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Entrepreneur 101: building a successful online community

Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts has built a large and successful online community by fulfilling needs and providing solutions.

Justine Roberts founded the phenomenally successful website and internet community Mumsnet as a way to get answers to her own parenting questions. “It was literally designed to help me become a better parent because it was something I wasn't trained for.

“I wanted to tap into the wisdom of others, and now we have 12 million monthly users across the country.”

As online communities go, that’s fairly hefty. Ms Roberts says the key to Mumsnet’s massive growth over the past 18 years has been absolute clarity about what it does and for whom, “crowdsourced wisdom giving you the best answers to everything,” as she puts it.

“It’s all about the customer and fulfilling their need and making a solution for them,” she adds. “Being customer-centric is my advice for any business.”

“In business, online or offline, the most important thing is to make sure you understand what need you are fulfilling,” says Ms Roberts.

“Mumsnet was always by nature attracting a highly engaged audience that felt they had a stake in the product, so we've always asked our users about decisions around the site and its commercialisation, such as who we work with and how we work with them. Our users feel they have a say.”

Today, Mumsnet has significant operations in e-commerce and advertising, with more than 100 staff operating a website that began, as many do, in its founder’s spare bedroom.

While Ms Roberts notes that some of the mistakes the business made were related to underestimating its potential ‒ leading to underinvestment in process, structures and trademarks, for instance ‒ she maintains that the perception of authenticity has helped keep the brand performing well.

“I suspect I thought its chances of success were very slim, so I didn't really look ahead. I was so scarred by the dot.com crash when we started, and everyone online was laying everyone off and not generating any revenue, that when the environment changed around 2006 we probably should have expanded quicker and been more ambitious.

“But I’m also not sure I had any really firm expectations of what business would be like and I also think I've got hundreds of mistakes yet to make and I'm quite excited about making them because I can keep learning.”

But perhaps it is in teaching others that Ms Roberts can make the greatest difference. At the last count, Mumsnet was attracting 12 million monthly users and around 130 million page views a month, with each visitor spending an average of seven and a half minutes online – terrific figures for most websites.

“We even get requests for people to be banned because they're so addicted,” she jokes. “Of course, that’s not what we're there to do, so we happily comply.”

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