309: Mighty Networks Founder is Fueling the Passion Economy by Creating Opportunities for Online Course Creators

Gina Bianchini has always loved working with creators. That’s why she co-founded Ning, an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks, with Marc Andreessen in 2005. Even after leaving Ning, she couldn’t stay away from the world of creators for long so she launched Mighty Networks in 2017.

Since then, the team at Mighty Networks has been obsessed with serving “creators with a purpose.” The platform powers brands and businesses that bring people together via online courses, paid memberships, events, content, and community.

In this podcast episode, Bianchini explains why she’s so passionate about providing more opportunities for creators. She also shares her best recommendations when it comes to creating successful online courses and communities, and how her team at Mighty Networks approaches these goals within their own platform.

If there’s any other type of content you’d like to see that would be valuable to you during this time, please don’t hesitate to reach out at [email protected]

Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how’d you get your job?

Gina: How did I get my job? Through a lot of turns and ups and downs, but fundamentally I fell in love with creators, and creators as a customer type, a creator as a way to serve. When I founded Ning back in 2004, when we launched Ning Networks in 2007 and saw almost overnight people start creating the most interesting social networks in their communities, or their own social networks on Ning, for just so many fascinating reasons, so many amazing topics. From people who were launching their own social network for people who were navigating Type 1 diabetes, or for people who were looking to really build their careers as activists or for political campaigns, or people that were really interested in the LA Clippers, or offbeat brides, or all of these things.

What I realised is that this kind of software, the ability to create a community, bring people together, and today, if you fast forward a zillion years, to be able to really create something where people can master something interesting together through online courses, through communities, through networking, through mastermind groups, and for the creator to be able to charge for it is just a magical place to work.

Nathan: Yeah, amazing. How did you start Mighty, your current focus and company? How’d that all come about?

Gina: Yeah, so I left Ning in 2010. We had over 300,000 active Ning networks, serving roughly 100 million people around the world and I knew that I wanted to take a break, but then was ready to continue building for the next chapter for creators. I started earlier than most, but for me, I knew the next generation of these communities that really were going to morph into offering digital products or services, it would be creator led. It would be ad free because the reality is that the most interesting communities tend to be small and actually the creators who run them typically on the subscription side charge a lot of money for them.

So a premium price, relatively small community, or series of online courses, would be more important than an ad model, and that it had to be mobile. It had to be available on every platform. So, that’s really the three pillars that we started Mighty Networks with. We had a precursor company called Mighty Bell, and then really pivoted in September of 2017 to serving creators, small and medium sized digital businesses, really around this notion of being able to bring their community, their online courses, and their payments, together in one place, instantly available on every platform and offered all under their own brand. Because we believed that that was actually going to be how we best be able to realise our vision, which is a world filled with millions of unique and vibrant communities that are creator led, where people are mastering something interesting or important together on their own terms.

If you think about the last two major generational shifts of the internet, from starting with websites to then this more centralised social network and winner takes all world, I believe passionately that the right model for the internet and the right model for the way we connect in the world is in smaller communities that are built around interests and topics and passions and goals, that are led by creators, led by people who understand how to bring a group from point A to point B, even if they’ve never done it before.

Nathan: Yeah, really interesting. I’m really passionate about this particular space, as well, and we’re pretty deep on the digital product side across everything that we create at Foundr so I was excited to speak to you because I had seen Mightybell around for sometime, and yeah, I’m noticing a lot of people starting to use Mighty Networks. The first question I wanted to ask around that is when it comes to I guess when you create a course and having a community, I found from personal experience it’s very difficult to get people off a Facebook group and onto something else.

Gina: Yeah. But they actually have already moved off of the Facebook group. If you are offering online courses, they’re already doing something off Facebook. If you have a website and requiring them to pay in order to be a member of your Facebook group, they’re already moving off of Facebook. I think the majority of the time where people are staying on Facebook is because there’s one, inertia, and two because the packaging of the holistic experience of creating a brand that’s promise is to master something interesting together, we’re just figuring out what those best practises are, what the playbook is for that.

The reality is that we are seeing every single day here at Mighty Networks not just creators wanting to get off Facebook groups, but their members wanting to get off Facebook groups. So, what are the benefits of using a Mighty Network over a Facebook group? Well, first and foremost, it allows for focus. So, this notion that you can’t get people off Facebook groups, it’s actually quite silly. If somebody is paying for a digital product or a service, you know this better than anybody, they’re paying for the promise of something new, a result or a transformation or the ability to get closer to their goals, that they’re not able to get on their own. That’s why somebody takes an online course or joins a membership site. They want to learn something that they believe is going to help them in their lives, right?

