We kick off the #1000Strong member drive with an interview of Strong Towns Founder and President Chuck Marohn by Board Member John Reuter. John asks Chuck about the current state of the movement, some of the big things coming up, the inside on new staff members and some personal questions on his commitment to change.
The following is a rough transcript of the conversation.
Marohn: Hey everybody, this is Chuck Marohn and welcome back to the Strong Towns podcast. This is our member drive week, and as part of our member drive week, we wanted to back up and give you a little look under the hood into Strong Towns, how we operate, and what we're doing. There's no better way to do that than to bring in one of our board members. John Reuter is formally with Conservation Voters for Idaho- I'm going to screw that up because I always do. John brought us up to Idaho a few years ago, he now is with the League of Conservation Voters, is that right, John?
Reuter: That is right, yes. Are you talking [UNKNOWN] Idaho organization correct too, which I thought was remarkable.
Marohn: Wow, I usually screw that up in one way or another. I'm getting better. If you're not familiar with how non-profits operate, let me clarify things for you. Everyone works for a board, and the board is independent, and the board helps guide the organization and is ultimately responsible for a lot of the things that go on. In a chart of responsibility, the board is my boss. And so I thought, what better way to probe the things we're doing well, and maybe the things we're not doing well at Strong Towns than to be grilled by my boss in front of everybody? So John, thanks for agreeing to do this.
Reuter: Thank you! I have to say, we'll see if I can make you feel some pressure and some tough questions today, but I always feel like it's a little star struck when I come on the podcast now and then, because of how much Strong Towns has meant to me, and how much the interviews you've done on this podcast has changed my [UNKNOWN] and helps me come up with how I think we should approach Strong Towns, and how I've thought about the places I've lived and how to improve that. So I'm going to start by saying, thanks, Chuck, and don't hold any of the tough questions I come up with against me.
Marohn: Of course not. Go for it, John. This is your third time on the podcast, and we probably should start- no, it's probably your fourth time. We should probably start by just noting one more time for the record that Sandpoint is the most beautiful city in North America? Or is it the world? I can't remember.
Reuter: We've said the most beautiful city in North America, the most beautiful city in the world, let's just all decide it's the best place, period. Sandpoint, Idaho is the best place, for those of you who don't know, it's a small city in North Idaho, about 8,000 people, where I served on the city council and well in that service, that's when I came in contact with Strong Towns and did some things that I think were, some policies that were very much in mind with Strong Towns, and some policies that Chuck and I are still arguing about, whether they were in mind with Strong Towns.
Marohn: Well, it's a beautiful place. Go ahead, I will take whatever questions you've got, John.
Reuter: So we started there, let's start there. What do you think as the Strong Town movement grows, and there are these diversities of opinions, recently you actually took to the blog to have a debate with one of our contributors about how much beauty matters when we talk about Strong Towns. How do you think we go about this diversity going forward, and how does that work and how do you feel about that?
Marohn: I think it's a really exciting phase of our conversation, because a lot of Strong Towns, up until really the last year, 18 months, has been dominated by what's come out of my head. And I'm going to be the first one to admit that while I spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and I spent a long time talking about them, I don't have all the answers, and I certainly don't even have all the diagnoses of what's wrong. I'm constantly gathering more information and learning more things. So I'm excited that we're, first of all engaging a broad enough set of people where we're getting some really intelligent counter-thoughts or nuances to our conversation, but I'm also even more thrilled that there's people actually taking ownership of this movement, enough to the point where they'll stand up to me and say, hey, you may have started this thing, you may be the main contributor on the blog, but I think you've got this wrong, and I care enough about the direction we're going in to actually have that conversation. So not only Matthias who's a wonderful, a great contributor, and we had that conversation, but Joe Minnecozi and I go back and forth on a number of things, I was in Baton Rouge last week, Nathan Norris, Jeff Diart are members of ours, we had some really good conversations about value of incremental over how important that was versus not, I think that these are really good, healthy indicators of a strong movement, a movement of people who care as passionately about it as we do, also a movement that has a lot of intellectual heft to it. I mean, we have a lot of very smart people who are stepping up and contributing both on the blog and in the podcast, but also behind the scenes in a lot of ways. I say bring it on, I think it's good, and I think the steel sharpening steel aspect of it is the best part of it.
Reuter: As you point out, there's this really broad movement, from the far left to the far right, people of all different kinds of political stripes, all different geographies around the country, people from small towns to big cities, what actually holds this group of people together? What is the actual foundation of Strong Towns in your view?
