July 8th, 2008
Community: The Secret Sauce of a Successful Internet Startup
[Editor: Like many of you, I've long been a fan of Portland-based COLOURlovers, a site that fosters conversations around colors and palettes. We know about it, and have likely become fans, because of its vibrant community---a community that is the direct result of careful tending by its founder, Darius A. Monsef IV. And now, we're lucky enough to have Darius sharing some of his insights on developing one of the most sought after features of today's Web 2.0 sites, "community."]So many internet startups are trying to launch with “community” as the core of their business, but they seem to be flying blind as to how you go about growing a solid community. I’ve been asked to consult for a number of these startups. And while this could be a bad financial decision for my consulting business, I’d rather see more successful communities than fewer. So here are the basics of what you need to know and the rest you’ll just have to learn—albeit painfully—as you do it.
I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of building two great communities, one in the real world and one in the digital. The lessons learned in each worlds has meaning in the other and each can serve as a useful example to those who are working on nurturing their own communities.
My Community Director Resume
After packing up my bags and traveling without a specific destination to Thailand in the wake of the biggest natural disaster in modern times… I found myself in the middle of a micro-community of travelers who showed up to help with the Tsunami recovery work. Like any web community, people were from everywhere in the world and came from all sorts of backgrounds.
For five months I lived with this community. First as a volunteer, then as a project leader and eventually co-leading the group. From that experience we grew a non-profit that has since created volunteer centers to aid in disaster relief in six countries around world with the help of a community of 3,000+ volunteers.
Visit www.HODR.org to learn more and perhaps you’ll join us in a disaster zone sometime soon.
Before I packed up my bags and prepared for a place I’d never been to, in a disaster zone I couldn’t begin to guess what it would be like… I created a simple web service that allowed people to name colors and helped other people to rate and review those colors. Responding to early feedback I grew the concept into allowing people to put together combinations of up to 5 colors to also share.
I was the first member, but more than 100,000 have since joined. We’ve been nominated for Best Community Site in the Webby Awards two years in a row and have also received recognition for the quality of our community from several other periodicals and awards organizations.
Now that you have some insight into my experience, let me share some of the things I’ve learned.
Lessons for Building Quality, Thriving Communities
It could be the community in your five-person workplace, your blog readership or even a massive web community… but the lessons still apply. Here they are:
It Is and Has Always Been
One of the most important lessons that came from my time in Thailand was how in order to grow a solid community, you needed to be in the middle of it. The man who originally set-up the volunteer center to which we all arrived was a local who lived on the other side of the island. Since he was a family man, he made the trip to and from the volunteer center back to his house every night and morning. I can understand why he would, considering he had a nice comfortable home only 30 min away… but what happened in his absence almost tore the whole thing apart.
In the early days of a community’s growth, things change very rapidly. Because the group itself has only existed a short time and the early participants often cycle through in short spurts of time… there is no institutional memory. To the person who arrived this morning, we’ve always had a rule about eating lunch at 11:30… nevermind that we only made that rule up the night before. But to that new volunteer, who will in one week be an old timer to many more new people… it has always been so.
Within a week of showing up and seeing first hand the constant transition of ideas, cultures and people in our volunteer community… there was growing dissent about the so-called leader of our group who was never around and nobody knew what exactly he did. To them, he did nothing. Since they woke up in the middle of it all, went to work all day in it and laid down to sleep in the middle of it… this guy had no idea about anything.
Having since been the leader of a volunteer group, there are many things that go on above the ground that are not glamorous or all that fun… but are needed in order for the community to continue growing. For a leader, it is a constant balance of getting his head above the crowd to deal with long-term growth things while at the same time spending time shoulder-to-shoulder with the community.
Lesson: You must grow within your community, especially in the early days. Later, leaders will arise who can handle some of the day-to-day things and welcome new members. But in those first few days, weeks and months… you are the welcoming committee, janitor, house mom, judge, jury and banninator. Leading from the outside will only breed dissent and resentment among the early adopters… and without their early support your community will die before it really has the chance to grow.
Set an Open Border Policy with Your Neighbors
Immigration is a complicated and touchy subject in the real world, but online you need an open door policy from the beginning… even recruiting your first members from your related blogs, forums and communities.
When I launched COLOURlovers I was part of a thriving Flash development community at the time (www.Kirupa.com) and I shared my site with some members. These initial Kirupians served as the first dual-citizenship immigrants to my new community. Not all fully converted to COLOURlovers and few gave up Kirupa for COLOURlovers, but since the sites were related—but not mutually exclusive—we were able to get things rolling with their support without negatively affecting the Kirupa community.
