How To Build A Real Community Based Highly Profitable Online Membership Business
Violette has managed to build a real online community with her FemCity brand we discuss how she did it and the lessons she has learned.
Violette created FemCity while developing a Public Relations + Marketing business. She was seeking a community of women to network and mastermind with monthly. She couldn’t find what she was looking for, so she created a business community for women. For the first year, she only hosted workshops and the series in Miami. From there, women around the world started to ask for their own FemCity community in their backyard. Today we have over 140 communities in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean.
Key Subjects We Discuss During the Show
1 – Advice on how to build real community online?
2 – Key things learnt connected to building a successful online membership based business?
3 – What were some the major business problems Violette faced building up the business and how did she overcome them?
4 – What are some of the things Violette would like to share with the audience connected to things she would have like to have known at the beginning?
5 – Where would Violette like the FemCity brand be in 18 months time?
This weeks show is Sponsored By Kinsta Hosting
Jonathon: Welcome back folks to the WP tonic show. This is episode 407. We got a fabulous guest. We’ve got Violette de Ayala with us. I probably butchered her name, but I’m notorious for that. Anyway, I’m going to let her introduce herself. I have also got my new co-host Adrian with us. And he’s going to be my full time cohost in July. And we’re really looking forward to this discussion. Violet would you like to introduce yourself to the listeners and viewers?
Violette: Sure. I am Violette de Ayala. I’m the founder and CEO of Fem City and am very happy to be here.
Jonathon: And Adrian would you like to introduce yourself?
Adrian: Hi everyone. My name is Adrian. I am the CEO and founder of Groundhogg marketing automation for WordPress. And I’ve also happy to be here.
Jonathan: Okay. That’s great. So Violet the reason why I thought it was great to ask you to come on the show. Because we specialize in eLearning and membership sites. And building online businesses for your membership. And I’ve been watching you for a while and what you’ve been doing with Fem City. Do you want to get somebody that was too big? To a real big personality, but I want you to get somebody that’s got success but still to some extent in the trenches about. Because this phrase about building communities, is knocked around quite a lot. But we wanted to talk to somebody that’s actually has built a community physical and then online community. And what it really does require to do that. So can you first of all tell us something about Fem City and why you started the business?
Violette: Sure. So Fem City is actually automation to help women across the world launch and grow a business. And we started in 2009. And honestly, when I first started Fem City, I really was doing it for my own personal gain. I wanted to kind of have a safe place to meet with women entrepreneurs that are growing and launching businesses. Kind of like a pseudo hybrid of not only networking but also using it as a focus group. And kind of a community of support as well because I have been an entrepreneur since the age of 22. I know it takes a lot of grit to kind of continue on the path of being an entrepreneur. But it also requires a really good circle of influence. So those people that are around you that can not only inspire but introduce you to people that would help your business grow.
And that’s really how we started Fem City. When we started doing the local gatherings in Miami, we started getting a lot more women because we were posting pictures on Facebook. But we’re getting women across the country asking for Fem City chapter in their backyard. And at first I had no idea what they were talking about really like I’m going to be honest, like straight forward. Like, I didn’t understand why they were requesting it because clearly we were just gathering and anyone can do that. Anyone can kind of pick a couple of friends and gathered together. But I think what they saw was more profound than when I initially thought of Fem City. They were seeing a very beautiful, diverse group of women coming together of all age brackets, color of skin, nationalities, and backgrounds. And just coming together really for the intention of helping one another out in business.
And so after the fourth or fifth time, someone asking me for Fem City chapter, I thought to myself, you know what, maybe this is a kind of like a higher calling. Like maybe this is something that I need to move forward in. And I started kind of putting that together. And I had learned from owning my I had a Pilates studio for about 10 years. And when I went to franchise that I had made quite a few mistakes because I launched it as a hobby business. And so when I went to franchise it, there were two different mindsets and she, different processes and operations. And I always told myself if I ever was going to launch a business, it would live beyond me again. You know, like I wouldn’t ever make that same mistake of branding of business around me, but I would make it so that could actually serve the world and live beyond with what I was capable of as just one person.
