January 11, 2022

Five expert lessons for building a startup community

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Five expert lessons for building a startup communityFive expert lessons for building a startup community
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Editor's note: 

Recently, we hosted a panel discussion among some of the industry’s best community builders where we chatted about the logistics and considerations of starting your community in an early-stage startup environment. While I strongly encourage you to watch the entire session, here are some key takeaways that our panelists agreed are critical to building community for your startup. 

  1. Community building requires a distinct sense of purpose. Our panelists often came back to the need to be intentional about community building, especially in the early days of your community. Everything from deciding when to make your first community hire to how to structure and govern your community should tie back to your overall company goals and values. Panelist Celina Zamora reminds us that understanding how the community should contribute to the success of every function in your company, such as marketing, product development, and customer support, is critical to building a successful community program. So is understanding your commitment to properly resourcing and supporting your community team. Defining your goals and aligning that to your expectations of your community program is work that you can do as a founder well before you bring in your first community hire. 
  2. Community strategy, ops, and developer relations are all distinct skills. Hire accordingly. The panel lamented the lack of the “unicorn” community professional who is at once a top-tier strategist, a technical genius, a networking guru, a genius data analyst, a product manager, program manager, social media manager, and operations manager.  Historically, under-resourced community managers have been forced to adapt to the many needs of their programs, but the industry is finally starting to staff these functions appropriately. When asked about hiring in early stages, our panelists generally agreed that your hiring decisions should be aligned to your company goals for the community and should be prioritized to supplement the strengths that already exist in your team. If you’re serving a developer community, for example, hire a developer advocate to supplement your community manager’s strategic focus with technical savvy and focus on boots-on-the-ground engagement, meeting developers at their level. Community ops is akin to marketing ops and sales ops, in that it is a separate discipline from community strategy, but it has often been left at the community manager’s feet. However, community ops is now experiencing a renaissance in the tech industry and you can expect to eventually need to make a distinct hire to manage the technical infrastructure, data analysis, performance, and maintenance of your community ecosystem on top of the strategic engagement programs that your community leader is running. In any case, the consensus is that the question of who should be your first community hire is another resounding “it depends.” This is why it’s so critical to establish your company goals and community expectations first. 
  3. Communities are built on intentional interactions. Panelist Klára Losert recommends focusing on your first five community members when building your community. Find the people who are most likely to engage with your community and discover where they show up today. Begin building relationships with those members through intentional interactions: showing up regularly, providing value freely, listening, and building a presence that those members begin to count on. Panelist Scott Baldwin reminds us of the importance of consistency and rituals in establishing your community’s heartbeat. The panel then echoed the need to get members in the habit of interacting with you in low-risk, low-effort requests and celebrate low-risk, low-effort wins. Focus on developing your understanding of what those early members find valuable and providing value at every interaction with them. 
  4. Design a community that aligns with your company values. It’s tempting to let your community develop organically without an intense level of oversight, but our panel recommends being mindful of governance best practices, such as code of conduct, when launching a new community. Rather than dictating the laws of the community, the code of conduct should be designed to create general guardrails that protect community members and can help them learn how they are expected to engage with the community. A well-written code of conduct should instill a sense of security, psychological safety, and feelings of trust and respect to new community members, allowing them to be vulnerable and encouraging them to participate fully in your space. It’s much more difficult to change the culture once it’s gone off the rails than it is to develop the guardrails in the beginning. Panelist Lisa Barroca suggests that you use commitment-based action statements, such as “I agree to speak with respect and professionalism” when designing your governance policy to establish a tone of mutual respect and accountability amongst all community members, regardless of status or seniority. 
  5. Community is basically a college house party. Panelist Tristan Lombard advises you to make intentional decisions about how much or how little to segment your community, striking a careful balance between segments that add value versus those that create barriers to connections between members. When hosting a house party, Tristan says, be sure to effectively manage the interactions and level of activity amongst your attendees by not opening too many doors too soon. This will ensure that you reach your critical mass of activity and members to build momentum and help drive exponential growth across your members’ networks. I particularly enjoy this analogy because I like to say that, as community managers, we are facilitators, not celebrities - or said differently, we are the party hosts, not the attendees. 

Looking ahead to 2022, the team and I have been investigating and strategizing for our own community. While going through these same processes, I’m learning about our community members today, as well as the people we want to reach in the future. I look forward to building together in the new year, delivering community activities, such as this panel, that bring tangible value to you, our founders, and the broader entrepreneurship community.

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