Yahoo recently shared the news that, after 20 years, Yahoo! Groups is shutting down. It’s no big surprise, but seeing this news took me back to the early days of online communities and my job as an online community manager.
In 1999, I was fascinated with online communities and learned that a colleague at the company where I worked had set up an eGroups site for a small group of customers of the company. She showed me how it was working and I was so excited. I quickly started working with her on the site. Over time, I became the Online Community Manager and grew the community to have thousands of members, who were customers using the company’s software.
eGroups was bought by Yahoo! in 2000 and became Yahoo Groups. The discussion board/email list system worked most of the time for our communities, but there were bugs and issues. What I remember most was not having any way to get help or support. It was my job to make the community work and I had no one at Yahoo to ask for support. It drove me crazy. There was a Yahoo! Group set up for support issues, but it was rarely used by Yahoo employees. When they did show up, it was like a resurrection. I thought, “they live!”. But my hopes were usually dashed by them posting a message about features and not answering any questions.
We used Yahoo Groups for a couple of years before moving to Web Crossing, which was a paid and supported platform that I liked. After three years of being the online community manager, I left to start Common Craft in 2003. I felt like I had earned real experience doing a job that was about to become essential in a wide variety of companies. That was the plan for Common Craft: online community consulting.
Looking back, it’s easy to see what happened at Yahoo. Yahoo Groups was a free, popular, and well-used product that was mostly stable. But I’m sure it cost more to run than it produced with ads. To Yahoo, it was a cost center and they couldn’t afford or didn’t care enough about it to support and develop it. So, in my experience, it mostly languished and was used by people who just needed a free service and didn’t care about the issues.
Even in the context of all the frustrations with it, I’m thankful it existed when it did. It was a free resource that allowed me to cut my teeth in the online community management world and develop my own perspectives on how community technology should function.
Shauna Swerland is the CEO of Fuel Talent, podcast host, and a very well connected entrepreneur, especially in Seattle. I loved being interviewed by her because it felt so personal. She asked questions I didn’t expect that led places never guessed we’d discuss.
The interview was more about me on a personal level than my books and I think you’ll learn about me from a different perspective on this episode.
It makes my day when I receive an email from someone who says something like, “I’ve been a fan since the first video!” It’s hard to believe that was in 2007, over 13 years ago.
At the time, we were new and different. Our style of videos attracted attention just as YouTube was becoming a major player and people were becoming curious about social media. The viral success of those first videos, RSS in Plain English and Wikis in Plain English, took us by surprise and changed our trajectory. Starting then, we became known as video producers and explainers, despite having no prior experience.
While Common Craft has covered a lot of ground over the years, our story is really about what hasn’t changed. In many ways, Common Craft is the same company it was in 2007. We are still a husband and wife team who works from home and produces explainer videos. We’ve never had employees and don’t plan to. We’ve never had formal office space or investors or a board of directors. Those are things we chose not to have.
You might assume that being in the creative business means we are focused on our craft and our business is an afterthought. This perception looks even more convincing knowing that we don’t have employees and work from home. To a business-minded person, we probably don’t appear serious about our business because we haven’t grown. I get it. That’s how success is supposed to be measured in the business world.
The reality, our reality, is that we are entrepreneurial, but playing a new and different game with different goals. Over the last decade, we’ve experimented with a number of business models, including creative services, licensing, a marketplace, distribution partnerships, online courses, and a subscription service. That’s the game. We are small, agile, and entrepreneurial enough to test what’s possible and discover ways to do business that reflect who we are. We serve a relatively small audience that supports us.
The question becomes: Who are we?
Sachi and I are very different people who share a similar view of the world and our place in it. That view is based, in part, on the idea that we can decide who we are and want to become. We can choose to live unconventionally and run our business in whatever form we want, as long as we can support ourselves and keep our customers smiling. We have choices and that’s the revelation. We all have more choices than we realize.
At the heart of this perspective is a belief that too many people live their lives according to the expectations of others, whether it’s family, peers, or society at large. These expectations, which can be helpful and productive, also serve as blinders that prevent new ideas from seeming reasonable and possible. They keep us focused on what’s normal and proven.
Early on, we decided to ditch the blinders and devote ourselves to living the lives and running the business that reflected our values and what we alone thought was possible.
That’s why we’ve remained small. We wanted a business that could be a laboratory. We believed, because of the internet, that two people could design a business that solves a problem for a global audience without sacrificing our happiness, health, and autonomy. That has been our goal for a decade and we’re closer than ever to reaching it.
Today, Common Craft operates according to our own design. The company is a membership service for educators who teach technology and digital responsibility. Educators and organizations become members of Common Craft to use our library of videos and downloadable visuals, which are digital products that scale easily. This model means that we own and manage every part of the business; our website, our videos, our members, our income, our time, from our home. I personally feel this is the future of business. Small, agile, and scalable.
I hope that our story can serve as inspiration. We don’t have to do what business culture says we’re supposed to do. All the expectations and obligations you feel may be blinding you and putting you in the same box with everyone else. If that’s where you’re comfortable, that’s great. But if you’re ready to take off the blinders and test what’s possible, then we’re here to be a model.
If you’d like to read a sample chapter and be notified when the book arrives, you can sign up here.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.