Together, Vlad and his co-founder and wife Meaghan are building a trusted community of luxury handbag enthusiasts and authenticators. We discuss:
- The resurgence of niche forums and communities
- How authenticators volunteer their services to help other community members make safe handbag purchases
- A surprise (and somewhat nerve-racking) visit from the Secret Service
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
“When you talk about this emerging trend of stepping back from all of the noise [of social media] and embracing a bit more of a minimalistic and calm lifestyle… the first step is to just disconnect yourself from all this rubbish noise in the first place. That’s basically why I feel like forums will remain very much relevant in the years going forward. As long as we keep providing our users with a pleasant experience, I don’t really see why forums need to die out. I think they’re very relevant. They shouldn’t go away. Social media, all these apps, they’re not a replacement for it at all.” -Vlad Dusil
“Of course, sometimes there are people who pop in and give unsolicited advice on these [handbag authentication] requests. We don’t mean to sound ungrateful by any means. We love anybody contributing to the community and giving their time and their effort and their energy, but you’ve got to get it right. The group of authenticators, they’re a very proud and very particular bunch. If there are newbies coming in and starting to authenticate, they will flag it to us as admins and say, ‘Hey, this person doesn’t really qualify to be an authenticator. Would you mind sending them a message and let them know that we’ve got this covered?'” -Vlad Dusil
“Fake [handbags] were being listed by people who had absolutely no place listing things on our community. Basically, they were looking to exploit the goodwill of the community by selling them a bunch of crap. So, we created an invite-only marketplace that has maybe 2,000 or so members in it.” -Vlad Dusil
About Vlad Dusil
Vlad Dusil was born in Prague in 1980, and spent his childhood and adolescence growing up in Germany after his parents fled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1982. In late 1999, Vlad emigrated again, this time to Columbus, OH, where a swimming scholarship allowed him to pursue studies and his continuing swimming career. As he didn’t care much for the studies, and swimming ceased to be a priority in his life, he taught himself to code and build websites.
This would come in handy when, a few years later, Vlad’s then swim team girlfriend Meaghan literally had her shoulder explode during a swim meet warm-up, effectively ending her career as a swimmer. Meaghan’s parents expected her to get a job with her newly found free time, but she, like Vlad, never really had the mindset of going the traditional route. In late 2004, they devised the plan to launch a blog where she could explore her love for handbags.
Later in 2005, Vlad decided to add the community arm of PurseBlog in form of PurseForum. The early members really liked the idea of a place where their obsession with expensive designer bags could be celebrated and shared without the fear of being judged by others. That community has now grown to over 35 million posts with more than 550,000 members all around the world.
- Sponsor: Open Social, community building for nonprofits
- Sponsor: Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations
- Vlad Dusil on LinkedIn
- PurseBlog and Purse Forum
- PurseBlog on Twitter
- Meaghan Mahoney-Dusil on how PurseBlog united half a million handbag fanatics
- UI/UX Digital Strategist Mike Creuzer, who previously spoke on Community Signal
- PurseBlog’s eBay forum
- Amazon Associates, Amazon’s affiliate program
- eBay’s affiliate program
- eBay Partner Network (EPN)
- CJ Affiliate (formerly known as Commision Junction)
- The Fred Miranda photography forum
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Open Social, community building for non-profits and Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:27] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. You have a virtually limitless number of ways that you could spend your time and not to be too corny, but you’re choosing to spend it with us and I appreciate it. On this episode, I’m joined by Vlad Dusil. If you’re into purses and designer handbags, you almost certainly know the community that he co-founded PurseBlog‘s, PurseForum. Our show is supported by a group of listeners on Patreon, including Rachel Medanic, Carol Benovic-Bradley, and Joseph Renallo, who receive behind-the-scenes access and bonus clips. If you’d like to join this group, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for details.
Vlad Dusil was born in Prague in 1980 and spent his childhood and adolescence growing up in Germany, after his parents fled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, in 1982. In 1989, Vlad immigrated again. This time, to Columbus, Ohio, where a swimming scholarship allowed him to pursue studies and his continuing swimming career. As he didn’t care much for the studies, and swimming ceased to be a priority in his life, he taught himself to code and build websites. This would come in handy when, a few years later, Vlad’s then swim team girlfriend Meaghan, literally had her shoulder explode during a swim meet warm-up, effectively ending her career as a swimmer.
Meghan’s parents expected her to get a job with her newly found free time, but she, like Vlad, never really had the mindset of going in the traditional route. In late 2004 they devised a plan to launch a blog, where she could explore her love for handbags. Later in 2005, Vlad decided to add the community arm of PurseBlog in the form of PurseForum. The early members really liked the idea of a place where their obsession with expensive designer bags could be celebrated and shared without the fear of being judged by others. That community has now grown to over 35 million posts and more than 550,000 members all around the world. Vlad, welcome to the show.
