Community is the Business

Community is at the heart of everything I do. To be community-led is to have community at the center of our decisions. We cannot be truly community-led unless our business decisions are aligned with the community.

This is my thesis. And it's easier said than done.

It's why I call myself a 'Community Executive Officer'. I'm a CEO led by the community. I listen, respect and am inspired by the people. It doesn't mean I do what they tell me. It means I act with care and ethics.

I know decisions at the top ultimately impact the community and the business. This is why I say Community is the Business. It is not to be confused with the Business of Community.

Let's explore!

๐Ÿ’™ How do community-led companies get it wrong?

Is community really at the heart of everything we do? We want to believe it is, but mostly it isn't.

We got influenced by the (pandemic) hype and tried to create connection. Mostly we missed the mark on being truly community-led.

The reality is that combining the world of community and business is harder than we realize. Perhaps we are asking too much of businesses to exist with a community culture?

And that's when we end up with the vibe of "community-led until the going gets tough".

I asked people how companies have messed up being community-led to make sure it wasn't just me who felt community things were off. These are some of the responses I got.

Hiring people who donโ€™t understand community

"Bad hires - hiring folks who don't understand community so you end up doing things which just seem off. It's a slow death from there." โ€” Gareth Wilson

ROI becomes a focus

"Focus on profit over community and relationships." โ€” Melissa Fougere
"Raising traditional VC money and being forced to 10x growth before finding solid grounds on product-community fit." โ€” Laรญs de Oliveira

Looking good, over doing good

"Focusing on "giving value" too much, not asking for help or not creating opportunities for members to contribute." โ€” Ece Kurtaraner

It was really a marketing effort

"Tbh I feel like most 'community-led' businesses just branded themselves as such because of the covid community hype.

Most of them weren't really community-led. They had communities but for marketing, sales, support, or product reasons. The community was mostly a supporting system of a function in the company. Community wasn't at the heart of what the company was doing. The community didn't have a seat at the table." โ€” Kourosh Ghaffari Ghazi Said
"Were they community-led?" โ€” Yurii Lazaruk

Where do we even start?

And in general, there seems to be endless reasons that community hasn't been working.

"Well, can we define community lead because a lot of businesses say they are when they're not. Assuming that they are, between bad or biased hiring practices; undermining and not listening to their community managers or not valuing them; and looking at their community only through one lens, which is usually profit, a lot of companies get it so very wrong. What's bad is community-led growth is a thing, but it's so demoralizing when no one listens to you." โ€” Regina Walton

I'm sure we could go into much more depth in how community initiatives have not gone well. Today is not the day for that! ๐Ÿ™ƒ

The rest of this article is an exploration on how to think about being community-led, or what I am calling: Community is the Business.

Business of Community != Community is the Business

When we talk about community and business it is normally in the context of the Business of Community. By this I mean it's how the community serves the business. As a result I feel we have a very lopsided view and approach to building community that serves the business more than it does the people.

This approach is the business seeing the magic of community and wanting to mould people so the business can get what it desires.

The Business of Community looks like:

  • Community happens over there
  • ROI, engagement, measure, and repeat
  • People must serve the business
  • Transactional behavior
  • Community is optional, itโ€™s a project
  • Competition over collaboration

And the Business of Community brings expectations that somehow community needs to be magically sustainable.

Is community the only part of the business that has the expectations of becoming self-sustaining?  Imagine expecting that of marketing, or sales, or product.  It ain't right.

When it is Community is the Business, it means there is no separation between community and the business. Community is part of the business. The culture. The way we do things. It's never questioned. It is a known and a given that we invest back into the community fairly.

In this perspective we serve our people from day one. We build relationships all the way through. And we understand that this is what will guide our business, ethically and respectfully.

Community is the Business looks like:

  • The decisions the business makes is what makes community
  • How you talk to people
  • How you listen, care and notice people
  • The boundaries that are designed
  • How, not whether, youโ€™ll invest back in

Community is the Business means we understand that we have the opportunity to connect and influence so many parts of the business.

Image by Gareth Wilson @ Community.Inc

Community is the Business understands that business decisions are (potentially) community decisions

The Reddit API pricing changes earlier this year was a business decision, but it was also one that directly impacted the community.