And so I launched from City of Fort Lauderdale that did really well. But then I thought, well it probably did well because it’s so close to Miami. It was kind of like an overflow. So that’s how it will be a good testing ground to see if this is actually something that the world needed. And then we went ahead and I posted something on LinkedIn. Someone responded, we had no website, no membership, and no business model, nothing like just nothing. And she went ahead and launched Fem City Philadelphia. And that did really well. So that was a community that I had not even visited. I had no connection there. And that’s when I knew that that calling, that kind of sounds kind of hokey pokey, but that calling that I felt really propelled me into launching more and more cities. And we’ve evolved. So when we started was just the lunches.
It was just this kind of very simple format. We’ve definitely have evolved into not only being there as a local support for women, but also then teaching them classes. So we have an online series of classes that we just offer on every topic. You know, whether she had to generate more followers on Instagram, how to generate revenue on Pinterest, how do you even get started in business? So what are the fundamentals of even launching a business? So really all we do all day long is tried to create classes and community so that we can really fully support women that are taking those steps, which are really scary and launching a business.
Jonathon: That’s great. Over to you Adrian.
Adrian: That’s brilliant. I got the email that you were coming on and I couldn’t help, but I think that I’ve heard of it. Have you ever been involved in the Infusion soft community at all? As a business?
Violette: I don’t think that.
Adrian: Just my own personal curiosity.
Violette: Yeah, I think I’ve may have done a partnership with them in article writing or something. I don’t know. I don’t remember, but yeah.
Adrian: I was just curious. So did you actually started your, the actual on the ground in person kind of portion of the business first before you went in to online? Is that correct?
Violette: Absolutely. So the reason why we went online, it’s actually interesting story. Is that we hired a lot of little communities all around the east coast. And one of our members was working with Google at the time. And they reached out to us and said, hey, we have this new platform called Google hangouts. We love to teach women how to use this for business and how to create awesome Google circles. And so that’s how it started actually. We started having Google teach these classes for our members. And the feedback was so amazing because they were like, this is what I need, but I need this not only for Google, I need this also for like how do you start an Instagram account? How do you go ahead and create a cover for my YouTube channel? How do I even do like an IG story?
So it really that Google partnership that we had years ago was really like the leverage and to getting more into that digital online classes. Where we have experts come in and teach classes because we know when you start a business you don’t have, a lot of us would have billions of dollars. We have like two pennies to rub together or we have like a full time gig and we really have this dream of launching this business. But we don’t have the backing. We don’t have the resources. We didn’t work for Goldman Sachs. We don’t have, I believe it’s like we don’t have daddy writing a check for us. So how do you do that? And that, that Google partnership was really what made a really big shift for us.
Adrian: So when you were actually making that shift, was it easier, was it difficult to move your membership from on the ground in their smaller communities? How did they, or how did you sell that, the online membership portion of this? Which was kind of like the next phase of your business, how did you sell that into bringing them, onboarding them from the ground into your paid programs and all of that?
Violette: Actually it was added benefit to the membership already. So what we did is we started adding more and more. And we just kind of started to bring that in and we always felt like, how much more can we get? What more can we do to serve women across the world? And so that’s our mindset and our thinking process. And so when we do that, we really just bring it in as part of the membership. We do have a couple, like I do these round tables and their extra, they’re like $75, you know, if you want to join. But for the most part everything is included in the membership. So they pay and they have access to all of these features. Some women really just love the local, kind of getting together human to human connectivity. It’s such a luxury these days. So that might be a reason why someone joins. Or someone may have listened to our podcast and said you know what, I really like their vibe and let me check it out. And then they’ll see that we have the classes and then they might join because of just the classes alone. So that’s really how we kind of incorporated it. It wasn’t one or the other. We kind of just brought it in and kind of beefed up our membership benefits.
Adrian: Awesome. Back to you Jonathan.
