I recently got a chance to interview Gina Bianchini, co-founder of Ning, a social networking publishing platform. When I asked her what her dream exit would be. it was pretty clear what she hoped for Ning.
“When Marc [Andreesseen] and I started Ning, we said, 'Let’s swing for the fence.'"
With $119 million in venture funding raised and a valuation of $750 million at the last round, they're going to have to get pretty close to that fence or beyond it. But with Gina's surprise resignation on Monday, it looks like she won't be the batter with the pressure to hit the ball out of the park.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk to her about a number of topics during our interview, including Ning's business model and the purpose of Ning's site.
When I think of Ning, I can't help but think of Typepad, I told her. It's hardly the same service, I know. But the similarity is in the purpose of the services. They're not designed to be the underlying platform for a large publishing company or large social network. At some point, if a blogger on Typepad wants to run their own "publishing empire," they probably move off to something more "flexible" and "customizable," like WorPpress. At some point, when a company running a social network on Ning wants to provide more robust tools designed specifically for their community, they may have to find an alternative.
In this second part of my interview with Gina, we talk about Ning's business model and various revenue streams. Gina disagreed with my theory that Ning's platform was better suited for smaller social networks and ultimately risks losing people who want to add more features suitable for their community.
“We don’t see many people leave. There’s a specific reason for it. This is hard to do," she said. “There isn’t a sense when you get to a certain size you need to actually bring it in-house or move it to a new platform, because there really isn’t a new platform that’s scaling social experiences the way Ning is scaling them."
Nina explained that people who value "control" over rapid innovation typically lose out. Ning may not offer all the flexibility and control to the user, but it provides innovation.
We then moved to the topic of the future of Ning. Gina said that the next-generation Ning network is being released soon. So, that's one to watch. We were in Ning's beautiful new offices, which has yet to fill out despite the 170 workforce, double from last year. Gina didn't say how many Ning would have by end of this year, but she said the company is aggressively hiring.
As for the business model, Gina touched on three business lines 1) advertising (mostly Google's AdSense 2) Premium services - about 13% of Ning's 2 million members pay for one or more premium services, such as having no ads displayed on the social network, or allowing the social network creator to sell his/her own ads. The maximum amount to be paid is $55 per month 3) Virtual goods, such as "bloody chain saws" being sold on the network Lost Zombies. Ning takes a revenue split with the social network creator.
When I asked which revenue line would be the biggest opportunity, Gina said "rich-immersive" advertising. She wouldn't disclose the CPMs the company is currently receiving. I'm guessing they're probably industry average for a social network, which is probably very, very low and under $1.