Marohn: That's a good one, because I have to say, I don't know if I fully know. I started talking about these things, and I started writing about them, and I get invited to come speak at an environmental conference, or a bike walk conference. And then I'm invited to speak at a tea party gathering, and I'm invited to speak at an AFLCIO get-together, and I'm saying the same things. And I lift up my head and I look around, and I realize that we have this broad group of people who don't necessarily hang out together, and don't necessarily speak together, and they're buying what we're saying. And they're part of our movement. And there's part of me that's been astounded by that, and said, I'm not going to try to overanalyze it even though I've been asked, what's the special sauce, Chuck? How do you do this? It's just the way we talk about things. That having been said, if we step back and look at it, I do think there's a couple of threads that I'm going to throw out as a theory of why this movement has become so broad and vigorous, and really defied the standard political context we usually apply to things in the United States. I think starting with the financial realities is a universal conversation that people can have. People on the left, people on the right, people with no strong affiliation, want cities to be well run fiscally and prudently, and I think that is a universal starting point, where we can all say yep, we want to make sure our book's balanced, we don't want to do things that are really dumb financially, we're in, we're with you. I think another more subtle part, though, is that there is a reality at the local level, as much as the national dialogue you see on cable news likes to distort, and as much as maybe politically there's some advantage to nationalizing issues, I think everyone wants to live in a nice place. And I think everybody wants to live in a good neighborhood. A neighborhood where people are friendly to each other, people help each other out, where people can grow and prosper and have opportunity. When we look at the paradigms out there to achieve that, they frustrate a lot of people. And I think our movement, our conversation, while it's not easy, and we're not suggesting there's any simple solutions here- like we say, there's nothing we can change about what someone else does so that you don't have to change about what you do. I think at the end of the day, we're tapping into a very real feeling that people have about their own places, and the fact that with a different approach, we can make them better, we can not only make them stronger and financially better off, but we can improve people's lives in the process. I think that's a universal human yearning that not enough other people in this space are addressing that need in the way that we go about doing it.
Reuter: That's pretty inspiring. Particularly having gotten to go with you to some of these events, and seeing different types of people in the audience respond with a common enthusiasm, those were the moments where I think there's the most promising thing about the movements is that diversity.
Marohn: You were with me two or three years ago, John, when we did the tour of Idaho, and when we did those stops, and gave those talks, people were very interested and had a lot of good feedback, and we had a lot of good conversation, and I'd say generally people were excited. But you were there in Sandpoint last month, when we had this conversation. I'm going to ask you, is the level of enthusiasm changed? I feel it, I wonder if you feel it with these snapshots in time that you've gotten.
Reuter: I think you definitely see the movement forwards in terms of this enthusiasm and this sense of progress, but here's the question around this, is there is this civic enthusiasm that Strong Towns is building, but what has it actually resulted in on the ground over the last year? It's great to have people get excited about making their towns better places, but what has actually changed over the past year since the last time we had one of these end of the year membership drives?
Marohn: I think I would point to two things. Internal and external. We could talk about the internal, and maybe I'm just going to skip that, because you could ask me some questions if you want me to go there. We've obviously made a lot internal changes in a sense, or shifts to capture the momentum, but let me just talk externally for a little bit, because a long time ago, I felt like, and probably was, a voice in the wilderness, just pointing out things that didn't make sense to me. And over time, as things have grown, I've found that not only am I not a voice in the wilderness, but there's a whole lot of people that are talking about this stuff, who care about this stuff, and who are standing right there with me. You, the rest of the board, are approaching 1,000 members, our audience, these are people who are standing with us. And I don't feel alone anymore. I feel like we've got a group of people moving ahead. For a while, though, success for us looked like largely just stopping stupid things. And I'll use that phrase, stopping things from happening. So if we could get people to rethink some of the things they were doing and stop doing the most destructive practices, that was the high water mark of success for us. And in the last couple years, we've been able to point to a number of places where we've changed the local conversation, and they stopped doing really destructive things. I think that is a win for where we were a couple years ago, that's a really good benchmark. In the last year, though, we've seen a shift, and I think this is more than subtle, and it's really important, because we've actually started to see whole groups of people proactively embrace our message. Whether it's a place like Hayes, Kansas, where the staff there has completely remade the way they approach things, and the way they communicate amongst themselves, the way they account for their own work, the way they present things to the public and the city council, it is all based on a Strong Towns philosophy, and it's amazing to see the impact that that's had on their dialogue and their direction. Or if it's a place like Waco, Texas, where I was earlier this year, had a conversation with them, and talked them through some of the things that they were, I'll say hesitant about, or reluctant to take on, and really bolstered their sense of what they knew needed to be done. And they come out with a new comprehensive plan, it radically shifts the way that they fund and finance growth and development, it changes the subsidy pattern dramatically in a city that really is an important one in between Dallas and Houston, and affecting those conversations. So we're starting to see those, what we're calling success stories, and we're making a conscious effort thanks to the prodding that you have done and some of the other board members have done, to be more front and center with these. We've started to document these success stories, because they are important. And the message that we're coming out with, and the movement we're creating is creating a ground swell of sorts that is resulting in real action on the ground. Our strategic plan says we're trying to create a movement of a million people who care. Our theory of change suggests that once we reach that kind of threshold, the idea of a broad national movement of people, once we reach that kind of threshold, we're going to start to see not only the conversation change, but change on the ground happen. And even with a smaller amount than a million today, even at the phase we're in now, we're starting to see those changes happen. And it's really exciting.
Reuter: Can you talk about the movement growth? You referenced the goal of getting a million people who care. But where is the movement today, and how has it grown over the last year?