Jonathon: Are you still finding that most of the people join because they get referred to the kind of physical chapters? Or are you getting more people actually signing up because they found you on the Internet?
Violette: We’re finding still that we’re getting more women joining because of the local communities. And I think it’s because of our viral organic kind of grassroots marketing. Where women are posting pictures of our gatherings, you know, maybe they’ve attended as a guest. Or they’ve joined and now they’re part of that community. So they’ll post it and tag it and then other women are seeing that. I’m kind of intrigued so we’ll look at it and kind of look around and I go over to our website. And then they’ll realize, oh, they have 125 or 130 locations. Or sometimes we’d get women at launch a chapter because of a photo that they’ve seen. So I feel like that is still the strongest. And again, I go back to that human connectivity is so important in business. We kind of more nowadays lean towards that digital place. But at the end of the day, people still do business with people they like. And people that kind of feel like they do or kind of sound like they do. Like there’s something about other humans that we connect with that makes us feel like, oh yeah, I can have a business relationship, I can get inspired because this person kind of has a story that’s similar to mine. And so it makes it more family feeling.
Jonathon: Thanks. Over to you Adrian.
Adrian: I think one of the holy grails for especially online businesses and businesses with memberships. Or for example, I’m a plugin developer for WordPress. One of the holy grails of kind of like seeing your success grow is building a community that surrounds whatever it is that you’re trying to sell. And creating people or an environment where it’s not necessarily just the business helping the people, but it’s customers of the business helping customers at the business. So I would love it if you could share with us, especially before you were on the Internet, what was your strategy for, before we had sharing on Instagram or Facebook or before any of that? What was your strategy for just going out and how did members actually go in and find you and become part of that community?
Violette: So, excellent question. So in 2009, when we had our first Fem City gathering. The first one that we had only had 20 women. And that was more me handpicking women that I felt would really benefit from this. Then those 20 women shared it with other women. And by the way, I think our first event was awful. So like I sharing that because sometimes we launched something and we go, well that didn’t go over so well that that didn’t turn out like perfect. So it was awful. It was boring. But those women found value in it somehow and then shared it verbally. The word of mouth is still so important, so powerful. And then it grew to like 60 women. And it continued to grow. I think back then all we really had was like the Miami Herald and we would put like a little blurb in the community calendar, which is free.
Anyone can do that. It’s still pre very strong way to promote any events that you have going on. We use Event Brite also that was just getting started. And that was a tool that even though they didn’t have the robust SEO that they do now and the community. It did definitely help us get into the vision of other people that were kind of search and to see what events were going on in networking. And really Facebook, my son had actually gotten us on Facebook. Facebook was brand new for me at least. And really just that really did help. Just adding those pictures really helped to capture the feel of Fem City. And that really help to get people more talking about us. And then it just kind of started spiraling and growth after that.
Adrian: Brilliant. Jonathan.
Jonathon: Yeah. Thinking back when you said it was the initial one you felt was a little bit boring. I got into the world of building membership and learning management systems for my clients. I used to get most of my clientele locally in northern Nevada. And I used to go to a lot of local networking events. And the majority of them were pretty boring. Really quite old for me actually. How did you, after that first event, how did you consciously think about branding and culture? Or did it just gradually appear to the individual culture for your business?
Violette: I hated networking too, by the way. I used to work for them when I started launching or starting Fem City, I was working as a PR marketing manager for the SPA and fitness club here in the four seasons. And so the company paid for me to go to all the networking events. Though the Lottie da, the $500 a ticket, but $200, I mean, whatever. I could go and I felt the same way. They were always so cold and detached and they might be fabulous. Like the drinks might have been fantastic and the drop in the red carpet. But I always felt like there was something missing. It just felt so cold and calculated and then also spammy. So you always have those people that were like throwing out their business cards or like just assaulting you with their marketing conversations.
