Davos Interviews: Ning CEO Gina Bianchini Insists Facebook Isn't A Competitor

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Up next in our series of tech interviews at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week: Gina Bianchini, the CEO of social networking service Ning.

Ning has never had the press attention of Facebook and Twitter. But there are 41 million registered users on Ning, and Gina says that 92 million people a month worldwide visit Ning sites.

We spoke at length in the interview about how the world sees Ning, and how Ning defines itself. Anyone can easily create a Ning social network, cobranded or white labelled. 2.5 million of them have been created so far.

In some ways Ning networks are competitive to Facebook Pages (here’s the TechCrunch Facebook page). Both allow for a presence inside of a social network. And when faced with a choice, most may choose Facebook simply because it has so many hundreds of millions of users to help word spread virally.

Gina doesn’t see it this way. She notes that Facebook pages have limited features and are locked within Facebook itself. Ning allows for deep social experiences around brands and things. Instead of the product competing with Facebook (and Twitter, etc.), she sees Ning as the center of an ecosystem that includes all of these products. A fascinating excerpt from the interview:

MA: One place I personally think you do compete with Facebook is company pages. Companies set up a profile to get fans, and it’s not just their friends but they promote it, they put it on their advertisements. They also might do that with Ning whether it’s the Ning network or the domain mount and make it look all their own. They might do both but it seems like there’s a clear direct competition between Ning networks and Facebook pages. Agree, disagree, how do you see that?

GB: Absolutely disagree. I love the fact that there should be this perceived horserace, where one person wins and one person loses, and that’s just not how it’s working today. And what’s really cool is the fact…

MA: Do you see people doing both?

GB: Yeah, absolutely.

MA: That’s why you don’t think there’s competition?

GB: That’s why we can actually integrate with Twitter and use Twitter as a distribution channel. And basically send people very fluidly to Ning and then people are publishing from Ning into Twitter really effectively. And so what I think actually is happening , and we’re seeing this especially among people who are artists, and people who started in 2005 and 2006 with a myspace page, which is they basically look at it and they say, “ok, Facebook, myspace, Twitter, phenomenal for distribution. That is the place where I can put up a fan page and within a few hours I can have a million followers.” The same thing is true for twitter. So if you basically look at the people who have over a million followers, they are getting increasingly sophisticated in terms of understanding that those are phenomenal, but very lightweight distribution channels.

What they’re realizing and I think where the market is going is the sophistication around, where you’re sending people and where the destination is, whether that was originally a blog, or whether that was originally a website is actually becoming a rich immersive social experience.

MA: And now you’re talking about Ning?

GB: And now I’m talking about Ning.

MA: And a Facebook page isn’t as rich and immersive social experience.

GB: That’s not what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to give people away within Facebook to say, “I’m a fan of Pete Wentz and Fall Out Boy” or “I love Adidas.” I think that’s fantastic, but it’s very lightweight. It’s good that it’s lightweight because it means that people have a way to thread all of these ways that they want to interact with brands, with celebrities, with artists, with things that they truly care about. But I think where the market is going and where you’ll see more and more people do interesting things, is where is the hub, where are they sending people. And that is Ning.

For example, Soleil Moon Frye has 1.4 million Twitter followers and just launched a Ning network two days ago. And her excitement about it is that she can allow and enable the people following her on Twitter, primarily moms and young moms who have the same messy wonderful life as a mother that she does. That she gives them an opportunity to really dive deeper into what she cares about and what she’s passionate about, and really building that out as a small but very powerful lifestyle brand for moms.

And in fact Gina doesn’t think any of these companies – Facebook, Ning, Twitter, LinkedIn – really compete with each other. “Each one of them has gotten really comfortable and more narrowly focused on the thing they do better than anybody else,” she says later in the interview:

MA: (drawing diagram off camera) What you’re saying is that Ning is sort of the center. And you’ve got Facebook and Twitter and myspace. So that’s a good way of thinking about it. Do you think that Facebook, Twitter and myspace think about it that way?

