Building Communities for Startups

Why should startups consider communities and how to get started

I grew up in an era when one of the biggest TV shows was an oddball comedy called "Cheers". It took place in a bar with a bunch of outcasts that had nothing in common. Despite that it was still, as the theme song goes, the place "where everybody knows your name”.

Years later, I was invited to a small gathering at a downtown NYC dive bar. I didn't really want to go as I was still in my post-startup funk. What was different about this particular event though was that it brought folks from around the globe that were active bloggers on Tumblr.

But as I walked into the bar, I felt transported to that TV show. Everyone knew my name, I knew all their names, and we had a bond that only we could grasp.

For the longest time, I never really appreciated community. I had gone to plenty of events and meetups and association get togethers. What I experienced in that bar with my fellow bloggers though was more meaningful than any of those past gatherings.

Community was something I always associated with religious groups or social good causes. There were also social clubs or professional associations that I had been involved in. None of those groups ever got me excited or gave me the sense of being connected with others.

"I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

Groucho Marx

That being said, those certainly can be communities, but any group of people can be community. All it takes is trust and the desire for impact.

When I launched my own community, I finally understood that impact. As more people joined, attended events, and volunteered to help the chapters, I saw lives changed and careers grow. More importantly though, we started to shift an entire industry to embrace new ways of thinking.

That community was the Enterprise Sales Forum and for six years it created massive impact across the B2B tech sales industry. Startup founders learned to sell, sales managers recruited talent, salespeople found mentors, and everyone had an open and welcoming place for learning, sharing, collaborating, and friendship.

The idea of community took hold more broadly when COVID shutdown the world. Some things already existed, tech platforms like, big communities like Startup Grind, sites like Stack Overflow & Reddit, and even places for community managers such as CMX. When we were all stuck indoors though without the ability to meet in person, entrepreneurs got to work building the next generation of tools to foster community in virtual, online spaces.

Communities of people with shared interests, values & purpose.

Admittedly some of the excitement of the “community platform” trend faded quietly to the background. Live social audio platforms like Clubhouse disappeared. Red hot online event platforms like UK-based unicorn Hopin fell from grace. And other than Circle, very few newer platforms have seen any traction. In fact, most folks launching communities are content with Slack, WhatsApp, Discord, or Telegram.

While community platforms may have lost momentum, interest in community is gaining traction with brands and businesses. Interestingly, the rapid growth in Generative AI has contributed to the uptick in community building. As digital channels have become overwhelmed by AI-generated content and sales automation, the ability to build awareness, influence, earn trust, and sell is rapidly deteriorating. AI has created a trust deficit.

The remedy for this happens to be community. While many definitions exist, I define community as a group of people aligned by shared interests and values gathering to create exponential value. It takes more than interests, values, and purpose to foster community. You need trust, which is the foundation and currency of all thriving communities.

More startups founders have been reaching out to me recently to ask how to get started with building a community. Some of these startups are from within the open-source community. Others are considering launching a community alongside their startup as an acquisition and support channel. Then some are exploring community as a means of raising their profile within an industry or market.

All of those could be valid reasons, but the reality is that starting a community is often as much work as launching a startup. Many have dived in without appreciating the work, planning, and commitment needed to build and grow a community. In fact, hardly any have even asked the most basic question of whether the community is needed in the first place!

In order to help you avoid a failed community effort, I summarized the seven most critical elements to get right from the start. This is based on over a decade of experience building my own communities, my work from Stack Overflow, and helping other founders to launch their own communities. If you follow these points, you will have a greater chance of your community succeeding.

  • Define the why. Even before you contemplate launching a community, understand whether it would fulfill a need. Ask potential members for their WIIFM or “What’s in it for me”. That way you can know who the community is for and the value it would provide to those joining.

  • Create value up front. It’s easier for people to get involved when there is something interesting to draw them in. Therefore, seed the community with content or batch events early on to help show that the community is high-quality and worth their time to participate.