So I always felt like that too. So I can appreciate that. When I did the first time see that I made sure to incorporate more of calmness and more of a vibe of just connectivity. The second time I did it, because the first one I thought was really boring. The second time I did it I added like components that I really felt like I would’ve wanted as someone who was attending. So I would’ve wanted the platform to share what I do among 60 women. I’d love to stand up and kind of just give a shout out to my firm. And I’d also like to hear a speaker like, but someone who’s real and on the ground, not like someone who’s been sponsored. So when he’s going to sell me like all these call to actions. I wanted someone to like really share amazing content that’s going to help people move up in their business.
And so that’s all it really, it started actually the second event that we did, I actually added too much. So I added two speakers and then this commercial component and then we had 60 women. So then that was a little bit of a nightmare to. I don’t think it was perfect, but as the months continue to go by, I kind of perfected it. And I’m also, I’m a huge advocate and listening to those that you serves. You asking them the questions because when you approach your potential client or your client and you say, I don’t feel that it was perfect enough, tell me what we can do better. How would it feel better for you? And little by little we started adding more gratitude components. And I think that Fem City has the vibe it has because we have it part of our format where we not only share gratitude about ourselves, like some sort of goal that we achieved are some clients that we finally got.
We also close it out with the gratitude out for any woman in the world because I think those are two pieces that are missing in our world. The moment where you have that kind of, you can pat yourself on the back and say, you know what? I’m exhausted, I’m tired, but you know, I did an awesome job this week. I nailed that project or that presentation. And then also that verbal gratitude for somebody else. I think society is missing that where we just stop and say, you did an amazing job. Or you really helped me get that client and I’m just so grateful to you. So we started embedding that in that business model, which is never been done. It’s very rare for that. But I think that’s what makes Fem City so different is that we just honor others. And it becomes habit. And then now we feel more comfortable to say kindness to ourselves and then kindness for others outside of just the Fem City gathering.
Jonathon: Oh, that’s great. We are going to go for our break folks. We will be back, learning some more about Violette. And how has she managed to build a successful business Fem City. We will be back in a few moment`s folks.
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Jonathon: We are coming back. We’ve had a good chat. I think we will be delving into some important things. Over to you Adrian.
Adrian: So I just clicked on the locations page on your website. And I’m literally looking at dozens upon dozens of locations, which is just incredibly impressive for anybody who’s looking at trying to build their own community at the moment. But you know, growing to that size rather, what kind of growing pains did you experience that other community builders might be experiencing right now?
Violette: Oh my gosh, there’s so many. Like in every business that you have, actually we had a meeting today in Miami and we talked about this. So I think anytime you’re looking to scale outside of yourself, there are more challenges. And I think also when you up level, so I’m trying to share my knowledge as so it can pertain to everybody. I think sometimes when we get to a certain point in our growth, we kind of read a little bit. And then all of a sudden our site is set on something a little bit higher, which is a natural tendency for humans. We accomplish something, especially to have grit. Especially those that have that hustle vibe, then it’s constantly going up this ladder towards this really ultimate dream that we have. So every bracket always includes, and I wish someone told me this. Every bracket has its own set of challenges, whether it’s how do you get the funding to do more hires?
How do you deal with flow generating revenue months? How do you change your process? So we’ve intentionally, paused our growth to make sure that we were sturdy enough in the foundation in order to go ahead and add another hundred locations. And we just kind of got out of that intentional pause couple of months ago. So now we’re preparing for a really busy fall season where we maybe tried to get to like 300 locations. But I think that if someone had told me that at the beginning, I would have felt more normal. I felt like I was alone in that. I felt like I was intentionally pausing. People that weren’t seasoned in entrepreneurship or seasoned in growing a community thought that was stupid. Like why would you do that? It should be growing as fast as you can. You should be taking all the money you can get.
But I never wanted it to be something that failed because we grew too fast. Or that we weren’t prepared for the growth. And talking about like website and kind of all these like membership features that we have online. We needed to make sure that was really sound and sturdy. So that we can now say, okay, you know what. We’re ready for the next batch of growth, which would be a hundred or 200 locations. Or maybe now we’re looking at launching in Europe. What’s that gonna look like? So I think there have always been challenges. Just like every business, you know, funding. We didn’t get billions of dollars funding, you know, surprise. I made mistakes. I had created businesses in the past, but the businesses were never globally scalable. So I may have had one or two locations, maybe some satellite locations. But having it so that, how do you have a brand that has that vibe?
