A thriving, connected community of passionate users is on nearly every early-stage founder’s wishlist. It can serve as a shorthand that their startup has signs of product/market fit, generate a word-of-mouth viral growth loop, and help carve out a brand that’s known for deep ties and offline connections.
Whether the entire product itself is a platform devoted to bringing folks together (think the newly launched GirlBoss site) or community efforts provide an outlet for bonding over mutual love of a product (such as Notion’s power user meetups), it seems as though more and more startups are getting into the community building game these days.
But “community” itself is still a rather fuzzy concept. It’s a murky and almost mystical world where connection is currency and authenticity is paramount, but the how-to tactics of actually creating one are less clear. The groups that truly thrive have a special quality, a certain magic when folks get together that’s hard to bottle — and harder to scale.
“Communities feel magical, but they don't appear out of nowhere. Just as when you’re building a fire, there are certain ingredients you need to assemble and an order of operations you need to follow to generate a spark, fan the flames, and keep it going,” says Bailey Richardson. And she’s something of an expert on this subject.
As an early Instagram hire, Richardson was tasked with developing the global community, running the blog (as well as the official @Instagram handle), spotlighting noteworthy users, and organizing IRL “Insta-meet” sessions. After leaving the social platform, she teamed up with Kevin Huynh and Kai Elmer Sotto (fellow community gurus of CreativeMornings and eBay, respectively) to form People & Company, an agency focused on helping organizations start and cultivate authentic communities.
After three years of working with clients ranging from Nike and Porsche to nonprofits like Edcamp, this crew realized their ‘Community Building 101’ workshops and frameworks were bringing much needed clarity to an issue many organizations were struggling to master. Intrigued, they dove even deeper to research and cobble together several unique community case studies that tease out key lessons and serve up inspiration in spades.
“We wanted to learn more about ordinary people who started extraordinary communities. While startups might relate to Twitch’s group of gamers and YouTube’s first community manager, we think they have just as much to learn from the start of Weight Watchers in the 1960s and the official Star Wars fan club,” says Richardson.
In this exclusive interview, Richardson draws on those stories to dig into the nuts and bolts of how startups should approach community building, highlighting eight valuable lessons on how the best communities start, gain steam, and evolve as scale takes hold. Building on a handful of highly tactical excerpts from their new book, Get Together: How to Build Community with Your People, (released today) Richardson offers up advice ranging from finding the first few members to giving up the controls when you have thousands of members, making it an indispensable guide for early-stage founders and seasoned community managers alike. Let’s get building.
You need to build your community with people, not for or at them. That’s the secret to making sure community building efforts catch on, instead of fizzling out as a failed initiative.
Richardson herself finds the term “community” to be a sufficiently abstract word — one that’s routinely misapplied in the realm of startups. “Around five years ago, the word ‘community’ started to show up as a euphemism for users or audience. I started seeing more and more people use that term indiscriminately, without grounding it in a more appropriate definition,” she says.
This appropriation doesn’t sit well with her. “Communities are sacred. They imply a level of connection, advocacy and energy on the part of the people who are showing up. You're incredibly lucky if you have a passionate group of people with a sense of ownership. It’s not a word to bandy about lightly. There’s a difference between opting into true engagement and passive, utilitarian use or inclusion,” she says. “Aspiring community builders in the startup world frequently forget the importance of agency. They plop unknowing people on a list and start calling them a community. If you’re trying to describe both the average user and the diehard fan in one fell swoop, stop calling it a community.”
Here’s the definition she’d recommend in its place: “True communities are simply groups of people who keep coming together over what they care about. The most vibrant ones offer members a chance to act on their passions with one another, to contribute to what is being made,” says Richardson. “If you’re trying to discern whether you have a community on your hands or merely a user-base, ask yourself: Is the group of people integral to realizing the end product or the end impact? And if they're not, then it's not a community.”
A sign of a vibrant community is that new members join because they want to. At an early stage, you’re looking for a team of passionate allies who will show up for this community even before it has gained momentum.
Some founders may think the squishy stuff of community doesn’t apply to what they’re creating. But Richardson disagrees. “Community building is all about finding and connecting with people who care in the early days, which is essential to any fledgling startup’s survival,” she says.