[00:02:06] Vlad Dusil: Hey, Patrick. Thanks for having me.
[00:02:08] Patrick: It is so good to have you on. PurseBlog is such a massive site and one that I was already aware of before Mike Creuzer from Audentio introduced us. Really, a pleasure to have you on. Before the show, you told me that you were, “Once, seriously worried that the big social media company were going to displace forums all together but that fear has long passed. Truth be told, I’m feeling pretty damn confident right now.” Why?
[00:02:37] Vlad: Let me, actually, backtrack a few years. I believe it was ForumCon maybe three, four, five, years ago, I’m not quite sure on the timing, I’m a little hazy. Basically, I was a panelist there and social media at the time– everybody was on the Twitter train, everybody was going gaga about Facebook. That was still the time when all the brands were running SuperBowl commercials, wanting their consumer to follow them on Facebook and follow on Twitter. There were a lot of forum operators at the time who were starting to really see a decline in their community engagement, in their traffic.
There was this conversation and it was brought up on that panel. At the time, I remember being quoted for saying that the forums are social media without the ADD or ADHD. By that, I meant that there’s just so much incredible amounts of noise and distraction, and at the time that was certainly true back then as much as it is now. The reason why back then I felt that forums weren’t going to disappear or become irrelevant in the internet landscape was that it was difficult, and I believe that it is still difficult, to curate and maintain an enthusiast community on any of these other platforms other than your own forum.
For example, my niche that I’ve been working in for 13 years is the unlikely niche of designer handbags. I don’t care about handbags myself but my wife does very much, and our teen does, and the hundreds of thousands of registered members also do. They do so and they continue to come to our community, and seek out conversations, and engage with other people because — first of all, there’s no other place no matter where you are, whether your friends on Facebook or you can have a ton of followers Instagram but you can’t really have a conversation with them.
Yes, you can curate content for them on Instagram, but you can’t really have a linear organized conversation about different topics. The same thing still holds true nowadays. Yes, there are Facebook groups but they’re all a mess, at least in my industry. They’re all a mess. They’re irrelevant. Sure, they’re niche groups but I don’t really care about those.
Another reason why recently my feeling about the relevancy of forums was reinforced was because I was giving a lot of thought into basically how the social media landscape has changed in forms of basically all of these algorithmically curated feeds. Also, the sheer addictive nature of these platforms, to begin with, I just feel like for human beings in general and I know that I’m drawing a broad stroke here but I feel like for human beings social media is just too much noise and too much activity. It’s overwhelming. It doesn’t allow your mind to ever settle and really take something. You’re just being bombarded from all different angles and everything is about grandiose, click baits and shocking outrageous moments here or as we call them “socially shareable content.” Everybody is about socially shareable content. I think that especially after reconnecting recently with what we call our OGs, I guess, original gangsters or whatever you want to call them. We call them the OGs, meaning the members that have been registered with us for over 10 years. I mean, think about it? 10 years. Crazy amount of time.
After reconnecting with them and seeing just their enthusiasm spark back up there’s a lot of people who actually want to be social, they want to be connected, they want to be part of a community but not at the insane, unpredictable pace that regular social media– I’m saying social media, basically anything that’s really app driven and feed driven and algorithmic and–
[00:06:46] Patrick: Push notifications.
[00:06:47] Vlad: Push notifications, that’s it. They just want to take it slower. We can really go deep on this but when you talk to mental health professionals and when you talk to this emerging trend of like stepping back from all this noise and embracing a bit more of a minimalistic calm lifestyle really, living a more mindful lifestyle. The first step is to just disconnect yourself from all this rubbish noise in the first place. So, that’s basically why I feel like forums will remain very much relevant in the years going forward as long as we keep up with innovations and mobile devices, even though one could say that has slowed down a little bit the last two years. As long as we keep up with that and keep providing our users with a pleasant experience, I don’t really see why forums need to die out. I think they’re very relevant. They shouldn’t go away. Social media, all these apps they’re not a replacement for it at all.
[00:07:51] Patrick: It’s really the pendulum swing. Something that we’ve talked about on the show here before and almost like the overwhelming nature of social driving people back to other types of interaction online. You have this trend of community members more and more returning back to your community, it sounds like, after an extended period away. I’ve seen this a bit as well in a community I’ve managed for 17 years in May, karateforms.com. We have some of the same phenomena, just in a much smaller scale. We’re very tiny compared to PurseForum but when you exist for 18 or 17 years, you have members who disappear for five years and come back. [laughs]
It’s a weird thing to think about, but it’s totally like something that does happen. You get all these crazy numbers of people who have been a member for 15 years or been on staff for 10 years. I have a staff member who left just recently after, I think, 12 years. Just an amazing amount of time, but you have people coming back to the community and returning back to what you call slow analog social media.