And energy around the world that had some more stuff to it. And also as technology gets better and better, how do you streamline your process. So that you can spend more energy and the marketing PR development side and not so much bogged down on the more administrative. Or the nuts and bolts of the behind the scenes kind of stuff. So it’s like a little song and dance, but it’s a balance and you just have to feel out where you’re at. We want to go and then are you ready for that? And then the challenges will come. They will always come.
Adrian: I think that the way you mentioned about taking a pause after you reach a certain milestone. And then coasting a little bit, planning out your next step and taking that break. As I tried to build out my own community, that’s something that I’m probably going to heat a little bit. I think that’s brilliant. Taking that pauses, words of wisdom right there. Back to you, Jonathan.
Jonathon: I don`t know if we can agree with this, but businesses that have two elements are you got your community physical community base and then you’ve got your online. I find with a lot of businesses that have those two elements, that one is great. And the other slightly forgotten. Slightly not it doesn’t compare with the other one. So either they really got a really great online presence. And some of the attention to the actual physical meetings declines or the other way round. Would you agree with that? And how have you dealt with that? Or do you feel that you’re dealing with that?
Violette: I think the blessing for us was that we were able to stabilize the local market first. That format, that structure, that feel. We were able to get that really solid. And I think you’re right. I think a lot of businesses add services. Because one person asks for a certain service and they’re like, oh, that’s great, we’re going to go ahead and just create that. And that’s now in our shop cart, our ecommerce. But I think that then all of a sudden it starts watering down all the other things because they’re spreading themselves too thin all over the place. And I think when we start thinking about whether it’s adding on a new project or new service or new platform, whatever it is, you need to make sure that your butter. The one that’s actually the foundation of your organization is solid. And that you have it like clockwork. Because then you can really focus in on having the same expectation on the other services that you’re adding. Because that would hurt you so much if you had one that was a little wonky and then you were like, oh, let me add another one.
And then that’s kind of little wonky too because you’re kind of still thinking about the first one. And then now all of a sudden you’re adding like three. And I see a lot of entrepreneurs doing that. And the reality is if you can, whether it’s even 50 businesses that you’re launching or two projects or whatever. As you add on the secondary and the third and the fourth, you really need to make sure that that first one that’s bringing in the money, that’s the one that’s providing for you, that solid isn’t really solid. Can you delegate? Is it so locked in with the process that it doesn’t have any hiccups anymore? It’s just like. It’s so smooth that you can now take your attention on something else. And then work on that until it’s at the same caliber and then you can have the other ones. I think a lot of entrepreneurs just like, we’re spirit entrepreneurs. We’re passionate about so many things. So then all of a sudden, and then we’re exhausted and then I was the stress sets in and then our clarity goes down because we’re so, like overwhelmed. That if we just focus on the one and get that we do have on the energy and the ability to then launch the other ones so that they’re at the same level.
Jonathon: I think that is fantastic. Over to you Adrian.
Adrian: So one of the things that we do enjoy doing is to understand how the actual onboarding process works with various companies. The marketing aspect of it with if you will. So as a community based product, what would typically be your typical customer journey as it was to the point where they hear about you to the point where you actually generate revenue?
Violette: Are you talking about our leaders or our members?
Adrian: Let’s just talk about. Most people I don’t believe it will be at the point where they have leaders, although that’d be awesome. But let’s talk about a member.
Violette: Okay. So a member. I want to share with you where we were and where we are now. Because I think that’s really important place also so that people can see how we’ve evolved. When back in the day we had a website, it didn’t have the functionality that does now. And people used to have to mail in checks. They used to have to like print up an application.
Adrian: Oh my goodness.
