PayPal Mafia Confidential: Damon Billian, Community Evangelist

It’s time for the return of my occasional series “PayPal Mafia Confidential.” As I noted in my first installment with Giacomo DiGrigoli, my objective is to interview some of the amazing people I had the good fortune to work alongside during my years at PayPal.

This interview is with Damon Billian, who served as PayPal’s first community manager during a time when the company faced serious customer service turmoil. In his online persona of “PayPal Damon,” he pioneered online evangelism and helped repair the company’s brand with his efforts. Damon graciously shares his thoughts on working at PayPal and how community management has changed over the past decade.

Eric: I had the pleasure of working with you at PayPal, where you were one of the public faces of the company as PayPal’s community manager. You took over that position back in 2000 at a point where viral growth was causing PayPal’s user base to grow faster than our customer service infrastructure. Describe what that situation was like, and what steps you took to address this crisis.

Damon: The situation was quite stressful to say the least. But it was also challenging in a good way. The company had some procedural issues—including the way we would limit or lock accounts suspected of fraud—that weren’t very customer friendly that had to be changed, so we constantly had to look at ways of improving the customer experience in order to keep the traction our product had established.

But growth was a challenge in and of itself. Even with many of our customer service reps answering several hundred emails per day, there was no way we could keep up with the onslaught with the small team we had. And hiring in Silicon Valley was very difficult during the boom years. Thank goodness the company was able to ramp up a large customer service center in Omaha, where the labor market allowed us to recruit all of the reps that we needed to keep up with our growth.

As battered as PayPal’s image was by its early customer service problems and fraud woes, it still proved to have a stronger brand than eBay’s Billpoint, our chief competitor. What factors do you think contributed to the company’s brand strength?

There are many factors you could point to, but from my personal perspective I would highlight the following:

  • We moved on our product faster to develop tools for the eBay market. I have to give [Chief Operating Officer] David Sacks a great deal of credit for this, largely because he was interested in customer feedback.
  • Our loyal customers did a great deal to defend us to the greater internet community. I saw this firsthand in the forums serving as the company’s community representative. I have to give a great deal of credit to some of the loyal PayPal customers I worked with. (A big shout out to Mike, Mike, Bob, Stephanie and Sandy. You guys know who you are!)
  • PayPal’s corporate culture was an asset. We all believed in what we were doing and the company org structure was relatively flat. If I felt like sending [CEO] Peter Thiel or David Sacks an email about an issue, they didn’t mind it and in fact encouraged it. The work structure was very conducive to doing what was best for the company.
  • The company hired strong people. Look at the explosion of companies that came from the PayPal Mafia. I honestly feel like a slacker because I haven’t created a company of my own. 😉

I’ve heard you say that Cluetrain Manifesto was an inspiration for the way you approached your job at PayPal. Looking back, describe what kind of legacy you think the book has had.

Yes, the book was an inspiration for some general guidelines about communicating on the internet. It definitely broke new ground in terms of highlighting the need for two-way communication between a company and its customers.

That being said, the book also neglected to address some of the negative things that can happen online, including some of the dangers that a community manager can encounter online when a company has hostile critics. During my many years online, I’ve had hate sites created against me as an individual (more than once while I was at PayPal) and even received death threats. I’ve had people illegally access my credit history illegally and post personal information about me online.

It’s been many years since I read the book, so I don’t know if any of these topics have been covered in subsequent editions.

In the years since PayPal, you’ve overseen community management at some very different companies, including startups for job search (Simply Hired) and personal finance (Mint.com). Are the challenges you’ve had to confront for those companies different from what you saw at PayPal? Or is community management similar across industries?

Job search is much more transient, which means folks don’t need to use it on daily basis, so it isn’t quite the same as a product like PayPal or Mint that might be used on a daily basis. You have many more specific user requests for additional features in any personal finance tool or e-payment product, so there’s a lot more input from customers about feature requests when it comes to these kinds of “sticky” products. My approach at all of the companies has been the same, though. You need a strong focus on engaging fans of the company while constantly looking for product feedback.

I think it’s safe to say that the art of community management has risen in prominence in recent years. For example, Bob Walsh dedicated a chapter in his book The Web Startup Success Guide, which is intended primarily for engineers. How do you think the discipline has changed over time?

A lot of companies think community management is just an extension of customer service, which is something I take issue with. An effective community manager has to know a great deal about product, policy, operations, customer service, communications, and marketing to get the job done well. It’s a multi-disciplinary position, and it needs to be handled that way.

The explosion of social media sites adds another layer of complexity to the job. I personally don’t look at community management or evangelism as being fundamentally different than social media. This may upset some people, since community evangelists are often viewed as “support folks” whereas social media workers often get classified as “marketing folks.” Social media folks are probably a little more inclined to use online distribution tools like YouTube or Flickr to broadcast content, but overall the roles aren’t really that different. Both roles are about engaging with your customers and solving their problems.

I also think there is a labeling problem in the internet industry with what is or isn’t social media. Are forums social media? I personally think so. People do the same things in forums that they do on outlets like Twitter or blogs—they make comments, share or post links, and are generally focused on a topical theme.

Tell us about what you’re doing now.

I just returned to the Silicon Valley after living in Thailand. While it’s a wonderful country, there’s been a lot of political instability there lately, which was a factor in my decision to return to the US. I’m currently looking for new startup gigs.

You’re one of the best so I’m sure you’ll have some great opportunities. Thanks for your time.

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7 thoughts on “PayPal Mafia Confidential: Damon Billian, Community Evangelist

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