“When Paul Graham talks about finding 100 people that love you and doing things that don’t scale like Airbnb did in the early days, this is what he means. You can come at that from a product lens, of course, doubling down on building and improving features for your biggest fans,” says Richardson. “But it also boils down to the actual people who love you and building relationships with them. You have to do things that don’t scale in terms of personal outreach and relationship cultivation, not just in the product or in sales.”
Richardson points to Courtland Allen starting Indie Hackers as a prime example of this principle in action. “He sunk hours and hours into researching the first entrepreneurs to reach out to. These were people he knew would appreciate the space he built, and would show up for something new. He sent 150 thoughtful, personal emails to these folks, which isn’t exactly ‘scalable’ outreach. But today his community is more than 60,000 strong with 50+ meetups a month all around the world,” she says.
In Richardson’s experience, many founders find this advice to be a tough pill to swallow. “They don’t want to prioritize what may be a small slice of the future user base or invest in efforts that aren’t scalable. It’s easy to invest the bare minimum, focus on building the product, and hope it all takes off,” she says. “But when you have no momentum, the only people who are going to show up, download, or participate are the people who give a damn already. You need to focus both your product and your community strategy with that in mind.”
Founders also need to remember that early community building efforts can be painful. “I’ve hosted events where only two people showed up. You have to keep at it. Big things start small, but when you have all these pressures and limited resources in a growing company, it’s tempting to quickly ditch anything that’s not working. You can’t hopscotch over the hard bits, as much as you might want to,” she says.
Find the people who care about and bring the energy to the space you're working in. Spend your valuable, early-stage company building time getting to know them and figuring out how you can serve them — they’re the backbone of your community.
Here are Richardson’s tips for finding those essential first few, via an excerpt from her book:
If you want to spark your own community, you’ll need to first pinpoint your people. Find your kindling — those early allies who care about what you care about enough to manifest your idea for a community into an actual gathering of human beings. Though there may not be many of them, the first people you involve are consequential. They will set the tone and direction for the future of your group.
Whether you work at a platform company like Twitch or at a small business or nonprofit, you may feel surrounded by potential whos. Each pocket of people could flourish into a community. So, who do you start with? Focus on two criteria:
Who do I want to get together? Who brings the energy? Who are the people who already engage, contribute, or attend? Don’t try to conjure motivation out of thin air. Start with keen participants.
Assuming that the community flourishes, who will you stick with? Cultivating a community is a long-term play. Who does your organization’s future rely on (e.g., power users, loyal customers, key donors, passionate employees)? Who do you want to invest in?
Another common misstep is that the motivations for starting a community in the first place are often muddled. “‘Our competitor is investing a lot in community’ or ‘Our investors think we should start one’ or ‘I want to go viral’ aren’t good enough reasons,” says Richardson. “If you’re starting a community to check off a box, I can guarantee it’s going to fall flat.”
She also notes that early-stage founders shouldn’t try to copy-paste a community building strategies that have worked for others. “Community isn’t one-size-fits all. You need to figure out what community would uniquely mean for your organization. And that doesn’t mean it has to be lofty and totally disconnected from business value either,” says Richardson. “Ask yourself, ‘What motivates our company and our most passionate users? Where do our incentives align?’ The value of community lies within that answer. For example, early, scrappy startups should think through what they could use help with, whether that’s customer support, getting the story out there, generating discussion or improving the product.”
This point’s worth underlining. “The core of community work is building relationships with people so they feel like they're a part of the growth of your business. And for many tech companies — especially platform or marketplace based ones — the simple truth is that they are," she says. "When you're working on a product, you're writing at the most fundamental ones and zeros, building this sort of shell. Without people contributing to it and adding to the stage, it's flat and lifeless.”
To figure out how community can fit into your overall strategy, take inspiration from the varied roles its played at different companies. “When YouTube started, for example, it might have been reasonable to assume that the website was the product, but in many ways, the product that people were consuming was the content, which was created by the community. Instagram and Airbnb were like that as well,” says Richardson.
For the startups in that mold, founder should focus on promoting high quality content. "That role models what good contributions look like, incentivizing others to do the same. That means community efforts should focus on educating people and creating a creative culture. In the early days at Instagram, we did this through our suggested users list and features on our blog," says Richardson. "These user spotlights educated others on what Instagram was all about, and inspired them with new, creative ideas for photographs, which differentiated the experience from other platforms.”
