Interview with Elisa Camahort Page
"Women are quite multi-faceted creatures", says Elisa Camahort Page -- women are interested in technology, the economy, parenthood, politics, and much, much more. That's why the BlogHer network comprises 2,500 women writing about a broad range of "verticals", attracting more than 14 million unique visitors per month.
An Interview with Elisa Camahort Page Co-founder, BlogHer
Date: June 1, 2009 Elisa Camahort Page: BlogHer [intro music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, from the National Center for Women and Information Technology or NCWIT. This is one of a continuing series of interviews we are doing with women who have started IT companies. We've had a great, great interview series with some very influential, distinguished and successful women, and were very happy to get all of you bloggers listening to this are going to be very happy with the interview we're doing today. It's with Elisa Camahort Page. With me is Larry Nelson, from W3W3.com. Hi, Larry!
Larry Nelson: Hi! Well, it's a pleasure to be here, and especially Elisa, I just want you to know, I have four daughters. So, we're really interested in this interview.
Elisa Camahort Page: Oh! Excellent, Larry.
Lucy: Are they bloggers?
Larry: Yeah, you betcha!
Lucy: Are you a blogger?
Lucy: A beginning blogger. He's turning red, everybody.
Larry: Well, for three years, and I'm still bad at it.
Lucy: [laughs] Well, we're very happy to have you here, Elisa. Elisa is the co-founder and CEO of BlogHer. I did a little research on how BlogHer started, and I believe it's a fairly young company, like 2005. You had your first conference in Santa Clara. Is that right?
Elisa: Yeah. We had our first conference in July of 2005. So, we're having our fifth annual event this July in Chicago.
Lucy: Wow! That's a pretty fast growth on your part. I know that BlogHer is really turning into the leading community and media network for women who blog. You reach over 14 million women each month, either through your conference, or the web, or through a new publishing network that you have. Why don't you say a bit about that publishing network?
Elisa: Oh, absolutely. That's right, we did get started with the conference in 2005. After that conference, we really got three primary people to feedback. The first was, "Oh, more conferences please, " because there is something about that in real life connection that happens. The second was about, "How can we sort of find each other everyday?" And hence we launched BlogHer.com in January of 2006, which is really the hub of our entire network. But then, we also had a segment of our community was saying, "Isn't there a better business model? We've been trying some sites, either AdSense and other networks and other kinds of advertising solutions, but we're really getting pennies for the traffic that we're building, for the communities that we're building." So, that's what really motivated us to start the blog for publishing network, which we did in the middle of 2006. We started with just a small, little group of about 35 mommy bloggers, just to test the concept. When that was successful, we expanded. Over the last almost three years now, we now have almost 2, 500 women of all kinds of blogging topics in our network. They reach over 14 million unique visitors a month.
Lucy: That's quite a network.
Larry: I'm impressed, yes.
Lucy: Yeah. That's quite a network! What are the hot topics these days on some of those blogs? Elisa: Well, what's interesting to us is that one of our earliest decisions that we didn't want to sell only women's interest, either on BlogHer.com or on the network and say, "Oh! We only care about parenting," or "We only care about food, " or "Beauty" or on the other hand, but women who care about politics and means and technology, only care about those things. Actually, we're quite multifaceted creatures. We care about all of those topics on the same day. So, we have always on BlogHer.com featured the full range of subject matters that can be covered in the photosphere, and our network has everybody, from every stripe of the photosphere also in it. What's interesting is how certain things bleed through every vertical. So, for instance the economy. It doesn't matter if you're a food blogger, a parenting blogger, a technology blogger, a political blogger, you're probably talking about the economy right now. Last year, it didn't matter if you were a food blogger, or a parenting blogger, or a technology blogger or a political blogger, you were talking about the election. So, there are common themes that people care about across all different areas of focus. By featuring all of those diverse places, we really get to see that full picture of what people are saying about those topics.
Lucy: Well, I went there yesterday to get my fill on "American Idol." [laughter]
Elisa: Oh! That's my guilty pleasure.
Lucy: Well, me too. I'm sure we could take up the whole tape talking about our favorite singers, but I like Adam Lambert.
Elisa: Of course!
Lucy: Of course!
Elisa: He should win, that's clear.
Lucy: He should win. Well, this is probably a good time to get into questions for the interview. Our first one centers around technology. Our listeners always like to hear from the people we interview about the technology they think is really cool, that's going to change the way we communicate, or the way we work, or the way we play. So, what technologies do you see that are out there?
