I’m from Burlington, Vermont, a small town way up by the Canada border. Burlington is known (to people who actually know that it exits) as a hyper-local, slightly hippy, super liberal kinda place. In short: not the kind of place you’d expect to find an awesome startup, considering it’s physically and conceptually miles from Silicon Valley.
Michael Wood-Lewis didn’t see it that way when he started his online neighborhood community, Front Porch Forum (FPF) in 2006 (and KillerStartups actually reviewed the site in 2007. Check it out). FPF connects neighbors through a regular e-newsletter in which people talk about everything from recent break-ins to skill sharing classes. I don’t even live in Vermont anymore but I still read FPF every day, just to keep up on what’s going on in my hood.
With a masters in engineering and a background in environmental work, Michael is not your typical startup guy, but that didn’t keep him from finding success: 60% of Burlington now subscribing to FPF and 50% are commenting regularly, which is crazy good traction for a social media site.
Michael took some time to chat with me about what makes FPF so awesome and the importance of growing your business organically.
How did you get the idea for Front Porch Forum?
Well my wife Valerie and I came up with it in 2000; a long time ago. Prehistoric internet times. We started a precursor in our Five Sisters neighborhood in the South End of Burlington, just with an email list. It got so much traction and it was so great right away that we did it as a kind of hobby for six years.
We kept getting approached by people who said, “Hey, can I join?” And I’d say, “Yeah, which street do you live on?” And they’d tell me Jericho or Montpelier [Ed note: other Vermont towns] or something and I’d have to tell them, no, you can’t join our neighborhood forum if you live in Jericho but I’d be happy to help you start yours.
I probably had a hundred of those conversations and finally maybe one person out of the hundred took me up on the offer. She tried but couldn’t quite pull it off.
I began to realize that there was demand for this, but it wasn’t quite a simple thing to do. I was leaving a job and I thought, well, let’s give this a shot and try to start a business that could provide this service for lots of neighborhoods.
So at this point this is your job?
Yeah, for the last six years.
Did you have any funding when you started or was this just out of your pocket?
It was all bootstrapped. We sunk a small amount of capital into it. I had a young guy who put together the first version of our website and it just got bootstrapped along the way. We’ve been generating revenue… This is probably the second year. And we have seven employees.
What do they do?
We have four online community managers; they work with FPF members, with the content. Then we have three part time sales reps who sell advertising to local businesses. We also have a tech team who rebuilt our software last year.
Where does your revenue come from at this point?
Local small businesses provide more than half of our revenue through ad sales and local officials also pay for access to information about the communities that they serve.
How has FPF evolved from your original vision of it?
Our neighborhood is really known for being social and neighborly—family-focused and homeowner-focused—so it works really well in our neighborhood. It’s kind of an optimal demographic for our service. I thought I needed to find other neighborhoods like the Five Sisters and try it in those places.
I almost didn’t start it in the Old North End, [Ed note: another Burlington neighborhood] I almost didn’t start it in more rural areas and now the Old North End and many rural communities have Front Porch Forums that are more robust than the Five Sisters.
That was one evolution. I thought it was only appropriate for one narrow demographic but it turns out most communities want to have a neighbor-to-neighbor culture.
It seems to fit into almost an old school Vermont image. I always compare it to the town posting board at the general store.
Yeah, but it’s actually a very hot up and coming sector right now in the dotcom field. There are probably two dozen startups trying to do the same thing that we do at a national level: help neighbors talk to each other and build community.
There are many different strategies at work. Some look compelling, others look like they have the wrong idea, but different approaches work in different settings.
Are you thinking of expanding beyond Vermont?
Yeah, we cover 40% of Vermont right now and one town in upstate New York. We’re hoping in a year to cover all of Vermont and be outside the state.
Wow, that’s excellent. You guys are really becoming a force.
There was a big turning point last year when we landed this investment from the Knight Foundation and we got to work with a Ruby on Rails team out of Toronto and we built our technology using Ruby on Rails. It’s been great. It’s changed our advertising products; now we can geo-target our ads by neighborhood, which has turned out to be hugely popular for our advertisers.
Front Porch Forum from a user perspective appears to be very simple but the backend is quite complex. We’ve got about 100 Front Porch Forums going right now for Vermont and to keep all of those going, to attract a credible mass of people, to hold their attention, to get them to speak up, to keep it civil and interesting and to have people stick around for years and years is not a small, trivial matter.
There’s a lot of secret sauce, fifty or sixty little nuggets we’ve learned, that we’re baking into our software all the time. They start in my head, then I pass it on to our employees. We write it down and once we get the capital we push it into our software so that we’ll be able to cover a bigger and bigger area more efficiently.
Have you felt any pressure to change the interface? Right now, like you said, it appears very simple and it hasn’t changed that much since 2006, has it?
Basically it’s an e-newsletter, a web archive. If you look at the demographics, something like 15% use Twitter, 50-65% use Facebook, but 95-99% of the people online use email. So we’re paying attention and as things change, we’ll change: if there’s a reason, we’ll evolve on other platforms.
It’s actually pretty interesting, we’re in the running for a quarter million grant right now, if you could help us out by voting…
I already did, actually.
You did? Oh, thank you very much! But for that process you have to have a Facebook account to vote. I’ve heard from, I’m not kidding you, maybe a hundred or a hundred fifty Front Porch Forum members, many of them incensed, saying “I loathe Facebook and all that it represents and there’s no way I’ll ever be on it.”
That’s a very Burlington response, I think. (laughs)
Yeah, it’s interesting, there’s kind of a clique local movement just barely starting to get some traction. People understand buy local and eat local and those kinds of things but then they go out and do all of their online business with a mega-corporation like Facebook and Google.
I mean, we’re super tied into Google, you can’t help but be these days if you’re running a startup. There are so many free and low cost tools. We’re integrated into Google and other things probably a dozen different ways.
Anyway, we’re doing something extremely well. We’re recognized as a leader in the country for our traction and engagement and, frankly, revenue on a per capita basis, but we’re really tiny. We’ve been at it for six years but most of the startups in our space are a year old or less and they’re trying to go national right out of the starting blocks.
They think they’re going to open up 100,000 neighborhoods from day one. They’re an inch deep and a mile wide and we’re the opposite. Super deep, but really our liability, in a way, is how narrow we are geographically. It’s kind of constrained.
Well, it’s all about being local so that absolutely makes sense.
Our strategy has been to really nail it down on our home turf and then expand versus start out with expansion and try to figure it out on the way.
It’s interesting, we’re getting calls from Fortune 500 tech companies now who are trying to get into the space. I don’t know if anything will come of that…
Sixty percent of Burlington subscribes to Front Porch Forum and half of them actively participate. So those numbers—60% traction and 50% engagement—is just like, off the charts in terms of social media stuff. But, of course, Burlington is tiny and you could write it off but we’re seeing the same results in the other 60 towns in Vermont. They’re all tiny too, of course, but we’ll see. We’re optimistic.
What’s your criteria for posting content? There have definitely been some… interesting conversations I’ve come across.
We’re all about helping neighbors connect and build community and we hope that happens when people actually talk to each other. We don’t try to say you can’t talk about politics or no talking about this or that.
We’re more like a block party host. Like, don’t be boring, don’t be a jerk, don’t drone on and on for a thousand pages about your pet and don’t do personal attacks. And don’t bring up subjects that don’t have anything to do with anything. Someone tried to bring up something about Palestine and Israel in the Old North End and we let it through. A couple people said, “Look, this isn’t really the place,” and it died down. It was kind of crowd control there.