One of the first women to climb Yosemite’s notorious Half Dome, Candice Carpenter knows a thing or two about battling her way to the top. Today, the resilient CEO and 47-year-old single mother of two is propelling her company — iVillage.com — to the next plateau.
Established in 1995, iVillage has evolved into a leading new media company providing interactive services, peer support, and access to nearly 20 “channels” revolving around topics such as health, politics, automobiles, beauty, and finance for women. With six million unique visitors during September 1999 — up 33 percent since June — iVillage is reaping the rewards of a $28.5 million marketing campaign designed to establish the online network as an Internet entry point for women ages 25 to 54.
“We waited for the brand to ripen and mature, the product to become solid across the board, so that when we spent the money we’d be able to capture the new users and keep them long term,” Carpenter says. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing.”
As the network’s staff of 375 continues to swell and plans for iVillage international begin to take shape, it seems the whole world is watching Carpenter’s brainchild with intense scrutiny and curiosity. In the following interview, Carpenter discusses iVillage’s evolution through marketing, in-house mentoring, and increased collaboration with the retail Web sites.
In Fast Company’s September 1998 article “Stop the Fight,” you talked about creating a radical mentoring program for young, talented iVillage staffers as an incentive to keep them on board in the face of more lucrative offers from other Internet companies. Has this been effective in retaining talent over the last year?
Yes. In fact, we’re about to make radical mentoring a company-wide program. In the initiative’s prior form, we were able to work with only five people at a time. Now we are interested in expanding radical mentoring to more people in the company. I’m launching a program where I work with about 25 people in a seminar format.
Our people love radical mentoring. They think it’s fun and interesting, not sadistic or cruel. It’s simply a chance to say, “Would you like to learn faster?” People are clamoring to get that kind of attention, and they thrive when they get it. I personally have learned that employees can grow at an amazing pace, given enough feedback. So I’m very excited about the growth of radical mentoring because I think it is a very effective way to work with people.
Who are the ideal iVillage staffers of the future?
People of all ages. We have had great success blending the generations. Our ideal employees are results oriented and very nice. We have no screamers in our company. Even though there’s a certain intensity associated with the Internet itself, no one’s adding to it with a lot of hysteria, which I personally appreciate. And, of course, we want people who have a passion for the mission of the company and are not just in it for the money or the stock price. We look for employees who care a lot about what iVillage has set out to do in the world.
At the time of the aforementioned Fast Company story, iVillage had 210 employees. How has your staff grown since then? How have your “generational fault lines” shifted since then?
Today, iVillage has grown to include 375 people. I don’t think we ever really had generational fault lines. We did have a few younger people who I think were resistant to the influx of older, seasoned managers as part of the infrastructure — and they were really the people we had trouble with. But a lot of the company is very young and we’ve loved them from the beginning. It’s not like we ever had a feeling that these people were not totally critical to our success. We’ve promoted dozens of those younger employeess — one or two times into really big jobs, managing a lot of people. I think at this point, there’s a lovely relationship between the senior management team, who are mostly in their late 30s and mid 40s, and many of the 20 and 30-year-old managers who report directly to them. It’s a very nice relationship because the seasoned group has seen things go wrong and can be very helpful.
In 1996, iVillage repositioned itself as a women’s network rather than a broad-based community channel. Since then, iVillage has evolved into a hub for women-specific content. How have the vision and objectives of iVillage shifted or expanded since the repositioning of the company?
The vision has not changed one iota. The vision is to help women in their lives with the stuff big and small that they need to get through. Our tactics have certainly evolved, but we really are in a period where execution is paramount. I would not say that we’re making big strategic shifts, but we’re really much more focused now on producing results. You set out to do something and then you have to do it — and that takes a long time, even if you don’t change anything.
How has your target audience changed over the years? How do you gauge and accommodate their changing needs?
I think the advertising industry has moved up the target age of our users. We really are about women who are raising families, managing jobs and taking care of husbands. Busy women with big lives. I’ll be 60 when my children go to college. The age drift of women produces a really finite targeting group for our advertisers. Our users are buying certain kinds of products to support a specific lifestyle. So, we did move our target audience age up, but everyone else moved it up at the same time. What we care about is that we have an audience with common themes and common interests and common needs. In order to have a vibrant community, you must have as much commonality as possible.
How has your playing field changed in the last year? Who are your largest competitors? How has their success or emergence changed your business plan and priorities?
Oxygen’s entry a year ago created a lot of noise. But I just read an analyst report saying that Oxygen is not proving to be an Internet competitor as much as a cable player. There was a perception that Oxygen changed our market, but now that has passed.
In addition, advertising has moved away from portals pretty significantly as a total percentage basis. Sites like mine are the happy recipients of that shift because now advertisers can basically get more focus for their dollar. And that’s really the issue. Instead of advertising on five or six portals, they’re now doing one or two and then coming to us.
The other development is that a lot of new women’s commerce players have recently come on the scene. A lot of those are actually just customers of ours — the beauty sites and the home sites. They’re very good news for our business, because they end up bringing in more dollars to our business. They are not competitors; they are customers.
Perhaps the most obvious recent iVillage accomplishment has been your abundance of network television advertising. What prompted you to promote the iVillage brand so vigorously? What results have you seen already? What do you expect will happen as a result of this national exposure?
We’re four years old and we’ve only done a little testing offline. Today, companies start and go offline the next month. iVillage, on the other hand, waited for the brand to ripen and mature, the product to become solid across the board, so that when we spent the money we’d be able to capture the new users and keep them long term. And that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing — we get people check out iVillage once, and then the level of return is very high.
We’ve seen good quality metrics, good retention, and good use of the iVillage service by people who find it. When the ad’s running, the numbers go up in 15 minutes. It’s the most dramatic thing. I’ve been doing branding for a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like this. iVillage has 16 channels dealing with really important issues, but there are certain moments in women’s lives that provide especially good entry points – like giving birth. We consider those to be an important part of our marketing because now we’re in all the women’s magazines, we’re on satellite television in the hospitals, and we’re in the hospital information packets.
What is your current strategy for the future?
We have 2.7 million members now, and we send out 11 million newsletters a week, so we’re building a very strong base for direct marketing. And we obviously know a lot about our customers. We hope to use this information to offer women things that are perfect for their stage of life and their interests. For example, we can know the stage of pregnancy of each of our pregnant users, and we can use that information to offer each woman fabulous things specifically suited to her.
We are on the road to international expansion as well. There exists a lot of advance interest in the brand among major media companies worldwide. We feel iVillage is well positioned to take advantage of that. “Village” is a meaningful word in almost every culture because it connotes belonging and community and trust. The name alone has drawn a great response from Japan, Europe, everywhere.
Where do you see iVillage in 15 months?
We’re concentrating on doing everything we said we would — building our membership, and building members’ participation in iVillage. Not broader, but deeper. Our awareness among target group members went from 4% to 34% in a little over a year. And that was before the ad campaign. As our awareness grows even more, we’re going to be in a position to capture the hearts and minds of a lot more women as they come online. That’s our goal.
Previously featured in issue 17, page 93