Nora Abousteit: Co-Founder BurdaStyle & Founder Kollabora: Contribute To Others’ Success and Yours Will Follow

In the words of Fast Company, Nora Abousteit is a "rare leader who can pull together technology, publishing, and fashion, and inspire people".

Nora recently founded Kollabora.com, a social marketplace for craft and hobby supplies with multiple maker communities. Kollabora will launch in the first quarter of 2012 with fashion forward DIY projects in jewelry, knitting, and sewing.

With a love for interaction and innovative technology, before starting Kollabora, Nora reinvented an old sewing magazine into the DIY fashion community BurdaStyle.com, with over 700,000 members; now an icon in the sewing community.

Nora began her career at German power-publisher Hubert Burda Media and is part of the founding team of the DLD (Digital Life Design) conference. 

She has been invited to share her experience at Picnic, FOO (Friends of O'Reilly Media), Parsons School of Design, Stream, the World Economic Forum Media Summit, and NY Forum. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, BusinessWeek, Women's Wear Daily, and Fast Company. She was just elected to the board of the Craft and Hobby Association.

Nora grew up in Germany, lives in Brooklyn, NY and holds a degree in Middle East Studies, Political Science, and Philosophy from the American University in Cairo. 

We spoke to Nora about how she attracted 700,000 members to her site; about being invited to speak at the World Economic Forum; and about learning to make shoes!

TNW: What was the inspired moment that led you to launch BurdaStyle?

NA: I was working in the staff of Hubert Burda (owner of German publishing house Hubert Burda Media) and heard that he wanted to do something new with an old fashion print magazine with sewing patterns that his mother Aenne Burda had founded.  That was back in 2006, and the magazine had an average reader age of 66 years. I had started to sew as a teenager (made my first money sewing) and have a love for technology (I am part of the founding of the DLD conference (dld-conference.com, by now Europe's most important design, technology, and media conference). This seemed like the perfect project for me and I just kept on knocking on the door pitching ideas till I was given a budget to start.

TNW: BurdaStyle has half a million members and is growing at a phenomenal rate of 10,000 members every 4 weeks, with 415,000 unique visitors and 6.5 million page views per month. What is your advice for founders looking to increase traffic to their site?

NA: We're actually now by over 700,000, growing 10,000 - 20,000 members per month with over 500,000 uniques. 

How to increase traffic depends on the site I would say. Firstly, understand what kind of value you give to the user. Listen to them! See what they're looking for.  Also, help influencers and multipliers (e.g. bloggers). If they think what you do is relevant, they will talk about it. 

Jeff Jarvis says the best thing you can do is be a platform for other people to succeed. I think that is very powerful. Make sure you contribute to other people's success, yours will follow. 

At the same time, most sites yield good results with a combination of SEO. Facebook ads are great, especially when you're niche: Facebook can target potential users perfectly since they say in their profile what kind of interests and hobbies they have and what they like. So obviously if my hobby is sewing, I will be interested in a sewing website. 

TNW: How important is technology to the success of your company?

NA: We're an online business, so without all this technology we would still exist as a print magazine (and yes, of course print magazines also use technology to be produced). However, providing PDF patterns for instant download (you can print them at home and assemble them) wasn't possible before. Also, the fast and multiple way of connecting people is totally new. 

But at the same time, we're not inventing new technology. We use technology so we can focus on content and community. For us it's important to have voice and to provide content and connections that are relevant to the users. We're using existing tools and we're applying them to an old business, hence rejuvenating it. 

However, you have to be on top of new technology trends to understand how people communicate and connect with each other to participate in that conversation and release new features regularly and hence making sure people know about you and stay with you. 

By now I believe technology is horizontal. This is a big chance for many not-so-tech people to come up with great ideas for existing industries that need renewal. So technology is essential 

TNW: How did you raise investment for BurdaStyle? Do you have any fundraising advice for female founders?

NA: Raising money for BurdaStyle was not that difficult since it is an internal startup and the owner wanted to make it happen. However, I just started a new company (Kollabora.com, to be launched in a few weeks) and raised some money for that in the market. 