GB: I don’t think they see us as a competitor. Here’s what I think is happening in the market. And this is not rainbows and sunshine saying this – what’s really interesting is that all of these companies were basically founded in 2005, 2006, 2007, and what’s actually happened is that each one of them has gotten really comfortable and more narrowly focused on the thing they do better than anybody else. Facebook with Facebook light is actually going more in the direction of connecting you with the people you have strong relationships with your real identity, with status messages, and with photo sharing. And they do that better than anybody else.

Twitter – and they had that year where, is Twitter a competitor or are they not – you can see in the past 6 months is that while there’s some overlap, it’s not a horserace, they’re not actually competing head to head where Facebook wins and Twitter loses. So Twitter’s about news and real time events.

You’ve seen the same thing with LinkedIn, where they’ve gotten really strong and have tremendous momentum by basically saying, “we own professional identity.” Professional identity has different characteristics than what you want to do with your friends on Facebook and that’s actually great. And then for us, interests and passions. If you look across the market, the thing that’s interesting is that none of these companies actually have a number two. And what gets confusing about it is, Facebook doesn’t have a number two. Twitter doesn’t have a number two. Linked In – you lived through that – all of the competitors are gone, and they are the dominant player. And in our case, we don’t really have anyone else who is creating unique social experiences as an online platform, and specifically an online social platform.

What’s confusing to a user of the market that wants to see the head to head horserace, zero sum game, Microsoft/Netscape situation, it’s not actually happening. It’s really actually a race for each one of these companies and services to get as much traction and deliver as much value to an individual with the thing that they do better than anybody else.

The full transcript is below.

Interview with Ning CEO Gina Bianchini

Michael Arrington: I’m here with Ning CEO Gina Bianchini, hello Gina.

Gina Bianchini: Hi, how are you?

MA: Good. Thanks for joining the World Economic Forum in Davos to sit down and talk about Ning for a little bit. How do you like the hotel?

GB: I describe it as Swedish dorm room chic, and it’s pretty great actually.

MA: Even though there’s no internet access in all the internet executives’ rooms?

GB: It’s a little ironic.

MA: So everyone’s down here in the lobby working.

GB: I almost feel like that’s our purpose here in a way.

MA: It’s good for me because if I want to talk to you, I just go to the lobby and you’re on your computer and you can’t really hide when you only have internet access in one place.

GB: Absolutely.

MA: Is this your first World Economic forum?

GB: It is.

MA: And what do you think of the conference itself?

GB: It’s pretty amazing. It’s a little overwhelming actually because there are so many people from different walks of life doing so many interesting things, and it’s all packed within a small Swiss ski town, that’s it’s kind of hard to get your bearings. But it’s been wonderful. I really enjoyed our panel the first day.

MA: Yeah, you were on a panel with Evan Williams, Randi Zuckerberg, Owen VanNatta, and Reid Hoffman was there. I was there reporting on it; you guys talked about social networks. Do you feel like there’s a good amount of attention here to technology? It seems like there is.

GB: There absolutely is. It’s rare that you go to conferences that have a broad policy and political base, as well as being something that’s just technology focused, and I’ve had more people come up to me, trying to explore how to use social technologies to change the world, and I think that that is always a great conversation to have.

MA: Do you find that most people here are very familiar with Ning? New for some people? Is Ning part of the established set of technology companies that people here know about?

GB: I don’t think so. I think the thing that has actually been really surprising to me is how many people touch a Ning network from all walks of life. I had someone from a pretty large advertising agency say to me that their team in Brazil has been using Ning for basically three years.

MA: The advertising agency has a Ning presence.

GB: And even better, they’re using it for their internal team to coordinate. So I think the thing that’s been the most fun from my perspective is that we made the decision early on that we would share branding, that we weren’t going to be a service that was basically one size fits all, but that what we do, being a social platform for interests and passions, and really being about unique social experiences, that we needed to share the brand. And we needed to basically allow our network creators to put their brand first with Ning being a bit recessive. So we don’t have the same visibility that a Facebook or a Linked In or a Twitter has, but we actually think that for what we do, it’s absolutely critical that we give and we share brand identity, because what people are doing on Ning is creating unique contextual social experiences for the things that really matter to them. And so, that’s actually something that’s been fun for me, is to see all the different ways that people are using Ning today, and in some cases, they absolutely know it’s Ning, and in other cases, they don’t know it’s Ning. That’s not white label.

