Q&A: Ben Keene, founder of Tribewanted, on his new Italian tribe

What is Tribewanted and what are its goals?

Our goal is to build a global network of sustainable communities that we can all belong to - almost like a gym club network or a club network that you're part of around the world, but they are working communities driven by tourism. And they provide models of what living sustainably in different parts of the world might mean. Tribewanted is about using traditional, cultural heritage from the ways of life in that part of world, and using new technology, and thinking sustainably about every aspect of life - food, water, waste - and exploring that and learning and sharing.

It's a bit of a mash-up of different things. It's like of TED from an education point of view, with a big dollop of eco and community tourism on the recreational side, with a Lonely Planet and couch-surfer vibe. But it's quite a big variety of people [that join and visit the tribes], not just gap year kids or people really into perma-culture and green architecture. There are a lot of people who know this is something they want to spend more time looking at, but struggle to find time.

What's the plan for your new tribe in Monestevole, Italy? And why there?

It's a different kind of adventure. We started to showcase sustainable living in different places in the world. We got lots of feedback from the first two projects [in Fiji and Sierra Leone], that were pretty remote areas of the world, and people said it would be great to have something closer to home.

It will showcase that this is not just about building beach huts, but about learning what we can do closer to home. Also, my business partner is Italian and there's lot of change happening there. We wanted to raise funding to launch a project there.

How long will it take, and what are the main steps towards making it a reality?

We're working in partnership with the local community, family and land owners. For coming up to a year the main work going on has been renovating an old borghi - which is like a hamlet. It's a 15th century building, but hasn't had a lot of work done to it, so we've been putting in renewable energy, redoing rooms, fixing up the roof, so accommodation areas are all sorted by time we open.

What will it be like for visitors?

Once people start coming and participate, a lot of activity will be around food. There will be seasonal stuff going on all the time: olive harvesting, work in the vineyards, making jams, wild board hunting, making pancetta and pastas. Like Italian living on steroids!

There will also be some construction projects - building greenhouses, a naturally-run swimming pool - so stuff for visitors to get hands on with too, as well as activities around permaculture.

Otherwise people can just enjoy living in Umbrian countryside for month or two! It's right in the heart of the old part of Umbria and Tuscany, so there are day trips to all these beautiful towns. It has a family and community already established there - every day musicians and people are trading food there and making music. And they're crazy about their coffee!

You want to recruit 10,000 members to build 10 communities long-term - what are your marketing plans to pull that off?

What we did last time [we were creating new tribes] was threw it out into the world and got a huge reaction. We almost didn't get enough feedback first. We're trying to build this time with more structure. We're doing a lot socially and virally, giving perks and tribe credit, so if people recruit their own social network they get more benefits and more time on the projects.

We're building organically and getting lots of feedback on the model. The challenge for us is: why should you join now? Unless you're going to go next month, why should you get excited now? Most crowdfunding gives a false deadline because you have to invest in 60 days, say. We're trying to build incentives to give people rewards to sign up by certain dates.

We're also recruiting 100 tribe ambassadors who have influence online: experts in certain projects, or people with an influence on a certain group of people that tribewanted wants to associate itself with. So there's that social influence campaign, and using word of mouth, and the storytelling around the projects.

What have you learnt about connecting with your customers through social media, and how have you found social as a way of building a community?

We've had mixed success with it. The whole idea around of "the lean startup" is really resonating with a lot with way we're building stuff. The biggest challenge is getting out into the world and learning, and doing feedback loops, and getting people engaged.

The biggest challenge is getting people to part with money, but also to engage with you in a way that's not fleeting. We're on several social networks. But you [as a follower of a project like ours] might see 10 projects a day that you think are interesting - potentially up to 50 a day. So it's only when there's a repetition [from us] and that there's an authentic voice - someone in your network saying "this is great, join" - that's when you start to see it really working.

Building those relationships [on social] takes effort. Getting 100 followers on Facebook does not mean will be able convert that. What getting 100 followers means is your idea is appealing. But there's still a lot of work to do between connecting with that fan base and then converting it into meaningful participation - and spending money!

What have you learnt about building that more meaningful participation with your community?

That participation is what we're trying get this time round. We're putting our members at the centre of our business, so we've introduced a Community Interest Company model [which gives customers part ownership of the project]. We're looking at the world from their perspective. Our platform is our members, so it's about always thinking: what's in it for the members, regardless of how fantastic you think your cause or vision is.

What are the main challenges of starting a responsible tourism venture, and how do you overcome them?

The future of business is going to be social, and there's a big shift toward that happening already. You have to think about what purpose there is beyond the bottom line.

But the big question is: what will drive decision-making? What is overall goal here? If you have that very clear then it will be much easier.

But remember that the minute you have a customer, the project is no longer just yours - it's theirs too.

In the lean startup model [that we've adopted], you're constantly looking for feedback. But you need to look for themes in your feedback. Wait to see what a majority of people think, then makes changes based on that, rather than on one person's opinion.

The final thing is to have that constant willingness and drive to act, as opposed to having a conversation and not acting. Somehow, somewhere, try and find an action off the back of anything that's inspiring, so you're constantly sharing stuff with the world. Then even if your startup isn't working, you'll have someone responding to you just because you put something out into the world.

Like the sound of that? You can WIN a week at the Monestevole Launch

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