[00:08:48] Vlad: Agreed.
[00:08:48] Patrick: A slow alternative, again, your words to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When you say slow, I think of it more as turning away from what you described in a way sort of the “always on” nature of social media, always being tapped into everything you’re doing, checking in, receiving push notifications, being tagged. Now, you mentioned some mobile app development with your forum. There is a push with some forums to, I would say, be more like that. I see plenty of forums now that try to encourage you to have push notifications on. I mean, I can’t go to a website these days that doesn’t prompt me. Just in general, any website not just online communities to add a push notification.
They have, I forget the name of the service but every website seems to have that service and I always click no. I don’t know how many times I racked up the no’s, I wonder if they have that data point somewhere that Patrick O’Keefe has hit 700 no’s on the push notification box at the top of the page. When I asked you what you were passionate about you said, “The negative implications of social media on the human mind and what it does to us as people.” You touched on that a little bit at the end of, what you said previously.
When you develop your forums, when you’re looking at new features for PurseForum or you’re upgrading the software, are you mindful of that? Are you doing that in a way where that won’t happen to your community?
[00:10:04] Vlad: To a certain extent, I’m guilty of that as well but let me put a little check mark behind it and expand on this. Our forum, we were never interested in creating and maintaining our own app platform for the forum. We’re just using the whole tap out, talk route which I’m sure many other forum operators are doing as well. Naturally, we do offer notifications and push notifications through this platform and this is something that we’ve always explained to our community members, “Hey, if you want the ease and the integration into your Android device, into your IOS device, install this app, turn on your notifications and then you will know when you’re quoted.
You will know when someone sends you a PM, then you will know when your subscribed threads have new responses so you can continue being part of this conversation.” However, you can always with ease also turn it off because I want to be mindful that– just like you explained, it gets in the way. Every single damned app that I have on my phone, and I have very few because again personally I can’t deal with the overload of having too much crap on my phone or too much crap in my life in general because I feel like it all weighs me down and then I can’t think straight.
We basically tell people, you can also opt out or you can opt back in but what I will never do is try to Instagram feed-ish my site or curate and do like an algorithmically curated front page. We tried that for a second but you know what? Then I was like, “Why am I doing this? Why am I following suit to all these other platforms that–” that’s what their expectations but for me and my members and some of them they’re not millennials for the most part. A lot of our users are affluent women in their 40s, 50s, that don’t really do well with change, generally. Now, I don’t want to generalize too much but that pretty much holds true. They push back against radical change which is why we never really have introduced a radical change in the first place. What I basically wanted to rely on and this is probably very much, any sort of VC– mind you, we never took any capital at all since we started. Any VC would probably just turn away from me because I would tell them that I don’t want to rely on these aggressive methods in order to stay connected with our forum members.
Either I have a well maintained friendly community that’s drama-ish free as much as we can, where there is no BS, where there is constructive fun, entertaining, exciting conversations happening with like-minded people that makes people want to check back in or I’m running a crap feed with a link farm where I don’t have to rely on these aggressive methods to re-engage them all the time. I don’t want to do that.
Fortunately, knock on wood, we never had to rely on it in order to meet traffic numbers, revenue numbers. Look, let’s not fool ourselves. We run a community and a site that’s about shopping. Monetizing on that is rather a pretty easy task, so we’ve been in the fortunate position of really never having to strong arm these aggressive methods in order to stay in touch with people. Maybe if we were in another industry we would have to but, like you said earlier, my initial knee-jerk reaction whenever there is some website wants to send me notifications through Chrome, I’m like, “Block.”
Do you want to know my location, the heck do you need my location for? I’m looking up some computer hardware, why do you need to know my location? No, block. What is all that? That’s just no way to treat your customers, in my mind. Now, you might call me a purist. You might call me old fashioned but I just think that inherently people need to be treated like people and not just like another stat to squeeze some clicks out of and then convert them into a sale, especially when you’re talking about maintaining a community.
[00:14:25] Patrick: Let’s take a moment to talk about our excellent sponsor, Open Social.
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Do you think part of this trend back to your community is based in the fact that when you look at something like PurseForum or the communities I manage. They’re purpose-driven not personal-driven. Meaning, people are here to talk about handbags, people are here to talk about martial arts, people are here to focus on a subject, where all the social media platforms tend to be personal-driven. Where we have profiles, we opt into each other etcetera and because of that it’s a place where our in-person friends, our family, our co-workers show up as well because they connect to the person, they search for the person, they find the person. It’s not interest first, it’s person first.