Nathan: Yeah.

Gina: Like, that’s what we’re all looking for. That’s why they want the education, that’s why they want the networking opportunities, that’s why they want the community, and they’re willing to pay for it because that result or achieving those goals that they can not achieve on their own is valuable to them. If that’s the case, then this idea that the creator can’t come back and say, “For you to achieve your goals in the way that you want, we want to create our own world where there is focus, where it is easier to meet the people that are the most relevant to you around the things that are most important to you. Members near you, members who are like you, where it’s easier to message people because there’s not all of the noise and clutter that doesn’t provide the focus and the progress that comes from focus when you are creating your own world.”

The second thing is the quality of the conversations that happen off Facebook are simply higher than when you’re on Facebook. I really learned this from one of our hosts, one of our creators named Sarah Bowman who runs Yoga with Adriene’s Mighty Network. Their community that has over 125,000 people in it today, called Find What Feels Good Kula. What she found on Facebook was that because of the way that the news feed is structured, people were as she put it, coming in hot. So, into a yoga community, people were starting fights.

The reason they were starting fights or answering things in a more challenging or angry way is because they’re interacting with their yoga community in the same place that they are fighting with their mother-in-law about politics, where they have just seen 47 things that their friends don’t believe that they’re outraged enough about, because this is the way that Facebook drives engagement. And then they’re trying to interact with their yoga community, with the same vibe. We don’t need that vibe. We don’t need that. When you create your own world, you get to actually set up your own cultural norms.

You get to actually drive the kind of engagement that actually allows people to build the habits that make for better lives, around the things that are most important to them. That’s why they’re willing to pay for it, that’s why they want something that’s delivered to them in a holistic way, where they can, for example, build the relationships that are independent of that fight that they just had with their mother-in-law on their Facebook feed.

So, I believe passionately that we are at the very early stages and early signs, but I think it is building every single day, that creators are going to be able to charge more money for a premium experience that is off Facebook. And by combining their online courses, their community, their payments, their mastermind groups all in one place, they are going to be able to build a much more valuable asset that they can price at a premium, and deliver in a much more delightful way. Both for their members and for themselves.

Nathan: Yeah. Wow, I can see this is something you’re really passionate about and it’s awesome, because yeah, I have a decent understanding of this space. I was excited to speak with you. I’m curious, one thing that I’ve seen as well is when it comes to I guess selling online courses, it’s still in its early stages. Because a lot of people just aren’t used to buying digital products, there’s a lot of scepticism in the market. There’s a lot of rubbish that people sell, let’s be honest. And I’m curious, what is your take on that?

Gina: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think we are going to see some pretty phenomenal and fundamental changes in terms of how we define online courses and online education. Especially premium priced paid online education going forward. I’ll share with you my experience with this. So, in August … First and foremost, I didn’t think that I had anything to offer the world with online courses. We actually built online courses into a Mighty Network, the ability to run online courses within a Mighty Network, because we were hearing so much demand for it.

This was about a year and a half ago. And what was fascinating was as we were talking to people, they’d always start with, “Well, I’ve been running online courses since 1999 and this is how you do it, and you need this LMS. Are you SCORM certified?” And all this stuff. I thought that you literally needed to go to graduate school to run an online course. So I didn’t actually start my own. I’d been asked about it, was like, “Hey, why don’t we do our own course?”

Finally, in August of this year, so after we launched payments, I launched my first online course called Community Design Master Class. We offered it and launched it within our Mighty Network for Mighty Host. We have a slightly different approach to online courses where we have the community and the course together in the same place. Rather than have the content on Teachable or Kajabi, and then a Facebook group, which is standard how people do it today, we actually built the ability to have structured content that functions just like Teachable, but to have the community features together in that same place.

You have a community with essentially the course built-in. It has been absolutely the best thing I have ever done. Again, I’m just using our product the way that it’s built and we’re about to make a number of other improvements, but here is the thing I didn’t know going into this course, is that the way that ideas … It’s not about your content, it’s not about you. It’s about what you structure for other people, and the ability for them to see what others are doing on that same journey, and to learn from each other.

