Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Interview with Rustin Banks, BlogFrog
A few weeks ago, Boulder-based BlogFrog (www.theblogfrog.com) announced a Series A funding from a who's who of Colorado's angel investors, plus officially launched its services. We caught up with Rustin Banks, BlogFrog's CEO and founder, to hear about how his wife's "mom blogging" spurred the creation of the company.
First off, talk about BlogFrog and what it is all about and what the idea is behind the company?
Rustin Banks: I started coding at around age twelve, and at thirteen I got big into online bulletin boards, which were hosted out of my closet. It was fascinating, because people from all over the world would connect via online bulletin boards. As things developed, I continued to build online communities on Prodigy, Compuserve, and then AOL. I went to school for an Electrical Engineering degree, and got a masters in Robotics, and finally ended up moving our young family from Utah out to Colorado. We literally didn't know a soul out there. My wife started blogging to stop from going crazy with a toddler running around in the house, and starting blogging about life with a toddler. Interestingly enough, who started reading her blog were other like-minded toddler moms. I was fascinated, because there were all of these other toddler moms who would log onto her site to comment on her blog posts, just like people used to log onto bulletin boards I used to run, even thought they could only just comment on what blogs she posted.
I saw that they were handcuffed by the blogging platform they were using, and that they were already doing the hard part--which was gathering like minded people together. I thought--why can't every blog could become one of those communities, where you could ask people questions, talk to each other, share photos and videos? But, instead of developing a new blogging platform, we could start an extension to the existing blog. So, I created a community plug-in to the blog, a community page where readers could interact.
I was doing this on nights and weekends, while designing satellites at a local aerospace firm. After about six months, I had a prototype, and put it up on the blog--and readers immediately loved it. They would spend hours and hours talking to each other on the communities, posting questions, and so on. My wife's readers then said--I have a book club blog, or a military wives blog--this would be perfect for it. So, we let them take the tool and put it on their new blog, and create new community pages to talk to each other, and it really organically snowballed until we had over 50,000 women bloggers using the tool.
How did it grow to so many blogs?
Rustin Banks: What we discovered, is we're really onto something bigger than just readers talking to each other, that what we have created is an interest-based, social network. If you think about it, Facebook has done a great ob connecting you to who you know in real life. LinkedIn has connected you to who you work with. However, there's no place to connect you with other, like-minded people, who you don't know already. By creating hundreds and hundreds of communities, which are network searchable and which we have providing recommendations--for example, if you like this community, you might like this other one; or, if you follow this person, you might like this other community--we've been able to build up an interest-based social graph. It's the final frontier of social networking, allowing you to network with like-minded people.
When did it go from just something you were working on for your wife's blog, to a real company and funding?
Rustin Banks: You've probably heard this story before, but the first thing I did was find anyone I could who would listen to me. I was bouncing ideas off of them, figuring out what parts were dumb, and which parts were good. Lo and behold, they started introducing me to other people. That's how networking works. If your idea is good enough, you start to have meetings, and people start filtering you to more and more influential people in the area. I met my business partner that way, Holly Hamann, who had been crucial in launching six startups in Boulder. Holly's firms have all either been acquired or are still around, and one is on an IPO path. One of her last startups was acquired by HP for lots of money. That was the first proof point--she said, you've got something here, and took interesting in what I was doing, and she joined the company. I did a small seed round at the end of 2008, and as we figured out how we could grow this beyond the thousand or so blogs we were on we raised our latest round.
What are you now on the business?
Rustin Banks: We are now controlling thousands of interest-based conversations on our platform. There's a great revenue model, in that we can build brands their own community in these networks, or we can take a conversation a brand wants, and present that as a sponsored conversation. All of that is opt-in by the bloggers in the community. Only ten percent of our revenue is from display ads, the other ninety percent is from brand programs we are doing. Those brands are like Hallmark, and we just did one for International Delight. We power the big Coffee Talk community on their home page, which allows influential bloggers to hold live chats, and have a coffee-house experience at home, to bring back wwhat is missing at the coffee house now--conversation. That's an example of the brand programs we are doing for the blog. So we're now building up our brand program, and were cash flow positive in 2010. We're a different kind of startup. We have a big vision, but we also want to fund our services with significant revenue along the way. We're not just using that to go after vision, so we're also buildling out our sales team and marketing. So far, it has just been me, at blog conferences, and bloggers expanding the network, and we honestly haven't had time to execute on marketing. Holly and I have been so busy keeping up with the growth, we haven't even done things like purchase any traffic. So you'll see us start promoting and acquiring publishers.
Are there specific kinds of blog software that works with your software?
Is there a reason you think your software took off so fast with the mom bloggers?
Rustin Banks: If you look at the demographics of social networks online, it's not only predominantly driven by women in numbers, but it's also much more dominant in terms of activity measures--time spent online, or amount of time a service is used. Our product, where we're bringing social networking to niche communities, is much more suited to women. There's nothing on our web site that says this is a tool for women--it's just that's where the organic growth has taken place. Although it's definitely more suited to this demographic, there's nothing that says it can't be used by other passionate verticals like sports, politics, health, or fitness. That's part of what we're doing this year. We're really focused on moms, but we also plan to expand to other verticals.