This graph tracked the number of Subreddit blackouts that decision led to.


It also led to the CEO getting his own special community gift too. ๐Ÿคญ


Which even ended up as a term in the Urban Dictionary.

Fuck Spez

Is a cuss phrase for Steve Huffman (u/spez), the current CEO of Reddit due to his own site policies and decisions. You'll likely have your account suspended on Reddit if you cuss him or use the phrase for a name of subreddit (this is like #FuckElonMusk on Twitter, #FuckMarkZuckerberg on Facebook, and #FuckSusanWojcicki on Youtube).

Never trust these CEOs, they'll remove you anytime if they want. Fuck Spez, Fuck Elon, Fuck Zuckerberg, Fuck Susan Wojcicki. Use alternatives and watch these companies run into the ground.

Business decisions are community decisions. Whilst this is a rare example (in the relation to scale), it is not uncommon for business decisions to directly impact the people, and as a consequence the community.

Flippinโ€™ the models and how we think about community

One way I've tried to look at this challenge is reviewing some of the community models that we often refer to. There's nothing wrong with these models, all models are fallible, so to speak.

My gut says these models on their own lack the balance we need.

There is the popular Commitment Curve model where the business designs an ideal pathway of what members should do to become a leader. A leader ultimately benefits the business the most.

To me this feels very 'Business of Community'. Sure, there are benefits for the members, but usually it benefits the business far more.

What if we balanced it out with a 'Company Commitment Curve'? Where we define a process, flow and commitment to listening, empowering, elevating and investing in the people.

These two commitment curves could create a positive and balanced community effort.

Then there are the concentric circle models, onions, orbits. Which are actually pretty similar to the commitment curve and designed to get members more active and edge them towards the center of the community. The goals is to get them from 'observers' to 'leaders'.

But is that what community is really about? This feels hollow to me and there should be more to community rather than focusing on members contributing for the benefit of the business.

We could flip and balance it out. It might then look like 'Company Contributions' where the business develops a strategy for contributing to the ecosystem.

Again, nothing wrong with the original community models, on their own they create imbalance. Our industry does not feel balanced at the moment and I'm sure there are so many more ways to help us get there.

What can we do about it?

I present some rosie ideas to help us move and think foward.

When โ€˜Community is the Businessโ€™ it means there should be a Community Executive Officer (CEO).

I say this in a bit of jest. Yet it is a title that I've given myself.

In the real world this could be a CEO who truly gets what community is and leads with that in mind. It could also exist as a Chief Community Office (CCO) kind of role.

The point of a Community Executive Officer is that someone, or some people, at the top is ensuring the right Community of Business decisions are bing made. The actual job title doesn't really matter.

When โ€˜Community is the Businessโ€™ we need to understand what outputs happen as a result of our inputs.

Resources will always be limited. It's so easy to fall into the trap of doing all-the-things without actually making any progress.

Make sure your inputs are meaningful and have goals to lead to clear outputs.


To be community-led means instead of ROI speak, we focus on business decisions that make sense

I personally find measuring ROI overwhelming and normally we can't truly measure things until we are deep into our community journey.

It makes much more sense to ensure our community activities make sense for the business too. Again this taps into the idea of finding balance.

Make community activities make business sense.

When โ€˜Community is the Businessโ€™ it means understanding the community flywheels and what may have positive or negative impacts

A community flywheel is where you design, create, action and modify community activities that lead to natural momentum.

Business decisions can kill your community flywheel.

I. Keep. Seeing. It. Happen.

Understand your community flywheel and each piece that matters. Evolve it, but also protect it!

Community flywheel: Start with what you have > community activity > container > review results

We have touch points everywhere

None of this is about where community exists. It's how community exists.

It's not about a community space we have. It's about how we exist everywhere we go.

Community is the Business understands that we have touchpoints everywhere and everyday. This is how we live. No one else in the business has these daily interactions.

This is what makes us more powerful that we may realise. Given the time and space we can start to see and understand things. This becomes a competitive advantage, not only in what we know, but in the trust and relationships we've built up along the way.

I feel this post only touches the surface on what is possible. I look forward to continue exploring in the future. ๐ŸŒ

How can we build better communities?

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


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