2020 was huge for the world of community building, and it honestly feels great that the world is starting to take us community builders seriously. Even in 2019, when I started in earnest with Rosieland, there wasn't nearly as much talk about communities.
I remember curating the resources each week for my newsletter in early 2020 and there wasn't always a huge amount to play with. And now? I have too much and need to ruthlessly cull stuff.
Of course, I love the new found buzz, but at the same time I'm being mindful to be ever so cautious about it all. The whole world feels like it is in some crazy bubble.
The hype and the buzz leads to...
Along with the hype and the buzz comes lots of excitement to build communities. Not tomorrow. But now. Or even yesterday, if they could.
And in the rush of excitement people do what they think is right: quickly find a community tool and launch it...to mostly disappointment.
I feel like a bit of a broken record, as I feel like I repeat this time and time again.
Even just this week I was speaking to someone about a situation just like this. They had customers. They wanted a community so they set up tools (a forum). They then got stuck and lost with a dead community and really not knowing what to do next.
Thinking about the community process
As part of this, I've been thinking a lot recently about the process of starting a community.
- Do you or your people even need one?
- Why should you start one?
- When should you start one?
- How do you know if it will succeed?
- What can you do to minimize failure?
As I come from the business world, much of this could be called 'validating your community' or perhaps 'community market fit' (adaptations for 'validating an idea' or 'product-market fit,' respectively). To me, these feel somewhat confusing and buzzwordy and in the context of community, they feel even more inappropriate. Communities are built on relationships, not out of a product roadmap.
I've personally started referring to the idea of validating a vision, and feel kind of happy with this approach. This is more about taking steps towards an idea, but not focusing in on one specific idea (too soon). This keeps your mind open to the possibilities, rather than fixating on solutions too quickly.
As a very basic example, you may want a community, but the reality is that maybe a community isn't actually needed.
This idea of validating a vision also aligns with the idea of not truly being able to validate ideas, as Jason Fried has spoken about—in life you can't be certain about anything.
I think the biggest problem with community being a buzzword is that the process of creating one gets rushed. People worry about missing out on the 'gold rush' and build for all the wrong reasons.
What is often missed out when most people talk about build businesses or communities is the idea of taking time and space to process all the things before moving forward.
We think data and information will provide us the answers, yet the reality is we are dealing with humans, it is much more complicated than that.
A community building validation checklist
So, I thought I'd put together a checklist of things that you should probably do or think about before starting a community.
I believe most of these things apply whether you are building a tiny local thing, all the way to larger efforts. You may just need to scale certain things up or down depending on the context.
1. Have a vision, but start small and specific
Those who seek to create communities have visions. They can be big, or small. The size does not matter. Personally, I love having a big vision, but I try to focus on the small to begin with. When things are too big to picture, for me at least, they can become overwhelming and distracting.
Sometimes the opposite happens. There is no big vision, but the thing you do blows up and unintentionally becomes a thing.
Generally, to make any progress you need to break it down into smaller parts.
- before I started a local meetup, I hung out at other local meetups
- before I turned Ministry of Testing into a company, I started an online community slowly and surely over 3 years
- before Indie Hackers had a community, they had text based interviews
- before I started Rosieland, I got to know other community builders
- before I started a coworking space, I made sure that I had enough local connections to get support.
These are my stories that I can relate to, there are countless others.
2. Spend time studying your people
I've ended up with a phrase that I just keep repeating. It just makes logical sense to make.
Study your people.
I cannot reiterate this enough. This doesn't mean passively sitting there and watching them. It means taking the time to proactively understand all the relevant aspects of their life.
- you want to know the lingo they use when they talk
- you want to read what they write or create
- you want to know the kind of things they watch or listen to
- you want to know what excites them, makes them laugh, or know what really annoys them
Ultimately, you want to know if these are your people. You can only do that if you spend the time with them and all the spaces they are in.
3. Have a note-taking mindset
This is not necessarily about how to take notes, but more about having the mindset of looking for ideas, conversations, and opportunities with the intention of taking note of them.
Notes can be mental notes or actual notes. The important part here is to always be looking for opportunities. Not having an active inquiry mindset will quickly lead to you losing touch.
The world moves fast:
- look for opportunities to serve your people
- look for the sparks in people, understand where their talents and energy is
- understand and have empathy for the people you surround yourself with
- get to know people, so that you can be a connector
Having a note-taking mindset means you are always looking and exploring. And it will always lead to new things.
4. Start conversations
In the most simple mindset, community tends to form around conversations. Of course, that doesn’t mean every conversation creates community. Nor does it mean that community can’t be created or supported without conversations. It’s more the case that to create community, good, helpful, and relevant conversation is generally the norm.
You may be in trouble if you can’t start meaningful conversations or inspire others to start them.
Good conversations are about:
- showing you are interested
- showing you care
- being human
- being friendly
- being mindful
- being knowledgable
- being helpful
- being aligned with the vision
No tool is going to magic up conversations for you.
Of course, because you have a vision, and have been studying your people and taking notes then you should know what kinds of conversations should resonate. In addition to this, because you have been intentional and taken the time, people will kind of know who you are and be more open to having conversations with you.
When you start intentional conversations you become a community builder. And as you are having these conversations, you can be asking yourself whether the community you are building feels right.
5. Flywheels start to happen
Conversations are magical. They never cease to amaze me.
The more you put out into the world, the more that just keeps coming back at you. It's a flywheel that if you get started can lead to many amazing things.
Studying your people can lead to conversations.
Conversations can lead to ideas.
Ideas can lead to creating something.
Creating something can lead to more conversations.
More conversations and ideas mean patterns emerge.
The more you instigate, the more people end up coming to you.
At this point community is happening, but you are not overly committed. You are still exploring. You've spent time, but probably not a lot of money. You are figuring out and gaining confidence in what would actually work.
6. Simple tools to begin with
All ideas should be validated with the simplest tools possible.
Honestly, these days I keep telling people to start with a website (a blog or just a landing page) and a newsletter. If you can't build a community with this, or something like this, then a tool is not going to fix the problem.
Of course, don't quote me the website + email combo. This could vary between communities.
It could be:
- website + Instagram
- TikTok + website
- Twitter + newsletter
- Website + Slack + Twitter
Find what works for you and your people, but for the love of life, please keep it simple.
The advantage for you is that it still keeps the commitment low risk and you can focus in on doing your best to connect with your people.
7. Validate and decide on what the community should be
And here is the thing. By doing the above and hopefully not rushing it (too much), the answers will come to you about what to do next. It won't make it risk free, but it will give you more confidence and a greater chance of success.
You won't need to ask people if what you are doing is a good idea, you know it is a good idea because you are (probably) the only person who has spent the time to do what you are trying to do.
You are the one who has the understanding. The hopeful positive conversations. The traction. The feedback. The vision. There’s no point asking someone else if it’s a good idea, only you will know.
The whole point of going through the process above is to educate yourself, not only about whether the community is 'viable', but whether it is something that you feel committed to and whether it brings you the energy to see it through.
Running a community that you are not all in on is truly a bad place to be.
And just as a little reminder, you can, fairly quickly become the go to person, or the go to community for a niche.
The proof? 18 months ago, 99% of you had no idea who I was.
I still have a long way to go, but I’ve been doing all of the above and I’m now feeling confident enough to build a community for community builders. 🎉