Marohn: I'll give you the mathematical answer, because I am an engineer, and I do like statistics and data. When we look at things, we look at things like our audience size. We started the year, and I don't see any reason why I can't share these numbers, we started the year a little less than 80,000 people in our audience. And that's measured as a total number of unique people that are on our website or on our blog over the last 12 months. That number has grown to over 300,000. I think we're at 305,000 the last report I put together for the board. So we've seen tremendous growth in our audience. And some of that is the exponential nature of the internet and the way we choose to communicate, but nonetheless, we're seeing our message reach audience that are way beyond the standard people that you would reach in a debate or a conversation about places or cities. We're reaching a huge audience. That's translating, then, into some of the other things that we see. Our podcast audience is more than doubled over the course of this year, our membership is on track to double this year, we're seeing other things like our social media engagements go way, way up. The number of people sharing our stuff is skyrocketing. We track things like media mentions, how often is our message mentioned in other places? And those metrics, like everything else, has been exponentially off the charts. When we step back and we say we've got momentum, we're actually measuring that. We're actually looking back and saying, wow, from where we were before, we thought we had a lot of momentum. Now, all of a sudden, oh my gosh, this is a much bigger wave. I think strategically, that's been a reality that has crept up on us, and we're now in a sense embracing. Our new strategic plan really embraces the notion that we can and need to, if we're going to be successful with this movement, double our membership, double our readership, have those as annual goals for us. All the lights are going read off the charts in terms of the reach that we've got right now. And our goal is to keep up that rate of growth.
Reuter: What does that mean, next year? Where are we at the end of next year, end of 2016? Where is Strong Towns?
Marohn: Well in terms of the metrics, let's look at the hard goals. Our board has said, we want to double our membership every year for the next, I want to say four or five years. That means a year from now we're not talking about 1,000 members, we're talking about 2,000 members. That is a really important goal, because what we see is that our membership is a reflection of our audience. And when our audience grows, our membership, if we're doing things correctly, if we're actually mobilizing people to share our message to care, and to take action, a certain significant percentage of those should be inclined to want to become members and support us, and help us reach that next level of building this national movement, this level of momentum. And so the board has said, we want to double our membership year over year. So 2,000 at the end of next year. That means a whole bunch of things for me. It means that our audience has to continue to grow, and our audience needs to go from 300,000 to 600,000+ next year. We need to do a better job continuously, not that we've done a bad job, but we need to continue to up our game in terms of reaching a broader audience with a more nuanced message. So instead of having a smaller audience that we reach with a broad message, we actually need to be able to in a sense segment our message down and deliver it to people in different ways so that they can get it in ways that are comfortable for them, in ways that work for them, mechanisms, format, and all those kinds of things that work for different audiences. Those are all challenges that we have in order to keep that acceleration going. So if we're successful, we should see our membership double next year, we should see it double the year after, we should see it double the year after and the year after that. And those will be byproducts of us doing the right thing on the front end in terms of keeping the message strong, developing it in really positive ways, and then distributing it in ways that reach a really broad segment of people. Our members are a huge part of that too, we ask all the time, share our stuff. A million people who care is a million people who are sharing our message, and that's really the ultimate metric of success.
Reuter: So this plays into a disagreement that you and I had over the last couple months, where the traditional way that a lot of non-profits fund themselves is they find a few people who can write big checks, and those people really help the organization fund its cost, and it's all about, how do you find a relatively small number of major donors that really help hold up the work? And I would say, hey, we spend very little time on that, and I want to be clear before we go on in this conversation, if you're somebody who provided that check, there's a spot for those to go, and I'll get to talk about that maybe, but you really push back on that notion that you should be spending time on those bigger donors, and that you really felt that you want to spend your time focused on this membership, which is ultimately the viewpoint that went out, and I think you may have even convinced people, why was that? Why are you focused on membership and these smaller donors rather than focus on trying to find those big potential donors?
Marohn: Well, out of respect for you, and truly I say this, any level of disagreement we had was more me trying to figure out how this made sense. Because I agreed with you, and very early on when we got some early foundation support, the advice that I got from them was, you need to find a major donor. You need to find someone who really likes what you're doing, who can write you a big check. And oh my gosh, wouldn't that have been nice? And we can talk about major donors after this bit, because we do have a place for them obviously. And some really important things we're trying to do. But I had a hard time, because so much of what we're oriented to do is really a broader movement building kind of thing. I'm out last month, I gave I don't know how many talks. I spoke in front of 1,500 people just last month. We added 60, 70 members last month. We added thousands of new people to our audience last month. I'm spending so much of my time and effort building this really broad based movement of people, and setting them up to share our message and being able to converse about these things in their communities with their friends, and their neighbors, and their elected officials, and their professionals, and the people who are going to affect change in their community, my real pushback to you was, I don't know when I have time to do this. We were going through all the things that a major donor program encompasses, and I thought, we're going to lose momentum if I have to spend as much time as it's going to take to raise the money that you're talking about from one or two, or even a dozen people who are willing to write us big checks. Also, along with the momentum thing, had some concerns over the focus of our organization. We're very focused on delivering a message to a broad group of people. When I engage with early on, engage with engineers and planners, because I am an engineer, I am a planner, there's a tendency to develop a message for engineers and planners. One that would be more technical, one that would be more filled with jargon, one that would meet the needs of those specific professional silos. When we talk to our membership, yes we have engineers and planners in our membership, but we've got so many more people that are not- we have computer programmers, and web designers. We have florists and retailers. We have builders and developers. We have people who just like cities, who just like places. We have people who just like their neighborhood who are retired and say, we really just want this place to be better. And my pushback was, if we build an organization around the resource stream that would come from a handful of individual donors, I think we will lose the essence of what we're doing, and the essence of who we are. And really lose a lot of the momentum. The momentum really comes from the feedback from our audience and our members. And the more of those we have, the more of those we get, the better feedback we get, and really the better our organization becomes. Thus, the better we become, the more we are attractive to other people and other members. So there's a certain momentum there that I think our current approach captures really well and for me, as a feedback kind of person, I feel very comfortable with an organization whose financial future aligns with our success, is going to align with our success. If we are successful from achieving our mission, if we're going to create a million people who care, and we're going to change the conversation in this country, that's going to show up in our membership numbers and in our financial success, and we're going to be able to do more things more effectively. If we're not doing the right thing, if we're not achieving our mission, if we're just talking to the breeze and the national conversation's not changing at all, then we're going to stall out and our membership's not going to grow, and we should go look for something else to do. And I feel very comfortable with that alignment of our organizational future and our financial future.
