June 30, 2009
Gina Bianchini is the co‐founder and CEO of Ning, a platform for creating your own social network for anything. Prior to Ning, she was co‐founder and president of Harmonic Communications which was acquired by Dentsu. She has also held positions at CKS Group and Goldman Sachs & Co. She has a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.B.A from Stanford Business School.
What does focus mean to you and your organization?
Especially as Ning grows, focus for us means having really clear priorities and definitions of success. For example, as we plan for the next quarter, we’re asking ourselves “What are the things that we’re going to look back and judge ourselves on?” For a company of our size – we’ll pass a million social networks on Ning this week – the ability to define success very, very clearly allows us to keep focus while having our tentacles in more things than we could have when we were a much smaller company.
How do you keep focus on what’s important for growth?
Well, hopefully we’re sitting here at the end of the quarter and our definitions of success have led directly to growth. So, if we don’t see a quantifiable increase in X, Y, or Z, then we’ve got a problem. We haven’t defined success correctly then.
Have you made adjustments due to the economy or is it business as usual at Ning?
No, it’s pretty much business as usual. We’ve been very scrappy from the beginning and we’re on a growth trajectory. We’re not in a situation where we had a revenue stream suddenly disappear.
Have you had to say “no” to some things in order to be focused?
We’ve been pretty well focused from the start so we are not going back and cutting a lot of activities now. I think the biggest thing that happens as a company gets bigger and has an established product is that, when you make changes, people care. When you have a million social networks, you can’t wing it the way you could when you had 25,000. Maybe it’s not completely relevant to what other people are going through but, for us at least, quality is our greatest focus right now. Quality and the ongoing effort to make sure that we have the right goals, and that everybody’s on the same page with those goals.
How does your executive team figure out what matters? What are your criteria?
We define it. We say, “Here are the things we think matter. And, based on those, here are the things we’re going to go do, and here’s how we’re going to know if we’re successful.” Our criteria are growth, revenue, and efficiency. Does it move the needle on the business? It needs to be in support of one of these things for it to be something we’d focus on.
How do you make sure everybody’s on the same page?
We communicate to the company at allhands meetings, in emails, at staff meetings, and one‐on‐ones, making sure that everybody has the same simplified message. Then it’s a matter of measurement.
At the end of the quarter, you’ve either done what you said or you haven’t. We just did our quarterly review and, of the ten things we wanted to do, we did eight of them and the other two are going to be things we do in the next three weeks. I think it’s keeping the focus on what really matters as well as defining how we know if we’re successful in a specific timeframe. And, sometimes it’s widening the timeframe a little bit to get done the things that really move the needle.
Have you had a situation where it’s been hard to get your team focused?
No. It’s never an issue of where it’s hard to get the team focused. The thing that actually becomes challenging is when the ground is changing under your feet really, really quickly, and you’ve got a team that you’re managing, and wanting to give them direction, and you don’t actually know what the right things to focus on are because the market conditions are changing. You’re getting new data all of the time.
You can be the smartest person in the world, and the most decisive person in the world, and, yet, if you’re making decisions in that environment, it’s really challenging. You just have to know what’s important to you, and focus in on those things, and then do your best to try to execute against them. It’s really important that you try to get as much clarity as possible.
Could you categorize the ten success measures you looked at last quarter?
Our success measures are 100 percent focused on growth. Specifically, we look for positive impact on the business from key growth drivers like a better user experience, efficiency and performance.
Are there a couple of metrics you find are fundamental to your business, or any business?
I think the metrics to look at are totally based on the business you’re in. Obviously, at the end of the day, revenue and profit matter more than anything else. But every business is different in terms of its critical performance metrics.
Do you think focus for Ning is different than for other businesses?
Nope. While timing and staging of priorities might be different from company to company, at the end of the day, you need to make money.