Front Porch Forum

When Cookies Fail...

I, Cringely
By Robert X. Cringely
2010-07-28

As we cross America on our Startup Tour there are any number of assumptions I've made about both new companies and child behavior that are being challenged. My kids are clearly anarchists and determined to topple me from power for one. As for the companies, I'm amazed over and over again how little money it can take to start a good business and how many founders find themselves running companies almost despite themselves. A good example of both lessons is Front Porch Forum (FPF) from Burlington, Vermont.

Here is part of my interview with FPF CEO Michael Wood-Lewis. I'll be back to say more when he's finished talking:

"My wife and I moved to Burlington, VT from the big city in the late 1990s looking for a small city with a great sense of community. We landed in a neighborhood known for just that kind of thing. But in 2000, after a couple years, we still had yet to connect with the neighbors.

"One evening at dinner, we wondered "whatever happened to neighbors welcoming new folks with a plate of fresh-baked cookies?" Two years and still no cookies!

"My wife is a public school teacher and take-charge kind of gal, so she baked cookies and took them over to several neighbors, and, at my genius suggestion, she used china plates instead of paper so when they returned the plates, we could interact again (maybe they'd even bring over more cookies!). Well... we never saw the plates again. Not entirely true... we found one at a yard sale the next summer. At 25 cents it was a bargain.

"Now these neighbors were not -- are not -- bad folks. It's just that everyone was so busy and cultural expectations have shifted in this generation. We were just strangers who lived next door. There's no social contract there.

"So, our second attempt was to create an online forum for the neighborhood.

"We used fairly primitive tools to build it, and made fliers and dropped them in 400 front doors. In short order, 25, 50, 75 households signed up and people started using it. Over time, it became obvious that we had something worth sharing. And at the same time, 2006, I was leaving my job, so Valerie and I decided to launch Front Porch Forum, offering an enhanced version of what we had been doing in our one neighborhood, but now across 100+ neighborhoods in our region.

"Today, Front Porch Forum (FPF) serves 25 northwest Vermont towns and 18,000 households subscribe, including 45 percent of the state's largest city. People use it for the simplest things, e.g., finding lost cats, borrowing ladders, recommending plumbers, reporting car break-ins, organizing block parties, debating local politics, etc. But it's all done with clearly identified nearby neighbors, so it has a magical effect of turning familiar strangers into real neighbors over time and gets people more engaged in local goings on. More than 90 percent report becoming more involved civically since signing up with FPF!"

Wow, what a story! (This is Bob again.) Here we have a 10 year-old startup that was six years old before the founders even began to think of it as a startup. It has taken almost no money, has really primitive technology (text-only e-mail with three ads at the top of every issue), yet has greater market penetration than the local daily newspaper whose owners like to think their media property is worth millions, right?

Front Porch Forum isn't another Craigslist for two vital reasons: 1) each edition covers just a single neighborhood averaging 300 homes, and; unlike Craigslist, FPF forbids anonymity. You are responsible for your words.

If only more Internet communication was that way.

There is a lot that could be improved about Front Porch Forum and I'm sure it will be, but the company's strength has been its simplicity. No VC would wait six years to decided whether his investment was even an investment, yet -- and here's the clear lesson -- that's what it takes sometimes.

The tortoise doesn't always win but he always finishes.

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FPF's Story

Read best-selling author Bill McKibben's take on Front Porch Forum's origins.

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