Ecademy – the ten year old business social network

By Mike Butcher @mikebutcher at TechCrunch

Logo Ecademy

[Note: please also see updates below] I first wrote about Ecademy for The Guardian newspaper six years ago. At the time it was shaping up to be an early social network aimed at freelance business people. Yesterday Ecademy celebrated 10 years in existence. Yes, it doesn’t look very Web 2.0. Yes, it’s doesn’t have a shiny logo with a reflection. Yes, it’s still built on Drupal, not on Ruby on Rails (the Web 2.0 platform of choice apparently). But to its members it clearly works, and that’s a good achievement.

So what have they achieved? I asked co-founder Thomas Power (who is one of four staff with wife Penny, Glenn Watkins and CTO Julian Bond) to put Ecademy into numbers for me, and this is what he came up with. Right now they claim 340,000 uniques each month, and in 10 years it’s cost £1.3m to get to this point [Update: See note below where they now say it’s 190K registered, 7.5k paying]. The whole database is 1.9 million but they only count those who use the system each month using Google Analytics and Quantcast which is tagged to each page. The bulk of their traffic is from the UK but the second most visiting group is from the US.

Power – who made it something of a calling to be incredibly networked long before Robert Scoble appeared with 5,000 Facebook friends – says: “We are aiming for 10 million people worldwide or 10% of those 100m people who work from home, freelancers or are mobile no location and travelling workers.” Although it is free to be a basic member, the focus is on “BlackStar premium membership” which costs $100 a month. By way of contrast the most expensive premium version of LinkedIn – which recently launched a European office here – costs $200 a month (but then they have a million members in the UK). Ecademy wants to roll out the BlackStar idea as a licensed business model to people in 1,000 cities worldwide by 2020, thus sharing 30% of revenue with local “BlackStar City Leaders”.

Indeed, Power says that “By 2020 we would ideally like to have earned a Royal Charter from the Privvy Council and become The Chartered Institute of Networking creating a profession and The Chartered Networker.” The idea is to achieve “professional recognition for Networking”. That’s a nice idea, but I daresay a lot of people in business already ‘recognise’ networking as useful.

I have to say, not a lot of Ecademy’s pitch has made sense to me for a long time, until I realised recently that in a funny sort of way Ecademy is actually a bit like Badoo, the consumer social network where members pay $1 a time via mobile to vote themselves higher in the community. This is not a million miles away from the whole Blackstar schtick, albeit that being a “Blackstar ” is probably going to cost you a lot more (unless you are a Badoo texting addict of course).

The philosophy of monetising the users in this way probably looks alien to a lot of social networks today, which tend to be obsessed with scaling to a big size first before kicking in revenues. But you must remember that Ecademy created its business model in the last economic downturn, a time when monetising first made more sense.

I’m sure plenty of people get quite a lot of value out of their free LinkedIn and Facebook accounts for business networking. And it’s interesting that a bigger outfit like BT last year launched a similar-ish ‘social networking yellow pages’ site for small businesses called BT Tradespace. But if Ecademy’s community didn’t ike what it did for them they would have left by now, and apparently they haven’t, so it looks like Ecademy will be around for another 10 years.

UPDATE: In response to some commenters’ criticisms of Ecademy, following this post, a large number of Ecademy members piled in on the comments to defend the network. That’s great and all part of a vigorous and healthy debate.

But what it also demonstrates is that – in my opinion – Ecademy is, and always will be (assuming it doesn’t change its model), a “lifestyle business” for Thomas Power and his colleagues. And before more Ecademy members wade in on me, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing! The Ecademy founders have worked very hard to make the site work, of course they have. But what that means is that Ecademy is unlikely become a social network as big as LinkedIn or Xing (which run into millions of users) because it requires a pretty heavy subscription level to get real value (thus putting off a lot of the market), plus – and crucially – it revolves around the personalities and involvement of its founders. With all the best intentions in the world, those founders cannot be omnipresent on the network, unlike self-running social networks which do not require the founders to nurture the network (like a Xing or LinkedIn). That means the site will never scale to, say 100 million users, as a socnet like Twitter or MySpace or Facebook or LinkedIn would. I’m not saying that’s “bad”, I’m just saying that makes it a different type of animal compared to typical Web 2.0 companies which are, in the main, built to scale to that kind of size.

UPDATE II: Ecademy has now contacted me again to clarify their numbers. The 340,000 figure refers to Unique Visitors as reported by Google Analytics. They say members with *confirmed email addresses* currently stands at 190,000. Paying subscribers are at around the 7,500 mark. In other words they have managed to convert less than 4% of their audience to paid membership. Obviously most of those paying members would likely be the £11.75-a-month “Power Networkers”, with a smaller percentage forming the “BlackStars” at the ‘healthy’ rate of £100 a month. So if, say, 90% of paying members paid £11.75 a month and 10% paid £100, that makes £79,312.50 plus £75,000, or £154,312.50 in revenues from paid subscriptions a month. That doesn’t include advertising revenues on the site. As far as I know there are four directors of Ecademy and no other employees. Not a bad lifestyle business.

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