Before you start a community

I wrote recently about obsession of being community-first and thought it would be worth diving more specifically into to the type of things you can do to prepare yourself to start a community.

Community is not always the answer

It's easy to get carried away and dream of all the wonderful things a community can bring. However, much like we can dream of successful businesses or product ideas, it doesn't mean there it the market demand. As community builders we either need to create the demand, or we need do our research to ensure that we are doing the right things to maximise our chances of success.

We should avoid failure if we can.

Approaching the idea of community as one of many potential solutions to your goals is a much more practical approach to building something special. Rather than get fixated on the idea of the community, get fixated on the goal and mission you want to achieve.

For example, whilst Ministry of Testing had a huge community focus, the goal was not necessarily to build a strong community, it was to change transform the industry positively. Part of that ended up being through community, other parts were through other things like education.

No one will join an untrusted community

A mistake I see time and time again are people jumping to build the community straight away, typically going straight to the tools before anything else. However, before a community you should build up trust. People need to know you. They need to be sure you have the best intentions. You need to have built up some kind of positive reputation.

This will make it so much more fun and natural to pull people in.

Do this by:

  • showing up regularly somewhere (social media, blogging, meetups, etc)
  • helping people: give out (free) help
  • write, publish, create: find an outlet that works for you

The more you can give, the better. But to be awkward, protect yourself too and don't burn yourself out.

Define your niche

You'd be surprised at how quickly your people will start seeing you as an expert in a particular field. Define and decide what you are so in love with and make that THE THING you talk and share about, constantly. The 'constant' aspect is real. I probably do it in a bit more intense way than most, but it's clear to me that the people who are thriving as creators and as communities are people who shine love and content for a specific niche.

It doesn't mean you have to do it forever, but honestly, I'd consider it at least a 5 year journey. At least. In my head I see my current 'community' journey as one that will probably last my career, but I plan to dive deep for at least 10 years. I'd say I'm two years into my current journey.

Seeing this as a long-term commitment should also help you see that you better focus in on something that truly excites you. No excitement probably results in no innovation, or work that is mediocre, imhro.

Do your research

This is the part that I call 'study your people'. All too often I find that people dive into communities without doing research. They think they know what people need, but it becomes obvious they don't when they get stuck not knowing what to do next.

Communities are great when you truly listen in, to do this:

  • follow blogs, YouTube channels, social media accounts, newsletters: take notes on what people are writing about
  • converse with people: too many people like to hide behind text based platforms, I encourage you to speak to people.
  • find watering holes where people hang out: Slack's, Discord's, Reddits, niche communities in all the places
  • get involved: don't just sit on the sidelines, get involved and make yourself visible

This stuff is slow work, it takes time to really build up a picture. However, by building the picture it will bring you answers. You will become knowledgeable enough to hopefully make decisions that are more likely to succeed.

Experiment with Minimum Viable Communities

We go into new things in life with a perception that is never quite the same as reality. This is a big problem in community. The picture of community is often painted as 'rosie', yet the reality is that much of community building work is tedious, boring, and full of lack of appreciation.

It's really not for everyone.

To get over and through this I encourage people to experiment with Minimum Viable Communities, this is where you bring people together in a small and experimental way. If it works and you feel good about it, you can keep going and evolving. If you are not happy about it then there is no harm just dropping the idea.

In modern terms, a minimum viable community can be things like:

  • A Twitter Space
  • An educational online event
  • A online meetup
  • Gathering over a Google Doc

MVC's are not MVP's. They are experiments. Experiments from the angle of 'is this a good community idea'. However, also experiments on whether you are able and committed to the community yourself.

Community is a privilege

When people end up with a community it isn't necessarily because they started out with community in mind. Nor is it that they've done specific 'community things'. It is more likely they started out with a clear vision, belief, and need to help people see what they are seeing.

I think this is the core thing about community that can be hard for people to get.

When people start communities, they do things that don't actually look like community building. The ones that succeed are the ones that care and push for their vision the most. They push for the right things and people follow them and the vision. They understand that leading a community is a privilege.

It's not an easy task. The obligation and commitment is real. The weight can be huge. But at the beginning there is none of that, there is only that idea and vision to make something special out of nothing.

How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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