Remember when the Internet
AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy? Your parents probably still think it is. Marc Andreessen, however, knew the Internet was much more than the one-size-fits-all offering. The Web browser, or more specifically Andreessen's Netscape Navigator, changed that.
Fast-forward to today's Web 2.0 and think of the current one-size-fits-all social networks:
. Gina Bianchini, CEO of
, believes she has a solution for today's problem by allowing anyone to build their own social network with
(What You See Is What You Get) tools to customize it as they wish.
This is not Bianchini's first company. In 2000, she launched Harmonic Communications, which helped marketing and advertising agencies track, measure and optimize their online and offline spending. Before she sold her company to Japanese advertising agency Dentsu in 2003, Bianchini, 36, approached Andreessen, 37, with her idea for Ning. Andreessen, having already changed the Internet once, believed in the idea. The two co-founded Ning in 2004 and launched the Ning platform in 2007.
"Our fundamental philosophy is that people have many different facets of themselves," says Bianchini. "The model we believe in is most closely mirroring what people do in the real world in their daily lives."
Essentially, why join a network to connect to everyone, when you can hyper-niche your networks for the various aspects of your life? If you like celebrity chef
Giada De Laurentiis
and are an
, you may not want to mix those circles. Fortunately, social networks have been created on Ning for both those groups. Furthermore, users sign in once and are able to bounce from one network to the next -- no more "walled gardens."
Today, more than 630,000 social networks have been created on Ning, ranging from
The Jazz Network
, allowing users to join a portfolio of networks for their various interests. If an individual or business wants to launch a social network, Ning offers options including chat, music, photos, videos, blogs, forums, groups, an event calendar, RSS feeds and more. Users can even add their own logo, plus networks can be fully customized through open CSS for look and style.
Going forward, Bianchini says the company will continue to improve high-use features such as its media player and launch network applications around the end of January.
"What that essentially will mean is that any third-party developer who wants to create a new feature for networks across the Ning platform can upload it, and any network creator can take advantage of that new feature with a click," says Bianchini.
As an example, if a network creator wanted to add an e-commerce store, he could have it seamlessly integrated into his network with a single click. All of today's current features are free, including the initial network setup. Ning drives revenue by hosting ads on the created networks. In addition, Ning also offers a few premium services. For monthly fees of $24.95, creators can remove Ning promotion links and control their own ads (or remove them completely). For $4.95 per month, they can run the network on their own domain.
The company had a valuation of $500 million earlier this year before Ning secured its fourth round of financing for $60 million, bringing total funding to about $104 million. To date, Ning has not accepted any venture capital money, and outside of Andreessen investing his own money, Bianchini says Ning has raised everything through angel investors, friends and several investment firms like T. Rowe Price and Legg Mason. (
owns a stake in Facebook, and
To date, Bianchini says Ning still operates in the red, but the company is generating revenue in the millions and it's increasing every month.
Many economists might see 2009 as a crater, but the roots of Ning are strong and built to run lean, Bianchini says. The company was able to launch its platform in 2007 with only 20 people. Even today, this half-a-billion-dollar company runs with only 125 employees. For other Web entrepreneurs, Bianchini recommends using tools, like Ning, that require the least amount of investment and help their business make the most amount of money. Bianchini also believes that too many businesses put the carriage in front of the horse.
"Build out what you're passionate about in the cheapest way you possibly can, then go out and start talking to people," says Bianchini. "A lot of people still make the mistake of coming up with the PowerPoint presentation and going out and talking with venture capitalists or angel investors and I -- at least not in the last few years -- have not seen that be a very successful path."
The path for Bianchini has changed significantly since the sale of her last company and her connection with Andreessen. Through Ning, other entrepreneurs could make their connection for success -- or at least people to share recipes with.
Steve Cooper was most recently managing editor of Entrepreneur.com and research editor at Entrepreneur magazine. He runs his own business,