"Rosie! I want to start a community. Tell me, what should I do?"
And I be like.
The modern world loves quick solutions and answers to help them get from A to B to Z. If only reality was that straightforward.
The reality is that there is no way to know if a community will work and there is no way to know how to start one in a quick chat. You can do what seems like all the right things, however, sometimes communities are just not meant to be. And that's probably ok even if it's frustrating or sad.
The best thing I can suggest is to plant seeds to try to grow your community. Making good decisions about what you plant and how you go about it will help you along the way.
However, saying that statement within itself is not very helpful. Following is a rough outline of things you should consider when building a community. Most of this is based on my personal experience.
Understand that community building is not rocket science
There really is nothing special about community building. Sorry to spoil it for you.
In my humble rosie opinion, good communities tend to bring so much love and admiration because of the human values and change that they facilitate. I get that sad feeling when people are surprised by what can be achieved when people come together in a focused and clear way. However, it's most likely a result of modern day life where we just don't experience community like we used to.
I know, I know. I should probably say how difficult it is. How much of a guru you need to be. And, oh my god, pay me lots of money to teach you how to do it.
But I can't do that, because simply put, building a community is not rocket science. This does not mean it is easy. It just means the principles behind community building are pretty simple and based on our roots as human beings.
We probably just need a bit of a reminder of what community can be. For me, it all comes down to being a positive and giving human being, whilst being committed to bringing people together for 'some reason'.
I get that this is easier said than done in the current modern capitalist world. When everything 'needs' to be measured. Where society sees no value in something without a clear transaction or growth path.
It is sad times we live in if we can't see past this. But we can, and that is why you are here! We can make a positive impact and change lives. 🥰
In practical 'not rocket science' terms, to build a community you need to:
- Be committed: communities don't just happen. You have or your company has to be committed. You probably won't get results straight away. It could be years before things truly start to flourish. Whoever is responsible for the survival of the community needs to understand this and be prepared to give it the time and resources.
- Give it time: community building involves creating trust, with many people. This can be a painstakingly slow process. Some things can't be forced and just need time to feel right.
- Be intentional: you might not know exactly where the community will end up, but there needs to be some idea of what the culture of the community will be. The founders of the community need to be very intentional in how they behave and the things they co-create. The foundations of any community are crucial. Every action will be mimicked. Think clearly and with intention with everything you do.
- Give a damn: creating a community is all about the people and the cause. You have to care for them and always do the right thing to work towards the community's goals. Balancing the needs of your people and your needs is the never ending challenge of building communities. Burnout is real, and really not fun.
- Don't be rigid: any community founder will have a million ideas of what they could do. This list will be never-ending, always overflowing and sometimes overwhelming. Keep that list safe and keep adding to it. Be prepared at any stage to take something to work on when you and the community are ready. It's important to have a vision that allows flexibility with what it means.
- Develop a rhythm: listen to your people and what they want. Let it grow alongside what works for them and you. People will likely push back when they feel it is too transactional.
- People outgrow communities: this is ok. Founders outgrow communities too. This can be hard, but also ok too.
Thinking about and making decisions about your community
What is the purpose or goal?
Any community needs clarity of why it exists and what it is striving to be. This can be a long term vision with an end goal or just a way of being. Without clarity people simply won't have a clear understanding or purpose every time they show.
Be clear of your 'why' so you can all work towards it efficiently.
How will the world be different?
Thinking about how your community will make the world different is a great thought exercise. It really helps people to hopefully get motivated about the effort, but it will also help you think about what impact you can actually make.
What will you rally behind?
As part of your overall vision, it is helpful to think about the kinds of things that will fire people up.
When I started Ministry of Testing I focused on being fun and focusing on better and new ways of testing. I very much wanted to see the end of old, boring, and inefficient ways of testing. This is what drove everything I did.
People often say that communities have a shared attitude, goal, or interest. These are the things you can rally behind.
- is there an old school way of doing things that you don't want to be identified with?
- is there a new or better way that you would like to be known for?
- is there some kind of vibe you want people to feel?
- is there something that frustrates you?
- what can you just not bear any longer?
