Building an Ecommerce Business, Part 17: Growing a Community

An engaged, enthusiastic community around an ecommerce company can drive loyalty, referrals, and sales. But growing and developing that community isn’t always straightforward.

I am the creator of Beardbrand, an ecommerce business in Austin, Texas, that specializes in beard maintenance and men’s grooming. This is episode 17 in my series on building an ecommerce company from the bottom up. The preceding installments are:

With this installment, I talked with Andrew Youderian. He is the creator of eCommerceFuel, a favorite, personal community of ecommerce merchants who communicate via an internet forum and, too, at meetups and in an annual conference. We discussed Younderain’s ecommerce background as well as the challenges in developing public and private communities.

What follows is our whole audio conversation and a transcript, edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: How did you come to start eCommerceFuel?

Andrew Youderian: I moved to the fund world for a few years after college. I have burnt out. I began an ecommerce company selling, of all things, CB radio equipment. This was in 2008. I ran that for a year or two and began another ecommerce company selling trolling motors, for fishing.

On the way, I heard a couple of things about ecommerce, met some people, and started, in 2012, eCommerceFuel, that has evolved into a community for seven-figure ecommerce vendors. I have since sold another two companies. I focus all of my time on conducting the community. That is my story.

Bandholz: What was the idea behind starting a community?

Youderian: once I started eCommerceFuel, I enjoyed ecommerce, and I felt like I add value in the area given my expertise. I hoped to make a viable business out of it. I enjoyed connecting with other ecommerce people, and there was not a community for recognized merchants. I spent three or four weeks putting time and energy into it. People got value from it, so I stuck with it.

Bandholz: We are attempting to build a community here at Beardbrand. It is very challenging. How can you convince people to join eCommerceFuel?

Youderian: Probably 80 percent of new members come through listening to our podcast or by referrals from existing members. We don’t do lots of marketing.

Bandholz: Can you have built a community for your CB radio company? Is there value in building one around an ecommerce business?

Youderian: It is not impossible, but it is harder with a product-based company unless you’ve got a product that people are passionate about it. That’s not true for CB radios.

Bandholz: Let us talk about tackling the community. In those early days with your very first members, how can you ensure the conversations continue?

Youderian: I spent a year writing about ecommerce and building relations before I started the community. That was crucial. It’s difficult to start a community from scratch or with no network. I constructed a seed list of about 150 people who I thought would be great members. After I had that list, I opened a forum.

Over 30 to 45 days, I gradually added those 150 people — four this day, five the following day. I introduced them to other members. I was quite involved with beginning talks, asking people to weigh in. The first activity, introductions, and talks were very much driven by me.

Since the snowball grew, I was able to back off. However, it was probably 18 months, possibly two decades, before it was self explanatory.

Bandholz: How many members did you have in 18 months, to get into the hands-off stage?

Youderian: Likely 350 to 450.

Bandholz: What platform would you recommend to listeners that wish to start a community?

Youderian: Platforms are catchy. The personal element of a community is much more important than the technology. Having said that, I prefer having our own forum software. We can set it up how we need and customize it. It gives us far more control.

We use community software named Vanilla Forums. But we are soon to migrate to Discourse, a fantastic, reasonably-priced platform.

Bandholz: EcommerceFuel is a private neighborhood. Search-engine bots can’t access it. Should ecommerce merchants think about a personal community or a public , open for everyone to read and for search bots to crawl?

Youderian: It is dependent upon your targets. For an ecommerce store, it might make sense to have it public for the advertising benefit and for the search engine visitors. Our community is personal because we often discuss confidential topics that affect workers, competitors, and things like that.

Bandholz: eCommerceFuel is a paid subscription version. Why is that?

Youderian: The neighborhood is our product. That is what we’re buying in. If it were not paid, I would have to do something different. People value what they pay for. We get more buy from individuals if they cover it.

Bandholz: It has been about a year that we have had our personal, paid community in Beardbrand. There are a great deal of online communities offering grooming and fashion advice. We wanted to supply a safer place for people to open up and discuss their style transformations.

Youderian: There is something nice about having a personal community with some amount of vetting and some amount of privacy.

Bandholz: Talk about your degree of vetting. What is the procedure?

Youderian: It has evolved over the years. When we began, members needed to do $50,000 each year in revenue. Then as the community grew, we have increased that to $1 million annually for most members. But we will definitely let people in if they are lower than that and they have a terrific brand, or we think they would be a fantastic addition to the community.

Concerning vetting, people must apply. They share their expertise — what their abilities are, what they can contribute to the community. They tell us about their company. We’ll have a look at all of that. When we have doubts about their earnings, we will request proof.

Bandholz: Are you purposefully maintaining the community at a specific size?

Youderian: Yes, we are keeping at approximately 1,000 members, at least we have for the past year or so. The motives are two-fold. One, community, by definition, is of a limited size. The larger you get, the tougher it is to maintain strong connections.

The next part has to do with competitions. We attempt to foster transparent discussions. The more people you have, the more opportunities that it includes direct rivals.

Bandholz: what you’ve done with your community is terrific. But there is added value and capability to EcommerceFuel with your own events. Could you speak about that?

Youderian: It is like any relationship. You see the phone or chat or video. You get to know someone at a little bit. However, the rapport increases by like 10-times when you meet in person.

We do an annual event named eCommerceFuel Live. When we look at it from a money-making perspective, it is not the best use of our time. But it’s critical for linking members, for strengthening those bonds, and for building confidence.

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Bandholz: What’s been your biggest mistake concerning building your community?

Youderian: once we began, we let in a great deal of people. We allow in people from leading ecommerce platforms, such as Shopify. We let in service suppliers, shop owners, and workers. That worked well concerning building momentum.

But we chose three or so years ago to not provide complete access to workers of platforms and suppliers. We discovered that it limited candid discussions from merchants who wanted to criticize those businesses and solicit advice from different merchants.

So our mistake wasn’t thinking carefully enough about whom we were serving.

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