But on the other end of the spectrum is a company like Instant Pot, which has built a cult following around a kitchen appliance. “That’s so remarkable when you stop to think about it,” says Richardson. “We've worked with companies that have sexy brands that are a little hesitant to dive into a community strategy. I always respond, ‘If a kitchen appliance company in Ottawa can do this, you can definitely do this.’”
Richardson emphasizes that Instant Pot’s early approach was rooted in a desire to connect customers and scale support. “They had lots of people who were hobbyists. They wanted to get the most out of an Instant Pot, or do creative things with it. Connecting users directly to one another in a Facebook group allowed them to get basic questions answered much faster than they could've scaled customer support at the time,” she says. “And then it snowballed from there into this viral, word-of-mouth marketing tool. Suddenly they’re selling out on Amazon Prime Day, and people are knitting sweaters for their Instant Pots and writing their own cookbooks.”
To figure out which community building path a startup might be most suited to, Richardson encourages founders to take a step back. “Is there a place in your business that you can’t build without help? Is there something that you can't do on your own? That’s where your community strategy might fit in,” she says. “There's some rabid people out there who might be willing to raise their hand and say, ‘I love this. I'm happy to help.’”
Here’s Richardson’s advice for finding your why, via an excerpt from her book:
Why are you all coming together? WRU Crew gathers runners to motivate each other. Twitch rallies video gamers so they don’t have to game alone. Identify the shared purpose that your people will work together to realize.
Thriving communities demand a shared purpose, an answer to the question “Why are we coming together?” Your purpose needs to be something that your people will want to work on with you, not a selfish or one-sided idea hatched by a single leader.
In order to make sure that your community’s purpose is grounded in your people’s needs, and that it expresses what you can accomplish together, consider:
What do my people need more of?
What’s the change we desire?
What’s the problem only we can solve together?
When you have a strong hunch about who you want to get together and why you are gathering, you are better equipped to decide what to do next.
Another common slip up in nascent communities is a failure to bake dedication and repetition into the core means of coalescing. “It’s funny because tech companies are obsessed with user retention, but they often forget about this metric when it comes to community strategy. A community can only grow sustainably if newcomers find value in their first interactions and then return,” says Richardson. “And you can’t just stop at tracking who’s coming. You need to figure out who keeps showing up and why. We call these people the ‘hand-raisers.’ They’re the ones who always show up, bring others and eagerly contribute.”
That’s why your community’s activity needs to be laser-focused on generating that repetition and dedication. “A one-off marketing event for a big launch is in the company's interest. But it’s not community — it doesn’t serve to connect passionate people to one another, it’s about communicating news,” says Richardson. “You need to give people the chance to keep showing up for one another. Monthly meetups, like Rapha Cycling Club's regular local rides, foster that kind of magical relationship building.”
The missing ingredient in many would-be communities is dedication. We put on one-off events or annual fundraisers, but we don’t give potential community members the chance to keep showing up or to raise their hands to take on responsibilities.
Here’s Richardson’s tactical advice for selecting your community’s activity, via an excerpt from her book:
Communities form around shared activities. Sometimes the activity is impossible to do alone. Other times the activity is fine solo but 10 times better when done with others. To determine the central shared activity for your community, ask yourself: What's something your people crave that would be better performed or experienced as a group?
Whether you decide to host the inaugural run for your club or launch a website for fellow superfans, the first thing you do to rally the group largely depends on the purpose of your community. But there are three principles that any first community activity should integrate in order to start your group on a collaborative path:
Make it purposeful. Tie the activity back to why your community teamed up in the first place. What goal or outcome becomes possible only when this specific group of people gets together? Make this purpose clear to participants so that they can own it, too.
Make it participatory. Don’t just talk at people. You gathered them because they’re passionate, just like you! Give them the chance to contribute to the purpose you share.
Make it repeatable. One-offs are the enemy. Relationships need time to flourish, and it’ll take a few cycles for some folks to warm up and begin actively contributing. Design the first activity with the intent to repeat it with your people over and over.
The inescapable truth is that you’ll have to exceed expectations with your core activity if you want people to show up and keep showing up. This doesn’t mean that you need to invest lots of money in a flashy experience. Instead, do your best to create an undeniably valuable shared experience.
Startups that focus on community as a vehicle for getting their own narrative, product release, and marketing initiatives out there often fall into another trap: neglecting to tell the stories of others.