The power of what we’ve created, oh and by the way, we’re earning over six figures now with this course, like in four months. I mean, the reviews of it have been really … We’re honoured and humbled. What we’ve found, though, is we’re not magicians and we’re not geniuses. When you structure an online course to essentially take people on a journey with other people, that’s the key, with other people. And you do it all in the same place, something magical happens. People have more confidence, people understand the topics more, especially the way we’ve set it up as like a five part or five week course where each week we have a concept, a case study, an action and a result. And then we just build on those over the course of five weeks.

We also charged the first time we did it, and for a lot of people, that’s like, “Oh, I have to alpha and beta test my product for free and only then can I charge for it.” I don’t think that’s true, and I think that the people that wait a really long time to launch their courses because they want to make them perfect, and it’s about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on video production for their course, I think all of that is just unnecessary.

Nathan: Yeah, I agree.

Gina: What… fundamentally want is to meet other people who have the same motivation or the same as we call it, a big purpose. And then to go together through a series of steps. I believe that just in terms of our completion rates and what we’re seeing in terms of results, and then people that turnaround and launch really successful Mighty Networks, we’ve seen people go through this master class and do a $50,000 launch in 72 hours, having never thought about having a membership site before.

Again, it’s not because we’re super special. It’s because when your community isn’t an afterthought, and when you’re not limited by what you can do in a Facebook group, you’re able to actually create something much more valuable for people. You’re able to create something that is going to allow your content to stick with people and to really be able demonstrate accountability, social proof, have amazing testimonials, and ultimately have people be able to achieve the results and transformation that they’re willing to pay for and that they can’t get on their own.

As a result of that, I think we’re going to move … It’s going to be slow and then one day it’s going to go very, very quickly, where people realise that online courses aren’t about content. Online courses are actually about community.

Nathan: Yeah, really interesting. I’m curious, you think that people should … The courses shouldn’t be on-demand, they should be done in a sequence.

Gina: I mean, you can do a course on-demand, you just want to make sure that … People spend all of their time on the content, and what I’m suggesting is spend more time thinking about how you connect people to each other, and you’ll do less work. You’ll see better results, and you’ll actually ultimately have to produce less content.

Nathan: Yeah, that’s interesting. Look, I definitely agree. There’s some very, very special around when you take a cohort or a group of people through a process and they share that journey together. I’ve seen that firsthand, when it comes to preparing online courses. There’s no doubt about it. Like, your first batch of students or your first intake when you first launch a course and you take them through that journey, and the friendships that are formed and the connection, there is no doubt, there’s something very, very special about that.
But I guess my question is how do you maintain that over time when you try and sell your course … If you want to sell your course or an asset, like an asset every day, you know?

Gina: Yeah. I think there’s people that have scaled this really nicely, and it’s just about when you have … When you basically can say, “Look, there’s this evergreen course.” It’s like, go through the content so that you have the shared language with the community, but that the community is the reason people stick with stuff. There’s a reason why you don’t go to school by yourself, you know? It’s who’s in your study group? Who are you taking classes with? Those also tend to be the deepest friendships for a lot of people.

So, you can scale it by basically saying, “Here’s the content, here’s the community” and then, “Here’s how to organise for example, your own mastermind group who’s accepting new members.” Or, do you want to start one? We see a lot of successful small groups built within a Mighty Network, related to content as people are scaling up.

Nathan: Interesting. That’s the model, like a lot of personal … Creators, people who have personal brands, or creators, they tend to … That’s the formula, the framework. You create a course and then you have a high ticket or quite an expensive mastermind. So you guys see that happen a lot as well, where it’s kind of-

Gina: Yeah. The reason we see it happen a lot is because those same creators came to us and they said, “Can you put my mastermind groups and my courses together within one branded asset, one branded place, a Mighty Network?” We said, “Huh, that’s interesting. Sure.” And that is exactly what we’re doing.

Nathan: Interesting. These are like the masterminds where people charge a lot of money. Like, we’re talking like tens of thousands of dollars per year and stuff, right?

Gina: Yes. We see that.

Nathan: Okay, interesting. I’m curious because you guys would have an inside look, what makes a successful course? we talk about the community piece, but the content piece I’m curious around as well. What do you think makes a successful course? Because as we both discussed, there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t really about the student, it’s really about … There’s a lot of stuff online about how easy it is to make money and all this other kind of rubbish. What really makes a great course? We talk about community, but what really makes a great course that gets people results?