MA: You allow domain mapping which is very basic Ning – is there some footer that is any Ning branding at all?

GB: Yes, absolutely.

MA: We’ll talk about that in a little bit with your numbers. You’ve raised a lot of money; you’ve raised $119 million dollars now, and your last valuation was $750 million, is that right? (GB nods). And you count among your investors, Reid Hoffman, the founder of Linked In. And Marc Andreesen’s actually cofounder, but he’s also on the board of Facebook. Is it awkward at all, with Marc being on the board of Facebook and Reid being Linked In heavy? Is it at all awkward? Because they are both competitors, right?

GB: Not at all. No, and that’s actually why it’s ok. I think that this is the thing that has really been emerging in the last year, is the fact that different people – or I should say actually, the same people, are using different social technologies for different purposes. And I think at some level, the true story of the last few years has been that everybody’s been trying to figure out where they fit into the world and whether or not different people are competing directly. I thinks it’s an interesting evolution that I did not expect, and I don’t think any of us expected when we started, because there’s always the sense that it is a horse race, it’s not a zero sum game as it relates to social technologies, and in fact what’s happening, is that the same people are using Linked In for their professional identity; they’re using Facebook for connecting to people that they know in the real world, and have gone to school with, that are friends from the neighborhood. What Twitter is about is news and real time events in a way that is different from Facebook. And what we do is basically enable people to dive deeper and create rich social experiences for the topics and things that they truly care about. The aha moment that I had was that’s what actually makes us human beings, and what makes us people, and these different social technologies all work together really well.

For example, two weeks ago we launched Twitter integration, and we’ve seen a huge increase in terms of people sharing content from their Ning network.

MA: That’s both signing in and publishing back to Twitter?

GB: It’s just publishing to Twitter, and then people coming back with a shortened url. And what’s been great about that is that people love to be able to share on Twitter. They love to be able to share and then come back in, and we’re seeing that in the numbers. And I think we’ll shortly launch a similar integration using Facebook because it just makes sense, and it’s what people want. They want to have a very fluid relationship between Linked In, Twitter, Ning and the networks they belong to. And Facebook. And I think that’s something that from the inside, we all realize. Why for example, Reid Hoffman has been a great supporter of Ning, why Marc can sit on the board of Facebook and Ning, and why Marc is an investor in so many of the social technologies that exist, and I think that’s something that’s really fun about it right now.

MA: When you integrate with Facebook, will that be in the sense of signing in to your Ning account through Facebook and publish back to Facebook? Or more like what you’re doing with Twitter, and just publish back to Facebook?

GB: More like what we’re doing with Twitter for v1, and there’s no political strategy that says we should have Facebook connect or we shouldn’t have Facebook connect, it’s just a matter of we’re seeing what’s working and integrating rapidly from here.

MA: How about just from a user perspective and integrating the social graph and having your friends listed in one place? Is that something that you think there may be demand at Ning?

GB: Absolutely. It’s something that we’ll explore in the next few months as we move forward.

MA: One place I personally think you do compete with Facebook is company pages. Companies set up a profile to get fans, and it’s not just their friends but they promote it, they put it on their advertisements. They also might do that with Ning whether it’s the Ning network or the domain mount and make it look all their own. They might do both but it seems like there’s a clear direct competition between Ning networks and Facebook pages. Agree, disagree, how do you see that?

GB: Absolutely disagree. I love the fact that there should be this perceived horserace, where one person wins and one person loses, and that’s just not how it’s working today. And what’s really cool is the fact…

MA: Do you see people doing both?

GB: Yeah, absolutely.

MA: That’s why you don’t think there’s competition?