“As a leader of a community, you hold the spotlight — and you need to become an expert at wielding it,” says Richardson. “There are so many examples of companies shining a spotlight on exceptional users or contributions. In the early days of YouTube, they carried media staff picks on their homepage. Medium, Vimeo and The New York Times are great at this as well. It may seem counterintuitive to give your special megaphone away to others, but that’s exactly what you have to do. Devote resources and time to finding and elevating new stories from community members.”
This was a core part of Richardson’s role at Instagram. “Whether it was a photogenic hedgehog in Tokyo or a photographer in California, I loved foraging for standout users,” she says. “The benefits of this storytelling effort are two-fold: One, you’ll make the community seem more intriguing and appealing for others who are considering joining. And two, you’ll highlight what top-notch participation looks like, which can motivate existing members to visualize how they can contribute and hopefully deepen their involvement.”
You can’t be what you can’t see. If you want to show that your community is alive and vibrant, you’ll need to maintain a steady pulse in your storytelling. Too many startups let it go flat.
A key tip for making sure your spotlight is moved around effectively is to look for this quality when hiring community managers. “Storytelling was a big part of our efforts at Instagram. When I was helping to scale the team globally, I was always on the hunt for someone who could find that exceptional user in the haystack, who excelled at visually pinpointing the people we needed to be elevating. It wasn't only their taste or their ability to see something that was worth telling a story about, but also their ability to actually write and tell that story,” says Richardson.
“And since we were often hiring community members in other countries, that meant they had to write in English and their own language. As part of the interview process, I’d ask people to pull three to five accounts from the platform that they would highlight. Then I'd ask them to explain why and write a short story that could fit in with our blog.”
“Back when Instagram was a baby startup, I thought we excelled at listening. The first hire outside of the founders was a community manager and I joined shortly thereafter as they continued to invest in the community team,” says Richardson. “We would read every single tweet, comment and email, and I thought we were really plugged in as community managers.”
But then she heard about the founder of Musical.ly (which is now part of TikTok). “It’s unbelievable. He’s on a WeChat thread with hundreds of teenagers. They're in this constant state of communication with their customers, whether it’s asking them questions or literally showing them wireframes to get their feedback,” says Richardson. “My biggest piece of advice to early-stage founders dabbling in community is to get curious. Establish rituals and habits of listening, and set sky-high expectations for how much and how often your team should be interacting with customers.”
Richardson is quick to tack on a corollary to that advice, though: “You also need to be discerning. Many product folks have a healthy skepticism towards community because they’ve seen how a small-yet-vocal minority can exert undue influence on the roadmap. I interviewed David Noël, who was the first SoundCloud community manager, and he said he felt like his job was to be a sponge — he needed to go out into the world, absorb all the water, but only squeeze back into the product team the feedback they really needed to know,” she says.
One of the dangers leaders can fall into when they’re growing a vibrant community is listening to that loud 1%. "It’s the tail wagging the dog. You have to learn to take in all the feedback that you get, but parse it carefully when it comes to the product decisions that you make that affect a larger audience. Communities are great for supercharging and scaling your company’s efforts, but in product development be wary of over-indexing their voices against the larger user base,” says Richardson.
As a community manager, you need to be a sponge. Go out into the world, absorb all the water, but only squeeze back into the product team what's essential.
Once a startup’s community efforts have caught on, the work transitions to keeping the flame alive and spreading the fire — that means scaling and hiring additional community managers for those of you more comfortable with tech world parlance.
“Often founders and PMs take on the early heavy lifting when it comes to community. Until a product has at least some traction and retention, it doesn’t make sense to bring on a community hire,” says Richardson. “When you start to feel as a product team that you can no longer manage building relationships with your customers by yourself, that’s the time to hire someone who can think about community from the ground up.”
This was the case at Instagram. “The feedback firehose was open. Mike and Kevin had so many people reaching out to them, and they needed someone to become the conduit between the people building the product and the people using it,” says Richardson. “Regardless of your impetus for making that first community hire, think through where they sit in your org. I’ve seen every combination you can think of — there’s no one right way.”
Here’s how she thinks about it: “Wherever the central impact of your community strategy is focused, that’s where you'd want it to live in your org structure. For a long time, SoundCloud had a community lead on every product team to make sure that insights were being surfaced to the product team,” says Richardson. “But if your community strategy is focused on acquisition or education events, that seems closer to the marketing team.”
Or maybe you want to split off community as a standalone department. Wherever you place your early community team, Richardson advises making sure they never stray too far from the product folks.
