January 25, 2022

Defining success for your startup community: part one

Jamie Langskov
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Defining success for your startup community: part oneDefining success for your startup community: part one
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Editor's note: 

When exploring the idea of starting a community, most startup founders ask us some version of the question: what does success look like for a startup community? Other versions of this same question include:

  • What metrics should I be using to measure the success of my community?
  • What is the “critical mass” of members for a startup community?
  • How do I know when it’s time to launch a community?

We already have some fantastic tools, like our Modern GTM Planner, that will help you to establish the growth trajectory for your company that will set you up for the next phase of your company’s evolution. However, the Planner is limited when it comes to planning your community growth, as it is focused on helping you to identify how many members you should bring into your community to support the growth of your company.  When it comes to community growth, membership numbers are only a small part of the picture.

Your community tactics should map to your go-to-market strategy. At every stage of your GTM maturation, there is a corresponding change to how you will approach community-building. 

In this post, let’s focus on phase one success: building an external network before you even have a product.

Phase One

During phase one, you are focused on formulating and narrowing in on your product idea. You are gaining a more concrete understanding of the pain point you’re trying to solve and you’re spending time validating that understanding with your target market. You are beginning to define who you think your ideal user persona will be for your product. 

What many founders miss is that during this phase, you should also be building your visibility, reputation, and presence within the existing community where your ideal users congregate. “Community” in this context is a broad term meaning anywhere where your target audience gathers. For example, a developer audience may prefer online forums, like Stack Overflow, Reddit, Hacker News, and others. Whereas, a more academic audience may prefer professional organizations, academic conferences, academic journals, and other types of professional knowledge sharing. An open source technology will typically have its own online community of some form, whether it’s as basic as a GitHub repo, or more organized, like a forum. Understanding the needs, interests, and preferences of your audience is critical to connecting with them in the time, place, and format in which they prefer to engage. 

You will need to do research to answer these questions:

  • What communities already exist?
  • What attracts people to these spaces? What needs are they looking to fulfill? 
  • How does my target persona generally prefer to engage within these communities?
  • How can I add value to these spaces? What does it take to join and start contributing?

Engaging in existing communities serves you in a few key ways. It allows you to:

  • Observe and gather intelligence about your ideal user
  • Understand common pain points and questions, and
  • Home in on user needs that are not being served by the current ecosystem

Joining existing communities also allows you to get to know the members of those communities. It can help you to identify the major players and help you figure out who you can work with to build legitimacy, hype, and trust for your product once it becomes available. You’ll discover who you can count on to give you frequent and constructive feedback as you develop your product. And you’ll discover whose inputs will consistently be worth setting aside (read: trolls). 

Get in the habit of engaging with the community on a daily basis. Be present, be visible, be kind, and be generous with your time and your expertise. Show up in a variety of ways. Elevate your presence and profile in those communities by answering questions, asking thoughtful questions, engaging in productive discussions, and generally adding value to the community. You can give talks, attend and speak at meetups or panel discussions, and publish content, such as blogs or videos or podcasts. 

Your job during this phase is to become memorable as someone who is actively contributing to the success and wellbeing of the community without asking anything in return. Increasing your visibility is only half of the work though. When building out your community network, you need to take that visibility and turn it into strong interpersonal relationships. If people trust you and believe that you have their best interests at heart, they are more likely to give back to you in the future.

Success during phase one can be difficult to quantify but you are essentially seeking to build trust-based relationships with influential members of the community. Here are a few core tasks to start with:

  • Build a list of 20 solid community members who you want to focus on building relationships with. These people are generally very active and visible members of the community with longstanding reputations for their expertise and trustworthiness. You’ll need to win them over to build a flywheel of community adoption, evangelism, and momentum when the time comes for product launch. 
  • Identify your top 5 candidates for design partnerships from your overall top 20 list. These should be people who believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, are invested in the overall improvement of their profession, and are able to give you the time you need to get regular feedback from them. 
  • Build a list of lessons learned from the community and, more importantly, assumptions that you’ve either validated or disproven during your observation time with the community. Validate those assumptions again with your top 20 member list. 
  • Start a mailing list and begin gathering registrations from people in the broader community that may wish to be informed of future developments from your company. This will serve as your gauge of interest from the community based on what information you’ve shared and how you have engaged with them so far. Include the mailing list link in everything you do as a call-to-action to help bring attention to the fact that you plan to do more in the future and want to bring the community along with you. 

In this phase, community building is less about quantity and far more focused on the quality of interactions. Your goals during this phase should be directly tied to the progress you need to make to get you to phase two. Here are some examples of phase one goals and corresponding KPIs:

As you move into the next phase, you’ll begin asking more of your community contacts. This is a good time to further deepen your relationships with members of the community and begin recruiting them to join you as design partners. Remember that not every great potential community advocate will also be the right candidate for a design partnership. You’ll need to cultivate those relationships in parallel. In part two of this series, we’ll cover what phase two of community building success looks like and how this will establish the foundation of your future community and company growth. 

In the meantime, you can find additional community-building tips from our recent panel discussion (above), and you can get early access to other early-stage startup resources here in our newsletter.

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