Coffee Chat: How do you start a community?
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:
Belonging: Does the group of people that you're looking to bring people together share some characteristic, life stage, or challenge that's some emotional weight? The best communities that I've either managed or been a part of have done just day. It doesn't always have to be a bad thing -- but there does have to be some link that tugs at the heartstrings a little bit.
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.