In startup land, communities are the hot new thing. We’re starting to see more community builders, managers and architects being hired at earlier stages in a startup’s growth. They are realizing that, before growth hacking and social media marketing, the most important thing your company needs is people. More specifically, people who care about your mission and believe in your team while you’re still in startup diapers.
The funny thing is that community has been a core part of business since the start of, well, business. There are countless stories of startups finding the road to massive growth by first starting with smaller communities.
Did you know? Craigslist started as an event email list. Instagram started by inviting highly influential people to use their product. Facebook made their product available in one college first, and only after that community became captivated did they expand to others.
The power of community isn’t just limited to social products, either. Every startup has a great deal to gain by engaging their early adopters and planting the seeds for a community that can develop into a movement.
Here are seven steps for building a community from the ground up:
Clarify the Solution
Be very clear about the problem your company can solve. What’s your mission? What is your why? Build your community around that — not around your product or brand. Your product will change, so focus on the problem.
Start With One
Many startups are in a rush to grow, grow, grow. But even the billion-dollar companies we look up to today started with one person who decided to support a brand new company with nothing more to show than a passion for solving a problem. The good news is that you don’t even need a product yet. Since you’re building your community around a mission, you can start building your community from day one. Find someone who has the problem you’re trying to solve and buy them coffee. Learn as much as you can about who they are and how you can help them. Then do that with a second person. Then a third. You have a community as soon as you connect them with each other.
Make it Personal
You, the “big important CEO or founder”, already spoke to them on the phone or met them for coffee so they probably feel pretty special. Keep building on that. They should feel special because they are special. You want every member to feel like they have a privilege that others don’t have. And your first few members are extra special because they get to be the first members of something that will one day be huge. By keeping your early community invite only or exclusive in some manner, your members will feel a sense of belonging that’s vital for a healthy community.
Build the Community for Them, Not You
The biggest mistake startups make when they start building a community is they make it all about them. They’re constantly asking for help, tweets and feedback. In doing so, they forget that these people are already investing their most valuable asset: their time. Since you have spoken with these people, you should have a good idea of who they are and their problems. Your community should work to solve those problems for them, even before your product does. A community’s primary goal is to bring value to the members so that they are rewarded for their time and energy contribution.
Create a Conversation Platform
A group of people is only a community if the people in the group are building relationships with each other. And we build relationships through conversation. I’m a big fan of Facebook Groups for new communities. Since everyone is already there, they’re familiar with the interface and it’s super simple for you to set up. You can also host events to build relationships among members. You don’t have to get all fancy — just organize a dinner or a happy hour and then go from there.
Make Sure Every Member Feels Heard
It’s very important that members know someone is listening, even if it’s just you. Always respond to messages or comments. If you see messages where another member might have a good response, ping those members and encourage them to respond. There will be awkward silences in a new community. It’s inevitable. But stay strong and keep on engaging. Once you get the wheels turning, the community will start to take on your energy and build its own momentum.
Now that you’ve got your community rolling, it’s important to keep it growing by bringing in more people steadily to keep the energy high. Keep bringing in people gradually. Be patient. Before you know it, you’ll have a large thriving community that will serve as the foundation of your company, product and customer base for years to come.
This article has been edited and condensed.
David Spinks is the Cofounder of Feast: Helping busy people build a habit of cooking at home. He’s also founded CMX Summit, The Community Manager and writes about building startups and life experiments at WhatSpinksThinks. Connect with @DavidSpinks on Twitter.
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