In general I recommend to start getting acquainted with the VC world as early as possible. Talk to people that raised money and ask for advice. Get to know VCs as early as possible so they can get to know you and see that you're making progress. Also, make sure your industry is relevant to the VC’s portfolio, many say clearly on their website what they're looking for and what they're not interested in. Make sure to understand term sheets, have someone sit down with you and talk you through it. 

Some investors seem to be more open to female founders than others, check their team and portfolio and see how many female founders they have; it'll be easier to talk to the ones that support women.

TNW: How did you monetise the site in the early days and how has that changed as the site has grown?

NA: In the beginning most of the monetization was via pattern sales and traditional banner advertising. We realized though that there was a strong demand from brands to interact and connect with potential consumers, so we launched so-called conversational activities, e.g. contests, sponsored techniques, etc. For example, we did a scarf dress competition with Bernina that yielded 700,000 page views. We also organized sewing courses and events for partners. Our conversational advertising activities now yield more revenue than the pattern and traditional banner sales.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

Smart and nice (humble) people. Everything else is a drag and unpleasant for everyone involved. And yes, nice is a must.

I like to hire people who were recommended by good people. Good people usually know good people. Also, a friend recommended that I involve the team in choosing their new colleagues, which I do now. After all, they have to work with the person. And if the person doesn't turn out as expected, the team feels responsible to make it work since they choose that person. It helps team work!

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

NA: The biggest challenge with BurdaStyle has been to be part of a top-down approach environment that publishing houses cultivate.

Hierarchies and titles count a lot. I think to push ideas through in that context was the most challenging. My mantra was always to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. 

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

NA: Hm, besides the book we published (featuring 78 designers from the BurdaStyle community) I guess getting invited to FOO camp and to present to the World Economic Forum's Media Summit. 

Being acknowledged by the most respected tech people, as well as an established organisation like the WEF was very humbling.

TNW: What is next for BurdaStyle? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

NA: As mentioned above, I just started a new company called Kollabora (kollabora.com). 

I am taking the lessons learned with this one brand (BurdaStyle), one interest (sewing), and one product (patterns) and applying it to many products and many brands. Meaning, I am building multiple maker communities with a market place for supplies. People get inspired to make something, find instructions and techniques, and can buy the materials they need for making.  

I believe technology is the norm now. 

TNW: How did you find the transition from entrepreneur to founder leader, and what lessons did you learn from this? What is one lesson about leadership you learned from a boss or mentor?

I am not sure there was a transition.  I think as an entrepreneur you are a leader automatically; you have to inspire and guide people and get the best out of them.

One lesson that I hold dear is that of my first boss when I was a student working as a resident assistant in the dormitory in my school. My boss used to give trouble makers responsibilities, which made them feel good about something they could then accomplish and stop making trouble. I believe this translates into if you want someone to perform well give them trust (which is autonomy) and they will excel. Trust is very important. 

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

NA: I had great conversations including useful advice from accomplished entrepreneurs. I can apply this and it helps me to grow my business. I think that in the future these connections can lead to partnerships and friendships that respectively help to grow the business and help to develop myself personally. I am really happy to be part of it!

TNW: Have you come across any other exciting startups recently and what is it about them that appeals to you?

I love that there are more and more startups that are in the visual and aesthetic space. Everything that stimulates my eyes and beautifies the web, I love it!

At the same time I am a big fan of collaborative learning. So I like Pinterest, Svpply for visual pleasures, and SkillShare and CourseHorse for learning. And I totally love when physical concepts are brought into the digital space (basically most services are a mirror, but some you could never imagine,) like ifttt.com (If this then that). Won't tell you much, but just try it and you'll be amazed!

TNW: Do you sew in your spare time and, if so, which personal project are you most proud of?

NA: I sew, knit, am just learning to make shoes, I used to weld, woodwork (looking forward to TechShop, an open workshop for makers, to finally come to New York!) and basically I love trying to make everything. The last item I knitted was a vest and it's super warm and cozy for the winter, I love it! I think the last sewing items was a dress for the summer, I did it overnight and should've been a bit less impatient :-)

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers?

NA: I can't say this enough: Do what you love and just do it.

There are many people who are not even that good at what they do and still succeed, because they have one important advantage: They do it!

They get out there and try, then listen, revise, and do it again. So do it and be stubborn.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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