Reuter: That's really interesting, because that reminds me of what I'd like to say about non-profits versus for-profits. In a for-profit, you exist based on whether you can bring in money, and your goal is to bring in money, let's make money. And in a non-profit, your goal is to change the world, and you exist based on whether you can bring in money. But it seems like Strong Towns has figured out how to do, is how to align that necessity to have funding to be able to do this work, obviously travelling around the country talking to people, adding the staff we added, which I want to talk about in a second here, doing all these things requires revenue, requires that there actually be money there to pay people and to cover these costs, and to keep the website up, and pay for this podcast, the bandwidth and everything else. Obviously there's costs to all these things. And by having us rely on membership, we're aligning our theory of change, of getting to this million people, with the revenues of a people-funded movement. And so that's really the thing that I think people can do by joining, by renewing their membership is not just provide financial support, but provide the right kind of financial support that allows us to keep growing this movement in the right way.
Marohn: I couldn't agree more, and really I think the emphasis for me is, if we don’t' have a reason for existence, if we're not doing stuff, we should get the feedback to go away. I don't want to speak poorly of any other organizations, but I've seen lots of organizations that are in the non-profit realm that just need to go away. They're not doing much, they have a-
Reuter: Let's just be clear, you're talking about the society of engineers.
Marohn: I would love that. Maybe we should have that as an organizational goal. No, back in 2009 when John Connors and Ben Olson were encouraging me to start a non-profit, I flat out told them no. I don't want to do it. And the reason was, I didn't think very highly of non-profit organizations. Largely that was because my experience with them had been, maybe they had a mission, maybe they had things they wanted to do, but really they were not very much different than any other organization that ran around looking for who would pay them to do something. The ones that I had worked with quite intimately, I felt had not really done justice to their mission, maybe had stayed around longer than they should have, but had some funding streams that they could tap into that made that happen. I said, I don't want to get into that malaise. I think we have created an organization where malaise will result in us going away. As soon as we are not relevant, as soon as we are not adding to the conversation, as soon as we no longer are providing any value, I think people should stop being members and will go away. And I think that that's a good outcome. That's the kind of feedback that I'm very comfortable with. I feel like we've aligned ourselves to succeed, and we've also aligned ourselves to know if we're not succeeding. And that means we're going to get painful feedback when we're wrong, and we're going to have to change and adapt, and do a better job, or else we're going to go away. And that's a Strong Towns kind of world.
Reuter: Yeah, it aligns with our understanding of how we think the world works and how cities work, and how elected leaders and community members and all sorts of people and leaders in their communities should really respond to the realities that they face. [UNKNOWN] that they face, and being in touch with that in a real way. That said, we still don't mind if money comes in from organizations and major donors. In fact, it would be very helpful in some senses. Where would that money go in a world where we're really trying to have the foundation of the organization founded by membership? What do we want donors for in foundations? Why do we keep reaching out in obviously a more limited sense. But why would you?
Marohn: Last year, we decided in December last year. So roughly 11 months ago, we decided that we were done consulting, A, and B, we were also done going out for grants. Until we figured out this alignment, what we didn't want to do is we didn't want to commit ourselves to things that we needed to do that weren't going to be aligned with our mission. At this point, we've got that part figured out, and I've been reengaging with a number of foundations that we've built relationships with, I'm looking to do some more of that in the coming weeks, we also have a need to talk to some people who would be interested in what we're now calling social venture capital, major donors, people who would like to support what I would call an experiment, or the next phase of Strong Towns. We've got the financial base now to continue to do what we do best. And as that continues to grow and show up our support, we're going to be able to keep continuing to do what we do, the way we do it, what we need to do however if we're going to meet our goals, is we need to make some strategic investments. We need to invest in things that will help us grow our audience. We've got a number of initiatives on the podcast side, on the video side, and some things on the blog side as well, as well as some things for improving our curbside chat program, where we are going to be asking individuals and foundations to support us in essentially trying new things. We would like to try some things that we have reason to believe would be successful, to use our language at Strong Towns, the next increment of growth, so these are not crazy, wild dreams, it's the next increment. And we're going to ask people to come along for that ride, and help us try those new things. When they work out, they're going to fit into our model, which means they're going to have to be self-funding, they're going to have to be viable by themselves in the next iteration. But we're going to need some seed money essentially to help us do those things. And so yes, you guys have asked me to go out and engage with these foundations again, I'm doing that, you and I are working on along with the other board a major donor strategy, I will be engaging with people in that way in the coming weeks and months as well. We've got a lot of things that I can make a really strong logical case are the next step to propel us to that doubling of membership next year, and the doubling of membership the year after, and the big audience growth in changing conversation that needs to happen and make that happen. Those are strategic investments we're prepared to make. And those are the ones that keep me up at night, like I can't sleep, going through, here's how we're going to set this up and do it. It's incredibly exciting.
Reuter: It's interesting to me as we talk about this venture social capital, and this membership model, and trying to exponentially increase the audience each year and increase membership each year, because it seems like Strong Towns is more like an internet startup than it is anything else. Do you buy that, or what do you think? What do you think the comparison is to what Strong Towns is doing?
