Nearly 10 years after it was created, the online community known as Front Porch Forum is a well-established statewide service.
It’s a unique model that hasn’t been duplicated on a statewide level elsewhere, but Front Porch Forum CEO and co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis says the business is viable without expanding beyond Vermont.
The free online community message board was started by Wood-Lewis and his wife Valerie when they were looking for a way to communicate with people in their Burlington neighborhood.
The business grew steadily. Then, in 2013, Front Porch Forum received a grant under the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Digital Economy Project that allowed it to essentially double its coverage area to include every town in Vermont.
Today the business has a dozen employees and is financially sustainable.
“Every year we’re just plus-or-minus a little on either side of the break-even point. We’ve been very pleased with that," says Wood-Lewis.
As far as he’s concerned, doing a bit better than breaking even is a good place for Front Porch Forum to be. Wood-Lewis is not unconcerned about the finances, but he says the social mission is equally important.
“This is why we haven’t taken venture capital,” he says.
Front Porch Forum makes its money primarily from businesses that advertise in the daily emails subscribers receive.
Another stream of revenue comes from selling access to multiple forums – often to government entities.
Each year, Front Porch Forum’s 120,000 subscribers are also asked to make a donation. This year, Wood-Lewis says the business hopes to raise about $100,000 from subscribers. He won’t say what his annual budget is.
Behind the un-flashy daily Front Porch forum emails is a sophisticated system that most users aren’t aware of.
Wood-Lewis says the software Front Porch Forum has developed has been honed through trial and error.
He says there have been hundreds of attempts to duplicate Front Porch Forum outside of Vermont but nearly all have failed.
“While it’s not rocket science, it’s also not terribly obvious how to do this well,” says Wood-Lewis. “Most of the days we do a pretty good job, but we still take our lumps and we’re still learning. It’s a tremendously rewarding job but it’s not easy.”
Wood-Lewis says it's challenging to stay current as users' online habits change and as new ways of communicating are developed – for example, the increased use of mobile devices. Because mobile users access it through their email apps, Front Porch Forum hasn’t developed an app of its own yet, but may in the future.
Wood-Lewis is also keeping an eye on a new national Front Porch Forum-style site called Nextdoor.
Many of the postings on the local Front Porch Forums are from people looking to buy or sell items. It’s one form of community, but the real potential lies in stimulating discussion about local issues.
Making that happen takes some time and work on the part of subscribers.
In Bethel, selectboard member Carl Russell has started to use it to post meeting schedules and agendas in hopes of starting the kind of discussions that might normally occur only at Town Meeting.
“It sort of dawned on me that the Front Porch Forum resource in Bethel hasn’t been used very well in that regard,” says Russell. “If we start thinking about the fact that people want to go online as they’re carrying devices all the time, it gives them an opportunity while they’re sitting in a doctor’s office, to pull up Front Porch Forum and see what somebody says about something.”
While some communities have been successful using Front Porch Forum to discuss issues, it’s still a work-in-progress in Bethel and many other places.
Michael Wood-Lewis says each month, 2,000 news subscribers join local forums.