Friday, 3 June 2011

CEO of Ecademy - Arguably the Best Job in the Online World

The Ecademy was in many ways a forerunner of many of the natty networking sites we see online today and after 13 years at the top, the CEO Glenn Watkins has decided to move on.

Despite the onslaught of social networking and particularly LinkedIn, Ecademy has survived and thrived in a peculiar way as the world around it changed. It was founded by one of the loveliest people I know, Penny Power, and with her husband Thomas and Glen, built the network up to be a thriving community of like-minded business people that exists in enclaves across many countries around the world although it would be a stretch to describe it as 'global'.

In seeking a new CEO on his blog this week, Thomas has expressed in the Q&A that maybe someone from outside the Ecademy should be brought in for fresh input and thought to take the network forward to 2020 and I agree (for what it's worth).

You see Ecademy is quirky. It has never exploded in membership as did Facebook or LinkedIn and it has at its core around 3,000+ paying memberships which, along with advertising and sponsorships, has provided a nice income stream. It lends itself to artisan networkers who can refer business opportunities to one another and the main benefit for some is to organise live breakfast meetings which have cost attached but can benefit people. There are some trading corners but I am glad to say these are not 'snake oil' remedies to business. Much of it is based around techniques to make Ecademy work for people or business tips in an online world generally. That's good and valuable, in my opinion.

In the inevitable, almost familial way that is peculiar to Ecademy, several people have lent their support to one individual and prominent member of the network who has been a great protagonist for the network. In response, that individual has laid down a manifesto of sorts of how he sees the future which sees a massive explosion in membership, particularly in China, followed by, or perhaps initiated by, an IPO on the Nasdaq.

As noble as the ideas are, I am sure Thomas and Penny are looking at one another and thinking, 'Err, I think not'. That isn't because they don't have dreams and ambitions but let's face facts. Today's IPOs of social networking companies are based roughly on $300 a member if you look at Facebook or LinkedIn which would make Ecademy potentially worth $200m. But that's just an arbitrary number as the scale of these operations are immense with 100s of millions of sign ups which have massive potential for monetisation. Investors in the US want BIG numbers and $200m just doesn't do it for them. Even if you were to boost membership ten fold it still would not float their boat in today's hyped bubble of valuations.

And China is fraught with problems as Google knows. There is a Chinese Facebook and I don't think it is fair to assume that any online network can just go there and thrive. China likes its own brands and that's that.

The issue, I see it for Ecademy, is that it has had a great run for 13 years but in that time it has taken a specific pathway, been very folksy and has had huge dichotomy with its membership as executives and founders. That accessibility to the founders, even as it has grown, has actually continued and makes it a special place of its own. Break that, and I could argue that Ecademy could descend into an amorphous blob of users dissapating value.

And in some ways that is where this member's manifesto misses the point. To scale Ecademy is first a huge technical issue that the whizz kids of social networking have cracked already but the viral marketing funding required would be enormous too. Taking Groupon as an example, it has spent over $200m in scaling itself so far and it will consume its IPO input of $750m in just a couple of years such is the cost of customer acquisition in this game. And yet Groupon has enormous revenue flow already.

Thomas and Penny are not unambitious people but in the world of IPOs of social networking companies there is only one motto, 'Think big and forget about how you make money - someone else will figure that out'. That domain is not for the fainthearted and, as an old fart in a PC world I can say this, it's a young person's game.

The fact is that the Ecademy has a niche market and my old mentors at Frontline always used to say that in the world of commerce you either'Get big or get niche'. The Ecademy needs to stay niche but it does need fresh ideas and impetus. It will require new membership but I think it needs to build on its platform to trade and keep its highly interactive membership principles. Spreading that appeal to others will be more evangelical than mass market led.
As for China? Well, it would be a brave person who attempts to put a commercial network in that country that is not under tight control of the Chinese for all aspects of its business. A franchise springs to mind but even that is stretching it.

What I would say is that the CEO of Ecademy has much more to get stuck into and I think is one of the most attractive roles in the online world. The Ecademy is almost the CBI of the online world. It represents in no small way the interests of thousands of artisan traders who may not even qualify as SMEs. In the exciting worlds of The Cloud, they are the targets of just about every vendor of software and services who cannot afford to sequentially talk to them to sellto. The Ecademy has a dichotomy with them all, the network trusts one another and the community talks together.

What greater potential but to create a community of vibrant businesses, small and large, who get their software and services to run their businesses through one interactive portal that also serves as their 'business network'.

Daft? Amazon are doing it for consumers with The Cloud. And every software vendor in the business would love to answer the question of how to get to small businesses.

Now there's a little snippet of strategy to run up the flagpole and see who salutes, eh? Good luck Thomas and Penny - The Ecademy in 2020 could be a very exciting place.

1 comment:

pennypower said...

Nigel, what a lovely Blog with the right insights. Thank you. I agree we are in for some changes for sure. We are unique (and "quirkie") and we support the 1-9 employee size of business, which is 3.3 million is size, so I think the growth looks good as more and more come online and want to be supported and have a voice.
I was really impressed by the thoughts you have and the understanding of who we are. Only one small edit, which I know you asked me to check - we have over 3,000 paying members, which makes a difference in terms of the attractiveness of this proposition for the CEO.
Thomas and I are definitely seeking a special kind of person, we wnat to really slim down the interface and what we show the world, we want to focus on what we are strong at, which is 'the s' in SME and those who wnat to grow though Digital. We want someone who does care for the growth of this sector, as more and more people will go this route for their way of feeding themselves. We want someone to shake it up and leverage the brand and goodwill that we have created for the last 13 years. Should Thomas and I remain so closely embedded in the community? Well, they will always feel like my family, but I am open to advice!
Sending love to you Nigel, one of the special people that touched my life in the 1980's and remain a good man to know.
P.S. I here there is a Rapid Recall Reunion soon - you going?