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7 things you can do to build a community-driven company, project, or organization
What is a community-driven business?
A community-driven business is a company that puts community at its core. This can be a case where the community is the product (e g. Reddit) or where the community is central to the business's identity and success (e.g. Peloton).
The Community-Led Declaration lays out the following:
Together we pledge to help build companies where:
- Community is central, not treated as a bolt-on to sales, marketing, support, or any other department. Community is community.
- Community and the community builder are properly valued and empowered.
- Community exists and is built for the sake of community and its members. Community builders will be intentional about creating safe, inclusive, and healthy community spaces
This can seem like a tall order if you're just starting out out. And it is.
To be honest, I get irritated by this notion that "community is the future" even if I've accidentally said it in my articles. Community isn't a new concept. Community-driven ANYTHING, from hunter-gatherer circled to futuristic cosplay events, has always required properly valuing and empowering the people within it. The big difference in ✨community is the future✨ is that today's tech makes this a whole lot easier — if you optimize for the people you're building for.
Why should you build a community-driven business?
I'm not going to convince you that you should, but the main ways it's benefitted me are:
- I get real-time proactive feedback on what I'm offering
- I'm making friends
- It's easier to know what to measure
- People feel better about using my product (aka reading changeletter)
- More positive vibes and motivation
- I barely know anything so having a community allows me to be smarter than if I were doing this alone. It's like being in a group project with really smart friends
How do you actually, tactically build a community-driven business?
C'mon, it's not that hard. It requires effort but I believe in you — humans are natural community-builders!
- Build a network of people who care. This is subtly different from saying "build an audience" because it's totally okay if instead of a million YouTube subscribers, you're starting with a group of 5 friends passionate about the issue you're building around. Some ways to do this are:
- Talking to your neighboors (in person, Nextdoor, whatever you want)
- Starting a group chat with your friends (Messenger, Telegram, WhatsApp, regular old text message, hanging out with them every Thursday at the mall getting pretzels)
- Gathering "your people" on social media (tweeting about your ✨niche✨ on Twitter, posting funny TikToks about your content — with the goal of actually making human friends)
- Put up a sign so people can find you. In most cases, your sign will be a website. I've used Squarespace, Weebly, WordPress, Carrd, Bubble, and Webflow before. My suggestion is to start with Carrd for a simple landing page that tells people what you're up to. I currently use Webflow for the Soapbox Project site. But I've also literally put up a sign in my window, and it's resulted in many conversations with strangers.
- Share what you're doing. In today's world, this means spin up a social media account you can commit to. Important note: you CAN build community on an existing platform like Twitter. You don't have to do anything fancy, but you SHOULD share what makes your community a community. Share resources. Share how people can be involved. I love this example from Jackson Dame who manages community at Rainbow.
- Get serious about content. Maybe you already have an audience to whom you send a Very Serious Newsletter, but that's not what I mean. Find ways to consistently put out content that engages current and future community members so they remember why they love hanging out with you. For example, ask questions! Or post opportunities for events and bite-sized involvement! Content looks different based on the type of business you're building. One example of Getting Serious About Content is #EthicalHour's weekly "chats". Sian, who manages this account, posts questions every Monday. This allows her to actually meet people, since folks who care about sustainability chime in on the threads and add in their own thoughts and reflections. Because it happens consistently and reliably, people know what to expect and there's the understanding that this "community" will be here for them.
- Set up the right legal infrastructure. Yeah I know this is a boring one, but it's important, especially as things continue to evolve in this space. If you're claiming to be member-owned, for example, it can be tricky (but worth it!) to form a cooperative business structure. The business I run, Soapbox Project, is a C-Corp, but I need to invest more time into getting certifications that people know they can trust (e.g. B Corp, 1% For the Planet). Certifications and legal structures aren't perfect, but they let people know how seriously they can take your claims of being community-driven. People I meet 1:1 know that they can trust the Soapbox community because they've spoken to me personally, but as our company grows, we need other signals to show, not just claim, that we care about causes and people beyond our direct team. I used Plug & Law for easy trademarking and I currently manage my books with Bench (⬅️ P.S. get a nice referral discount with this code). They're both affordable in the grand scheme of things, but as a broke startup founder, I have to shell up what feels a lot. (But at least I'm less likely to commit accidental tax fraud lol. Thx Yash from Bench for putting up with my extremely delayed responses as I drag my feet on this stuff.)
- Stay on top of community health. I ask myself this every day: is my community really a community? How do I know? I still don't have a tight grasp on this, but managing community health is critical to a community-driven business. Sounds obvious, but I've joined too many "communities" that have fizzled out after a very enthusiastic first month, because they're not being managed by anyone and people have lives. (Not-fun fact: I've also been guilty of launching communities and then leaving them to die.) Once you've done steps 1-5, there's still more work to do to keep your baby healthy. Orbit is a service that basically checks in on your community health for you. I haven't used it yet, but I love the content the team puts out and have had some great convos with the team (shoutout Rosie). One tip I learned from the Circle community (where Soapbox lives) is to look at DMs as a signal for health — # of DMs sent can indicate community members forming deeper 1:1 relationships. Since our Soapbox community is relatively new and small, I set aside time each week to check on people I haven't heard from in a while.
- Put the right people in charge and empower them to succeed. Managing a community isn't the same as managing social media or doing customer support. All of these are critical tasks, but business leaders tend to conflate them. Community building is at least its own full-time job and likely more, depending on the size of your community. We all wish our communities would run themselves, but we don't often put enough effort into setting this up. Step #7 is still a work-in-progress at Soapbox and I'll share more as I learn, but so far I've:
- Invited community members to step up and moderate our biweekly fireside chats after I find the speakers and set the logistics
- Asked interested members to host their own workshops when they suggest an idea for it. I'll provide support to actually make it happen and DM potential attendees to churn up interest
- Hosted a leaderboard to keep track of who's visibly motivated to Do Things
- Met members in-person in 4 different cities during my personal travels
- Created a framework for local action in cities where I physically am not present (i.e. not Seattle)
If you're working on a community-driven business, you have to be okay with giving up control. Things might not look exactly like you envisioned, and I've ALWAYS found that to be a good thing. The end result is generally more vibrant and exceeds my wildest expectations. My puny imagination is nothing compared to the 100+ members in our community who contribute their own thoughts, ideas, time, and money.
Chime in and add to the discussion! I'm waiting for you on Twitter as always, for better or worse.