Friday, February 22, 2008

My Latest Project Focus: The Gaia Community

It's been some 5 months since my last update to this blog. I've been somewhat absorbed in the Gaia Community project. I hired on full time at Gaiam and started this project last June. After 9 months, we've given birth to a very healthy little community.

We began with nothing. Gaiam was grown as a catalog company that grew onto the Web via e-commerce. Like many other corporations, Gaiam knew there was huge value and potential in virtual communities and social media. The company Founder and SEO, Jirka Rysavy, started with little more than a vision and the domain name - The first hire was the community ambassador, Jennifer. I was the second hire.

Today, 9 months later, we have a custom built software platform developed in Ruby on Rails. The platform is a social network at the core. Community members have a variety of standard methods for interacting ranging from blogs to forums. We currently have around 160,000 active community members and gigs of contributed content. Beyond the community (my personal focus) we also have a network of original, professionally produced multimedia content. Finally, we have a section of the site that is a fully customizable homepage with drag and drop widgets for content and webapps called MyGaia. The Gaia team is currently 21 members.

The Gaia community is unique in it's character. Members of the community are conscious, pro-active individual looking to make positive changes in their own lives and in the world as a whole. This makes for one of the best vibes a virtual community can create. It's wonderful!

So that begs the question - how did we build such a large and stable community so quickly? The answer is - we didn't! We evaluated a staggering array of options. We even considered fully hosted and managed software platforms. However, we wanted the ability to provide custom features and we wanted to develop our infrastructure quickly. Thus, we decided to shoot for an in-house development team using a rapid development framework.

We then took a long hard look at all of the existing communities within our demographic. One community stood out above the rest. It was a little startup known as Zaadz. The deeper we looked, the more we realized that this team had taken the exact same path we were about to take, only they had more than a year lead time. Furthermore, the core community this group attracted was exactly the type of community we wanted to support. It was a match made in heaven.

In community development, the hardest part is the initial seed. Once you reach a certain size, a community suddenly takes off and your focus shifts from trying to grow the community to nurturing and managing the growth. Ironically, Zaadz literally means seed in Dutch. Zaadz grew and bloomed into Gaia.

Gaia is on her feet, but the journey has just begun. Jirka's vision is massive and multifaceted. Even if it were appropriate for me to share it here, I don't think I could summarize it in a single blog entry. It's been an amazing learning experience and joy to work with this company. It's also nice to look on this project as such a powerful success.

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