The Definitive Guide to Business

What this entrepreneur learned co-founding a company with billionaire VC Marc Andreessen

Gina Bianchini, founder and CEO of Mighty Networks
Photo by Andrew Toth
Gina Bianchini, founder and CEO of Mighty Networks

It's hard to be more impressive than Gina Bianchini. She has a stellar resume: her undergraduate and MBA degrees are from Stanford, she's worked at Goldman Sachs and she has launched multiple successful companies. But if anyone can measure up, it's her former co-founder Marc Andreessen — the billionaire and leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose Andreessen Horowitz portfolio includes billion-dollar companies like Airbnb, Facebook and Box.

Bianchini and Andreessen hit it off when he sat on the board of one of Bianchini's early start-ups, and in July 2004, the two started working on Ning, a platform for people to build custom social networks. They launched in 2005 and ran the company together until Bianchini left Ning in 2010 to become the entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen's then-new VC firm.

Here's what Bianchini learned from her years spent alongside industry titan Andreessen.

Be informed and be forward-thinking

Andreessen "is one of the best people in Silicon Valley in terms of articulating a vision of where the world is going," says Bianchini.

"I have never seen somebody able to process inputs from very different places into market ideas and a picture and a vision of the future the way Marc is able to do it," she says, speaking at the Vanity Fair Founders Fair in New York City recently.

"From the perspective of consumption of information, there is no one ... who has a better ability to process and then come out the other side with some very very interesting perspectives."

As an example, Bianchini points to Andreessen's famous 2011 essay, "Software is eating the world," which defended the valuations of companies like Facebook and Twitter in the face of naysayers claiming they were unreasonably and unsustainably high. Andreessen argued that the economy was on the precipice of a software evolution.

"[It's] one of the simplest and cleanest essays that he wrote 6 or 7 years ago that has been totally accurate," she says.

According to Bianchini, that comes from knowing more than just tech: "This is about, how do you read deeply around finance, how do you read deeply around politics, how do you read deeply around economics," says Bianchini to CNBC.

"Really thinking about how all of these things come together is Marc's unique skill in the world," she says. "On that front, he is a fantastic lesson in the case against specialization."

"Andreessen is one of the best people in Silicon Valley in terms of articulating a vision of where the world is going." -Gina Bianchini, founder, Mighty Networks

However, there is downside to being so forward-thinking — sometimes futurists don't understand rest of the world has not caught up with them yet. "People who predict the future, they generally are directionally right but they have no sense of timing," says Bianchini.

Case in point: Ning. The social network they co-founded raised almost $150 million in funding and was bought by (now defunct) Mode Media in 2011. Despite this, Bianchini says they could have done better — they were about a decade too early. In the mid-oughts, explains Bianchini, consumers just weren't spending enough time on social media yet for the idea to resonate the way the duo expected.

"Selling the company did not equal success. The desired outcome of any company is to see it serve as many people as possible around the world," Bianchini tells CNBC.

Speak up

"There were multiple times in building Ning where something wasn't sitting right with me or I had an intuition about a direction to take or something to do," says Bianchini. But she found herself struggling to contradict Andreessen (even though he didn't yet have the next-level reputation he enjoys now).

"When [someone has] a strong personality combined with success, it certainly makes you defer more than you necessarily should at times should," says Bianchini. "Sometimes it is easier to say, 'Oh they must know something I don't.'"

"It's good business to make sure that you are getting everybody's perspective." -Gina Bianchini, founder, Mighty Networks

For example, when Bianchini and Andreessen were building Ning, customers wanted to be able to buy additional services and features to add to their networks. But Bianchini and Andreessen raised money on the idea that Ning's revenue stream would come from advertising on the platform. They stuck to that initial business model for too long, says Bianchini.

"I should have paid much more attention and had a stronger constitution around 'What are we delivering for our customers?' as opposed to any of the internal or board dynamics," says Bianchini. "It sounds so obvious and at the same time can get lost when you raise lots of money, when you have strong personalities involved in the company."

It's a lesson she took to her new venture, Mighty Networks, a mobile platform that facilitates connections with people outside your own network who have similar interests. When she started working on Mighty Networks, Bianchini was very careful to build a culture that values the customers' needs above all else and where everyone in the office is encouraged to voice their opinions.

"It is good business, especially when you are in something that is dynamic and fast moving to make sure that you are getting everybody's perspective, especially those folks who are more quiet and have different personalities than you do."

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