Building an Ecommerce Business, Part 17: Growing a Community

An engaged, passionate community around an ecommerce business can drive referrals, loyalty, and sales. But developing and growing that community is not always easy.

I’m the founder of Beardbrand, an ecommerce business in Austin, Texas, that focuses on beard care and men’s grooming. This is episode 17 in my series on building an ecommerce business from the ground up. The previous installments are:

For this installment, I spoke with Andrew Youderian. He’s the founder of eCommerceFuel, a popular, private community of ecommerce merchants who communicate via an online forum and, also, at meetups and at an annual conference. We discussed Younderain’s ecommerce background and the challenges in growing private and public communities.

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

Eric Bandholz: How did you come to launch eCommerceFuel?

Andrew Youderian: I went into the finance world for a couple of years after college. I got burnt out. I started an ecommerce business selling, of all things, CB radio equipment. That was in 2008. I ran that for a couple of years and started another ecommerce business selling trolling motors, for fishing.

Along the way, I learned a few things about ecommerce, met some people, and launched, in 2012, eCommerceFuel, which has evolved into a community for seven-figure ecommerce sellers. I’ve since sold the other two businesses. I focus all my time on running the community. That’s my story.

Bandholz: What was the idea behind starting a community?

Youderian: When I started eCommerceFuel, I liked ecommerce, and I felt like I add value in the space given my experience. I hoped to create a viable business out of it. I enjoyed connecting with other ecommerce folks, and there wasn’t a community for established merchants. I spent three or four months putting time and energy into it. People got value out of it, so I stuck with it.

Bandholz: We’re trying to build a community here at Beardbrand. It’s very challenging. How do you convince people to join eCommerceFuel?

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

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

Youderian: It’s not impossible, but it’s more challenging with a product-based business unless you have a product that folks are passionate about it. That’s not the case for CB radios.

Bandholz: Let’s discuss managing the community. In those early days with your first members, how did you make sure that the conversations continue?

Youderian: I spent a year writing around ecommerce and building connections before I launched the community. That was crucial. It’s tough to start a community from scratch or without any network. I built a seed list of about 150 people who I thought would be good members. Once I had that list, I opened a forum.

Over 30 to 45 days, I slowly added those 150 people — four this day, five the next day. I introduced them to other members. I was very involved with starting discussions, asking people to weigh in. The initial activity, introductions, and discussions were very much driven by me.

As the snowball grew, I was able to back off. But it was probably 18 months, maybe even two years, before it was self-sustaining.

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

Youderian: Probably 350 to 450.

Bandholz: What platform would you recommend to listeners who want to start a community?

Youderian: Platforms are tricky. The personal aspect of a community is more important than the technology. That said, I prefer having our own forum software. We can set it up how we want and customize it. It gives us way more control.

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

Bandholz: EcommerceFuel is a private community. Search-engine bots cannot access it. Should ecommerce merchants consider a private community or a public one, open for anyone to read and for search bots to crawl?

Youderian: It depends on your goals. For an ecommerce store, it could make sense to have it public for the marketing benefit and for the search engine traffic. Our community is private because we often talk about confidential topics that affect employees, competitors, and things like that.

Bandholz: eCommerceFuel is a paid membership model. Why is that?

Youderian: The community is our product. That’s what we’re investing in. If it weren’t paid, I’d have to do something else. People value what they pay for. We get more buy-in from people if they pay for it.

Bandholz: It’s been about a year that we’ve had our private, paid community at Beardbrand. There are a lot of online communities that provide grooming and style advice. We wanted to provide a safer place for people to open up and share their style transformations.

Youderian: There’s something nice about having a private community with some level of vetting and some level of privacy.

Bandholz: Talk about your level of vetting. What is the process?

Youderian: It’s evolved over the years. When we started, members had to do $50,000 per year in revenue. Then as the community grew, we’ve increased that to $1 million per year for most members. But we’ll definitely let people in if they’re lower than that and they have a great brand, or we think they’d be a great addition to the community.

In terms of vetting, people have to apply. They share their experience — what their skills are, what they can give to the community. They tell us about their business. We’ll take a look at all of that. If we have doubts about their revenue, we’ll ask for proof.

Bandholz: Are you purposefully keeping the community at a certain size?

Youderian: Yes, we’re keeping at roughly 1,000 members, at least we have for the last year or so. The reasons are two-fold. One, community, by definition, is of a limited size. The bigger you get, the harder it is to keep strong connections.

The second part has to do with competitors. We try to foster transparent discussions. The more people you have, the more chances that it includes direct competitors.

Bandholz: What you have done with your community is terrific. But there’s added value and power to EcommerceFuel with your events. Could you talk about that?

Youderian: It’s like any relationship. You visit on the phone or chat or video. You get to know someone at a little bit. But the rapport increases by like 10-times when you meet in person.

We do an annual event called eCommerceFuel Live. When we look at it from a money-making standpoint, it’s not the best use of our time. But it’s crucial for connecting members, for strengthening those bonds, and for building trust.

Bandholz: What has been your biggest mistake in terms of building your community?

Youderian: When we started, we let in a lot of people. We let in folks from major ecommerce platforms, such as Shopify. We let in service providers, store owners, and employees. That worked well in terms of building momentum.

But we decided three or so years ago not to give full access to employees of platforms and providers. We found that it restricted candid conversations from merchants who wanted to criticize those companies and solicit advice from other merchants.

So our mistake was not thinking carefully enough about whom we were serving.

See the next installment, “Part 18: Selling the Company.”

Eric Bandholz
Eric Bandholz
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