Female Heroes Interview: Tara Hunt

 Every week we will be publishing an interview with one of our female internet heroes. This is an opportunity for you to MEET interesting women, READ about their WORK, THINK about how they PLAY the internet industry and see how you MATCH them. Be inspired! We are kicking off with Tara Hunt.

Whereas most business-minded people may be obsessed by raising capital, Tara Hunt's message is to raise ‘social capital'. It means finding the communities that matter to your business, connecting with them and spending time in them. Tara Hunt, author, blogger and founder of community marketing company Citizen Agency, brings thenextwomen the message on succesful entrepreneurship: making use of networks, contacts and two-way communication is the way to conduct business in the 21st century. "You need to give to get."

  • Tell me about how you started out in the business?

Citizen Agency is kind of a concept that is in progress, because it is such an new area. essentially what my business does is community marketing. But putting it like that does not capture all we work on. When I work with a client, it is around helping them connect to their customer community. Whether they are already sharing love for product, spending time with them, creating experience with the product.

  • Can you give an example or case?

A company we work with: Timbuk2 makes bags. A lot of people loved to take pictures with their bag and put them on Flickr. They did not know how to deal with that. So we started working on them to interact with their community. We helped them put together a ‘get satisfaction'; we created an amazing customer service tool, where people could give them ideas, ask questions about their bags, put their pictures up there, problems they could put up as well. So Timbuk2 could interact with them.

  • Why was Citizen Agency set up?

There seemed to be a void in marketing. I have been working in online marketing for nine years. The online medium was approached by a lot of companies as a one-way medium: lets get our google rankings better, lets figure out ways to create Myspace pages, lets create Facebook pages. So people were using this great two-way medium to do one-way communication. Nobody was out there in the marketing network saying: "listen, instead of building applications, let's become part of the medium; building relationships, interacting on a meaningful level, listening to customers a bit more." Companies needed to learn to interact in the online-community. Nobody was providing that coaching at the time, so we did.

  •  How did you arrange financing for it?

We were profitable from day one. We had no savings. We did not have any debts. It started from zero and went upward. What is really unique, and something that I try to teach others is raise your social capital. When I started Citizen Agency, I was very known for the work I did at the start-up Ojos. So lots of people were interested in working with me. Then, as we started the company we could use that goodwill, and sign up clients straight away. That was unique, but that is because I raised my social capital.

  • How do you see the future for the (internet) business you are in?

I don't think we have even explored the power of the medium that we call the internet fully. There is much more there to explore and exploit. It is a beautiful medium that allows people to connect across the world in very significant ways. So, in that end, I think, right now, we see internet in our browser and our desktop. I think that will change, definitely we will see desktop become more connected and acting more than the internet. You already see this with i-tunes of Apple. And Windows also tries to go down that path. We have internet connectivity in all our devices wherever we go. The lifestyle of the future would be all these devices talk to us and to each other.

  • Tell us about your upcoming book on the future of the internet, specifically social networks?

The Whuffie Factor is about shifting your thinking from the idea of using or tapping social networks to the idea of creating relationships within social networks: raising social capital or Whuffie. The word Whuffie comes from a Corey Doctorow (BoingBoing) science fiction novel called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom where he talks about the future of capital. The usual economic incentives have disappeared from the book's world. Whuffie has replaced money, providing a motivation for people to do useful and creative things. A person's Whuffie is a general measurement of his or her overall reputation, and Whuffie is lost and gained according to a person's favorable or unfavorable

My argument is that the future is now in online communities. This is how we relate to one another. The book gives 5 keys to raising Whuffie in online communities: turn the bullhorn around (listen, don't yell), become part of the community you serve, create amazing customer experiences, embrace the chaos and find your higher purpose.

  •  What characterizes US start-up culture?

America has special qualities that celebrate the entrepreneur which are unprecedented. I have not seen that level of encouragement anywhere else. Especially not in Canada. It is growing in Europe, but it is not quite there yet. The US has built an amazing entrepreneurial infrastructure; there is funding, there are tons of rewards for entrepreneurs. It is also built into people attitudes; entrepreneurs are heroes.

  • Who has inspired you? Did you have any mentors or advisors?

I had so many mentors over the years. Definitely, mentorship is so important. While I was setting up Citizen Agency, I talked to many people. Kathy Sierra has been my mentor, she had great advice to give.

But I had many mentors along the way. I look up to every woman in technology who has gone anywhere, Gina Bianchini from Ning, Arianna Huffington, Chris Messina. All these really strong women run significant companies.


  • What explains your success?

What has worked for me, has worked for a lot of people: raise social capital. You need to give to get. Everyone is googlable. If you are not, you don't exist any more. You need to build a reputation. Networks are so important for success. So continue to grow those. And if you need to volunteer, do it.

  • Do you have a work/private balance?

I love my work, I spend too much time doing it. Maybe my son will say one day that his mother neglected him... Work-life balance is not really possible while you grow your career, you have to make sacrifices.

  • What is a female entrepreneur to you?

An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur, but a female one has a special quality. There could be things that we can totally learn from the boys, but what we can bring to the table is our strength in relationship building, positive deal making, the non-zero sum game of cooperation. I would say female entrepreneurs bring co-competition to the new age of the web.

  • Do women "pitch" their company different than men?

I think we have similarities and differences, but we are the same in many ways. We are all entrepreneurs...we all have a vision, instead of working for someone else's ideas. But men are generally better at targeting goals and going for them, building relationships towards goals. Obviously this will not apply to everybody, but this is what I would say.


What is web 2.0?
To me it means three overriding themes. First openness; the throwing away of closed door meetings, all the things we kept as secrets before. Secondly, collaboration; definitely blogs, are the tools that allow us to work together. The third one is community, it is unfortunately an overused term, I do still find that about 2.0. It is about people first, about creating a sense of belonging. People who thought they were alone, find out that there is a group for them.
Why do you blog?
It has been good for business. But also for me it is a good way to get my thoughts out there and have other people check them. When I put a post out, people agree or disagree and tell me why; I have learned a lot from that.
How many visitors does your blog have?
I have 15.000 uniques a month, that is the size. The regular readership would be about a tenth of that.
Do you have an online community?
I am part of many communities, I don't know if I have one around me yet. I think at some point I may. My ideas generate a lot of interest. But I think it is more about my ideas than me.

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