A Facebook for Boomers

I didn't set out to start a company—I was simply reading my mail. As my friends and I turned 50, we all got the famous "join AARP" letter. We all had the same reaction: "Join the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired People? I'm not old enough." Technically, of course, we were old enough. But retirement simply isn't in the picture yet. So I began talking with my friends and colleagues about what kind of group we would join.

The consensus was that we over-40 folks needed something that connects us to people going through the same life changes.

Starting and growing media companies are what I do. Back in the '80s, I founded Parenting magazine for a new generation of moms and dads. In the late '90s, I worked for five years as executive vice president of CNET Networks—one of the original, and biggest, online media companies. Connecting my generation online seemed the perfect next step. I just wasn't sure—at 50, newly divorced, with two young children I wanted to be around for—that I wanted to be a CEO again. So I spent a year trying to convince myself that this was not a great business idea—or that someone else should be the CEO instead of me. Enter David Markus, who'd been the editor in chief who led Parenting to success. David loved the idea. There was just one thing, I told him: I had a lump. Two doctors had told me it was probably benign, but if it wasn't, I was going to be a breast-cancer patient, not a CEO.

A month later, when it was clear my breast cancer was not life-threatening, I stopped apologizing for wanting to start this company, and reconfigured my life to do so. Funny how health emergencies, whether your own or a loved one's, get you focused on making the most of the time you have left. If you are lucky enough to dodge the bullet, as I did, you have an awareness of making the most of the years ahead. Changing careers, reinvigorating long-term marriages, dating again for those whose marriages didn't make it—all these transitions become more urgent, and fuel a need to share stories.

We boomers behave online just as younger people do—shopping, banking, learning—but we have not yet committed to social networks. Sites like MySpace have felt unsafe or a waste of time. Being fans of a good acronym (our name TeeBeeDee, tbd.com, is inspired by the expression "to be determined") and convinced we had to make some ironclad promises to our members, TeeBeeDee committed to FESSUP: to be Fun, Easy, Smart, Safe, Us, Proud. If we can be those things, then our generation will come and share our 3 billion-plus years of experience.

Our team spent more than a year designing and testing TeeBeeDee. We learned a lot. We FESSed UP big time. The goal was authenticity; that sounds simple, but many ventures aimed at our generation have failed because they think of us as one big market. We don't refer to the generation as "them." It is us. We never took out eye off us—our community. In fact, we hired a director of community before there was a community, and she's been in touch with just about everyone who has ever registered on TeeBeeDee. Betty Ray's pretty busy these days.

The tipping point came on the day in September we took the word "preview" off the site (we didn't call it a beta because we try to avoid jargon) and began talking to the press. A new TeeBeeDee member posted a critical item about tbd.com and it was on the front page of our site. Our first reaction was concern—reporters would see a criticism. But before we could respond, the TeeBeeDee community did: members solved his technical questions, and told him what they liked about TeeBeeDee. That member now seems to like us. And we're well on our way to growing the ranks. Our staff of 20 could never create as much content as our membership of thousands has already unleashed. When that membership is in the hundreds of thousands—expected in 2008, based on our first six weeks of growth—I believe we will be making midlife better for us all.

Start-ups are hard. When you've done it before, you don't buy into the romantic image. My 9-year-old daughter tells me sometimes she feels like she spends more time with her sitter than her mother. But she's in this with me as well: she can also hold forth rather eloquently about the difference between starting a company and taking a safer, more secure job—about risk and reward. She wrote recently, "I want to start a Website for YOUNG people, its called TooBooDoo." There is something exhilarating about sharing your experiences with someone. Whether it's with your daughter or a million of your peers. Or both.