Lawrence Cole is the online marketing guru who took over as vBulletin's Operations and Marketing Manager about 2 months ago. Lawrence graciously agreed to "answer all of our questions" in an interview, and shared a lot of interesting and useful information with us. However, there were some questions which he chose not to answer. Those questions have been included in the interview for the sake of continuity.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
"I’m 34 years old and was born and raised in Florida. I moved to Los Angeles in 2000 after I graduated from college and completed my last undergraduate internship."
What is your educational background?
"I have a BS degree in electrical engineering."
What kind of positions did you hold before becoming Operations & Marketing Manager for vBulletin?
"I started my career as a junior java developer for an ISP. They had a huge layoff during the time of the “dot com bomb” and the September 11th attacks after which I did some web development and online marketing for a few years for a small company. After that I spent most of the next 8 ½ years in corporate sales and account management with a 2-year rotation into operations and facility engineering roles."
What is Xtreme Marketing?
"Xtreme Marketing Systems is how I’ve kept my marketing skills sharp over the years. I love marketing and could do it all day. XMS is one of several part time projects that I have had over the past 7 or 8 years, including a small weight loss forum that I ran for a while, which is actually how I first came to find out about vBulletin. I had a phpBB forum that had a security vulnerability that allowed my entire website to be hacked and taken over. It was suggested that I convert my fledgling community over to vBulletin for better security against such issues, so I downloaded the latest version of vBulletin and became a customer."
How did you come to be vBulletin Operations & Marketing Manager?
What are your responsibilities as Operations & Marketing Manager?
"My responsibilities are two-fold. One encompasses the daily operations of vBulletin. The customer service and tech support groups roll up to me; however, they don’t need much help because they are some of the best if not the absolute best at what they do. All phone support, ticket support, and customer issues are handled through those teams, each of which has a very capable lead. The other side of my responsibilities deals with marketing and customer interaction. I am responsible for all of the marketing and web optimization for vBulletin.com and also try to stay as active on the forums as time permits."
What was the status of vBulletin development when you took over?
"Though I have some influence on vBulletin software development, I am not in charge of it, so “took over” would be quite a stretch for my part. We have a very capable product manager, project manager, QA manager and team of developers who I work with in the development of vBulletin but do not manage."
Were things more or less as you had imagined, or were there surprises?
"I wouldn’t say that there were any surprises. I was fairly familiar with vBulletin before working for Internet Brands between having once been a customer and doing a good deal of research on the parent company, the product, and its history during my interview process. I also have worked in software development environments at previous jobs. What I’ve experienced from that standpoint has been pretty standard, just with much nicer people to work with."
What changes have taken place since you joined the team?
What are the issues that need to be addressed next?
What are the concerns being voiced by customers which you consider to be valid?
Do you have any comments on the change in pricing structure that came with vB4?
In the vB.com forums in general, and in the Licensed Customer Feedback forum in particular, you seem to be taking a harder line in responding to negative criticism. What's up with that?
"Well, if you look back into some of the conversations that I’ve had I think the record will plainly show that I’ve only taken a hard line with posters who deviate from the conversation of vBulletin (one which I am always happy to engage in whether in praise or in criticism) and chose instead to attack me personally. I welcome any and all feedback about the vBulletin customer experience. I read and interact on the forums regularly to learn what customers need, want, and have expressed. What customers have to say about a given aspect of the brand is always at the forefront of my mind when I am making decisions about vBulletin."
In retrospect, what if anything could have been done differently to improve the development of vBulletin and reputation of Internet Brands?
What are your plans for vBulletin's continuing development?
"My plan is to continue to listen to our customers and be their voice when decisions are being made about the future of vBulletin in areas that range from the product itself to the customer experience and everything in between. Again I am not in charge of software development but I am quite vocal in voicing customer concerns to those that are."
Where do you see vBulletin going in the future?
What does your average workday schedule look like?
"My time is split between marketing plan development and execution, following up on operational issues, and interacting with customers on the forum."
Which aspects of your job do you really like?
"Developing the marketing strategy is my favorite part of the job. And a big part of that is taking a serious look at what customers are saying to make sure that what we are doing is in alignment with their needs and concerns."
Are you involved in any other interesting projects and/or ventures at present?
"Right now there’s just vBulletin full time and XMS part time."
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?
"That would have to be getting to a point in my life where I truly love work."
Any failures you'd care to tell us about?
"Sure. Mistakes and failures are ultimately the best teachers. Some years ago I built a list of 7,000 or so emails without spending a dime. I used a few white hat SEO strategies and a free report to do so. However, at the time I was much more interested in building back end systems than interacting with my customers. I paid dearly for that mistake when that list eventually went “dead”, meaning that while most of the emails were still good the list would not respond to me in any meaningful way because I had not been consistent with them in my communication. I learned a huge lesson from that and have made it a point to put significant energy into customer engagement ever since. If you aren’t listening to your customers, you won’t have a business for very long."
How did you become interested in Online Communities?
"I first became interested in online communities back in 1996 when I was a pretty active poster on Davey D’s Hip Hop forum while an intern at Marshall Space Flight Center. Initially it was just to break the monotony of programming and creating reports. Since then I’ve always been involved in one online community or another—long before it was common or popular to do so. There is a vBulletin community called The Warrior Forum that I was active on for a number of years, but have not been for some time. I also used to hang out in SEO Moz when I was learning that skill set."
How would you describe your Moderating Style?
"I would describe my own moderating style as somewhat laissez faire. Community is about discussion and the exchange of ideas and information. Even the most heated debates and arguments (which have been common in any community that I have ever seen) are a critical component to an engaging, lively environment that makes members stick around and keep coming back—even if only to read through posts in stealth fashion, never saying a word."
