How to Build a Community for Your Startup: Defining It


So you want to create a community around your startup’s product or service, eh? You’re in the right place. But be warned: it’s not as simple as creating a Slack group or firing off a weekly newsletter.


Not sure what I mean by that? Just look at those Facebook groups you joined back in the day because they were built around something you enjoyed - and then you started ignoring the group because the admin didn’t stay on top of monitoring posts and everything started to get more and more off topic. Or take a look at that Slack group you joined a year ago, but stopped checking because the leader didn’t keep the community engaged, and it became more of a job board then members having meaningful conversations with one another.


The takeaway: it involves a lot of elbow grease, and a lot - and I mean a lot - of behind-the-scenes work so the community works for you and doesn’t end up taking a life of its own.


So why am I the best person to break down how to create a community for your startup? Here’s a little bit about me:


I co-founded a martech platform, nDash. During my time at the company, I was responsible for creating a community of writers that our clients could lean on to write amazing content. While I didn’t build a large community of close-knit writers, the writers that we did lean on were advocates for nDash, shared product feedback and ideas, and genuinely wanted to support nDash.


Additionally, I created Startup Boston, a volunteer-driven company connecting people within the startup community here in Massachusetts and welcoming those new to Boston’s startup scene. As we go into the five year anniversary of Startup Boston (damn, that went fast), I’m excited to share what I’ve learned to-date about creating a brand that people care about and are excited to support - whether that’s attending our events, sharing content we have created on social, or volunteering their time to give back and support the startup community.


So now that we got that intro out of the way, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This is the unspoken rule about building a community for your startup that very few want to say out loud: You’re building something for your own selfish brand goals, while still giving the people what they want.


And there’s no shame in that. The tricky part is delivering quality and value while still getting what you need. And it’s rare for someone to do this well.


There’s a LOT that goes into building a great community around your product. So this will be the first blog post of a series of four, I think? Honestly, It’s a bit undetermined at this moment. So as many blogs as it takes to get the job done, and done well!


In this blog, I’ll break down how to set-up the framework for creating a community. Ready to get started? Let’s get to it.


Step One: Establish the Goal for Your Community

Before you can successfully start growing a community for your startup, it’s really important for you to understand why you’re building a community. In my experience, there are typically four reasons startups create a community around their product:


1. Looking for product feedback

If you’ve created a new product, you may want a community of beta users to help you figure out if you’re going in the right direction and provide input on what they may want to see in a future version. Developing a close-knit group of users that you can depend on is a really critical part to building a successful startup.


2. Creating a culture of education

Perhaps you’ve created something so ground-breaking that you need to educate your users on what it does OR re-educate them on something you think is broken in the industry. Either way, creating a community is a great way to share relevant content and to cultivate a culture of learning.


3. Create advocates and monetize them

You have a solid product and you’re looking for a scalable way to find customers. Building a community for your users that excites them and awards them for sharing your product is a great way to do this. It’s very hard to do well, but incredibly cost-effective once you get the formula down.


4. Connect members and help them grow their network

Your goal going into this is to help foster connections. You want to provide them with opportunities to not only meet one another, but also teach them how to utilize their own network to get them to where they want to go.


As you begin to dive into identifying the type of community you want to create, always keep this question in mind: does one community get the job done, or do you need multiple communities under the same umbrella? For example, if you have created a two-sided marketplace, you’ll likely want two communities. Or perhaps you want one community for your affiliates but another for educating new users. It’s important to think this question through and not just “plop” them all into one place.


We’ll circle back on exactly HOW to build each of those communities in a later post (I promise!), but for now, we’re continuing on the train of defining your startup’s community.


Step Two: Identify How the Community Can Support One Other

Once you’ve established the “why” behind your community, it’s really important for you to then know why they joined you - aside from the “why” you established.


A lot of “whys,” eh?


But in short, there’s always an ulterior motive for someone to join your community. Sometimes it’s the reason you created it - and sometimes it’s something a bit different. Here are a few reasons why someone will want to join your startup’s community:


1. A sense of belonging

They’re looking to find “their people” that they can chat with and share ideas amongst.


2. Furthering their knowledge

They never stop learning and are excited to get better at their trade or develop a new skill set.