GB: That’s why we can actually integrate with Twitter and use Twitter as a distribution channel. And basically send people very fluidly to Ning and then people are publishing from Ning into Twitter really effectively. And so what I think actually is happening , and we’re seeing this especially among people who are artists, and people who started in 2005 and 2006 with a myspace page, which is they basically look at it and they say, “ok, Facebook, myspace, Twitter, phenomenal for distribution. That is the place where I can put up a fan page and within a few hours I can have a million followers.” The same thing is true for twitter. So if you basically look at the people who have over a million followers, they are getting increasingly sophisticated in terms of understanding that those are phenomenal, but very lightweight distribution channels.

What they’re realizing and I think where the market is going is the sophistication around, where you’re sending people and where the destination is, whether that was originally a blog, or whether that was originally a website is actually becoming a rich immersive social experience.

MA: And now you’re talking about Ning?

GB: And now I’m talking about Ning.

MA: And a Facebook page isn’t as rich and immersive social experience.

GB: That’s not what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to give people away within Facebook to say, “I’m a fan of Pete Wentz and Fall Out Boy” or “I love Adidas.” I think that’s fantastic, but it’s very lightweight. It’s good that it’s lightweight because it means that people have a way to thread all of these ways that they want to interact with brands, with celebrities, with artists, with things that they truly care about. But I think where the market is going and where you’ll see more and more people do interesting things, is where is the hub, where are they sending people. And that is Ning.

For example, Soleil Moon Frye has 1.4 million Twitter followers and just launched a Ning network two days ago. And her excitement about it is that she can allow and enable the people following her on Twitter, primarily moms and young moms who have the same messy wonderful life as a mother that she does. That she gives them an opportunity to really dive deeper into what she cares about and what she’s passionate about, and really building that out as a small but very powerful lifestyle brand for moms.

MA: How many international uniques are you tracking?

GB: On a global basis, by IP address that excludes bots, we have 92 million monthly uniques. And four months ago we had 70 million global uniques.

MA: Does that include the Ning networks that are domain mapping?

GB: Yes it does.

MA: So that’s a fourth of Facebook, something like that? But you don’t have the compressed footprint that Facebook has, or even Twitter, which is smaller than you. Why is that?

GB: Very simple reason: one size fits all social platforms are easier to get your head around because they have the overarching brand identity. When you’re on Facebook, you are on Facebook, and it is blue and white. And when you’re on Twitter, you are on Twitter. In our case, we took a different approach and we have a different strategy, which is for us to enable unique, immersive, very rich different social experiences around the things that people care about and really allow them to dive deeper, as I mentioned as that hub.

MA: So the things people care about get the press attention as opposed to Ning sometimes.

GB: Absolutely. For example, Linkin Park just launched their official website which is now a social experience on Ning. And that was 3 or 4 days ago. Because they realized that what their fans want is this social opportunity to say, “I love you on myspace, I love you on Twitter, I want to know what’s going on and what I should be paying attention to. But then I want a way to dive deeper into the Linkin Park experience.”

MA: (drawing diagram off camera) What you’re saying is that Ning is sort of the center. And you’ve got Facebook and Twitter and myspace. So that’s a good way of thinking about it. Do you think that Facebook, Twitter and myspace think about it that way?

GB: I don’t think they see us as a competitor. Here’s what I think is happening in the market. And this is not rainbows and sunshine saying this – what’s really interesting is that all of these companies were basically founded in 2005, 2006, 2007, and what’s actually happened is that each one of them has gotten really comfortable and more narrowly focused on the thing they do better than anybody else. Facebook with Facebook light is actually going more in the direction of connecting you with the people you have strong relationships with your real identity, with status messages, and with photo sharing. And they do that better than anybody else.

Twitter – and they had that year where, is Twitter a competitor or are they not – you can see in the past 6 months is that while there’s some overlap, it’s not a horserace, they’re not actually competing head to head where Facebook wins and Twitter loses. So Twitter’s about news and real time events.