Do you think that, that phenomenon and maybe a displeasure with that sort of thing happening more and more and feeling like you always have to be on and be that person on the social media platforms. Do you think that that is leading people to turn back to more purpose-driven communities?
[00:15:53] Vlad: 100%. I think it’s a combination of two factors: A: let’s say I’m a big bag collector. Right? I have a closet full of these fancy bags and special orders. MMS pieces, Chanel’s, Vuitton’s and whatever. Do you really think that my friends and schoolmates give a crap about it? No. And would I want to share it with them? No, of course not because I would feel like I’ll be judged.
In all likelihood, I would be perceived as a vain show-off that isn’t really in touch with reality and I wouldn’t really get very much positive feedback. Naturally, I would want to seek out a community where this purpose, this particular topic is well regarded and everybody is celebrating their own shallow obsessions. Now, our tagline since the very beginning, I think I came up with it in the first week of starting our forum back in August 2005 was, “Shallow obsessing, strongly encouraged.” Just come onto our site, keep it light, enjoy it, but at the same time also you can just be yourself and you don’t have to pretend otherwise.
So much of this digital age is about worrying about these, how you’re being perceived by other people and then putting on this fake persona which loops me back to one of the quotes that I left on the questionnaire on your site was that, modern social media lacks a lot of authenticity, just because in our industry, in particular, with all these influencers on Snapchat, on Instagram selling basically this pipe dream. Now, you don’t need to peel back very many layers to realize that very, very little of it is actually grounded any authenticity. Once you come to realize that and I think that those that consume that type of content after a while will also realize that it’s just a bunch of bullshit.
Dealing with a bunch of this or being able to connect with other people who are like, “I can just be myself even though it’s behind an anonymous moniker but at least I can celebrate my passion for these bags.” Yes, there’s certainly some pretending too. You can always make stuff up. I felt like over the many, many years that we’ve done this there were only a very few handful of stories where the community would figure people out and mark them to be dishonest.
In the most part, it’s been amazing building this community around this purpose. Then that’s also, in turn, has created very, very many fantastic personal relationships and friendships that have lasted for many, many years now between people within the community.
[00:18:38]Patrick: Bringing up the point of having a space to go where you won’t be made fun of is interesting to me. Have you had — just because of a sheer visibility of PurseBlog and PurseForum, I assume you’ve had people in other spaces maybe other communities of some size linking to your public threads and mocking your members. Is that a thing that happens?
[00:18:58] Vlad: This happened early on. [laughs] I remember one specific member who’s almost like a legend within our community. Her name is Noriko. Noriko was a young girl from California someplace. She was one of the earliest members on our site and she was boasting about this amazing Louis Vuitton collection. She would talk about her boyfriend is like getting her all these bags and whatever. Then it suddenly turned out– we were at the time a forum that had maybe a grand total of like 100,000 posts or something. Relatively small, just gaining traction. I think that the boyfriend at the time who was big in the car culture and you know that some of the car forums early on were absolutely massive. We were getting bombarded night after night with these troll invasions where basically whether it was like the E36 BMW forum or an Acura forum or whatever some junior forum. They would find these kids that were up late night looking to sort of 4chan style troll other communities.
They would be getting these threads and just rip these girls apart because to an outsider you look at it and you’re like, “This is ridiculous. You must be absolutely joking,” like, “These women are absolutely freaking nuts.” They’re obsessing over these pieces of leather basically, that just carry your stuff around on the daily that cost $5,000. We were a big target, but after we reached several millions of posts and it was evident that the community had a lot of inertia and heft behind it, that quickly subsided. Once we became bigger than many of these other forums in the first place, we were no longer a target.
[00:20:46]Patrick: You touched on monetization a little bit, the model of the shopping and how you monetize that, but looking at the forums specially and just them, not your blog. What is your approach to monetization of the forums? What are you using? What revenue channels do you rely on?
[00:20:58] Vlad: It’s a bit of a split. In about the past two years, we’ve really tried our own efforts to build out direct campaigns with advertising partners. We’ve done that very successfully, knock on wood, because advertisers have realized that there is a lot of value to be had because we have a very affluent shopping-driven community, so advertising to them is highly effective.
It’s a mixed bag. It’s either direct campaigns with direct advertising partners that we’ve established these relationships with, it’s just CPM-based adsense, whatever ad network display, then some direct links. We push out these affiliate offers whenever there’s a good sale happening at some of our affiliated merchant partners. Lastly, just link conversions that we do in-house. Some of it is also then monetized through Viglink with their insertion product we’re using on our site too.