3. Collaborating with others

Perhaps they’re looking to volunteer their time, collaborate with someone on a side project, or they just want to find someone to idea share with.


4. Excited to share their own insights

Sometimes people are looking to further their own brand within the community you’ve created. They want to be a thought leader in their industry and are excited to be in front of people so they can share their expertise and help their colleagues. (I love when people want to share their insights, but as a community leader, you also have to keep tabs on this and focus their energy to work for your goal).


Regardless as to the reason, creating a community enables you to provide a group with a sense of loyalty to your brand because they now feel “closer” to you. It’s also important to realize that most who join your community don’t want to be passive attendees, they want to be active participants - which is why you need to truly understand your “why” behind creating the community, so you can focus their efforts.


Step Three: Is Your Community Exclusive or Inclusive?

It’s really important to figure this out from the beginning - because it’s close to impossible to change down the line (or you can, but it’s going to be painful for everyone involved). There truly is no right or wrong answer here, it just boils down to which one is going to help you reach your goals, and appeal to the audience you want to reach.


In case you’re unsure what either of these are, here are the quick definitions of both:

  • Exclusive: you need to be invited to be a part of this community.

  • Inclusive: anyone is invited to join.

I think it’s really important to note as well, that charging someone to join your community does not define it as exclusive or inclusive. It truly boils down to whether or not all are invited, or if you’re limiting the list. For example, there are a lot of invite-only CEO groups that not only do you have to apply to join, but once accepted you have to pay a large amount of money to attend. Whereas Startup Boston created The Inside Track group for new startup CEOs, while you do have to apply to be a part of it, it is free to join.


I’ll take it a step further and help you out a bit more. Here are the pros and cons of creating each type of community:


Building an Exclusive Community

Pros:

  • This can increase the demand to be a part of the community.

  • You have full control on who is in the community, and can create content specifically for this group of people

Cons:

  • Your reach isn’t necessarily large because you’re limiting the number of people who have access to it (unless you have an awesome marketing team that can figure out how to generate demand for access)

  • You’re becoming the decider of “who is a good fit” for the community. Which can cause tension. You need to be prepared to define and defend the reasoning behind who can join. And hold yourself accountable for sticking to it. (i.e. you can’t be afraid to tell people “no”)

  • It’s harder to scale. You have to constantly keep tabs on WHO is in the community (they may “grow out” of what the group is all about) and who has applied in the past that may be a fit now (but weren’t 6+ months ago)

Building an Inclusive Community

Pros:

  • Everyone is welcome

  • You increase the reach of the community

Cons:

  • Your community can lose value if you don’t keep tabs on who is doing what and what the content is

  • You have to be a “traffic controller” for everything happening within your community. This includes potentially monitoring posts and ensuring the community doesn’t take a “life of its own.”

What Would Stephanie Do?

Not that you asked, but if you were curious, I would do a hybrid community. There are two ways you can do this.


Version One: I would create an inclusive community, where everyone is welcome. Then, I would build this out and pinpoint “team leaders,” empower them to support the community (think Wikipedia ambassadors) and THEN I would create exclusive content specifically for those “team leaders” so they feel valued and can help control the inclusive community.


Version Two: I would still create an inclusive community, where everyone is welcome (I really love welcoming everyone), but then I would choose some opportunities to create exclusive events, so you can generate high-demand and craft high-quality content for a specific group of people (this helps facilitate bare-all discussions).


At the end of this brainstorming session, it just boils down to this one question: how much of a control freak are you?


Okay, I kid, I kid. Kind of. But, exclusivity provides you with complete control. And it WILL increase demand, if done and marketed correctly.


That’s It For Part One

This is a LOT of content for one blog post, so I am going to stop here. But don’t worry, coming up next in this series we’ll tackle:

  • Bringing your community to life

  • How to launch your community (i.e. time to market it!)

  • Maintaining order within your community

  • How to know if your community is supporting company goals

  • And I’ll break down how to build the four types of communities I mentioned in the first section of this post (don’t worry, I didn’t forget!)

So much to cover, luckily, we have the time! Questions in the meantime? Drop me a note on Twitter: @stephroulic


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