Elisa: Well, I originally don't come from a technology background. I have no engineering degree. I really came into it quite late, in the high tech back in '97, when it was very boom times for Silicon Valley. What I discovered is that I had actually an aptitude for understanding technology, and then translating it to different audiences, whether they were engineering audiences, or consumer audiences, or business audiences. So, today that's still a big part of what I do, which is explain why technologies are cool to people who may not already get it, like blogging, like Twittering, like my iPhone. What I see today, what humans are doing right now with technology is they are building ways to connect and converse. In your life, most of the people I know are finding it more and more difficult to keep in touch with people face-to-face, that our lives are so busy. We're so time impoverished, there's so many things that seem to conspire against us being able to do as much in real life as we used to. People used to think that technology was an isolating factor, and it was taking us away from people, but I think what we've done is used technology to connect with people online for a lot of our time, instead of in meet space. So, I think I would debate anyone who says that technology isolates us. We've seen amazing examples of how it brings us together, and how it creates communicates across boundaries that used to be pretty drawn in the sand, social economic boundaries, geographic boundaries. A lot of those boundaries get knocked down by this kind of totally distributed communications channel of the Internet. I see that we are developing more and more ways to keep in touch, to communicate with one another. People ask me why I like Twitter. To me, Twitter is poetic almost, the way you get these little snapshots of people's lives. The way you see who they are, beyond even the thoughts and sort of planning and structure that goes into a blog post. I use Twitter often just to mention the music I like, or something I saw that made me stop and think. It's so quick and easy to get a little thought out there that really reveals who I am in a way that a blog post would take too much time, and I might not ever get around to it for something that seems so small. Yet those little small things are what completely differentiate us, and make us each such unique individuals. It's actually applications like Twitter that enable us to show that unique individuality to the world. So, I think it's a beautiful thing. Lucy: Well, and I think that really shows to the listeners. That's one of the most eloquent, impassioned descriptions of social media that I have ever heard. [laughs]
Larry: Yes, me too. Me too.
Lucy: I think that was just beautiful.
Elisa: Oh, thank you. You know I do a presentation that blogging is about love.
Lucy: Oh, that's nice.
Elisa: It's about, we find, we love what we can do with this technology and we find all forms of love out there in our communities. Most people do it for love and passion. Even people who make money on it. At the core it's because they're writing about something they love.
Lucy: I really love that.
Larry: Yes, yes I did too.
Lucy: I think that's great. You mentioned that you came into technology a little late, transitioned into it and you found that you loved explaining technology to people. Why are you an entrepreneur? We know I think why you love technology and you like to explain it to people based on your last answer but why are you an entrepreneur? What is it about that that makes you tick?
Elisa: Well, to be honest I'm an entrepreneur because of serendipity and then passion. I wasn't planning. My plan, one of my earliest role models was my mother who went back to work in the 70's when I was in junior high. She was very much corporate oriented and climbed up the ladder, went from some part time person at a company to being their first female vice president. I really found myself following in that path. I planned to climb the corporate ladder but then I luckily got the opportunity to try working on my own. What I discovered was that I loved not having anyone in "management" to blame for the bad decisions. At least now if there's a bad decision, I was part of it and I can be part of fixing it. I really loved that accountability all the way to the top of the chain. I also say that wherever you work, you're going to bang your head against the wall about some things. When you're an entrepreneur, you get to bang all the different sides of your head. It's not the same thing over and over and over. It's constantly refreshing. There are constantly new things to challenge you and new things really to bring you joy in what you accomplish. There's just this sense of control, and accountability and ownership that after you've done that climb up the corporate ladder for a while and you realize how much is happening above you that you don't have that control, or really the accountability, or the ownership. It's pretty fulfilling to put yourself in that position.
Larry: Well, Elisa you mentioned that your mother had an influence upon you. Along the way are there other people maybe who either been role models for you or maybe even mentored you?
Elisa: Absolutely. I had a couple of early, great mentors when I decided to go into high tech. I had been in a completely different industry doing marketing but many other things in small companies. I really started at the bottom in tech, in the marketing department. I was just a junior level person. My boss, who was the vice president of the marketing department, he really, he also liked what I had to say. He liked how I thought. He included me in a lot high level calls and meetings just to observe really. Just to be a part of it and see what went on. Afterwards he wanted to ask me my take as someone with an objective view. He really gave me the opportunity from a business point of view to learn a lot quickly. Then at the same time, there was director of product management in that same department who was my technical mentor. He didn't dismiss me because I didn't have an engineering degree. He really taught me our company's technology. He wanted me to write about it. He just thought, maybe she'll write better if she actually understands it. He didn't assume, as a lot of people sometimes do with marketing people, that oh they're not going to really get it. I'm just going to get them bullet points and they'll put in the flowery language but I'll have to do all the really techy stuff.
