Rosemary O’Neill is CMO and co-Founder of Social Strata, pioneers and innovators in the online community platform industry.  She has 20+ years of leadership in the online community space as an entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. She supports businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations as they engage with fans, customers, partners, and internal teams. She is also a recognized HR innovator, appearing on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to discuss Social Strata’s innovative unlimited paid leave program.

Q: What inspired you to found Crowdstack and what were the main challenges you faced?

Actually, my husband Ted started the company and I came on board as co-founder early on. We’ve been growing the company together for more than 20 years now. Crowdstack itself (our community platform) is our current flagship platform. One of our early challenges is hard to believe now, but we had to convince people that using software “in the cloud” was actually OK. They were so used to downloading and managing software that it was definitely a hurdle. Sometimes you just have to stick with what you know is right until the market comes around.

We also made the decision pretty quickly that we wanted to fund the growth of the company purely from profits, rather than venture capital. It has been important to us that we retain control so that we can continue to be only beholden to our customers, rather than external investors. Deciding to bootstrap means that we face challenges of resource balancing and more conservative growth, but in the end it means better service for our customers and that’s what matters the most.

Rosemary O’Neill

Q: In your opinion, what are some key opportunities in the community building space going forward?

There is a significant shift happening right now, in that online community as a concept is getting increased attention at the same time the big social networks are stumbling over data privacy and ownership challenges. I see a huge opportunity for true community building that marries the best of owned/branded platforms with the best of social networks.

There is also a great chance to build community tools that the average person can use, because there are so many use cases for groups to engage online, and not all of them involve Fortune 500 corporations.

Q: What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

We are software-as-a-service, with an annual/monthly subscription model. Within the last few months, we chose to move to an unlimited model for usage; this enables us to be fully aligned with the interests of our customers. They want to freely grow their communities without worrying about scaling costs, and we want them to grow too!

We’ve always grown based primarily on word of mouth; in fact, Ted pioneered the use of the “powered by” link at the bottom of the page, making every community in essence an ad for new communities. The great thing is that this only reinforces our message of connecting people and building community.

Q: Do you think luck played a role in the success of your company?

Only if luck involves sweat, blood, and tears! I’m a firm believer that you make your own luck, by showing up every day, saying yes to opportunities, and putting good karma out into the world on a consistent basis.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

From a business perspective, I see us moving to meet that market need for community that’s simple, social and an engine of growth. I’ve got some big plans for using my personal brand to help people squeeze more juice out of life, including an upcoming podcast/show launching in the next few weeks.

Q: If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

This is a tough question! I don’t really have any regrets about the way our business has evolved. I would say that there have been times we thought headcount was important, and it turned out not to be true. You can accomplish more sometimes with a really passionate, smaller team than you can with a huge squad of people. I’d advise new founders to be really conservative with hiring.

Q: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Top of mind right now is my friend Liz Strauss, who we recently lost to cancer. She was a publisher, speaker, author, and all-around badass.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from her is the power of asking questions. Being able to ask for help, ask for access, ask the next question when you’re actively listening. She was the greatest question-asker I’ve ever met.

Q: What are your favorite books?

I have to mention Liz’s book, “Anything You Put Your Mind To.” It contains tons of wisdom written in the form of a story. Also, my copy of Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is pretty dog-eared. My nightstand is pretty stacked, so it’s hard to pick favorites!

Q: What's your advice for female founders who are just starting out?

As much as you can, don’t think of yourself as a “female founder.” Identify yourself as a founder, entrepreneur, business owner, period, full stop.

Expect to get knocked down, but build a mindset that helps you get up again and again, dust yourself off, and try something different.

Surround yourself with people who make you want to level up your own game consistently, and be ruthless about avoiding negative people.