[00:21:55] Patrick: Cool, I was curious to hear about that because I would think affiliate would smack myself in the head here. It would be pretty obvious that affiliate is a big thing. I saw you have the eBay listing form which, I think, is actually something that is simple but sneaky smart because maybe a lot of forums aren’t thinking about eBay as an option for monetizing. Because, let’s say they’re in a niche like yours and obviously you’ve thought of this already, but they’re in a niche where there is a lot of eBay stuff. Maybe they are record collectors. I bought a ton of records on eBay, a ton. Maybe they are memorabilia collectors and people buy a lot of stuff on eBay.
They throw eBay links under the mantle of advertising. You don’t want that. Who wants eBay links in a conversation? Well, if you have this section where you encourage it and cordon it off to its own place where you can just go there if want just that. You essentially have an affiliate link in every single thread if you use the eBay rover or I use Skimlinks, but an insertion product like that. Just by giving people that section, eBay is an easy to get a part of program, easy to join, easy to be a part of popular service. By just having the forum, you’re creating whatever incremental amount of extra revenue to your bottom line.
[00:23:00] Vlad: This is actually something that we only started relatively recently because on the subject of eBay, we’ve been part of the [eBay Partner Network] before EPN was even a thing, when it was still with Commission Junction. It was actually my buddy Dave who pointed it out to me. We had these massive conversations about eBay listings for maybe a couple of years, then he actually told me that eBay had an affiliate program and I had no idea. [laughs] I felt like such a noob. Then we activated it and then really, for several years we were absolutely slaying it with EPN.
As I’m sure you and people listening are aware that there had been several iterations of the EPN program in the way that they were attributing the revenue, then there was pay-per-click and God knows what else. It’s really dropped to about a third of what it once was in terms of revenue which is sad, but this particular section we added about maybe a years ago or so and it’s proven to be a pretty nice lift.
Fortunately, eBay is and was and still is the predominant player when it comes to consumer-to-consumer marketplace sales. There are other ones in our industry that are popping up, but eBay is the de facto standard. When we started allowing people to promote their own auctions which for the longest time we disallowed, they just started posting it and it ended up being a pretty nice lift. Ultimately, we want to build out our own marketplace. I’m sick and tired of just working for breadcrumbs, truly.
[00:24:40] Patrick: Yes. One last thing on the eBay thing that I think maybe a lot of people who aren’t into affiliate might not realize is that, when you have those links and they’re converted into affiliate links, it’s not that people even have to buy the thing that it’s in the link. They have 24 hours on eBay, 24 hours is a purchase window even if the auction takes 10 days. If they buy something within 24 hours, similar — Amazon, I don’t know what their lifespan is on a life of the link, but similar, they don’t have to buy that item. If they just buy something within the next period of time, you get credit for that as well.
[00:25:08] Vlad: Absolutely. Fortunately, because we have such a niche-specific community where the majority of the conversations are about designer accessories. I think upwards of 90% of our referred traffic to eBay was converting in eBay fashion and accessories. Over time, there were some real oddball purchases that we saw or categories rather. We were like, “Wait, what? Someone purchased like a houseboat or something?” It was really weird, but, hey, you never know.
[00:25:41] Patrick: Let’s take a break for our sponsor, Structure3C.
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I want to talk about this marketplace, but I actually want to bring up something that’s relevant to that. Now, you can often judge the priorities of a community and its members by what it chooses to put in the main menu. At the top of PurseForum, your main menu has three items: Forums, your forum’s homepage; Blog, your main website; and then we have “Authenticate This.” Clearly, “Authenticate This” is a big, big deal for your community. Tell me about it.
[00:26:31] Vlad: It’s funny that you bring this up because it piggybacks on the topic of eBay. In our industry, and this probably holds true for many other industries. Particularly, I’m guessing, luxury watches, probably collectibles of any sort are fakes, counterfeits. If you’ve ever been to Canal Street in New York City, or as a matter of fact if you’ve ever tried to shop for, let’s say, a used Louis Vuitton bag which are incredibly popular, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ve encountered counterfeits. Now, we’ve always prided ourselves to keep things authentic. Our editorial only ever dealt with authentic merchandise. On our forum, we always only permitted conversations about authentic bags.
Now, as you would imagine, over the time of having been the authority in this realm online and basically having this de facto monopoly, a lot of people will be coming to us with inquiries about authenticity. “Hey, I want to buy this Celine bag. Is this a real bag? It’s listed on eBay. It’s listed on xyz site. Is this retailer selling authentic bags?” They’re not listed as an authentic partner of, let’s say, Balenciaga, but if I want to buy the city bag, is it a real one?