Violette: Mail in a check. Yes, a pad and a paper. What? Yeah. So that’s where we were. And now what we’ve done is we’ve taken all of the technology that we have now available to us. And we’ve streamlined it so that the experience of having someone come in as a new member has everything they need. So in essence, they come in, they join, and we have a 30 day free trial. I think an important thing to have because some people will feel like it’s a family for them.
Some people may not be ready. Some people may be like, you know what, I have these two full time gigs already. I have six kids. I have my parents. I’m taking care of them. So this is not for me right now. If you give them that 30 day trial period, that’s a great way for them to go ahead and test your membership base. And then what we do is we do a series of emails that go out to them to give them almost homework, almost like steps. So here are the things that you can do because there are so many benefits. So we broke it down into steps. Here’s one place, here’s how to get started, here’s we’re going to do today. Two days later they get another email. Here’s another batch of really great resources for you a couple of days later.
So they have the information in bite size pieces. We also then when they join, it reverts back to a page that we’ve created just for them. And it has it all very simple people like very simple things. Now, very small characters. And it has literally boxes that they can choose if they want to go ahead and take a class. If they want to propose a class, if they want attend a local event, they want to meet someone. So we have it all broken down, very simple. And we actually have that page come back again. So when they log out and then come back to maybe register for an event, it brings it up again. So they have the resources there. And then we also have a plug in with Zendesk. Zendesk has the ability to ask questions 24/7. And also a really very expansive FAQ that has a search tool so that they’re able to kind of search for what they need.
We realize that people are busier than ever. People don’t have time to read through pages and pages of information. And how do we give it to them in a very small, concise little way? So that they have it there for when they need it. And everyone’s at different points. Everyone’s at different growth patterns. Some people were really just looking for local, some people looking for classes. Some people are just looking just to join something, to be a part of something community based. So everyone’s got their own reasons. How do you give them what they need but providing it to them in ways that they will resonate with it.
Adrian: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s super important that as soon as you on boarded, you don`t just leave it up to them to figure out how they’re going to get value. You need to tell them how they’re going to get the value that you offer. If you leave it up to them, they will never find it. And I think a lot of membership communities sometimes suffer from that. But like the contents there, why aren’t they enjoying it? You need to tell them where they need to go in order to be able to get value.
Violette: And like tell them like 10 times too. Like sometimes we send out an email, like we sent them an email for it. We have a master class series. It’s free for them and it’s like amazing experts. But we have to send it like three or four times. It’s like, you know, maybe that day they just were reading the article and not the, so you have to really kind of be of service to them and say, how am I going to really make sure they have this? Because it’s important for them to know it. You have to be the engager. They’re already overwhelmed with content. Just hopping on Instagram during Carpool, you know what I mean? Like you’re inundated with like so much that how you make sure that you’re of service to them and it’s really by catering it to them like in a little kind of beautiful little package.
Adrian: Brilliant. Back to you Jonathan.
Jonathon: We are going to end the podcast part of the show. Violette has agreed to stay on and onto some more questions which you’d be able to see the whole interview with the bonus content on the WP tonic YouTube channel. That we post our interviews and our discussions on the YouTube channel first. How can people find out more about you, what you’re up to and more about Fem City?
Violette: Sure. You can visit www.femcity.com and you can follow me on Instagram. It’s at Violette de Ayala and I post a lot of Instagram stories there and I’m always sharing tips on how to grow business. So it’s kind of a blend. It’s a blend of lifestyle and of course business as well. I want everyone to do well in business.
Jonathon: That’s great. Adrian how can people find out more about you and your business?
Adrian: So you can reach out to me at Groundhogg WP on both Facebook and Twitter. Groundhogg, by the way, is spelled with two g’s at the end so we could trademark it. You can also go to Groundhogg with two gs.io to find out more about our plugins for WordPress start marketing automation or email marketing and how we can help small business grow.
Jonathon: That’s great. We’ll see you next week where we will have another entrepreneur business owner prepared to share their knowledge with you, beloved listeners and viewers. We see you next week. Bye-Bye.
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