How to create a community – The New Stack
There’s a lot of talk about building communities and how it helps for-profit companies, especially open source startups. This month, I wanted to take a closer look. Is it really necessary? And if you are embarking on building a community, what strategies and tactics should you follow?
First of all, even open source startups don’t necessarily have to build communities around their products – commercial success is possible even without a real community. While building a community has huge benefits (we’ll get to that in a minute), it’s not easy either.
“Communities are tough, most of them fail,” said Jono Bacona community building consultant.
You won’t reap the benefits of a community without a real dedication to building that community, which means you shouldn’t expect a straight line between community growth and revenue. Developing a community requires a different mindset.
“I’ve met a lot of companies in the past that wanted to open up a bit of tech,” Bacon said. “But what’s clear in subsequent conversations is that they just want to put code on the internet because they hope it’s going to generate leads. If that’s your intention, you have no hope of building a community.
The community, done right, can be a powerful tool for any business, open source or not.
“If you have a group of super users, really passionate people, they’re the ones who then start talking about your product at conferences, tweeting about it, things like that,” said Jana Iriswho ran HashiCorp’s community development effort from 2015 to its initial public offering in December, and is now Community Manager at PlanetScale.
“It extends your reach and also opens up very valuable channels for feedback.”
A nurtured community is also much more forgiving of mistakes than people who have a purely transactional relationship with the company. “It builds empathy and trust,” Iris said. “When you have a bad deployment, or maybe you have a bug in your product, you don’t want people to walk away.”
So what makes a good community? How do you start?
Play the long game
Let’s start by managing expectations: building a community is a long-term investment. Like many investments, rather paltry immediate “returns” can turn into enormous benefits for the company over several years.
Iris gives the example of HashiCorp, which gathered about 300 people for the company’s first user conference (at a time when HashiCorp had about 20 employees). This may seem like a disappointing turnout. However, she said, “we continued to engage, so that these 300 people, six years later, have ended up becoming our biggest customers, our biggest contributors, our employees, our biggest advocates. “
This does not mean that it always takes six years to see results, but rather that the results, like the interest, are rather unimpressive at first, but compound exponentially.
“It’s hard to balance building something that you don’t see results right away with the kind of demand you get from your investors or your sales team,” Iris said.
Define your value proposition
You probably already know that understanding and being able to articulate your product’s value proposition is critical to sales and marketing success, but your community must also add value, beyond the value that the product/project provides.
“Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks ‘I’m going to go answer questions on the internet,'” Bacon said.People need to get something out of participating in the community that they can’t get anywhere else.
“People love the community aspects,” said Ketan Umareco-founder and CEO of Union.ai, the company behind Flyte, an open-source workflow automation platform for machine learning data and processes, and his experience creating of a community with a value proposition beyond the value of the project.
“We guarantee that in the community there is someone to listen to your issues,” Umare said. “It creates this feeling that you are not alone.”
Remember: it’s not about you
To properly define the value proposition, it is essential to understand that the community cannot be limited to your company and your project. You need to focus on the problems your audience is having and help them solve those problems.
People will want to talk about things that aren’t strictly related to your product, and that’s okay.
Bacon gave the example of a company that he says has done a great job of building a community: Fitbit. But members of the Fitbit community don’t come together to talk about Fitbit and Fitbit products, they come together to talk about their larger goals of being healthy.
“I’ve met a lot of companies in the past that wanted to open up some technology. But what is clear in subsequent conversations is that they just want to put code on the internet because they hope it will generate leads. If this is your intention, you have no hope of building a community.
— Jono Bacon, Community Building Consultant
So, on the product’s community forums, you’ll find discussions about intermittent fasting, the right levels of protein in the diet, how to get the best runs, and more. None of these topics are really about Fitbit, but they show how Fitbit is part of that larger goal.
“Sometimes companies do too much for themselves,” Iris said. Community should be about empowering others and recognizing that your product is likely just one piece of the overall solution to their problems.
It is also, according to Bacon, about recognizing the many layers of motivations a person can have. For a development tool, for example, an engineer might have a specific use case in mind: a need for a large-scale solution, a need to easily manage multiple clusters, a need to streamline security.
But these same engineers will also have other motivations, such as wanting to advance their careers, having the opportunity to work on something meaningful, or wanting to mentor others or be mentored themselves. The most successful communities recognize the many layers of motivations and give community members something for both.
Know your audience
Before you can really understand the problems someone might turn to your community (and your product) to solve, you need to understand who you’re talking to.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’m going to build a community for developers,'” Bacon said. “But, we have to move to the next level of detail.”
You have to think carefully about what type of engineer they are, what level of the stack they work in, what tools they use, how experienced they are, what types of companies they work in.
Next, you need to think about the specific pain points that someone in your very specific audience is going to feel – and the more acute the pain, the more likely the community will be to succeed.
The easiest thing to do is ignore your community. If you want to break people’s inertia, it’s important to have a compelling enough value proposition.
Answer even “stupid” questions
Understanding your audience is also key to being aware of your weaknesses. According to Umare, this understanding was crucial in designing the community of Flyte.
Part of the challenge is that Flyte sits at the intersection of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation/Kubernetes community and machine learning specialists, data scientists and data scientists.
Union.ai’s community strategy with Flyte, according to Umare, is to make sure everyone feels welcome, even if they don’t have experience with Kubernetes, for example. This means taking everyone’s questions seriously, even if they seem elementary.
This “not too basic” approach is a best practice for creating inclusive communities in the full sense of the word, recognizing that there will be a variety of knowledge and skills in your community, but everyone has a valuable contribution.
Talk to people in the community
Make known. “Open source is about marketing,” Umare said. “A good product is not enough for open source.” This means, in addition to marketing, having a strong point of view that will attract the right people to your community.
How is it going ? First, focus on the docs. “A lot of people judged the product entirely based on the documentation,” he said. After seeing that people would leave his website without even trying Flyte, he diverted engineering resources from product development to focus on improving documentation. It paid off.
Second, commit. When HashiCorp first released its Vagrant development environment, according to Iris, downloads really started to pick up when the founders started talking at meetups, attending conferences, talking to people and answering questions. .
“When you’re a two-person startup, you have to start at the bottom, like talking to people on Twitter,” Iris said. “It’s hard to be a founder. You need to fundraise, do messaging and sales, and build a community. But I think people realize that you have to build the community at the beginning.
The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: PlanetScale.
Featured image by Kimson Doan on Unsplash.