You’ve seen the same thing with Linked In, where they’ve gotten really strong and have tremendous momentum by basically saying, “we own professional identity.” Professional identity has different characteristics than what you want to do with your friends on Facebook and that’s actually great. And then for us, interests and passions. If you look across the market, the thing that’s interesting is that none of these companies actually have a number two. And what gets confusing about it is, Facebook doesn’t have a number two. Twitter doesn’t have a number two. Linked In – you lived through that – all of the competitors are gone, and they are the dominant player. And in our case, we don’t really have anyone else who is creating unique social experiences as an online platform, and specifically an online social platform.

What’s confusing to a user of the market that wants to see the head to head horserace, zero sum game, Microsoft/Netscape situation, it’s not actually happening. It’s really actually a race for each one of these companies and services to get as much traction and deliver as much value to an individual with the thing that they do better than anybody else.

MA: Ok. Are you happy with your revenue model and how that’s going?

GB: Absolutely.

MA: How happy, like 9 out of 10?

GB: (laughs) We don’t talk about revenue. I’m happy to talk about the revenue streams that we have.

MA: It’s ads, it’s upsells right?

GB: It’s ads, it’s upsells, and premium features like virtual gifts which we launched in October that allow our network creators to make money from their networks. So when a member of the Lost Zombies Ning network which is 10,000 people who dress up as zombies and take pictures and videos and connect with each other in building this collaborative documentary . It’s lost zomies.com, check it out, it’s awesome. And what they’re doing with virtual gifts, is their members are giving them bloody chain saws, and when that transaction happens, we split the revenue 50/50 with the network creators. We think there are tremendous opportunities there.

MA: How many bloody chainsaws have been given?

GB: I don’t actually know specifically.

MA: Are the member of the group?

GB: I’m a member of Lost Zombies, I am.

MA: You should be like Tom from myspace, a member of every network.

GB: That’s a good idea, I like that.

MA: With a really ridiculous pose in some picture. So what is revenue? Are you profitable yet? Are you approaching profitability yet? Are you approaching the point where you could be profitable? Do you want to slow down growth?

GB: We’re really happy and so are our investors. It’s the benefit of being a private company, but it doesn’t make your job any easier.

MA: How many employees do you have?

GB: We have 166 employees.

MA: And you said you’re not going to talk about profitability.

GB: We’re not going to talk about revenue, profitability.

MA: Facebook does, they’re private.

GB: I know.

MA: Twitter doesn’t. Myspace doesn’t. Hint? Million a month? 10 million a month?

GB: We’re really happy with where we’re at and where we’re going.

MA: When you approach profitability will you announce that?

GB: Stay tuned.

MA: That’s at least something. I can drop that now. It think that’s it. How many registered users?

GB: We have 41 million registered users and we’re adding about a million registered users ever 12-13 days.

MA: And you’re not spending anything on marketing or you are? I’ve never seen anything.

GB: No, it’s primarily email. As we launched Twitter, and soon we’ll launch Facebook, those are actually great sources of new members coming in to and across the Ning networks. The good news/bad news of our model is that it’s incredibly productive and effective in terms of growth and exponential growth, but certainly we’ve made a different decision than other services in terms of really sharing that brand placement. And then allowing people to create really incredibly rich unique social experiences on Ning.

MA: Who goes public first? Zynga, Facebook, or Linked In? Personal opinion.

GB: I am not great at predicting timing but I think all of them are incredibly good businesses that are real. And the reality is that two or three years ago Zynga wasn’t in existence, but everybody was wondering, how are social technologies going to make money. I think the story of 2009 was that one size fits all…

MA: Bloody chainsaws, is how they’re going to make money.

GB…social platforms went mainstream. And I think the story of 2010, 2011, 2012 is social platforms become real businesses.

MA: You going to be going public you think? Is that your aim? Or have Andreeson get Facebook to buy you, some large competitor?

GB: We are very confident that we can be a large independent company.

MA: Thanks very much, enjoy the rest of the conference. I really appreciate it.

GB: Thank you so much.

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