What are the common mistakes you see Forum Administrators making?
"One common mistake that I see some administrators making is letting their forum become “stale” by spending too much time in "management mode" with thier current membership. Another form of this is to become so active IN your community that you lose sight of your responsibility to BUILD your community for the benefit of your members. Both tend to result in the same posters repeating the same things over and over. New blood is the life blood of any community. It keeps it interesting by constantly changing the dynamic by either adding to the ranks of a particular school of thought or sometimes throwing the entire ecosystem of the community on its ear (within reason) with new, interesting, or even conflicting ideas and perspectives."
"I would advise any forum administrator to devote significant energy and resources into continuously attracting quality new members with fresh opinions and perspectives. And to do that, you must provide value that makes them want to come back again and again."
What can forum owners do to increase traffic and revenues?
"The best way to increase traffic and revenue is to know your membership/audience well and provide what they are looking for in a manner that both easily accessible and rich in breadth and depth of the value they stand to gain from hanging out (e.g. great culture, information or resources). This can range from knowing what search terms they commonly look for so that you know what to name your forum, categories, etc. to having detailed knowledge of the kinds of personas that exist in your community and what revenue-generating initiatives will fly with them—or not."
Where do you see the Internet 5 years from now?
"I see an explosion in mobile internet usage and app development over the next 5 years. However, I hope that it will become more streamlined with a few strong competitors providing a lot of unique value between them instead of everyone with a laptop and some VC capital throwing an app against the wall and hoping it sticks, which is somewhat what we have currently."
What websites do you own and/or administrate?
"Well, naturally I do some administration on vBulletin’s website and forums. Then I own my XMS website and, more recently, started a new vBulletin community that will be an exchange for free marketing information and advice for small business people. Right now I am still working on the customization in my spare time. I had a weight loss website for 6 or 7 years that I recently deleted due to a loss of interest. However, I learned a great deal in the process of building it, monetizing it, and changing the revenue model once or twice between a point of sale model and a membership model."
What Websites do you visit for fun and relaxation?
"Right now LinkedIn is at the top of my list because I can keep up with the Wall Street Journal, Mashable, Tech Crunch, Fast Company and several other of my favorite media outlets in one place. Then, of course, there’s YouTube for laughs and kicks."
What did you do at NASA?
"I worked there as a scholarship student during undergrad. I did 5 summer internships that ranged from basic web development to engineering design to programming. It was a lot of fun and I got to work with some pretty accomplished engineers and physicists."
Are you a member of Mensa? Tell us about it.
"I was much more involved with it as a kid, actually. I remember being called into a meeting with a child psychologist and being asked to complete a series of puzzles and mazes when I was about seven. Most of the programs are geared towards children, like the gifted programs in schools. As an adult I primarily use my membership to get the newsletter and keep access to the website so that I can stay abreast of the best educational toys to buy for my god kids. Occasionally there might be a feature of someone’s research that makes for a good read. They also have local events, debates, and gatherings, but I haven’t been to many because I find them to be held during inconvenient times. Besides, I’d rather be writing copy or doing something internet related."
What do you know now that you wish you'd known 5 years ago?
"The name of a few good stocks that have split or doubled (or better) in value within that time frame."
What offline activities do you enjoy in your spare time?
"I like to work out and stay in pretty good shape. I go most mornings before coming to work. I also enjoy live music and am a bit of a foodie. Being that I live in Los Angeles I will occasionally hike trails like Runyon Canyon in Hollywood or run the steps in Santa Monica or Culver City when I want a change from the gym. Being from Florida I am a big college football fan. The Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators have been my favorite teams historically (SEC teams in general), though moving to California has made me a fan of Stanford, Oregon, and the USC Trojans as well."
What are your favorite books? TV shows? Music? Foods? Beverages?
"My favorite book right now is Rework by Jason Fried and David Hansson. I love their maverick perspective on business management and their company, 37Signals, is one of the brands that I most admire. I also really like A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, my favorite futurist. He talks about how more analytical, left brained functions are no longer “impressive”, but a standard expectation for those who wish to become successful; and how the future will be owned by those who possess not only strong analytical abilities but creative abilities that enable them to innovate and solve problems in unique and—dare I say artistic ways as well. The internet and technology world has tons of such examples like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Tony Hseih of Zappos."
"I don’t watch very much TV but for the little that I do watch I think that Dexter and Grey’s Anatomy are intelligently written. I also used to enjoy The Wire when it was on. When it comes to music I’m pretty eclectic. I played saxophone for 7 or 8 years and Canonball Adderly’s family is from my home town so naturally I love jazz. His brother Nat and sister-and-law Anne were friends of my family when I was growing up. Other than that I like some of everything from Tupac to Tchaikovsky—it really depends more so on the artist than the genre. My favorite music of all time is made largely by Percy Grainger and D’Angelo Archer; two very different sounds, but both genius in their own right. When it comes to food my favorites are Thai, Chinese, Seafood, Creole/Cajun, Italian, Japanese, and gourmet anything. When it comes to beverages I’m mostly a water drinker. When its dinner time a glass of Robert Mondavi (anything) is always on time. And if I am watching a good game I don’t mind an ice cold Stella Artois, Corona, or Heineken every now and then."
Do you have any pet peeves?
"I have a few. I would say that at the top of my list would be people who speed to get in front of you in traffic and then drive slow once they get there. Insanity."
What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?
"At this point in my life just getting to spend time with my family—most of whom are still in Florida, is more than enough."
What does the future hold for Lawrence Cole?
"Only time will tell, but I am sure that much of it will involve the internet. I enjoy what I do @ Internet Brands and I am intrigued by the various interesting business projects that are a part of this company."