’m still learning. The top five are probably the following:

  1. Surround yourself with people who share your same values, goals, and definitions of quality. This doesn’t mean hire people who are just like you. Seek creative tension and different points of view. Just make sure that you share the same fundamental values at your core.
  2. Invest in relationships with people who operate with integrity and do what they say they are going to do. If they are a genius too, fantastic. But never prioritize genius over integrity.
  3. Trust your gut. If your gut is saying one thing but your head is trying to rationalize it, you’re going to be cleaning up that mistake later. For example, take whatever you’re seeing in an interview or meeting with someone you’ve just met and multiply it by 10x. If you can still imagine working with them, great. If not, trust your gut.
  4. It’s just as hard to do a start-up around a small idea as it is to do something truly innovative and big. I prefer to swing big, but it means that you’ll be regularly misunderstood. That part of this gets easier if you are surrounded by successful entrepreneurs and people who have gotten used to this reality.
  5. Keep your eye on the prize, namely your results. Everyone will have an opinion about your idea, team, chances of success, and everything else you do. The only thing that matters are the results you produce. Celebrate the successes and learn from your failures, but remember everything in the context of the results you produce.

NM: Can you run us through a day “in your heels” while you were getting Ning up the running?

GB: My preferred choice of footwear are Haviana flip flops, but I digress. I’m in the process of starting up something new now, so I can speak to the early days of a new company not just from the context of Ning in 2004-2005 but in building a new thing today circa 2011.

If I’m not doing at least one thing that scares me in a given day, then I know that I’m doing something wrong. Beyond that, what separates the decent entrepreneurs from the good ones is an ability to wake up in the morning and accurately figure out what is the highest and best use of any given hour in that particular day. It might mean spending time on the product, meeting a ton ‘o interesting people who also want to go and build big things, or brainstorming creative ways to launch this puppy.

In my experience, challenging oneself, possessing self-discipline, and managing one’s time wisely are the only consistent activities in any given day early in a company’s development.

NM: What’s next for you? Are there more start-ups in your future?

GB: Absolutely! I’m just currently focused on doing what it takes to get this product successfully out the door. Some might call this “stealth” but I call it “letting it bake a little.”

Want to keep up with everything this incredible woman entrepreneur is doing? Follow Gina on Twitter @ginab.

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4 thoughts on “Ning Co-Founder Gina Bianchini Talks Startups, Lessons Learned, and the Future of Social Media

  1. Great interview, Natalie! I’ve sortof, in the back of my mind, wondered what happened to Gina. Actually, all I think of when I think Ning, now, is that it went from Freemium to “everybody pays,” and I think they had disastrous results.

    I’d love to hear her take on yes/no on VC dollars. I read Jason Fried’s piece in Inc. about being profitable from day one and I love the take – it’s not about spending money (VC way) but making money (bootstrapping way). (FWIW, I did the bootstrapping thing with my first startup, and, even though the startup didn’t survive, had I taken the money from the people offering it, I would have had even worse consequences, both professionally and ethically.)

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Dave! I also did the bootstrapping thing with my first startup. I appreciated going through that bootstrapping experience because it taught me that creativity is more valuable than money. We would consider VC funding for one of the current ventures I’m part of because I do believe that some businesses benefit huge from having the funding in place to be able to implement a visionary strategic plan. At the end of the day, the investor has to feel like a really great fit and you have to have chemistry and I think that’s what Gina has with Marc Andreesen. She’s very bright and I have no doubt in my mind that she’s doing something big 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. What a fan frickin tastic interview and what a powerhouse. She’s inspired me this morning to get out and make the most of every single hour and expect nothing but greatness.

    Awesome questions Natalie and I’ve never seen such valued packed responses.

    Can’t wait to see her new tech startup and the impact it has on the world.
    Love it.

    Natalie

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