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Why Small Business Owners Must Build Strong Online Communities

Back in 2008, Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor at Wired magazine in the ‘90s, introduced the concept of 1,000 True Fans. The idea was simple enough: With social media and other communication technologies available to any of us, we can connect with and build an enthusiastic community around a good idea.

The napkin math is compelling for small business owners: If you find 1,000 true fans, and you can sell them a $100 product, you can make $100,000. A $1,000 product? That’s a million dollars.

But that’s not the true value of community. If as a small business owner you have 1,000 true fans, you have 1,000 people who have your back when times get tough, 1,000 people who will speak on your behalf, and 1,000 people who will evangelize the good work you’re doing.

The key, then, is to build a business that does something that people truly care about. Elle Rowley, founder of Solly Baby, has learned all of these lessons first-hand as an entrepreneur. She started the company in 2011 because she realized that so many mothers, like her, needed a more comfortable, more chic way to carry their newborns.

So, she began making and selling stylish wraps online. In the process, she’s connected with thousands of moms and given many of them a way to express the beauty they’ve found in motherhood. But her community isn’t just her customers. Her community also consists of people who cheer Solly Baby’s success, people who have Elle’s back when she needs it, people who recognize the value in celebrating motherhood.

We spotlighted Elle in our small business success stories guide, but it’s worth digging into her story a little more because it can teach entrepreneurs so much about the importance of building a community around their businesses.

Extra Space Storage: You’ve built a large community around your brand. What are your thoughts about the relationship between community and brand?

Elle Rowley: I think it’s important to be aware of the kind of community you want to build and to then make sure that the brand you are building is in line with that community in values, aesthetic and interests. I also feel that the trust your community puts in your brand should be valued and respected. I have seen many brands disrespect their community in terms of the content, advertising or quality of products they create, and it’s amazing how quickly that is felt by their communities.

EXR: What are some strategies you’ve used to bring together such a large group of engaged fans, supporters and customers?

Elle: I think some has come about from engaging a lot of social influencers who engage their audiences and connect them with our brand, but mostly from connecting directly with our customers through social media. We really care about their experience with our brand and our product, and we support them every step of the way.

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EXR: What role does community play in pulling you through tough times in business?

Elle: I really get strength through the positive experiences of our customers, so literally dozens of times, when we have been at a particularly sticky point in the business, I have gone back to emails and letters I have received from our community, letting us know how our product has positively influenced their lives as a parent. Not being formally trained in business, that encouragement means a lot to me when I start to self-doubt.

EXR: You told bossladies magazine that you really struggled after the first year in business with anxiety and not taking care of yourself as much as you should. Can you speak about what steps you took to address those issues?

Elle: When you are in the startup phase, it’s so easy and even tempting to let your business consume you. I had never done anything so all-consuming besides having children, so I didn’t know how to balance business and family or business and anything, really. Once I started to feel the depression with the anxiety, I stopped and told my husband the depth of what I was going through. He stopped and we walked through, step by step, what changes needed to be made to get me out of the hole I was in.

I was open to medicine, but I wanted to make a few lifestyle changes first, which really made all the difference. I started exercising daily, started a whole foods diet and set stricter work hours. Those three changes alone immediately got my head above water. More than that, I am so grateful I had a partner I could process and work through it with.

EXR: What were some other challenging aspects of entrepreneurship that you hadn’t accounted for initially? Any tips for the rest of us?

Elle: That the energy a business needs really doesn’t stop. When the energy stops, the growth stops. There is no coasting in entrepreneurship, so have a long-term plan for your involvement with it.

EXR: What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs about persevering through tough times?

Elle: Know your mission in your business so you don’t get lost in it. Come back to that over and over again. And know where your power comes from and work from that place. Don’t work from your weaknesses.

Images by: Nicolas Green, ©Solly Baby