Over time, the community provided this service which provided tremendous value to a ton of people over time that many collectors would come and give their opinion about this particular subject. Someone would be submitting a listing and say, “Hey, here’s a Celine bag. What do you guys think?” Then, those that we at least believe have a lot of knowledge or have proven to have a lot of knowledge within a particular brand subform would be able to weigh in and say, “Yes, I think this is a great deal. This is a good looking bag,” or “No, this one looks like–” I don’t know. “the stitching is off,” or “the print is off,” or “the authentication card looks fake.”
Look, truth be told. I, personally, do not know all of the factors and the factors also vary greatly from brand to brand. It’s been really a cornerstone of our community over the years for some amazing members and authenticators, who are not paid by us. They’re just volunteers within the community. Most of them I’ve never met. Most of them I haven’t even really ever talked to, but they would be willing to share their knowledge on these designer goods because of the experience that they’ve had collecting them. They’d be able to say, “Yes, I think this is authentic,” or “No, this is not authentic.”
[00:29:14] Patrick: What sort of pains do you go through, if at all, to try to — as best as you can, make sure people get the right authentication, because it’s a big community, lots of people in it, free to post, free to reply. People are doing it out of the kindness, or they could be doing it out of evilness to get it wrong. For the most part, most people or 99.9% are doing it out of the kindness of their heart because they love handbags, because they have a legitimate interest in this. They want to see what cool finds people are coming across. What do you do to increase the percentage that they’re getting the right decision, the right authentication?
[00:29:47] Vlad: That’s a very good point. We’ve certainly struggled with that or not really struggled as much. It’s been a certain challenge because you want to keep the, let’s say, the quality of service high but then if you as a forum owner, an administrator, you don’t have the knowledge to judge these people’s performance, let’s say, or knowledge. You don’t know yourself. Basically, what we’ve done is we created this little subset of authenticators who have their own little private section. When you have proven to not get things wrong and you’ve proven to be of service, then we invite you to be part of this group, and then you can chat behind the scenes. It’s all very organic community policed effort, really.
Of course, sometimes there are people who just pop in and they will just give their unsolicited advice on these requests. We don’t mean to sound ungrateful by any means. We love anybody contributing to the community and giving their time and their effort and their energy, but you got to get it right. The group of authenticators, they’re a very proud and very particular bunch. If there are newbies coming in and starting to authenticate they will flag it to us as admins and say, “Hey, this person doesn’t really qualify to be an authenticator. Would you mind sending them a message and let them know that we’ve got this covered?”
[00:31:24] Patrick: Basically, you have this strong base of authenticators. They are a tool to help you weed out the bad actors themselves because they do know the bags and they do know how it works. Now, sticking with that, when I saw your forum I was thinking to myself, “They could have a marketplace, but they don’t.” I’m guessing that’s a deliberate–
[00:31:41] Vlad: We do.
[00:31:41] Patrick: Oh, do you have a marketplace right now where people can buy and sell bags? Did I miss it?
[00:31:46] Vlad: Yes, you missed it because you can’t see it.
[00:31:48] Patrick: There you go. Logged in members only or a certain group?
[00:31:51] Vlad: No, not even that. Our market plaza is actually something that is invite-only. It was established, I would say, maybe a decade ago or so after an initial attempt of having an open marketplace that didn’t go quite as we expected. There was a lot of bad apples that we didn’t know how to deal with. Meaning, fakes were being listed by people who had absolutely no place of listing stuff on our community. Basically, looking to exploit the goodwill of the community then selling them a bunch of crap.
So, we created an invite-only marketplace that has maybe 2,000 or so members in it. It slowed down over time, unfortunately. We’re going to have to restructure it a bit but over time there had been– looking at the stats now, there had been upwards of, I would say, 75,000 transactions that were conducted within the market plaza amongst its members. Seeing it’s a small invite-only group, that’s a pretty good amount.
[00:32:55] Patrick: It is.
[00:32:56] Vlad: We’re talking some of the most expensive items that were sold within the market plaza was, I think, $35,000 or $40,000 bag. There’s some serious money being passed around, but we don’t see any of this money. People arrange it among themselves, and we just offer the platform to them to conduct these transactions in a community policed trusted environment.
[00:33:22] Patrick: That makes sense. When I looked at the forum, I didn’t see a marketplace. As a guest, I was thinking, well, that’s obviously a choice right now. Because there is such an amount of stuff that comes along with that. There is the responsibilities and so many things that go into that. When you say that you’re working on a marketplace, what is the change? What do you want to do?
