Three years ago this month, when I was 46, I started a secret Facebook group purely for my own entertainment. The idea was to create a safe and funny space where I could be self-deprecating and candid and talk about all the uncomfortable things that were happening to both my body and my emotions as I hurtled toward menopause. Why was I hating my teenagers? Why did no one ever warn me I’d get back fat? Was my period really truly gone, forever? Would I ever sleep through the night again? What’s the difference between Viagra and Cialis? These were just a few of the burning questions that I felt a need to ask, and I craved a forum in which to do it. My doctor wasn’t much help (she offered the birth control pill when I complained about night sweats), and I wasn’t finding that my girlfriends, much as I loved them, were really tackling these issues either. Were they perhaps embarrassed? Was there a reason to feel ashamed?
I called the group “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” because my friends are a bunch of fierce feminists who read a lot, and Virginia Woolf is one of our heroines. And she killed herself in her 50s, so the dark joke of the title is basically “we’re getting old; should we just throw in the towel?” The answer, it turns out, is resoundingly, “of course not!” The group, which started with 50 women in Brooklyn, is now 24,000 women all over the world, all fantastically smart and funny and resourceful, and we learn from each other, and inspire each other, every single day. It’s addictive, and it’s been weirdly life-changing for many of us.
The FB community is the heart of what we do — meaning right now it’s the core engine of our community, the place where we have non-stop action and an 80% engagement rate, with over thirty separate regional, subject, and admin groups — but we’re also quite active on Instagram and we’ve grown into a larger umbrella enterprise called The Woolfer (that’s what we call ourselves, Woolfers,) which includes a website, newsletter, online shop, live events, and a podcast called Raging Gracefully.
I’m the voice of the brand, but I’m not alone. I have a team of 15 amazing moderators, all women I chose because they each uniquely “get” the concept, and have perspectives and personalities that embody what I’m trying to do here, which is ultimately to destigmatize female aging, to empower women to help each other, and to be funny, sexy, smart, and proud while doing it.
How have I done it? Truly from the heart. I’ve always felt, sometimes to the chagrin of those who love me, that sharing what’s painful (or embarrassing, or ugly) can free us, and that the act of writing is healing. By sharing my own truths, I embolden women to share theirs, and the result is magic, a kind of opening up and connecting that has led to hundreds, maybe thousands, of deep friendships, women who met in Virginia Woolf and now travel together, and talk on the phone, and take care of each other’s children. I post about what interests me, not what I think will interest anyone else. If something strikes me as particularly funny, or sad, or beautiful, I share it, and if I want to know something, I ask. I use the community as a sounding board for my inner musings, and they talk and reflect back at the same level.
What’s been most amazing to me about this entire experience, and what’s convinced me to commit to growing it, is how utterly organic and authentic it’s been. The community morphs constantly, but every time I think it might be getting too big, or we have a problem to solve (too many overly medicalized posts, too many “mommy posts,” not enough coming in on culture), something shifts and we both find a solution (create a new sub-group, post and discuss the issue) and the community itself adapts and finds its way. I can’t quite explain it, other to say that it feels like this group has a pounding heart of it’s own, and like I’m just here to steer the ship. I think the organic nature comes from the fact that I didn’t start it to be a business. I started it because I needed to talk, and in doing so, I inadvertently tapped into a much larger need.
How Can Someone Starting Out Build A Community Into a Brand?
Be Authentic. What’s interesting to you? What do you really care about? Listen to that. Write about it, and write honestly, no holds barred. Dig deep.
Forget Your Filter. I know that sounds scary to some, and I definitely don’t mean be rude, or thoughtless, but I do mean Be Real. I often describe our group as a supportive space but not a support group. I love how kind and smart we are without being saccharine. I want to hear what people really think and feel and I’m not interested in platitudes or being nice to sugarcoat something. Respect is vital, and clarity, and everyone needs to know when to stand down, but I think one of the reasons our community has gelled as well as it has is because we trust each other to tell the truth.
Post Organically – Now that we’ve gotten bigger, we do schedule some posts, but only ones that are about logistics. All of my personal posts (articles, questions, thoughts) are impromptu; I post when I feel like it or when something occurs to me. Sometimes this means that I might make a mistake, like the recent morning when I got super excited about an exercise program that turned out to be a Multi-Level-Marketing scheme and my members felt freaked out that I was proselytizing, but then I just apologize and tell them the truth – that I got over-excited and wanted to share. I’m always myself with my community, always honest and always listening. I’m sure the lack of posturing, the genuine feeling I have for these women must come through, and that’s been easy because I feel it. It’s been easy for me every step of the way.
Love Your Members – one of our core principles is “Assume Goodness.” This is a pretty basic concept that comes straight from my personal values: the idea is that everyone is struggling and generally doing the best that he/she can do. Don’t go for the jugular when you get triggered; assume the other person means well or is in pain, and try to see things from a perspective not your own. We can all learn from each other, and grow. That said, you should consider what personal values of yours might drive your brand? How do you want to see people engaging together? Can you model that and see what happens?
Decide Whether it’s a Club or a Business, and Behave Accordingly — this is a concept I’m only just beginning to embrace, and I think it’s sound advice. I started this enterprise as a group for me and my girlfriends (a virtual clubhouse really, with a secret handshake and everything – see the Crave Vesper, our vibrator necklace of choice) and we’re now actually trying to engage in commerce (a business, hopefully with actual revenue) and the group is full of women I don’t know personally, so we’re in a state of transformation that I’m aware of daily right now.
What Does It Mean to Be a Brand? I need to be constantly aware that both I and the group have become a brand. That’s not always entirely comfortable; I can’t necessarily be as candid about my personal life as I could in the early days, and I do need to be conscious of the larger needs of a growing body (are we diverse enough? Are we presenting options at the right price points? I also actually get recognized in public sometimes by lovely middle aged women, which is hilarious. Should I start brushing my hair before I leave the house in the morning?!
Why does it matter? For me it’s because women write to me every day telling me that the group has changed their lives. Makes them feel less alone, teaches them so much, offers tremendous amounts of wisdom and comfort and resource. It’s done exactly the same for me, so I know what they mean, and that’s sort of mind-blowing to me. That we’ve built this, together! So We Persist. We’ll continue to grow because we know there are so many more likeminded women out there who can, and will, benefit from what we have to offer, as a powerful group. What would make it matter for you? If you truly believe that what you’re doing makes a difference, it’s infectious and people will follow.