Marohn: I definitely buy that. For me, I look at my inspirations. Early on, because I'm a reader, I read a bunch of books on non-profits, and non-profit management, and I found them to be bleh, I didn't care. They did nothing for me. But when I got into reading books about growth hacking and startups, the lean startup. A lot of the stuff I got into, because I was looking for ways to help cities make good strategic, low-risk investments that had a high chance of paying off. And this is really a venture capital kind of model, this is really a startup model. It wasn't a very hard leap, because we were already doing some of the stuff anyway, to incorporate a lot of that thinking into what we do. So we do a lot of AB testing, we do a lot of, let's send email to this group and this email to this group and see what the engagement levels are with that. We run a lot of databases, and we manage our entire schedule through Scrum which is a program that has come from the computer programming world. So our mentality is very much aligned with that, we're very much a startup mentality. So when we talk about a major donor strategy for instance, part of the early conversations that you and I had was around a traditional major donor strategy, where you get people who are aligned with your mission who are going to commit to some degree of ongoing support. And what I'm really looking at is, how do we get venture capital? How do we get people who say, I want to see big change, I want to see a payoff from that change, I'm willing to take a little bit of risk because I know nothing's guaranteed here, but this seems like a good place to put a little bit of money, with a really potential very high upside. And that's a model that is very non-traditional from a non-profit, much more Silicon Valley esque, but we're making it work under a non-profit model.
Reuter: Yeah, can you talk more about Scrum, you have these two new team members now, how do you actually work together on a week to week basis or a month to month basis? What does that look like? I think there's a very poor, coming from the non-profit world, and maybe more familiar to some computer programmers I know that make up a good chunk of our audience. But what is this thing, and how do you actually work together? What does it look like?
Marohn: Well, we use a modified Scrum, and I'm not going to pretend that we are following it to the letter of the book. But one of the things that we have found is that we have more ideas than we have time. We have more things that need to be done than we have time to do them. And we have more, not just our staff, which there's four of us now. There's two new full timers, and then a part-time person who's helping us out, she's our pathfinder, Michelle, who's helping us line up our engagements. What we find is that we have in our staff more ideas for things that would be really helpful than we have time. And when we incorporate things that our members are suggesting that we do, and the thing that our board is, you guys ask us to do- you guys do more than ask, you say, we want these things done. So what we find is that, if we don't have a way of organizing our good thoughts and our ideas, we lose them, or we spin our wheels in a very uncoordinated way. Now, I work in Central Minnesota, I work in Brainerd, Jason works out of Grand Forks, and Michelle, or Rachel works out of Milwaukee. So we're not seeing each other face to face but once every couple months. Michelle works in West Virginia, I probably will go a long, long time without seeing her face to face. And so, we have to have a way to keep the energy, the ideas, and the focus. And Scrum has allowed us to do that. When we have a new idea, it goes into a thing called the backlog. We put it there, once every three weeks we start what's called a spring where we take the best ideas out of the backlog, we prioritize the backlog and say, here's the best ideas, here's the most important stuff, here's the lowest hanging fruit amongst all these things that we think we need to do, and over the next three weeks we're going to focus on these. If in those intervening three weeks, a great idea comes in, we say awesome, this sounds like a fantastic idea, put it in the backlog. And when we get to the next sprint, it will get prioritized along with everything else. And maybe it is a great idea, maybe after 10 days of thinking about it, it's not so great, or maybe it's not so great compared to something else that's a little bit more urgent. So this is the way that, flat, flexible organization that is all about ideas and change and fast pace, this is how we've found to be able to work together efficiently and effectively, but also keeping that forward-leaning entrepreneurial kind of spirit. I love Scrum, and I think John Anderson for introducing it to me about a year and a half ago, it's been a life saver really.
Reuter: Speaking of life savers, you had very complimentary things to say about our new staff members. Can you talk about them, and why you're so enthusiastic? I think that's a fair way to put it. Every time I talk to you, you're telling me how great it is, what one of the members does this week, or what all of them have done, you always have so much enthusiasm about it. Why?
Marohn: I do, I love these guys. And part of it is, I've wanted this for a long time. One of the early complaints that you as a board member got from me, was I was really frustrated being out on the road and seeing us not be in a position to capitalize on a lot of the things that were going on. We would show up to places and because I was stretched so thin, and we just didn't have the capacity, I would show up at an event, and we would have members who actually lived in that city who didn't know we were going to be there. We would have people in our database who had never been informed, and I'd be leaving town, and I have something posted on Facebook and people would say, oh my gosh, you were here? And it was so depressing to me, because those were easy things to do, but I was just spread so thin, I didn't have a chance to do them. We also had this tremendous momentum that we would create at these events, and then just watch it dissipate over time. Our retention rate essentially of people we could engage with at an event, versus people we could help get more information, help get information to share with other people, basically bring them into our audience and into our movement, we just didn't have the resources to do that. So part of my love of Jason and Rachel and Michelle is that, they are the people that I have been desiring, they're the people that I've needed for so long. They're out there in advance of all of our stuff, lining things up, they are there following up afterward, they are intensely working with our members, with our audience, to not only provide great content, get it distributed widely, but help people actually nudge them along to take action and to share the message and to do great things. Michelle as a pathfinder has been amazing in the way she's able to flesh out what people are interested in for events, finding ways to make those events happen. These guys are just a dream team of people to work with, and they're all really nice too, we went through this hiring process. You guys were patient with me, I told you what I wanted to do, and you said well that sounds interesting, it certainly is nontraditional, and we'll cut you some slack. But we took a pool of 154 people and whittled them down to just a handful, over the course of three weeks, and picked out of a bunch of people that I thought would all be successful, picked some people that have really worked out incredibly well. We had last month in October our biggest month ever in terms of readership on the blog. And we have gone now from being, when I'm in the office, we would do 10, 11 posts a week, and when I was out of the office, we'd struggle to do five or six. We're now consistently doing 12, 13. We're consistent on our feeds, on social media, we're consistent on getting back to our members when they've got questions or inquiries, and we're consistent on just welcoming people. Those are all the little details, jeez, I go to bed happy every night now because we've got this great support staff who's doing [UNKNOWN] work.