[00:33:42] Vlad: Oh Lord. [laughs] You’re opening up an interesting box here because as you correctly stated, it’s a tricky undertaking. Mostly for the aforementioned reason that there are a lot of counterfeits. We have a pretty good idea, but we haven’t quite figured out how to manage all of that. Now, let me preface this by saying that I’m an avid believer that communities such as ours, or other very strong topical communities, whether it be in automotive, whether it be in photography, whether it be in– God knows what else, what other communities. It’s basically a very fertile ground to build up a community policed trusted environment for a marketplace, where people just on the basis of not wanting to jeopardize the standing within the community itself, wouldn’t want to screw things up.
Look, I myself, I’m an avid photographer. I’ve purchased and sold over 150 or so high ticket items on a community called Fred Miranda, fantastic photo community by the way, and it’s been without a hitch. That works because people they value the place, they don’t want to screw it up. There’s a point of entry. You have to pay him an annual membership and you don’t want to get that red mark on your little feedback ticker that’s right by your name, so you don’t want to screw it up. I think that even within our community, we’ll be able to build something like that out. It’s still difficult because of the amount of counterfeits then how do we handle if a situation like that occurs. If someone either knowingly or unknowingly lists a fake, what will happen with that?
These are all these procedures that we haven’t quite really formulated concretely and I’m sure that we’ll have to do, make some adjustments over time pending community feedback. It’s definitely in the works for 2018, we’ve been putting it off for way too long.
[00:35:56] Patrick: That’s definitely an attorney enabled dream. [laughs] This is the type of idea that attorneys love because someone’s about to make some money.
[00:36:05] Vlad: Attorneys, got to love them.
[00:36:07] Patrick: Let’s end here. Years ago, members of the Secret Service showed up at your building in New York asking for you. What happened?
[00:36:15] Vlad: [laughs] Oh Lord. Okay. I remember like it was yesterday. I was at some PR company meeting, photographing some bags in a showroom. I’m in the cab and I’m heading back to our building, at the time we lived on 32nd and 5th, right in Manhattan. My phone rings and it’s Mike, big, burly doorman at our building. Great guy. Good friend, I still see him every time I’m in town. He calls me and he’s like, “Mr. Vlad, there are two guys here from the Secret Service looking for you.” I was like, “What? Can you repeat that because I think that you just said Secret Service.” He’s like, “Yes, they left a little door tag here. They were looking for you.” I’m like, “Did they say what they wanted?” I’m like sweating bullets on the back of a cab. I’m like nearly fainting, nearly passing out. He’s like, “No, but they left like a call back number here. Just come on back and I’ll give you the door tag.” I was like, “Oh fuck.” Immediately, I called my wife. My wife and business partner and I’m like, “Hey, babe. The Secret Service just came to our building.” At the time, I think, my wife was visiting her parents in Florida. I’m like, “I don’t know what to do. What do I do?” She’s like, “Call our lawyers. Right now.”
I get in touch with our attorney and he’s just like, “That’s really weird. Did you do any shady stuff I don’t know about?” I’m like, “No. Truly, I’m just peddling my bags here.” I get to the building. I get this old door tag that has the seal, Department of Homeland Security Secret Service, Division of Cyber Security or whatever. Then it says, Agent Smith, whatever his name was, I don’t know, and call back this number to arrange. We missed you.” The line that said what it was about it said, “Being a victim of fraud.” I was like, “Well, that couldn’t be any more vague if they tried.” Like, what does this mean?
Okay. Fine. I go upstairs, I’m still trying to replay all these scenarios. I’m like, “I promise I’m not.” My wife is like, “Are you doing anything shady?” I’m like, “No, I’m not doing anything. This is so transparent, we’re not defrauding anyone. I don’t know what’s going on.” I call this number, and naturally, you don’t ever get in touch with anyone there. It was just going to an answering machine right away so I said, “Hi. My name is Vlad. Agent Smith was here at my address about an hour ago. Missed them. Give me a call back.”
About an hour later, they called back and they didn’t really tell me any further details but they said that they would come back the next afternoon and I would meet them downstairs. I go, I go downstairs and I like reserve this — this might be a tangent but if I may mention it because I thought it was particularly funny. Went into the club level of our building and there was like a little conference room because I’m like, “I don’t know. I don’t know these people. I don’t want them to go up into our apartment.” I reserved this little area of the conference room with someone who worked at the front desk.
I’m like, “I have people coming in at 2:00 PM. I need to have this reserved.” The next day, I meet them downstairs. These two guys come in, maybe like early 30s. Tall, authoritative figures, sort of casual attire. They showed me their badges and it was the real deal. I’m like, “Come on up.” We go to the club level and it turned out that this one lady was there on her computer and if you know anything about New York City people, you will know that the sense of entitlement is just obnoxious and nauseating at times.