Elisa: He wasn't like that at all. He was like, if I spend a little bit of time, I think this person can pick it up. He was the one who really started giving more and more technical things to do and really showed me that I had an aptitude for that. From there, I had to take that and do something with it. I had to go and put myself out there for more technical jobs even though I didn't have that educational background. I'm the one who said, "I'm going to go for product manager job anyway. I'm going to go to lead this product management team anyway because I understand this stuff and I have all these other skills". It was those two mentors who very early on, really gave me the chance to learn and we're open to letting me learn. They were both men and this is a very male dominated company. I give both a lot of credit for that.
Lucy: Well, and your story speaks to the important role of encouragement. To those of us who are in the business of encouraging more young women to pursue computing and technical fields. Encouragement is a huge thing.
Lucy: Just huge. On the flip side of encouragement, [laughs] and positive role models...
Lucy: There also comes a time in entrepreneurial careers when something, you have to do something really hard, really tough. Why don't you tell our listeners what's the toughest thing you've ever had to do.
Elisa: There are two things that I think are tough. One is tough because of what it does to somebody else and one is tough because of what you're doing to yourself. The first is that it's tough to let someone go whether it's for cause or whether it's a layoff and not for cause. It is hard to sit in a room and tell someone you are putting an end to their livelihood. It's a huge responsibility. I don't want to be someone who gets cavalier about that. I have found that over the kind of conversations afterwards, I go in the ladies room and put a little cold water on my face because it's a tremendous responsibility and it's tremendously difficult. That's not to say I would never be one of those people who said, "Oh it's harder for me. It's as hard on me as it is for you". That's bullshit because they're the one losing their job so I'm not going there but it is hard. You feel bad about it, whatever the reason. The other thing is it's tough but usually worthwhile to be the contrarian if it's something you really believe in. On a couple of occasion I have felt like I had to speak up and disagree. Sometimes this is in a room when I was the only woman, when I was the only without an engineering degree, when I was the only one; in some cases where I was the only one who wasn't already a vice president or C level person. I thought I was standing up for the customer instead of just trying to ignore that fact and move forward with blinders on. I think those early experiences really matter a lot now because Blogger is such a community focused company and we still have to think about the customer. The community member and what they think and feel first and foremost. That is what's still serves me and my company today is having that perspective. You can have that perspective even if you're at a B to B company, even if you're way back on the chain from the end consumer. Your customer is still really first and foremost I think.
Larry: Wow, I'll say. You know that's a great lead in to my next question and that is on w3w3.com we've been getting overwhelmed almost by the amount of requests and listening to anything that has to do with entrepreneurship. Of course in these tough economic times, there seems to be quite a few people either out of work or whatever that are looking to become entrepreneurs. If you were sitting down right now with a young person who wanted to start their business, become an entrepreneur what advice would you give them?
Elisa: Well the first piece of advice I would give anyone is take the risk. Many people never take the risk because of fear. That they allow that fear to be nameless and undefined. What I actually say is, "Think about it right now. What's the actual worst thing that could happen if this fails"? Most of us have safety nets and options that we don't fully credit ourselves with having. So in my case, I certainly had... I was living with someone who helped share expenses. I had savings. I had a home-equity line of credit. I had a lot of resources to draw on. But let's just say, "What could have been the worst that could have happened if both my business and my relationship had failed miserably at the same time?" It would not have been awesome to move back in with my mother at the age of 40, but it wouldn't have been the end of the world, either. That was a safety net I had, right? And we manned this business until we got our first round of funding. I really was... I had spent all my savings. I had taken out money on my line of credit. I had some credit card debt that didn't exist before. I really worked it to the last dollar I was willing to work it, and then we got our funding, and so that made us able to continue. But even if that had all failed and had not come through, I think it would have been worth it, and the very worst-case scenario for me wasn't as bad, once I thought it through, as my imagination was making it when I didn't really look into the details. So, I always tell people to ask themselves, "Now, honestly, really, what's the worst thing that could happen if you try this and it fails?"
Lucy: That's great advice.
Larry: That certainly is.
Elisa: And I think most people think it through, and they imagine ending up on the streets, and I think there are some people who have different circumstances, where maybe their risk is higher, but a lot times people who don't really have... they're in their twenties. They don't really have a huge amount o'clock risk, and they have a lifetime to recover if it doesn't go well. So, go for it. You might as well act as though you're going to live until forever, and have all the time in the world to rebuild if you're in your 20s, for god's sake.
Lucy: Absolutely. And I think some people worry what others are going to think about them if they fail, and that is just an ego thing.
Larry: Yes, I'll say it is.
Elisa: And I think that actually people are way more impressed with entrepreneurs than they even have to be, and I'm surprised how even in the early days, people were just like, "Wow. You're doing your own thing, and you're doing this, and you're doing that. Wow." I think actually people will be way more, if they care about you, you know... I think people are way more impressed that you tried something, even if it ends up failing, than if you don't.