These early members were providing ideas to enhance the site and voicing their critical feedback about what worked and what didn’t. I took all of their words to heart and worked feverishly to create and launch enhancements that would grow the community.
Lesson: Leverage your involvement in related communities to first seed your community with participants. You can’t force these people to join… just extend an invitation to people who might have an interest in what you’re building and be ready to respond to their feedback.
Cities Grow from Towns and Towns from Villages
Don’t worry so much about jumping right into being a massive community. You need to take the time to be a village and figure out how everything works before you get into issues like mass transit, pollution and housing shortages. You also need to foster leaders within your village who will eventually become your city leaders.
When I went to Thailand, I handed COLOURlovers to my early members and pretty much left them unattended for the five months. Sometimes, blessings come in strange packages. For when I returned, I found a lot of interest had been built while I was gone…
But unfortunately, the community wasn’t able to rapidly grow unattended. In fact, I made a pretty huge mistake when I was building the database for the site: I set the primary key for the users table to be a small int… meaning the database broke once 255 people had registered and no more could sign up. (We were probably one of the first web 2.0 sites to launch a limited user-base private beta site… although fully unintentionally.)
Lesson: Hey kids! Don’t focus so much on being rich, respected doctors someday… enjoy being a kid and take to heart the lessons you learn from the bumps and scratches you get exploring your surroundings and figuring out just what your body is capable of doing.
And as your community continues to grow. Problems will arise. And, at times, even your most vocal proponent may think that…
Your Community… Honestly Sucks
This is very key feedback that you need to be willing to hear. I consistently hear bad ideas for sites where people are continually talking about how people will love the service and flock to it… but who have no early adopters. “No worries, we know the idea is great and as soon as we get it out to the masses we’ll be flooded with visitors.” More likely flooded in the sense of your first floor being under water and no ability to use your kitchen to prepare food.
Lesson: You need early adopters and they may not like what you’re doing. Be willing to hear this feedback and be flexible in developing your community in ways you might not have imagined.
How do you get the feedback you need? The community is waiting to give it to you. And that’s why…
Engaging the Community in Decision Making is a Must
Ebay = Ebooo!!!! When eBay made a major change to their feedback system recently, some of their sellers revolted in protest. This decision had a major impact on sellers and a lot felt it unfairly hurt them. I honestly believe there are hundreds of ways to skin a cat (not sure why anyone would) and if you bring your members into the decision making process you could end up with a better solution then you could have come up with on your own.
Lesson: You need to at least let them feel like their feedback is being heard. Not every idea must be put into affect and you can’t let your members totally direct what happens with your community, but you’ll have a much stronger adoption rate for new changes if the members feel like they were a part of the decision making process.
But for all the brilliant feedback of your most vocal users, don’t let the many suffer at the hands of the few. Always bear in mind that…
No One Member is More Important than the Whole
This is something I’ve experienced with COLOURlovers, but it is a lesson I learned with my non-profit community. As they grow, communities need leaders to step-up and take on extra responsibilities. In almost all situations, this will naturally happen. You begin to rely on these leaders so much, that sometimes you think the community wouldn’t survive without them.
In one of my volunteer communities, we had a small group of leaders who were growing exhausted from the hard work and irritable with new arrivals. They felt since they had been around longer that they were entitled to more than others. I struggled for a while to try and keep this group happy and spent considerable energy dealing with issues that were being created by these leaders. It was stressful because I thought that if I asked the leaders to leave I would have no ability to send my work crews out the next day. Without my leaders everything would crumble and I was sacrificing the happiness of many for the comfort of a few.
It got to a non-pass point with this small group of leaders and they left. What immediately happened in the chaos of this change? People who had been around a little while and some fairly new people stepped up and assumed the leadership roles. I could have asked those troublesome leaders to leave ages before, and the organism that is the community would have replaced the roles on their own.
Lesson: There is always a number 2 or number 3 who is willing and eager to take on a bigger role. Your most active and valuable members will leave and a new batch will replace them.
The system, however, is not perfect. And it’s out of control. So sometimes, despite your best efforts, the whole thing will go sideways. Know that, as with most successful communities, someday you will be facing…
Pitchforks, Lanterns and an Angry Mob
If you let problems continue to grow a few disgruntled members will become an growing mob. If you don’t respond to this mob and address their issues personally you risk the mob becoming the masses… and if the masses revolt, you’ll end up with your head on a stick in the front lawn and a burning village.
