Coffee Chat: How do you start a community?

About this Series: There’s a list of questions that I get asked a lot about my career and my job, so I’ve decided to turn these into a short series of blog posts that I can use for reference in the future. With each of these, I’m going to pretend like you took me out for a cup of coffee and asked me this question. So I’m going to write for exactly as long as it takes me to finish one cup of coffee. Ready? Here we go. You can read previous “coffee chats” here and here.

How do you start a community?

Wow, is that’s a loaded and complicated question. While it’s true that my job today is literally build upon the concept of building communities, I certainly won’t pretend to have it all figured out. First and foremost, before you launch into your game plans and your programming and your mentor circles or anything else you’re considering, I’d suggest that you stop, look around, take a beat, and ask this question: “What’s the why?” If you can’t answer why people would want to be a part of this community and what they would get out of it, you still have work to do.

What are elements of a strong community?

After you’ve identified your “why” around any nascent community idea, it’ll be important to set the right environmental conditions for your community to thrive. There’s a lot to unpack in here, but a few ingredients of strong communities that I think about a lot are:

  • Access & Discovery: How do people discover this community? Depending on the “belonging” niche you’re going after, you might broadly market your community to anyone in a certain age group or other demographic. Or you might need to work a little harder to get people who might be a good fit to discover you. In my work at USV, access and discovery is one of our toughest problems, due in part to the fact that we’re trying to engage people all the way up and down the employee stack. Depending on your job, your function, and your seniority, you will have very different reasons to engage with other startup peers, and I’m constantly thinking about how to optimize for different use cases.
  • Friction: What are the barriers to entry to participating in the community? Again, there’s no easy answer here. Sometimes, communities are strongest because the “gating” is so high (aka: becoming a mom) but sometimes communities are strong because the access is easy for anyone to join (aka: sports fans).Depending on the behavior you’re trying to optimize for, you might “turn up” or “turn down” the friction. I’ll often use things like invitations, registration forms, nominations, or money as “friction” levers to modulate this in different groups. (One of the best communities I’ve ever started has also been the simplest to access; an ongoing “Cat Thread” on WhatsApp with more than 20 friends and thousands of cat pictures.)
  • Incentives: What sort of behaviors do you want to optimize for and how will people be rewarded for participating? My favorite online communities include things like Swarm by Foursquare, which incentivizes “checking in” different places with fun badges, points, and prizes (like becoming the Mayor of a place). Other communities, such as volunteer organizations, offer a “feel good” incentive when you show up at a meeting or give back to someone else. It’s imperative that you recognize and understand the incentives that drive engagement among your membership, or else you’ll risk losing your community to another platform.
  • Growth: Is this a static community for a moment in time, or will your members grow and change with the community? This is hugely important to consider, as it seriously changes how you design a programming and content strategy for your community. So many communities think they exist for all life stages, when in reality, people are only using them for one phase or moment. I think to the college bar in NYC that I used to frequent in my early 20s. The older I get, the less excited I am about going there. And that’s OK. In our work at USV, we first focused on one “life phase” of our community — connecting people in startup jobs with people doing that job somewhere else. After that was locked in, we unlocked a second phase — helping people “level up” in their careers through trainings and development. Now we’re exploring what’s next.

Um, wow. Thanks for that treatise. I really would have just preferred a four-box matrix for this answer.

Maybe next blog post.

You mentioned growth in communities. What happens if your community grows in a way that you don’t like?

Trust me, I’ve been there. In college my freshman year, I somehow managed to wrangle up a bunch of other freshmen to assign a group name for ourselves as an easier way to connect and have access to people as we all jumped into a new world to make new friends. This was very fun for awhile. But what eventually happened was that everyone outside of this community started looking at us as one single entity, rather than as individuals. It became a little too easy to “black box” our group into certain stereotypes or norms, and that’s getting into dangerous territory. Like it or not, this was my first lesson in the pitfalls of branding. Until the day we graduated, it became hard to ever escape the preconceptions we’d all founded about ourselves that freshmen year. This is why it’s so hard to wind down a community.

What about when you or someone else feels like they are no longer “right” for that community?

I’m a huge fan of the graceful exit. That said, I’ve found it to be really hard to do well. Personally, I end up just winding down my participating and “ghosting” rather than formally announcing the end of my involvement in a community. But that also might just be a result of “joining” lots of micro-communities pertaining to different life stages. A short list of communities I’ve had (but no longer engage with) in NYC include: My local community choir in Astoria, my wine bar crowd on the UWS, a “drafts over drafts” writing club I started in Brooklyn, and the Saturday morning “Powerstrike!” class at an Equinox gym. The best communities are fluid and make it easy for people to flow in and flow out. I’ve noticed the hard part is in the transition between one community and the next one. You might sometimes feel a “gap” there.

What was the first community you ever started?

Oh jeez, we’re going there, aren’t we? OK. So, in the second grade I started “The Kitty Cat Club” with two other girls. We basically only talked about cats and insisted on “meowing” at anyone who wasn’t in our club. Needless to say, this went off the rails pretty quickly. Looking back, you might say this was my first lesson as ineffective, top-down moderation.

Huh. Again with the cats… Okay, so last question: What community do you admire the most?

That’s a great question. In fact, I like this question so much that I asked it when we were recently interviewing someone to join our Network Team at USV. I think the best community people seek out and analyze different communities all around them.

Written by

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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