Gina: Yeah, and I believe that communities and courses are interchangeable, in part because they all … They have the same goal, which is for somebody to master something that is important to them, together with other people. So, when you think about that, here’s what I believe make the most successful online courses. Clarity around the transformation. Where are people starting? Where do they want to go? Does your course take them there, step-by-step? Take them there, step-by-step.

So, what I see that is really interesting is the vast majority of people don’t start with what they want their student to do, or to have as the results and transformation at the end of their course, but it’s what they want to teach, or what they want to put out there, or what they want from people, as opposed to what people want from them. And it sounds like such an obvious distinction, but I regularly see people that believe that it’s about pushing content out, as opposed to structuring the equivalent of an amazing workshop for people, where so much of it is about what that person is going to do, and also the connections that they’re going to make with the other people in that workshop, because that, especially for an instructor or person running a course, you cannot scale everybody asking you the questions. You can’t scale it.

What you can scale is, “Here’s how you are going to deliver on these particular results. Here’s how you’re going to build your spiritual practise. Here’s how you are going to take your user experience, design your career to the next level” and then to push into that course, the connections with other people, that are on the same journey, who are on the same path and who have the same motivations. That is where the magic happens.

I think that if what a person, a creator is focused on is how much content they’re producing, or is their content good enough, I think the best courses I’ve taken and certainly what we’ve emulated with Community Design, is one concept, one case study, one action, and on result in the interval, per week let’s say. People can’t actually consume that much content, but what they can do all the time forever is interact with other people. I think that piece has been missing far too much, or is underappreciated, but especially offer these creators that are selling hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in courses, typically they’re selling that because they’re incredibly good marketers and their content is good, but their community is awesome. I think that that, a lot of people start with community as an afterthought.

Nathan: Yeah, I agree. I’m curious around if you have multiple courses, should you mesh the community together, if it’s around a topic? Like, as an example, you talked about one of your creators that has courses around yoga. If you have five different courses, do you mesh the community together? Obviously you have your cohorts for each different course. I’m curious.

Gina: Yeah, it’s a really good question. In that particular case, they actually don’t offer individual courses. It’s about the community as a whole. So, the way that a Mighty Network is set up, so this sort of answers the structure question, is you have the overarching Mighty Network which is a community. Then, within the Mighty Network, there can be one or more courses or one or more mastermind groups or groups. So, each of the courses has its own community. Here’s the way to think about it in terms of like higher education that we’ve all been in.

We all go to the same college and we even take courses in our major, and so we’re there because we all have that same identity where we’ve raised our hand and said, “This topic is important to us. Yoga is important to us.” And then we dive into the groups and the courses that allow us to go deeper in a particular area that’s important to us, and we’re going to meet people in that course, in that study group, and that’s fantastic. But it doesn’t actually take us away from the fact that we also belong to that overarching community.

When you just sort of think about it that way, it’s kind of obvious that you would want to have a subgroup which is actually built directly into a course on a Mighty Network, as well as have those courses live within the overall community, because that overall community can serve two purposes. One, it can serve alumni, so the people that have taken any of those courses, and want to be in a place where people are speaking the same language and are on the same path. Speaking to people that are going deeper in whatever diet, or we have a number of different keto diet Mighty Networks for example, you want to talk to people that are on that same path.

And then also to be in a specific group with the specific people who are consuming and internalising that programme, that workshop, or that course together, so it’s both.

Nathan: Yeah, I see. I guess when it comes to fostering that community, let’s just say you had five different courses around let’s just say cooking, because I know you have so much experience across Ning and now Mighty, what should people be doing to foster that community?

Gina: We have, as I mentioned earlier, a whole course on this ourselves. The biggest thing for someone to know about community building in 2020 is one, you have to have a very clear and compelling purpose, the motivation for the community. Who you bring together, so that you can master X specific things, so that we can achieve Y benefits. That is incredibly important that it’s exciting, that it is clear, that it is specific, that it is somewhat obvious that you won’t be able to achieve that on your own, and that the rewards for achieving it are profound.

It’s one of the reasons why entrepreneurial or make a million dollars from selling online courses online courses work so well, is that the promise of doing that thing is so compelling. The second thing that you need for a community to really thrive, and our promise of community design is so valuable you can charge for it. Creating a community so valuable that you can charge for it, and so well designed that it essentially runs itself. Well, the way that you create something that essentially runs itself is by creating a weekly calendar.