Reuter: Yeah, you talked a little bit about Michelle and what makes her contributions, the way she's pathfinding and connecting and really helping people come into the movement, and helping us figure out how our [UNKNOWN] go. Talk about Rachel and Jason specifically too, and what's- it's great that we have more people, we have more capacity, but it seems like we really lucked out and got the right people.
Marohn: Yeah. Rachel was very special. She volunteered for us at the beginning of the year, and started essentially writing a column for us, as well as her other work, she ran our Pinterest account and different things like that. And kind of like Grayson and Matthias and some of our other, Andrew Price and Nate Hood, right away, there was a comfort level that I had, that this is a person who spoke with our voice. Someone who sees the world differently than I do, certainly we have a lot in common, but we're different people from different places and we look at things differently, but really spoke with a voice and an emphasis that resonated with me and I think resonated with our audience. So sliding Rachel in and really turning the keys of our most critical communications infrastructure over to her, she runs our content calendar, she decides when things are posted, what's in the top spot, what goes where, how it's shared on social media, she decides what runs and what doesn't, she does all the editing and fixing up of the blog posts, she is designing our new sites and some of our new landing pages that we're about to roll out, and aggregating our content in those. She has an amazing capacity to I think seamlessly, from what we were doing before she was here, pick up the essence of the Strong Towns message, and share that in a way that I think goes beyond what my capacities were. Jason is just another creature altogether. And when we did the Meyers Briggs testing, he tested the same as you actually, which is one of those things that signifies to me how I interact with him, and how he interacts and works with other people. He's an extravert, he's a very personable person, he's someone that I find really easy to work with back and forth, he's kind of one of these roll up your sleeves kind of guy. As things have come in from our members, he catches those and directs them in the right direction, he finds people answers. When technical things come up with how people get signed up, and how people pay their membership fees, he digs under the hood and figures that stuff out. He has been a true problem solver, which is exactly the kind of person you want in a member support system. So I was going to say, we lucked out because did- hiring people is often a crapshoot. But gosh, we did a little bit more than luck out. We've been amazingly fortunate that the people we got have not only been a really good fit for us in terms of their competence, but a really good fit for us in terms of their embrace of our mission, and their understanding of what we're trying to accomplish. Jason was a member too, as was Michelle, before we brought them in. So these are people that have long helped us promote Strong Towns and the core of our message.
Reuter: So I have a few questions left for you, one of the things I wanted to know is, what are you most excited about right now? What's the most exciting thing?
Marohn: This very moment? I'm excited about going to bed tonight. Actually, it's been 10 weeks on the road, and if you asked me 10 weeks ago, or even nine, eight weeks ago, how are you doing? I'm like, at the beginning of a marathon, and I've got all the momentum, after you travel 10 weeks, you get to the end of the marathon, and there's a little bit of energy you've got because you can see the finish line. So I'm going to be finishing this long stretch of travel now at the end of this week, it's the thing that is put one foot in front of the other right now. If I step back and I look, I'm really excited about essentially the infrastructure that we've built, and then being able to put the next layer on top of it. And we've built this incrementally, this infrastructure of the blog and the website, and the podcast, and the video work, and the social media channels, and now that we've got the capacity, and now that we've figured out what we're doing there, we're starting to put the next layer in place and really get good at using it. So we've come up with different ways of AB testing our pages. Which means, for those of you that don't know, it means we run version A and we run version B and see how things work out, and if we get better interaction on A than B, we drop B. A lot of people just run a web page, they're like yep, it looks good, we're actually getting into the subtle nuances where we can test different things and different iterations and really learn what works out very well. We're doing this with emails, we're doing this with some of our other interactions, we're actually now starting to overlay different softwares that look at how far down in our posts people engage, so instead of just getting, here's the number of hits, or here's the number of page views, which maybe we wrote a good headline, but our content is not very good, we're actually able to delve into the content now and say okay, when we get six paragraphs down, we tend to start losing people. So let's work that sixth paragraph so that it's more coherent, so that we can actually share this to a broader audience of people. We're getting into that next level of metrics, and next level of understanding, and it's allowing us to become a lot more sophisticated in what we do, and essentially get more bang for our buck in terms of the effort we're putting into creating and distributing content. I'm also really thrilled, and I feel like I shouldn't talk about some of this stuff, because it's still in development, and I don't want to overpromise and under deliver, I'd rather do the opposite. Let me teas it like this. We are going to be looking for foundation major donor support well into the aggregate, well into the six figures. We're going to be looking for some serious social venture capital, in the audio realm and in the video realm, for projects that are the next step beyond what we do today. And we have tested, and we have a format, and we have an approach that we believe is going to allow us to 10x our audiences in those streams, which are already significant. And so, that project, those sets of projects, are ones that keep me up late brainstorming on and thinking about, and we've got a couple partners we're collaborating with, to bring some of those to fruition. Those are intensely exciting projects. I can't wait to be able to talk about them more thoroughly, and I can't wait to find the partners that we need to help financially bring those forward, because we're very close to being able to do some things that I think will be game changing in terms of the audience level that we're going to be able to reach with this message.