“There's this great German word, Fingerspitzengefühl, which means ‘finger-tip feeling.’ That’s what you should strive for in the relationship between community and product. The folks who are in close contact with the users have their finger on the pulse on what's making them happy, what's irritating them, what's getting old. That’s insightful information for the team that’s making decisions about what new features get built and what impact they'll have,” she says.
For startups looking to maintain that fingerspitzengefühl as they scale, Richardson recommends maintaining a regular touch point. “The way we used to do it at Instagram was that every week the Android community team member would meet with the Android engineer, and the same for iOS,” she says.
As for hiring the folks who can pull off this growth and collaborate with the product team effectively, Richardson has a few thoughts on what to look for. “The exceptional community managers I've met have a balance of creativity and empathy and systems thinking. You need someone who's almost an anthropologist of the people using your product. They need to be incredibly passionate about building human relationships,” she says. “But you also need someone who's a system's thinker, particularly when you’re scaling quickly. You need someone who can set up the processes, resources and tools that can grow alongside you and aren’t just responsive to what you can pull together at the moment.”
One of Richardson’s favorite community manager candidate profiles are former journalists. “Writers have to be curious but also really structured in their thinking,” she says. “My background is in art and communications. But there are other paths. My People & Company business partner Kevin has a masters in mechanical engineering and he loves people, so he’s great at applying his machine building mind to cultivating communities at scale. Perhaps there’s an engineer on your team who spikes in recruiting or sales who might be a good fit.”
“We walk around saying you should build with people, not for them, so often that I should probably get it as a tattoo,” says Richardson. “It's the one takeaway I’d want someone to leave with.”
That message is particularly important for founders. “So many entrepreneurs are fixated on going it alone. A lot of the early-stage founder mentality is ‘I have to ship the code, I have to close every sale, I have to get new people, I have to spread the word.’ Switching to ‘How can I do this with people who care about this,’ will catapult you into a new phase of company building. It'll enable you to design and build in a more collaborative — and faster — way.”
She points to Duolingo as an example. “Their community events are a natural extension of the product — they have more than 500 meetups happening every month of people getting together with others who live near them and want to practice their language skills,” she says. “It’s incredible. But the key lesson there is that you have to give up some control to get rewarded in community goodness. If Duolingo were to attempt running those events on their own, can you imagine how much staff they'd need? The only way that Duolingo's going to have that kind of growth and reach is if they let community members run with it themselves. Even if it’s not always ‘on-brand’ or in alignment with what the team was envisioning,” she says.
To help ensure quality, it’s your job to think about what structure community members need to contribute effectively. “My business partner Kevin always says that you need to build a sandbox for your enthusiasts. You need to give people the amount of freedom to make something that's their own, but also some fundamental constraints — it’s a sandbox, not a beach,” says Richardson. “So when you're asking someone to host a meetup, give them all of the tools and assets to make it run smoothly, but make sure they don't feel restricted and controlled. You have to buy into the belief that groups can do so much more. If you have hundreds or thousands of advocates and organizers, you can start to scale your reach in a powerful way.”
Here’s a parting thought from Richardson, via excerpts from her book:
As our friend Rei Chou, who started a dinner series that promotes meaningful conversation, once told us, “a community isn’t a community unless it’s organizing itself.” Whether you want to expand globally or just sustain the magic of your existing group, you'll have to pass the torch. Growing together means taking responsibility as a leader to create more leaders. Empowering others to shape your direction is scary, but it’s also what makes communities mighty. Spread out ownership by encouraging hand-raisers to lead in ways big and small, supercharging their efforts, and, last but not least, celebrating their accomplishments.
In many of the communities we studied, a core contingent of extra-passionate people made an outsized impact. These exceptional leaders act as catalysts, accelerating a community’s ability to fulfill its purpose. Catalysts are as rare as they are potent. Your job is to seek out these standout leaders, give them the structure and support they need, then let them fly.
Uncover opportunities to support your leaders, as well as generate new ideas about how to help. For example:
Do leaders have major fears about hosting a first meeting? What if there was a formal training?
Do leaders expend hours designing presentations? What if there were templates?
Do leaders waste time searching for files, notes, and other community assets? What if there was one portal with links to everything?
Growing a community isn’t about management. It’s about developing leaders. Shift your mindset from stoking the fire to passing the torch. Your community depends on it.
Photography by Wavemaker Partners and Kai Elmer Sotto.