I go in there. I knock on the door, in the glass door and I open it up and I’m like, “Excuse me, ma’am. I have this place reserved for a meeting now and it’s 2:05 PM. Would you mind?” She looks at me, she’s like, “You can’t reserve this place, I’ve been here first.” I was like, “Okay.” I’m like just facepalming myself. I’m like, “You must be freaking joking. Of all times, today, this expletive lady needs to be sitting there making a stink if I’m about to talk to these guys about God knows what and I’m going to be in trouble.”
I’m like, “Okay, guys, let’s just go upstairs. Let’s go into our apartment.” We go into our apartment and they basically, they turn up their little notebooks and their laptops and they’re like, “We’re currently part of an investigation of a person named X Y and Z, and are you familiar with a program called–” Now, I’m sort of a little shaky on the name but it was called something like Sandbox– let’s call it Sandbox for the purpose of this interview.
I would have to look it up but it was a program called that and I was like, “No, I have no idea.” He’s like, “Did you ever purchase this program?” I was like, “No, what does this program do?” They basically go on and tell me that they raided the house or apartment of a person who lived in God knows where, Nebraska or something, and this person had been running this large-scale operation that basically defrauded eBay for millions of dollars.
Now, I don’t know if this is like in line with the whole drama that happened at Digital Point a few years back, but basically what happened was that this guy was running the software that was cookie stuffing millions of users and basically stealing eBay attribution within the EPN program and basically making millions of dollars this way by means of cookie stuffing using this program.
He said, “Well, your EPN, unique EPN ID for Midley Inc. which is our corporate entity showed up in one of their log files and it does appear like you were then part of one of the victims that was potentially targeted in the process of this person using this program about a year and a half or two ago, and that’s why we’re talking to you. I was like, “Hang on one second.” All of these memories started flashing back. What had happened was and this is particularly interesting and this might be interesting to your listeners as well. At the time, and we actually had a programmer build a custom vBulletin plugin to prevent this because it was such an aggressive attack at the time.
What would happen was that some guys, some troll, signed up on our forum back then were on vBulletin, version 3.X. He would sign up and then he would basically insert off of these new views domain names as smileys, small graphics– smileys or small graphics into posts that were embedded into our forum. Now, naturally, every user that was then loading up our page would be requesting that particular graphic, requesting it from that remote server and then that server would record all of these IP addresses. Then he would by means of some exploitation, some hacker nonsense that was beyond me, exploiting and attacking these people’s computers. It was setting off some of their anti-virus or firewalls would be showing up. So, this was something that had actually happened then about a year or two prior to this Secret Service meeting of mine where this person was posting his graphics then would ban him, then he would get a different IP then would reregister. It was actually so aggressive that we couldn’t really stop him from doing it. We had to block our registration and close in our registration for like weeks at a time because this guy would just keep on creating these fake accounts, keep posting these small graphics from these dubious domain names that he had hundreds of, then at the same time of him doing that we would get reports of people, of their firewalls going haywire after they had been to our site. In order to get this contained, we then worked with one of our programmers and had a custom plugin coded for vBulletin that would only allow images hot-linked from approved domain names like ImageShack and Imgur or whatever else in order to show up within our forum.
That fortunately then contained his efforts. I told these Secret Service guys I’m pretty sure this was the same guy, and at the time I just shrugged them off as like some script kiddie trying to screw with our members. But I was like I’m pretty sure that this was the same guy trying to exploit our community, basically, and then leveraging these attacks towards screwing with cookies or God knows what else. I gave them my testimony and fortunately, never ever heard back again but those are some pretty crazy stuff.
[00:46:03] Vlad: I think, at the time, they knew, hence, I thought at least looking back in retrospect that’s why they wrote, “Being a victim of fraud.” They basically knew already that we had been defrauded to some extent. They just didn’t know whether I was aware of it. They still wanted to ask me about whether I had ever purchased the script or ever talked to someone about this particular script. I’m pretty sure that they knew that we had been one of– a part of that attack of this guy’s network or efforts in order to defraud eBay. We, fortunately, I had identified the method of attack and then blocked it. Actually coming to think of it, I believe that actually the same guy sent some threatening messages to and tried to blackmail me and said, “I will continue screwing with your community unless you send me x amount of dollars.” I basically told him to go eff himself. [laughs]
[00:47:02] Patrick: Oh, the people you’ll meet when you manage an online forum.
[00:47:05] Vlad: Oh, yes. Indeed.
[00:47:08] Patrick: That was a great story. Vlad, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. I really have enjoyed the chat.
[00:47:13] Vlad: Of course. Thanks a lot, Patrick. I appreciate it.
[00:47:15] Patrick: We have been talking with Vlad Dusil, COO and co-founder of PurseBlog at purseblog.com. Visit their PurseForum at forum.purseblog.com. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. Thank you for listening.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.
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