If you’ve seen the animated film A Bug’s Life, you’ll have watched this lesson unfold in the form of grasshoppers and ants. The ants spend all year doing the work for the grasshoppers to gather a feast of food.
[Spoiler Alert] What the ants learn in the end is that they outnumber the grasshoppers 50 to 1 and if they unite they can run the grasshoppers out of town and no longer need to gather food for them.
A web world example of this was when HD-DVD stories started getting removed from the social media site Digg.com. Members felt their words were being moderated by Kevin Rose and the Digg staff and they didn’t take to kindly to the moderation. What erupted were hundreds if not thousands of new submissions, comments and digs for the DVD key posts.
Having been through some similar experiences as a community director I felt simultaneously sorry for Kevin and highly amused watching the shenanigans unfold. I imagined how chaotic things must have been at Digg… The image that comes to mind is the scene at the end of The Matrix series where the millions of sentinels come flowing into the bay where the humans can’t shoot them down fast enough…
Kevin eventually bowed to his community and submitted a blog post on the Digg blog with the title being the hacked key string.
Lesson: Stay in tune with your community and be transparent with them. If Kevin would have personally responded to why they were removing the HD-DVD keys posts sooner, he might have avoided the giant headache that was a major member revolt.
But for all of the consensus-building and listening to user input, it is important to remember that there must be balance. For, despite our best efforts…
True Democracy Doesn’t Work on the Web
At least not yet. Perhaps it is that with the enhanced ability to communicate more we haven’t enhanced the way people communicate. We have the same miscommunication problems we have in real life online… but they’re hyper sped up and 10x bigger. We also have way to much negative crap flying around the web and it is hard to stay in a constructive place when trolls, spammers and others pains in the ass keep dropping by to stir things up.
Your community needs to know there is a leader and they need to know you’re reachable and engaged. You don’t have to be the most active member but you need to be around. In the early days of your community you have to be everywhere as your community culture is totally you… but as more leaders emerge and the numbers grow, the culture will become partially directed by the community.
You need to be accessible to every member of your community. They need to know where to find you and to know that if they really need you… that you’ll be there. Maybe you only respond to emails or through in site messages… but I’d go so far as to put up your IM names and phone number. For three years any member of my site could have picked up the phone and called me on my cell if they had something to tell me. (The number on the site now goes to voicemail… but I’ll still call you back if you leave me a message.)
Lesson: Especially in the early days members of your community need to feel like they know you and that you are reachable. They also need to know that somebody at the end of the day will make a decision in a tough situation.
Sounds difficult doesn’t it? Well, it is. It takes a great deal of effort. And that immediately leads a number of folks to consider buying their way out of a difficult situation. This, too, is a mistake, because…
Buying a Community is Expensive and Will FAIL
You can pay to grow your community, but if you substitute the organic nature of feedback and enhancement that comes from the early adopter phase… you risk not learning the early lessons that will keep your community alive later on. Also, don’t confuse the passion and genuine interest of early adopters—who tend to join organically—for the participation of people who were externally motivated to join in.
Communities, like other organisms, are constantly rebuilding themselves. New cells are built and old cells die off… your early members will leave and new ones will join up. If your community does not organically grow at all and your numbers are growing only because of your paid efforts… you have no ability to continue the growth without spending more money. This is a dangerous position to be in.
Lesson: Exhaust your ability to share your community with possible early adopters for free before you start paying for traffic. You could pay to get 10x more visitors to your community early on, but feedback from people who organically joined and are contributing ideas and suggestions are 100x more valuable.
Hire No Consultants. Pay No Community Directors.
It is extremely important that you are in the trenches with your community when it is first getting started. I see startups all the time spending valuable resources to hire consultants to build their community and early buzz… but what they end up with is only a shot in the arm with no long term abilities to grow without paying for more help.
The pay to grow initially is a lot like the drug user who uses to be happy. As they use drugs they need more and more to continue to feel good. If you pay to generate growth, you’ll end up needing to spend more and more to create greater and greater results. Learn to be happy without drugs and you remain in total control of your happiness.
Lesson: If you spend the late and long hours in the early days of your community, pounding the keys, networking, promoting and sharing your community you’ll learn very valuable skills that will help your community grow in the future without needing to pay for outside services. Those outside services can be useful down the road when you use them to fill gaps in your growth strategies… and having learned the lessons early on you’ll better know how to direct an outside consultant to help you.
You can’t buy lessons. Part of what makes you remember the important lessons is how much it hurts to learn them. Don’t be afraid to get a few bumps and bruises. Good luck and grow well.