The Biznik Story
Biznik was created in May 2005 by Lara & Dan, five months after they were married, as a response to needs they had as entrepreneurs. Lara was a photographer. Dan was a web developer. They thought the traditional business networking options were stiff, not very helpful, and in Dan's words, "sucked." So Dan built a website and Lara started hosting events, and they slapped on the tagline, "business networking that doesn't suck."
To put this into context, Facebook was not available to the public until the following year, so you might imagine the novelty. Here was a website designed specifically for small business with social networking functionality and face-to-face events. A lot of effort went into explaining what a profile is, and how you could use the website to see who was going to show up for an event before the event started! Today that novelty is so common it's referred to as OTO (online-to-offline, doh.)
Our first event was held on May 25, 2005 under the name "BizGroup dot biz". A dozen friends showed up at 7am for a breakfast meeting. Not long after, our meetings moved to 5pm and were accompanied by cocktails. Within 3 months we realized we were on to something and we began the process of choosing a better name and forming the business around it.
On November 1, 2005 Biznik was born. (In the words of Christopher Johnson, author of The Name Inspector blog, the name Biznik is, "the holy grail of domain names: one that carries the right meaning in six letters or less. Combining biz with the radical connotations of the suffix -nik is a surprising and funny juxtaposition that gives this name real personality." (See full story.)
On the anniversary of our first meeting, Biznik had 751 members. As the membership grew, so did the request for more features. In time, Biznik added private messaging, the Biz Talk forum, group, the ability for members to add events to the calendar, and the most popular addition to date: articles. Our own search engine optimization was always important to us. But imagine our thrill the first time we Googled "business networking" and found ourselves Number 1 in the entire world, out-ranking LinkedIn, Entrepreneur.com, Meetup and BNI's website. Today, we consistently fall somewhere in the top 5 and that SEO is an extraordinary benefit tacked on to Biznik membership.
In 2007 & 2008 we applied our hand to producing a large scale event and BizJam, a 2-day "indie" business conference and after party, was born. Later, we invited nationally recognized authors to participate in the Biznik Live radio show and the Seattle Biznik Innovators Series, an live on-stage interview hosted by Warren Etheredge of The Warren Report. These series have been graced with with appearances by Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Gary Vaynerchuk, Daniel Pink, Carol Roth, and Chris Brogan, among others.
In July 2007, "v2" of the social application was complete -- a ruby on rails site, developed by app developer extraordinaire, John Adair.
Throughout those first 3 years, we worked from a home office, but we enjoyed growth. In 2008 Wendy Kauffman, from National Public Radio, produced a story about Biznik, characterizing Dan and I as "accidental entrepreneurs." But that same year our social software platform was awarded Honoree in the Webby Awards (the Oscars of social media), and our local business community -- in the form of Seattle Business magazine -- recognized Dan and I among The Top 25 Most Innovative Entrepreneurs, while Seattle Magazine named us part of the list of 25 Most Influential People.
In January 2009 we finally moved out of our home, and began running Biznik from an office in downtown Fremont, Washington, affectionately dubbed by locals as the "The Center of the Universe." Our office windows overlook multiple public art installations and the creative storefronts of a myriad of independent businesses.
Fremont is the home of Seattle's largest independent film studio, and with filmmaking being Dan's first love (after Lara), a film about independent entrepreneurship was inevitable. Biznik produced SHINE: The Entrepreneur's Journey, a 24 minute collaborative documentary in 2009. The SHINE project was a blast, as it brought together the best of the community in the form of 12 independent film crews and 400 entrepreneurs, for the purpose of making art. SHINE can be viewed online.
Today, we're still self funded, and a team of three works on Biznik daily. After myself (Lara, CEO) and a Chief Technology Officer (Andrew Lippert, who runs, maintains, fixes, repairs, develops and builds our website), our third team member is the Community Manager, Matt Lawrence, which should give an idea of just how much we value our community. Dan continues to play husband-role to Lara, while he focuses his attention on his career as a documentary filmmaker and commercial film shop, Visual Contact. Support comes from the "Bizniks" we hire for things like graphic design, business strategy, marketing campaigns, legal counsel and tax preparation.
Who are "Bizniks"? Results from a member survey in the summer of 2011 revealed...
- 88% engage in Biznik as an entrepreneur - "running their own show"
- 70% are running companies with 2 or fewer employees (including themselves)
- 72% have been involved in operating their biz for 3 or more years (before the recession); 48% for over 5 years.
- 68% of Bizniks are over 35 years old; 30% are over 50
- 30% have NO business education, which includes NO "adult education level business-related workshops" (these are not MBA grads)
- And while most rely on social networking, the bulk of their business comes from some kind of referral.
When we started Biznik, the business model wasn't clear. (They say it was clear to Facebook in 2006 or Twitter in 2007 either.) The school of thought was that "freemium" was the way to go. Grow the community by making it free, then entice a small percentage to upgrade to a premium membership (in our case, $10/month.) The significance of that percentage was not lost on us, so we put our heads down and focused on growing. But growing with integrity. There was the year a credit card company (that will not be named) offered to add 50,000 users overnight. Our reservation? Um... that it would radically dilute the experience for the 5,000 people who were here forming authentic relationships.
By 2012, the jury's verdict was returned. Freemium, as a stand-alone, without advertising and affiliate marketing, doesn't work. (There are lots of discussions on the topic. I particularly like this blog post by Ruben Gamez founder of Bidsketch --Why Free Plans Don't Work.)
As a business model, we most definitely found this to be true. The larger your free user-base grows, the more people requiring support that no one's paying for. Mix that up with our goal to not only keep the site ad-free, but our commitment to never sell our user data to an affiliate, and a change was imminent. But it wasn't just that the revenue model doesn't work, we also discovered that a free plan adds 'noise' to the relevant content and contributions, and ultimately dilutes the value of the community. In February 2012, we put an end to "free membership" and thus begins a new chapter for Biznik.
We're anticipating a future where pay-to-play online communities are the norm for the simple reason that it provides a more valuable environment because it permits more resources to be applied to supporting the customers who are paying for the service. When you pay for Biznik, you're getting that great SEO, yes -- but you're also joining the ranks of membership in a community built exclusively with the needs of independent businesses in mind, with curated articles and events, and an environment of real people, free from ads, spam and MLMs.
A "Biznik" is someone who earns their livelihood by making a business of their passion. Someone who's business is an extension of their self expression.
Can you relate? If so, we hope you'll join us and spread the word. (Because we believe the world will be a better place with more "Bizniks" in it.)
What lies ahead...
In an economy where 90 percent of all new jobs are created by small, entrepreneur-driven businesses, yet 50% of small businesses close their doors after 3 years, we remain committed to independent businesses and entrepreneurs, and to the power of peers helping peers not only stay in business, but thrive in business.
One of the ways we're helping facilitate this mission is with a new peer relationship management tool and networking application. Among your 5000 follows on Twitter, and 500 friends on Facebook, are 5 people who are critical to your business. Who are they? Where are they? And how are you taking care of them. MyFive can help. Watch myfive.biz set for release in April 2012.