- is there something that the community cheers? How can you do more of that?
What stories are you going to share?
It's all good having a vision and things to rally behind, but have you thought about the kinds of stories you and your people are going to share?
On one hand, it is so hard to capture people's attention, but on the other hand, if you are able to do and make things that speak directly to individuals then it can become so easy.
The modern world of business and marketing rarely succeed in talking directly to their people. Their messages are generic so they can capture the masses. When starting with building communities you need to use this to your advantage.
Talk to a small number of people and share stories that make a difference for them.
It will seem stupid and you will wonder how it scales. But here I will tell you a little secret. Stories do scale when people feel inclined to talk about them. When they feel they can identify with them. And when they feel they make an impact.
You will probably find it nearly impossible to track how stories are being shared, but the more excited you can get people feeling, the more chance that you can scale through word of mouth.
Empowering and co-creation
At Indie Hackers we get people to share real stories and empower individuals to create a successful business amongst people they identify with.
At Ministry of Testing we focused on creating a better environment for software testers. I absolutely detested that the only things available for testers cost an absolute fortune and were incredibly corporate focused. We worked directly with the community to publish content, produce podcasts and create events. I made a habit from day one to look for sparks in people. People have grown up through Ministry of Testing. Finding employment. Publishing their first articles. Doing their first podcast. Getting their first speaking gig.
- How hands on do you need to be?
- Or how can you clearly show respect for one another?
- How will you sneak in a human touch?
- How will you work with your community to co-create and empower them?
Study your people
Communities are generally long term investments. I wrote about how to study your people before starting a community. Not only will this educate yourself about the community you are going to serve, but it will also help you validate whether it is something worth pursuing.
Is it the right time?
Sometimes things aren't meant to be. You might be too early, or too late. I don't think there is an easy way to tell, but much of it can come down to keeping a close eye on trends, studying your people and trying to make educated decisions on whether the world is aligned in the same direction as your community.
Covid is a great example. There are many communities that I just wouldn't consider starting at this point in time. It doesn't mean I will never start one. Nor does it mean I won't start laying down little seeds now.
Anyone who wants to start a community has big ideas. However, almost everyone needs to start small.
Before you even form a community, you can start the seeds of one and experiment with ideas to see what captures people's attention.
- Seed and share ideas: people often worry about sharing ideas, but really they shouldn't. Ideas are easy to come by. And yours are probably not unique. Putting them into action is the hard bit. Be open to talking about them, you might be surprised at how other people's perspectives may be able to help you develop them.
- Start conversations: practice starting conversations, everywhere. Talk about the things you want your community to be known for. Get a feel for what makes people pay attention. Always be experimenting and taking note of what works. 18 months ago no one (outside of the testing world) knew me in the context of community building. That has now changed because I have been intentionally and consistently starting conversations about community building.
- Look for conversations: do the kind of conversations you want to happen in your community already exist elsewhere? Scattered about across the web? See if you can find and make sense of them.
- Experiment: whether you have a community or not, you can always be experimenting with ideas. Make stuff. Write stuff. Converse with people. Tweet something. Defend or support an idea. Be brave. Be bold. Have a mindset of taking action and always be moving forward.
- Stand out: seriously, whatever you do, don't copy someone in a similar niche to yourself. Always be looking to see how you can stand out. It could be branding. It could be your vision. It could be your personality. Whatever it is, be different and bold in a way that will attract the right kind of people. Look for inspiration outside of your niche.
- Live and breathe the community's aspirations: you can't fake the love for a community, people can smell it a mile away.
Personally I'm very excited about the times we are living in. Paid communities are not yet the norm, but I believe they will be.
Being free has cost us too much. It's not just the ads that we get served. It's the focus on more impressions. More people. More content. At best, this makes everything mediocre.
Really what people need are a just few good things: friends, insights, and 'things' to keep them engaged.
When it comes to community, it doesn't take much to make it sustainable. It doesn't need a ton of content. Or a gazillion events happening. Hundreds or the low thousands could well be enough to make a community (financially) sustainable.