Lucy: That's the truth. So, along the lines of this question, listeners are always interested in knowing about personal attributes, or personal characteristics that you believe make you a great entrepreneur.
Elisa: I have this rather checkered past career-wise. I think this is probably my fourth career. The advantage of that as opposed to someone who goes to school for something, gets a job, and then stays in that career, I don't feel like my identity is actually... who I am is not what I do. I developed this confidence that I could jump to a new career and pick it up, and do what I needed to do, and do pretty well. And it's not because I was some great student. I was actually an underachiever. But that also... even back then, I never equated my identity with the grades I got, or the salary I made, or the job title I had. So, I think that bred in me this confidence of being willing to take that risk, being willing to ask questions even if they made me look stupid, but usually, you know what? They didn't make me look really stupid. They made me look really smart. So, I think all of that goes into this... you need some chutzspah, I think, to be an entrepreneur. You need to believe in yourself. You need to believe in your judgment, and you need to not get tied up in what other people think, because you're going to get a lot of "no's" to get to your "yes, " and that's especially true if you start going for funding. Not everyone is going to want to put money into your great idea, not because they think it's a good or bad idea, but because it's just not going to fit their portfolio. So, you have to have something separate from what other people identify you as, and what other people think, that makes you believe in yourself and what you're doing.
Larry: You know, you mentioned, "Who I am is not what I do." With the busy, busy, schedule, and everything that you're doing, how do you bring balance into your personal and professional lives?
Elisa: Well, OK, let's be honest. I've co-founded a start-up in Silicon Valley, and we are still working to hit milestones and goals that will really propel us to a state of permanent success, not just quarter-by-quarter success. I don't think balance is a realistic part of the equation right now. I think I would be lying if I said, "I balance my personal and professional lives." I work all the time. You know, it's not like I never... my birthday was last week, so I went to the city for the weekend with my husband, and you know, we had a great time, and I really didn't get on the computer that much. So, I'm not saying I never get to do anything personal, but I really make no concerted effort to have balance, and maybe that's not [laughs]...
Elisa: Maybe a lot of people won't think that's the most encouraging answer, but this is Silicon Valley. I think that's the way it is.
Lucy: And well, we find to... we ask this question of all the people we interview, and there's a wide variety of answers, but many are saying that they are completely unbalanced. In fact, I was laughing to myself when you said it was your birthday, and you took the day off.
Lucy: I tried really hard. I tried really hard. My birthday was April 4th, and I was going to take the day off. I'm the CEO of a non-profit, right? Of course, I worked the whole day.
Larry: Yes, of course.
Elisa: And it is different. I though I was working really hard when I was running a team at a company, and I did work really, really hard, but it's nothing compared to when it's your own, and you could basically, work all the time. And for a lot of us who are entrepreneurs, you're doing this because you hope it's going to pay off in a way that will buy you some kind of freedom and flexibility later. But a lot of entrepreneurs I know, they go on to the next...they want to do the next thing. So, there's a certain, I think, consistency of no one who probably starts a company and is putting themselves through this is... no one is probably someone who otherwise would be sitting on a lounge chair eating bon bons. I mean, they're all pretty motivated people. [laughs]
Lucy: Yes, that's true. Well, Elisa, you've really achieved a lot, and we appreciate you talking to us, but we'd also like to know, maybe as the last question, what do you see in the future? What's next for you?
Elisa: Well, that's funny question, because as far as I'm concerned, there are just miles to go before I sleep with BlogHer being all consuming, and we have all this opportunity for growth and expansion, and we're figuring out the best way to take advantage of those opportunities. And I think that... and my two partners Lisa Stone, and Jory des Jardin... I think we're all pretty much the same way right now, which is that, we're not thinking too hard what's beyond, because we need to make this really happen, and it may take a year, or two years, three years, four years. And also, might I also say, that we all agree that we now made for ourselves the best jobs we have ever had. So, it's not like we wouldn't want to keep doing this forever. We get to do something we're really passionate about. We're a very mission-based organization, and we get to work with a lot of other really smart people, so I really... what's next for me is to make all the promise really come to fruition. If I can do that, then I'll think about what might happen after that. But we're not there yet. We have miles to go.
Lucy: Well, and you are in a great job. It's at a crossroads of lots of interesting topics, so you certainly have made quite a great job for yourself.
Elisa: Yes, we love it.
Lucy: It's wonderful. Well, thank you very much for spending time with us.
Elisa: Oh, you're welcome. My pleasure.
Lucy: And thank you, Larry. People can find the podcasts W3W3.com., and also ncwit.org.
Larry: You betcha. We'll follow up with you, too.
Lucy: All right. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Hope you to meet at May 11.
Elisa: You absolutely will.
Lucy: All right. [music] Transcription by CastingWords