Leadership Lessons From Community Maven Tara Hunt: When Not To Listen To The Crowd

Any entrepreneur or community-building connector worth their salt should know when to crowdsource, and when to listen to their inner voice.

Tara Hunt is having a bit of a disconnect. Which is odd considering Hunt’s networked her rising star into the connected constellation of the social web for the greater part of the past 15 years.

From the earliest days of online communities (hello, Geocities and dial-up modems!), Hunt built or participated in all manner of Internet coffee klatches. She wrote the book on social currency—The Whuffie Factor— from her experience leading grassroots social communities, which landed her a spot on Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Tech. Hunt was even pronounced a "digital Utopian" by the San Francisco Chronicle, along with such social heavyweights as Jimmy Wales and Tim O’Reilly. But ask her about leadership and MissRogue (her Twitter superhero handle), now the CEO of Buyosphere, tells Fast Company, "I’m still learning to be a leader."

That’s because Hunt’s more comfortable in supporting roles. "Managing for me is a catalyst for other people to shine rather than me being thrust into the spotlight." Yet despite the feel-good aspect of being a part of something larger, she says grassroots communities have their share of pitfalls. "There is the meritocracy of consensus building. Consensus often leads to mediocre solutions," Hunt explains.

So it was in the case of Buyosphere. The idea for a social shopping site was seeded back in 2007, borne from Hunt’s frustration with an attempt to find and buy a simple item online. Three and a half hours and 13 different sites later, her search for a black skirt yielded no result except for the conviction that she would create a better (read: more social) e-commerce experience. 

On Learning When to Tune Out the Crowd

Hunt launched the first beta version of Buyosphere with partners Jerome Paradis and Cassandra Girard 18 months ago. "I didn’t have the idea of what you see today. We originally launched something totally different," she admits, because "the decisions we made were influenced from the outside." 

Quoting Henry Ford’s take on innovation as a team sport, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse," Hunt concedes, "We talked to really smart people who sent us down different paths but nothing spurred that lightbulb moment." That is until David Rose, an angel investor (not funding Buyosphere), noticed that the founders’ concept had much in common with the crowdsourced Q&A site Quora.

"I stopped everything," Hunt recalls, and proceeded to spec out the details in an email to her partners. Despite previously being "at each other’s throats," as bootstrapping partners often are in startup mode, both were having the "a-ha" moment, too. Thus, the site evolved, "Buyosphere is a shopping Q&A site that crowdsources your shopping searches," says Hunt. "We believe that people—not algorithms—solve the special nuances and taste issues that we have when it comes to product searches."

On Crowdsourcing Your Resume

In just two months, the new and improved Buyosphere attracted seed funding, doubled its user base each month, and has even caught on with men; the quintessential reluctant shoppers make up 45% of members. All this affirms Hunt’s belief that creating a good e-commerce experience is similar to building a social media marketing strategy. To start, it takes, "a leader with a good sense of what’s next combined with some crowdsourced level of listening to customers and employees to see how they are actually reacting."

Hunt’s got a deep well to draw from. As a pioneer of new marketing in Silicon Valley in 2005, she was hired by Like.com, the image-recognition platform, when it was still too new to have a name. "I had never worked at a pure startup and I was the only woman, non-coder and non-engineer, but I began applying principles I had always held about building relationships rather than pushing products." When the site launched, Hunt says, users uploaded over a million photos in 24 hours. "I don’t think that’s been done again with a startup with no advertising and no influence," she says.

When Like.com decided to move to affiliate marketing, Hunt decided to leave to continue working in the community space. She founded Citizen Agency in 2006 with the mission of teaching clients large and small how to make their products and services more social. 

On Being Agile With Conviction

Along the way, Hunt cofounded the worldwide Coworking Movement, made over 100 appearances as a conference speaker, took a karaoke road trip across the U.S., and penned the popular The Whuffie Factor, which has been translated into eight languages. 

"Patience is good," says Hunt with a laugh, "but you also need agility." It’s a conviction that served her career well and one she now draws from to lead Buyosphere. "We pride ourselves within our company on being completely agile with an eye on the goal. Along the way there are twists and turns or something will happen and in the last two years we approached it three different ways. Still, our goal has always been to help people muddle through an enormous amount online." 

The goal becomes a metaphorical center of a connected universe around which the stars of innovation turn. "I’m one of the lucky ones," Hunt explains. "I get to float in a sea of uncertainty and all I have is my gut, and 10 million others agreed. For me, innovation has always come from a place of experience mixed with being able to see different solutions to problems that very few other people are seeing." 

Though she’s pivoted several times, Hunt remains firm in her desire to continue building a truly social shopping community, if for no other reason than she really believes in it. "A lot of startups have this problem. They have a viable business but don’t solve the original problem and they’ve lost their passion. I don’t want to be that company."

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