TZ Startup Hot Seat | Mark O’Sullivan Founder and CEO of Vanilla Forums

Jun 10, 2011 • Entrepreneurship, Startups, Video
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Online forums have been around almost since the dawn of the internet.  As Mark states below “Forums are the original social media”, people sharing information across the web on all sorts of different topics.  In this installment of TZ Startup Hot Seat we have a chat with Mark O’Sullivan on Vanilla Forums how he came up with the concept and how they plan to revolutionize the industry,  and the challenges and rewards of being an entrepreneur.

Give Us the Fast Pitch

Vanilla is forum software that powers discussions on over 400,000 sites around the world. We removed all of the features and bloat that plagues other forum software, and created an addon framework so the forum owner can use Vanilla as the basis on which they can build their vision of how their community should appear and function. We put a heavy focus on integration, allowing your community to be deeply embedded into the fabric of your website and the social web.

What made you decide to begin working on Vanilla?

I was running my own community, and none of the solutions available in the market could do any of the things that I wanted to do.

What is the market opportunity?

Forums are the original social media, and they’ve been steadily growing with the scale of the internet since it came into being. Recent studies have shown that even with the advent of things like Twitter & Facebook, forum growth has not been affected in the slightest. If you are looking for information on the internet, regardless of the subject matter, you will find your answers on forums.

How big is your team?


Are you Funded? How did your company get its initial funding? How much funding do you currently have?

We are funded. We were a TechStars 2009 company, and we have raised 1M since “graduating” the program.

Have you ever needed to change direction/focus? If so, what was that like?

Every company shifts focus. You are constantly working to discover who your customer is and how you can add value or remove pain for them. It’s rare that we make drastic “pivots” because that, to me, is a desperate move of a company in trouble. There is a big difference between realizing that you haven’t got a leg to stand on (so you’d better completely change your company) and navigating the waters to see what works & what doesn’t. We are always listening to our customers and trying new ideas for them looking for ways we can improve their communities (ie. grow their user-base, make their lives easier, or save them money). Of course it’s disappointing to discover that something you’ve built wasn’t a great success, but it’s necessary to take those steps so you know what *not* to do. Some of the things we’ve tried have failed, others have been great successes. I still believe our biggest successes are ahead of us, and look forward to having them realized :)

How do you deal with competitors? Do you keep up with other companies doing similar things?

We definitely keep a close eye on our competitors, and there are a lot of competitors in our space – new ones popping up all the time. Staying ahead of the pack is a full-time job.

What is the most difficult and best things about being an entrepreneur?

Leaving your comfort zone is never fun, and you are constantly doing it as an entrepreneur. Every minute of every day is a challenge. Because of this, I’ve found that you can lose focus on why you began in the first place: to build something amazing. That’s the best part: you get to build something amazing.

What’s one of your most successful decisions?

To get up every day and keep going. It can be incredibly easy to sit idle.

Where have you struggled? What mistakes have you made that you believe other entrepreneurs could learn from?

Just wrote a blog post about the difficulties of going from a founder to being a CEO. I made a lot of mistakes in that process:

Who are your three most influential entrepreneurs?

All three of these entrepreneurs have had a direct influence on me as an entrepreneur for (hopefully) obvious reasons:

My Mom
Todd Burry (my co-founder)
David Cohen (founder of TechStars)

What does “failure” mean to you?

A chance to learn something you needed to learn.

What does “success” mean to you?

Helping others.

What is coming up next? Your goals, new products, new direction? (Either for you as an entrepreneur or for the company as a whole)

We are working on some things at Vanilla that will change the game in online communities, introducing a level of quality control & engagement that hasn’t really been seen before in our space. I’m being purposefully vague because I hate overpromising (and under-delivering). We should have prototypes ready by the end of the summer.

Efren Toscano

Efren Toscano founded TechZulu in the heart of Southern California: Orange County. Focused on providing a platform to showcase all that is happening here in the tech and media space. TechZulu is rapidly growing to be the hub for Southern California technology companies news source. Efren has been chosen as one of LA Weekly's People of 2009 and selected as a Top 20 MostPublic Individuals in Los Angeles in Tech and Biz by NowPublic. He divides his time between San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and tech events around the US.

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