In the past, people subscribed to magazine subscriptions. The future, I believe, will see many more people who are subscribed to a handful of paid communities.
When you only need 1000 or so members to make it worth your while, the game changes. The tech, even if a bit scattered, exists to pull together communities. The challenge then becomes gaining trust and giving people the time they need to value what paid communities have to offer.
On one hand, you don't want to overthink things and look too far into the future, on the other hand, you do.
It is easy to think you need 'ALL THE THINGS' to make your community a success, but I ask you to think carefully about what you actually need. You can end up with a beast to manage that could ultimately kill the community or your enjoyment of running it.
The more Marie Kondo and minimalistic you can keep it, the more your future self will thank you. The tech and day to day admin can be a killer. The more you can focus on whether something brings you joy, then the more you will be able to sustain the journey.
I fell into this trap with Ministry of Testing. In hindsight, I could have simplified things more.
There will always be haters
The haters. The skeptics. The non believers. They will always be there.
You don't need them. Focus on finding the people that love what you do, they are what matters. Everything else is a distraction.
Show off your best
No community is perfect. Sometimes what is produced is mediocre, embarrassing, or just somewhat stressful to think about. Often community builders strive for perfection, but really we need to strive for showing off the best.
The more we elevate the best of what we have the more people will see it and replicate what they see. Show off your best community members, actions, and content by doing things like:
- having a curated homepage
- share the best bits in a newsletter
- highlight and praise via social media
It will never run by itself
Stop thinking it will and plan for how to run a smooth community machine.
Do things that don't scale
Most of what community building is about doing things that don't scale:
- starting conversations
- studying your market
- getting to know people
- making friends
The irony is that it can scale to some extent, through people.
The more you do something publicly, the more community members will copy. When people copy what other people do, this is scaling, just in more of a human way. Technology and community design can help with this, but we need to move away from the mindset that scaling is solely about the tech.
I'm a self-taught marketeer. I blame Seth Godin and then Tara Hunt. (Hi Tara 👋🏽).
Marketing and community is a wonderful mix. Learning marketing will give you superpowers on communicating, thinking about your message, developing clarity, discovering tools and techniques you can use to grow and spread the word (amongst many other things).
My focus is community, but I love learning about marketing. I don't feel qualified to talk about marketing to the same extent as community, but yeah...go learn about marketing. Learn to love it. It can be so much fun.
Building a community is like building a business
Not all communities are set up as businesses, but you should probably treat them like one.
I actually take much of my community building tactics from the business world. This is not a comprehensive list, but think about things like:
- What (community) problem are you solving?
- Experiment. All ideas seem great until you execute them. Haha, sorry. I’ve looked back at so many things that I’ve done in embarrassment. Of course, this does not apply to all ideas. Hopefully, you can learn from each experiment and thing you do.
- Validate ideas. Is this what the community wants? What value are you bringing? How are you making their lives better?
- Communicate well. You will learn, especially as the community grows, that communicating clearly and in a way that people actually see the message is hard!
- Develop a community flywheel. How can you build in things that will naturally help your community grow?
- Financial sustainability. I believe in a future where building communities is respected and valued. It should not be a low paid job. To do that communities need to get better at building in financially sustainable practices.
A place to gather
Every community needs a place to gather. I've left this till the end, because quite frankly people always ask about it first, when really they should be thinking about it last.
There's a never-ending list of tools people could use, I'm not even going to touch on it here. But here are some rosie thoughts:
- careful what tools you choose, it's easy to get stuck within them
- communities easily outgrow the tech, end up feeling trapped or have very customized needs
- sometimes communities can exist with just a mailing list, simple website and hashtags, of course it's not for everyone, but if you can exist like that, try, at least for a while.
- I have no advice atm on what tools to use, I feel lost on what good advice to give on this topic. What I do know is tech is complicated and there is no right or wrong. Sometimes you just need to make the best decision you can and hope for the best.
- I personally hate not making decisions, so if choosing a tool helps you make progress, go for it. Just remember that changing tech is a real pain, so you don’t want to have to do this too often.
So there you go
When people ask me how to start a community, I feel like I need to say all of the above.