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Tribewanted: Ben Keene

The Tribewanted co-founder on social enterprise, island shopping and why PR will make or break you

Eco-tourism meets web 2.0 is how Ben Keene describes the Tribewanted community. The social enterprise revolves around the Fijian island of Vorovoro, who’s tribe members exist all over the world via an online social network. Each member pays a fee in exchange for actual time on the island, as well as a say in how the tribe is run.

A core focus of the project is learning about sustainability, according to Ben. The tribe use solar energy, grow as much of their own food as possible and compost whatever waste they can. The venture also has an active role in supporting the native Fijians in nearby villages through a combination of financial support and physical involvement in projects by the tribe members.

In true web 2.0 fashion, the venture was born out of an online meeting between Ben and co-founder Mark Browness. After lengthy online discussions the big leap came when Mark asked: ‘why can’t you take an online community and give it a headquarters – a real space that people could develop and physically visit?’

Next step? Island shopping, of course. After contacting an island broker, the pair booked their flights to Fiji. “We could only afford to travel to one destination so we went out there, shook hands with the landowners, negotiated an offer with the government then came back to decide how to come up with the £27,000 deposit they wanted within six weeks.

“At that point we had to chose between finding the money via a loan, or launching the site in the hope cash would came in fast from membership fees. It was a big risk because if we didn’t raise the full amount, we’d lose the lease and have all the paid-up members to deal with.”

A piece in The Metro got momentum going, followed by some Sunday Times coverage. Within two weeks, Tribewanted had enough revenue from membership fees to secure the island lease. Three months after launch the venture had turned over £100,000 and at its peak was taking £5,000 in membership sales a day. With a BBC documentary also in the pipeline, Ben and Mark were on the cusp of realising their Fijian community.

But as instrumental as the positive press were in getting Tribewanted off the ground, the negative coverage took its toll too.

“One Californian blogger decided it was a scam and started posting his thoughts on us. Overnight we lost our momentum and it almost completely killed us off. Our bubble had burst.”

The comments hit Mark hard, and by the end of the first year he’d left the project. With the venture’s credibility called into question, Ben decided the only way to prove Tribewanted wasn’t a scam was to kick-off the island visits earlier than planned. By September 2006, Ben, 13 tribe members and a TV crew reached the island.

Two years on and Ben is gearing up for what he describes as ‘the next level’ of Tribewanted, which he’s currently tight-lipped about.

“If Tribewanted does well as a business, it’s going to do good for the local communities,” he Ben. “Becoming more financially secure will allow us to become clearer about our goals and our positive impact.”

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