Some sense of on Tuesdays we do this, on Thursdays we do this, and when you do that, even if somebody isn’t coming into the community, you’re getting in their head as a habit and a way that is very compelling. So, that is really the power of community building and modern community building, a really important mission, purpose, to master something interesting together, combined with the ability to really create it as a habit.

Nathan: Yeah, I see. That’s great advice. Thank you. When it comes to prices, I’m curious to hear your thoughts, because there’s a lot of people that charge a lot of money for these online courses. And there’s a perception that, “As if I’d spend $500, 1000, 2000, $3000 for an online course.” Over time, do you think that because this industry is being … It’s growing and there’s so many creators out there, that prices will go down? Then you look at course platforms like a Udemy or a Skillshare and you can get courses for like … You can get thousands of courses. I’m curious to hear your take there.

Gina: I may sound like a broken record at this point-

Nathan: I know what you’re going to say, yep.

Gina: … but Nathan, fundamentally where is the value coming from? It’s not from your content. It’s from your community. And your unique take on who your content attracts, who your topic attracts, and your ability to craft a community that helps each other, that ensures that people are able to achieve the goals and transformation that they have, and to see the kind of changes that they want to make in their lives. That is where the value comes from.

And so I believe that you are spot on. If someone is just offering content and they are just doing it on these content platforms that do not … That are still using Facebook groups for their community, which I think is going to get grosser and grosser and grosser, then the idea that you’re going to continue to be able to charge a premium is quite low. Reframe that into what is the value proposition that I’m giving someone? The best network for becoming a user experience designer in 2020, with great training, with great networking, and great opportunities. Am I willing to invest a few thousand dollars a year in my career? Absolutely.

Especially if I’m able to make $25,000 more a year because of the connections, the knowledge, and the training that I’m getting. So, I think that online course creators are going to have to get a lot more holistic in what they offer if they want to preserve premium pricing, and to take advantage of the journey that happens for people. Not just thinking that they are … It’s about just feeding people more and more content. There’s only so many videos that someone can watch. There’s only so many PDFs a person can read, and what they want that is never ending is their desire to connect with other people who are on the same path that they are on.

Nathan: Yeah. No, I think you’re really, really on point. That was great advice. I’m curious, because we have to work towards wrapping up, and I know what your answer’s going to be, but I guess please understand I’m asking this question from firsthand experience. This is even before, I think even before … was around. We have tried to build a community within our platform where we host our online content, courses, et cetera, et cetera, premium content. And we found from personal experience that even if we did shut down the Facebook group, try and really push people to go back to the site, back to the site, back to the site, back to the site, people still want to create a Slack group, they still want to create a Facebook group, even if you shut it all down, even if you say the community’s there. It’s just very, very difficult. That’s just from my experience. I’d love to hear your take.

Gina: Are you using a Mighty Network, or are you using your own homegrown platform?

Nathan: Homegrown.

Gina: Yeah, that’s the problem. The challenge is that actually … What people are telling you is that they’re not sure how they’re supposed to use the homegrown solution. Like, it is probably not that intuitive, especially if they’re going back to the things that they’re used to, and that the value proposition is not clear to them for using that. So, unfortunately not all branded platforms are the same. The other thing is, have you also built out your own mobile apps on Android and iOS?

Nathan: No. We’re just working on that.

Gina: Yeah. The other thing is just as a data point, a year ago we saw 30% of our traffic was on iOS and Android. Today, that number is 65%.

Nathan: Yeah, wow.

Gina: Without mobile apps, it’s nearly impossible to see a community really take off and have that journey to master something interesting together take root. I’m certainly a biased party, but I also am like that plastic surgeon who gets the people after they’ve had bad plastic surgery. It’s very challenging to try to build this out yourself. It is much better to work with or use services like a Mighty Network, or others, although I don’t know of a ton of them yet. I think more and more will start to emerge here as all the things I’m saying, it’s not … I just see them because of where I’m sitting, they are facts.

That means more companies will want to try to create solutions for this but being instantly available on every platform when you are building an online course/community solution, and putting that under your brand is actually quite important.

Nathan: Yeah. Interesting. Okay, thank you for sharing. Well look, mindful of your time. We’ll work towards wrapping up. Where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work?

Gina: is probably the best place to start.

Nathan: Awesome. Well look, thank you so much for your time, Gina. I really, really appreciate it and yeah, that was great. Really, really interesting.

Gina: Great. Thank you so much.

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