Reuter: It's funny because again, you said as you were- I think that work is all super exciting. But again as you were leading into that, you said, I'm not sure if I should say this, and there's been a couple times during this conversation you were like, I'm not sure if I should say anything, but alright, I will. And listening to the podcast and reading the emails and following along, one of the things that's been really interesting to me is how much you've embraced a radical transparency, a real openness about where the organization's going, about how many hits we actually have on the website, is anyone paying attention? Well here's how many people are paying attention. Here's where membership is, here's where we're trying to go. It made me feel a little nervous honestly, as a board member, early on, six months ago, and I don't know that I even ever expressed that to you, but I think I've become more and more convinced that it's a feature, not a bug of the organization, embrace this sort of super openness. Is that something you've done consciously, or is that just your nature? It's just a Midwestern thing? What's the deal with [UNKNOWN] and having conversations like the one we're having right now, and sharing those with membership, and here's our strategy, and here's where you're headed. Why do you think that's important? Why did you ask me to come and talk to you?
Marohn: I think if I'm honest with myself, there's a little bit of insecurity on my behalf. I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, and when I share things, a lot of what I'm trying to do is get people's reaction, and get people's feedback. Whenever you write a blog piece, I've grown used to this, but there's a certain level of, you're putting yourself out there. Is this going to be accepted? Is this going to be considered crazy? Are people going to laugh at me? Are people going to impugn me? You're kind of putting yourself out there. And when you do a podcast, it's the same thing. I've always felt, I haven't always felt, but I've felt a lot the last few years that the feedback that I get here is amongst friends in a sense. Like, this is in a way like a safe zone. I can say, here's where we're at. And there's enough people listening who will give me good, positive feedback, and nudge me in one direction or another, that they're going to give me the confidence to move ahead. I love our board, andit's not just that I think you guys are all great people, which I do, but one of the great things about our current board is that you guys give me a lot of really strong feedback. And a lot of times you'll say hey, interesting idea, not really sure about that, explain it to me a little bit more. Or you'll say hey, I don't think you're thinking about these few things here. And to me, that's part of the iterative process. I don't want to roll out something huge that in a sense hasn't been tested. And let's go back a year ago when we were first doing the transportation of the next American city presentation. We held at the national gathering this thing called, I think parliamentary orders or something like that. And the rules were, you had to criticize my talk. I gave the talk, and then everybody that was there had to criticize some aspect of it, the idea being, let's make it better. The notion that I had was, I would rather not do it well, or get criticism here in front of 30 of my closest friends, than out there in front of hundreds of people. I feel like this blog is that way a little bit too, and this movement is a little bit that way. We have the founders' circle, a couple hundred people that were with us initially, we're not going to have 1,000 strong, we're going to have the first 1,000 members at the end of this year, that's a special group of people. And I have a certain bond and camaraderie if we want to say, where I don't feel as exposed in having these conversations with those people. Part of that group as I maybe should or would with a different group of people. I certainly wouldn't stand in front of a big group and say some of the things we've said today on the podcasts. But I think that's the nature of our audience, and the nature of the conversation we're having here. It strengthens me, it helps me having those conversations that I think if we were a bigger organization, with a PR team and a well-refined brand that went through some marketing firm, we'd have to be more packaged in what we do. But I think the strength in what we do is that we're authentic, and our members are really helping us with that aspect of it.
Reuter: Why are you a member of Strong Towns?
Marohn: I am a member, and I pay every month to be a member. There's a part of it that's leading by example, like I'm asking everybody else to be a member, I'm going to be a member. But there's a deeper part of it for me, and I believe strongly in what we're doing. One of the things that we talked about at our last board meeting just briefly, but I have it in big, bold letters for the next agenda, I think I've called it succession planning. But the idea is, what comes after me? We need to build a movement of thoughts and ideas and people, that is far bigger than me, and is not fragile based on my own fragility. I'm a person, I'm mortal, I have limits, I'm probably not going to do this my entire life, and we need to have a notion of how we grow beyond just my limits and capacities. And so, I support the organization myself, and even if I weren't doing this in the role that I'm doing, I would still continue to be a member, because I believe in what we're doing, and I believe it needs to grow and accelerate, and the plateaus we've reached we can't go back from, and so I'm a sustaining, supporting member, very proudly so. I will continue to be.
Reuter: And why? [UNKNOWN] built the organization, why is this organization to you? Why spend so much of your life already building the organization to where it is and contributing, backing the organization as a member. Why does this matter to you?
