We continue our Rosieland Community Interview series with Kt McBratney, co-founder of OwnTrail. OwnTrail “offer tools, connection and support for you to take control of your personal and professional journey, figure out what fulfills you and then build your way forward.” We dive into how Kt went from marketing to community, what it takes to run and build the OwnTrail community and lessons to share with future community professionals.
Getting to know Kt McBratney, co-founder of OwnTrail
What’s your background and how did you find yourself in community?
I studied journalism in college, and translated that into a career in brand marketing. My first job out of college was at a zoo, but over the next 15 years I worked in different industries from higher education to ecommerce to entertainment before co-founding OwnTrail in 2020.
In all those roles, I gravitated towards community without realizing it. My marketing approach was — and still is — people first, finding ways to connect them with the brand and each other through social media, content, PR, events and more. Yet the label marketer always felt limiting, and I came to realize that I was actually a community practitioner nestled into marketing because it was the closest fit. This was around the time we were launching OwnTrail, and as a co-founder I had the opportunity to create my own title — Chief Community Officer.
What do you wish you knew before embarking on your community journey?
I wish I knew that the impact of community on a business could be quantified to prove its value! That would have saved me a lot of time and frustration in making the case for community work and the resources to do it well in almost every role I’ve held. Things shifted once I realized that the only one standing in my way of quantifying and connecting it to top company goals was me.
So I taught myself different analytics tools and got deep in my spreadsheets to look at outcomes, indicators and drivers to discover where community moved the needle.
For OwnTrail, that’s new sign-ups (a measure of community growth) and reciprocal UGC created on the site (a measure of community engagement). As a freemium model, these create a healthy pipeline into the paid product and the community activity there.
What would you do differently if you had to start your career over?
If I had to start my career over, I would have trusted my gut more and worried less about what I thought I was supposed to do. (Which makes a lot of sense since I co-founded a company rooted in the idea that there’s no one right path!)
Understanding the OwnTrail community model and growth
What is the OwnTrail community mission and 'superpower'?
OwnTrail’s mission is for everyone to have the tools and community to live a life they love. Our superpower is at the intersection of authenticity and support - it’s baked into the features we build, like the Trail Creator and Help Beacons but also in our values. So community is the current that makes it all come alive and thrive!
What tools and technology do you use to run OwnTrail?
As a tech company, our community lives on our tech at owntrail.com, so that’s the solo destination for our community. That means that we own not just the platform and data (yay, data!!) but features like messaging and connection requests are built by our team as opposed to being able to “turn on” features in community platforms like Circle, Mighty Networks or even Slack.
Internally, the Community team uses OwnTrail (of course), Slack, Trello, Zapier and Luma to make the magic happen. Because marketing is a part of our Community team, we’re using tools like Canva, Sprout Social and Mailchimp as well.
Here are the features we’ve built in OwnTrail:
- Trail Creator: tool to create a digital trail of personal and professional milestones
- Help Beacons: like a bat signal you can use to get help from the OwnTrail community on any milestone on your trail
- Trail-level conversations
- Reflection and category-level conversations
- 1-to-1 Connections
- Private Messaging
- Note to Self (private note tool)
- Trail exploration (dozens of filters around experiences, identities and communities)
- Appreciation (our version of a "like" with no public counter or ranking based on popularity)
- Community pages
- More on how we partner with other communities including our journey mapping workshops
- Trail Talks: community-led virtual speaker series
Describe the business model for OwnTrail and how you arrived at that decision.
We’re a freemium model, where anyone can create a free OwnTrail account, create their trail and participate in conversations. For $10/month ($99/year), you get additional features like unlimited Help Beacons (like a bat signal to get support on any milestone you’re working to or through), connections and private messaging. The paid membership has a 30-day free trial as well.
One of my core values as an entrepreneur, community builder and human in general is success through adding value, not extracting it. My co-founder Rebekah and I agreed on that before we launched OwnTrail, so people were never going to be the product for us. That automatically put extractive business models like selling ads or user data off the table, and we focused on membership instead as not just a source of revenue but a true way to add value for the people on OwnTrail.
While we are still focused on developing the free experience and top of the community funnel, we’re seeing about 95% retention of people who opted into our initial membership offering. That’s a strong signal that we’re on the right track.
What did you find worked well for bringing growth to the community?
Model community behavior. By actively participating using OwnTrail in-platform, in our journey-mapping workshops and elsewhere online, people can see the community benefits, rules of engagement and value firsthand. For a community like ours that are more psycholographic than demographically similar, modeling community behavior both in and outside the primary community channel acts as a magnet to attract and bring in new people.
- Pass the mic. Let your community superstars shine, and amplify their light! This can be things like Instagram takeovers, community spotlights in emails and calling community members in on social posts/threads, but also functional things like a share button on your trail page (our version of a profile page).
- Go where your people are. Every community builder has 572 things to do, 974 great ideas and just 24 hours in a day — it’s important to remember that we can’t do all the things all the time! Find where your current community hangs out, IRL and online, and spend your time and effort there instead of starting from scratch on a channel or destination where they might be. For us, that’s Twitter and LinkedIn.
What types of community generated content (CGC) worked well?
We’re fortunate to have a wealth of incredible stories in and around the OwnTrail community. Trails are our signature user generated content (UGC or CGC), and from there we’ve found success with community spotlights on social posts and our blog (relaunching this spring!) but also in our two core events: Journey-Mapping Workshops and Trail Talks.
Our workshops work as a way to engage community members (including our community partners, which is one of my favorite ways to collab!) and create powerful in-the-moment UGC. Trail Talks is more evergreen in terms of UGC, since the recordings live on OwnTrail.com and themes tackled like imposter syndrome and authenticity in your career are always relevant.
Lessons from failure and what’s next for OwnTrail
Share one community failure and what you learned from that experience.
Our first attempt at an ambassador program completely flopped. We realized we could quickly launch a rewards-based program, where you got different OwnTrail swag based on the number of people you referred who published trails. What we learned was that the quick option doesn’t always make it the right option!
We also learned that the ask — making an account, creating and publishing a trail — was a high lift, and it wasn’t one where the ambassadors could help move their referrals through the process.
Most importantly, we learned that our community is all about intrinsic rewards. People who love OwnTrail and want to share it with others do so because they want others to feel what they feel— things like inspired, proud, confident, clear and supported. Now that we know that, we’re investing in building ways to help them spread the good!
What's next for the OwnTrail community?
More connection, more support, more people achieving their next milestones in work and life! We’re focused both on growing our community and the ways in which you can use OwnTrail to build a life you love. That means community-led growth (content marketing, community partnerships, the ability to invite anyone to OwnTrail when adding a milestone, etc) but also enhancing the product to make discovering and connecting even easier and more powerful. We’re building some exciting things with machine learning after we raise our seed round this spring, for example!
We hope you enjoyed this interview with Kt and the OwnTrail community journey. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!