  • Make it easier to contribute. The lower the barrier to participate, the more willing members will be to engage. That is why it is critical to introduce nudges, notifications, and low-friction ways to allow members to be actively involved that is meaningful and supports the community.

  • Rally your internal fans. Every community is built from a core group that passionately believe in and supports the vision of the community. These fans will have a natural inclination for social gatherings, so use that enthusiasm to bring them on board from the very beginning.

  • Promote quality contributions. Recognize all good content and active member engagement. This could come through newsletters, chat apps, event announcements, and other places your community exists. And never be afraid of over-communicating things worth sharing!

  • Reward, but don’t over-reward. The most effective way to reward member’s contributions is recognition such as promoting through in-person and virtual channels. But also consider other low-cost methods such as virtual badges/points, contests, swag, event passes, and certificates.

  • Invite and involved influencers. People influential in the market in which your community is focused lends their credibility and legitimacy to your efforts. This support be via content creation, promoting & attending events, giving talks, or even a simple endorsement.

This framework is just the start of your community building journey. There are many more resources you can access to help guide you along from CMX to my book Community-in-a-Box to many experienced community builders that are consulting and supporting businesses on their community efforts.

Are you actively considering a community for your startup or already have launched one? Let me know what your experience has been like or if I can be of any help to get things on track.

We sometimes get asked who are the best startup founders and how to identify them. If we knew that, we probably would be sailing on a yacht rather than writing this newsletter!

This topic came up again recently over Twitter, so we wanted to share our thoughts on the discussion. When all you have is an idea, there are no best, average, or bad founders. You just have founders.

Best, worst & average founders. How to find out which one’s which?

Many VC’s think the best founders are those don’t take advice and that most startup advice is for average founders. Which is funny as these same VC’s share advice over Twitter. Our experience in speaking to hundreds of founders as AWS Startup Advocate though has been quite different.

We have seen teams of brilliant hackers fail. We have seen founders from the best schools and top employers fizzle. We have seen hardened second and third-time founders stumble and fall.

But we have also seen nobodies without pedigrees rise up, build something awesome, and succeed. We have seen teams that did not look good on paper defy the odds and create valuable companies.

Many VC's have strong opinions about what they firmly believe are the right characteristics of the best founders. But they are simply relying on survivorship bias.

When you meet founders at the very start of their startup journey, they mostly look the same; full of enthusiasm, passion for the idea, and ready to get started. However, biases can easily sway investors towards picking the "obviously" best founders:

  • Sometimes this means leaning on pedigree like school and jobs.

  • Sometimes this could be social connections and warm introductions.

  • Sometimes this comes down to presentation, style, and likeability.

None of these matter in the early days of a startup because every founder is starting from a base of low knowledge. They wander through the maze of product-market fit taking lots of wrong turns and hitting plenty of dead ends.

Who are the best founders then that create high-growth and sustainable companies? They are the ones that know they cannot navigate the maze alone!

First we want to share how awesome it was to have our latest guest contributor, Shannon Burch of Neo Financial, to share her knowledge setting up customer service for startups. If you have some expertise or experiences you think would be valuable to share via this newsletter, please reach out to us!

Mark was back in Singapore this past week meeting with startup founders and getting involved in various community activities. Thanks to everyone that came out to meet up!

Mark in Singapore meeting startup founders and speaking at events.

Singapore has been one of the most active startup ecosystems over the past decade. Startup Genome just ranked Singapore 7th in the world in their Global Startup Ecosystem Report. Even during the funding winter, Singapore continues to launch startups, over 4,500 startups funded by 400 VC's creating over $144 billion in ecosystem value during the past few years!

With the rise of Generative AI taking off globally, we are certain to see even more startups launch in Singapore and across Asia. This is why AWS launched the Generative AI Spotlight. It's open to any early-stage startup across Asia-Pacific and Japan. Click here to learn more here and apply!