Through Twitter, my wife Vanessa recently came across Ollie Cornes, the founder of one of the original property networking forums, Singing Pig.
Seeing as how Ollie is something of a trail blazer when it comes to forums, having started Singing Pig in 2002, she took the opportunity to ask him a few questions as I felt I could learn a great deal from his experiences. I thought I would share the interview with you here.
1. What gave you the idea to start SP forum seven years ago? What was your vision for it?
Ollie: Much of the driver in my life has been some non-life-threatening, manageable, but chronic, challenges with my health. These things make us question our values and priorities – they are a gift if we let them be. "Rich Dad Poor Dad" led me to learn about assets, cash-flow and building businesses – although I had previously run a dotcom/VC-funded business (it failed), that book crystalised many ideas for me. I needed to meet like-minded people to share ideas and learn, and out of some meet-ups in London, and chats online, connecting with people like Lisa Orme, I set up Singing Pig as a social venture – there was no intention in the early years to build a business out of it – I just wanted mutual-sharing. In 2002 I was scouring the web to find books or courses or articles on property investment and landlording, and there was almost nothing there.
2. Did you have a platform custom-designed or did you use a generic one?
Ollie: Technology – build-or-buy – the eternal question I’ve been searching for an answer to for longer than I can remember. My thinking continues to evolve, but at this point I believe that buying a software platform is likely to be better than building your own AS LONG AS the platform is extensible and open and you have ownership of the data (ability to get a copy). It’s far quicker, and users benefit from a far wider range of features. Choosing a platform remains a difficult decision (it’s hard to undo), hopefully it will get easier as more apps move to the cloud and interconnect. Singing Pig started on MSN Groups (to migrate away from here we had to screen-scrape the content off each page with custom software – ugly, but it worked), it then moved to a proprietary forum platform, and then moved again to another, much better platform, later on. The migrations were painful, for me at least, but I think they worked out in the end.
3. How did you generate groundswell in the early days of the forum?
Ollie: I remained active in the forums, I was interested in what others thought and were doing, I felt passionate about the community as it grew. Looking back I think there was a mutual sense that we all wanted to learn, and I listened to what people wanted from the forum and tried to deliver that. There was some luck in there too. For a while I had business cards with "Pig Daddy" on them, and it was a bit of a joke, but I did hold a kind of sense of paternalism, to encourage learning, to deter the idiots, to nurture the community.
4. How did you monetise the forum, or was that something that developed over time?
Ollie: I didn’t press the monetisation very much, that was a side-benefit, and made sure costs were covered. If it was all about the money the ads would have been a lot more intrusive. It was about meeting people. We all know that landlords are often solitary workers – cabin-fever can set in, and lots of us (me included) relished the communication. Singing Pig was there at the right time really, Buy To Let was exploding, and there was a thirst for knowledge. To be honest if I wanted to build an income business, I wouldn’t set up a content/community site, it’s hard work for limited returns (as Rupert Murdoch is finding out on a larger scale). If the owner has a product/service they can promote on it, that’s often a different matter…
5. What were the biggest challenges you faced with running the forum?
Ollie: The cowards who libelled people & companies behind the mask of anonymity, and the lawyers acting for their (often scumbag) clients. Mishcon de Reya had a dig once (you can probably guess who their client was) – they were so aggressive it was like being in a movie, but I had to admire their solid understanding of the law and technology (many lawyers who came at me were strangely clueless). Ironically I often felt like "piggie in the middle" – someone posts libellous comments in the forum, but the lawyers came after me – it was boring, and time-consuming.
6. Did being a forum owner help add credibility to your personal brand?
Ollie: Yes, I think it has, but as an (admittedly confident) introvert, that has limited appeal.
7. Why did you sell SP and was there anything in the timing of the sale?
Ollie: I sold it as I wanted to focus on other projects, I was working too hard, I was spread too thin. The timing worked for me, it took some pressure off, though I hope the new owner has benefited from it since – there were certainly days afterwards when I had mixed-feelings about the sale.
8. You rarely appear on SP now. Why is that?
Ollie: I decided back in 2007 that I wasn’t prepared to continue working such long hours, and my community activities were a casualty – I focused on buying property, on building a business around that, improving the management of my properties. I continued to network, and still do, but much has been with smaller communities through people I know.
9. What are you doing now?
Ollie: I’m a property guy, but I have just as much passion for technology. It was natural that I fuse the two, and so for a number of years I’ve managed my portfolio using a scalable software platform that I evolved specifically for that purpose – I rather over-engineered it for one landlord, but it brought me great pleasure to build what didn’t seem to exist on the market. I’d been asked on quite a number of occasions why I was not making it available to others to use, but I resisted – too busy, would other landlords find it useful, how to solve the technical hurdles to re-sell, etc. But I came around eventually and so this year I’m bringing it to market – opening myself up to the views of the landlord masses. It’s designed specifically for landlords (not agents – so it isn’t missing essential features to manage mortgage debt, valuations, equity, cash flow, buildings insurance, leasehold etc etc) and it is a cloud-based app, so secure, easy to access, a 30day free trial, no backups, no software to install, mobile access, free upgrades, and instead of a large up-front payment, it’ll just be a small monthly fee. It’s not commercially available yet, there is no web site yet, the service is in a small private trial. Like Singing Pig, there will be a community element, and landlords can vote on features they’d like added – democratic software, if you like. I’d love your feedback Vanessa & Nick – if you think it might be useful to you, let me know and I’ll add you to the next trial phase.
10. Do you have an opinion on the future of SP and how it has become orientated towards deals and leads selling rather than discussion?
Ollie: There was some pressure before I sold it to expand this facility, or charge for it as a service, and I admit I resisted it, but I think since I let go of the business the market has changed a great deal. One of the challenges with any community/group is that ultimately the "owner" has limited control over how people use it, and BMV became the core focus for a great number of people – that "gold-rush" changed the nature of the community. To twist the old phrase "Cash-out is vanity, cash flow is sanity" smile
You can read the original interview and ensuing discussion on the Property Tribes forum here.
I really take my hat off to Ollie for creating such a vibrant community and selling it on. You can follow him @juicyproperty on Twitter.
Our next Guildford ecademy/property/social media networking event is on Sunday 20th September. You can join us here. At our events, we share a lot of inside information about how we monetise social media. This is a great way for you to expand your knowledge and contacts in a collaborative networking environment.
I hope to see you there.