Marohn: I think I can say the easy thing, I care about our future, and I have children and I have a wife, and I care about my city, and I care about all those things, and all that would be true. All that would be very true, and I do think that what we're doing in changing the national dialogue on growth and development is critically important to our future. I'm going to throw a couple other things in there, though, that come to my mind, that maybe are not as important as those things at the end of the day ,but kind of drive me day in and day out. A lot of this just started with me being alone, feeling like I was a voice in the wilderness. Quite frankly, am I crazy? None of this makes any sense to me. Is that just because I'm crazy? And there's a certain comfort in affirmation that I get personally by being associated with all these people who are clearly not crazy, but who find value in what we're doing. And so, there's a certain strength in numbers that has given me a confidence and a comfort level as a human, as a person who looks around and asks, who am I, why am I here? There's a certain aspect of Strong Towns that has helped make sense of the craziness around me that I really value. I'm going to say this without getting dystopian, because I don't believe in a dark vision for the future of America or the world, but we're going through some difficult times, I think things will get more difficult as our suburban experiment unwinds, I fear that in times of difficulty, especially when you're coming off of really great levels of affluence, illusion or not, societies tend to do crazy things. We as Strong Towns members, as members of the Strong Towns movement, are really in a position, very unique in America today, to be a calming influence, a rational influence. What I've called a safe place to land, an alternative to craziness, when things become more crazy. And I feel this sense of urgency, you guys got on my case a little bit last year because I was saying, come on now, we've got to go faster, we've got to do move, we've got to do this, we've got to do this, and the idea of slowing down sits wrong with me because I see things as not financially stable. I see things as falling apart, and I have this urgency to create a softer landing for us, not only for me and for you and for the generation today, not only for my kids and their future, but I believe in America. I believe in the greatness of this country, and I believe that a big part of that greatness is our ability to question ourselves and adapt. And I want to be part of that tradition in America that says, when things are difficult, we can reinvent ourselves in positive ways. And I think we're at one of those moments in history where we need to reinvent ourselves in a positive way, and we can Strong Towns be that positive change.
Reuter: I have one last question for you, and it might be a bit of a curveball here. Before I get to it, was there anything you thought we should have covered today? I'll give you a chance to critique me here on this. What should I have asked you about that I didn't, or something else you wanted to add?
Marohn: No, it's funny, because you said, how long should this podcast go? And I said, 20-25 minutes. And my meter reads over an hour now, so obviously I talked way longer than I thought I should. But no, I think we're good. Maybe the only thing would be the board itself, because we have very intentionally during this time of transition had a small, very focused board of people who not only have been committed to what we're doing, and really get the essence of what we're trying to do, but have had an ability to in a way that challenges me but also helps me, think through some of these big issues. But we're changing at that level too, and I think that as our movement becomes broader and more diverse, I think our boards also needs to become broader and more diverse. And maybe that's a question for you, how do we see the board and maybe the overall intellectual energy of this organization, continuing to change over the coming years?
Reuter: I didn't expect to have to answer questions, I thought I could just ask them. But I think the board is going to continue to grow, become more diverse, so that it matches the diversity in our membership. Right now it's three white guys, I think we could obviously stand to have diversity of voices that actually represent the diversity of our movement. [UNKNOWN] organization has had and has such a great staff, I always feel like the energy comes more from them and from us, and we just sort of- I think the greatest contribution that I've been able to make is asking questions along the way, and saying, well, have you thought about this? Or what do you think about that? I think the heart and soul of this organization is you and this new growing staff. So I think the board goal is really to support that and to push back and to challenge, too. And support through challenging I think is something that we do at our best, that's my take there.
Marohn: I totally agree. Well, give me your last question then, and we'll wrap this.
Reuter: For years, you've ended the podcast by saying, keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns. And you ended the podcast this way, well before I think you know if anybody was listening. It seems like such a clear call to action, and a call to have a movement of people doing what they can across the country, and it seems like over this past year, that's really happened. It's been happening for a while now, but it's really hit a critical tipping point this year, where the [UNKNOWN] became more numerous, there's a new page on the website that's just a collection of victories, of people doing what they can to build Strong Towns. Why have you started by ending every podcast with that phrase? Did you know that's where we were headed? Was it important to you [UNKNOWN], why that choice of words, keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns? Why is that how these things end?
Marohn: I think that I would be misstating if I said that that was some master plan or some big intention, it was really my feeling. I don't think it's anything more than that. You get to the end of a conversation and you're saying goodbye to someone, which is really what the end of a podcast is, I'm saying goodbye to people, who have taken the time to listen to what I've had to say. In a very one-sided conversation, I'll admit, there's a part of me, maybe it's a Minnesota sense, but it's a little bit like, good luck. I want the best for you, and I want things to work out for you, but you're here with me. You've listened to an hour of me talk about something, and you obviously think that it was important enough to hang with me to that point, thank you for that, I appreciate it, and I acknowledge that you're in this game with me, and you're trying to make this happen. Get out there and do what you can, and maybe today you can do a lot. But do what you can. Maybe it's having a conversation with someone at work, or having a conversation at dinner, or maybe today the only thing you can do it walk across the street instead of driving. I don't know what it is, whatever it is that you can do today, just do it. Do it, and take joy in that, and happiness in that, and comfort in that, because that what I'm doing. I'm not doing everything perfect, I'm not living 100% Strong Towns life that I would like to live, I still have not been able to sell my house and move to an area that I think would be a better fit for me, I still have to drive way too much. There's a lot of things like this that I would love to change about my life, but I'm doing what I can, I'm trying to say to people, thank you for being with me, thanks for being part of it, thanks for everything that you do, and know that this is a journey we're on together. And if you keep doing what you can, I'll keep doing what I can, and we'll get there.
Reuter: Alright, well I'll let you say it.
Marohn: Alright, thanks everybody for listening, and keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns. Take care.