Roughly a year ago, I wrote these down. I was in a tangled confusing mess. At the time, I was trying to determine an outcome to something I couldn’t control. It just wasn’t in my hands. Recognizing this uncertainty, I tried for hours and days with my analytical abilities to play chess with reality, calculating each move until I had a known outcome. This left me more frustrated and mentally exhausted than I’d started out.
I couldn’t force it. So instead, I asked myself what would endure, with or without the temporary situation I was wrestling with. What would matter 40 years into the future? These were my answers, and I decided the time was right to share them:
- Business works better when a company is a medium to express what you stand for.
- Business works better when you care about the people you work with, and create a product which is an expression of those relationships.
- You can never have ownership over someone else in work or in love. You can only choose to spend mutually beneficial time together.
- When there’s no longer mutual benefit, reassess your terms.
- Simple decency always trumps formal protocol.
- Generosity, and creating experiences which make people smile, usually get you more than you started with.
- If you love what you do, you’ll profit more.
- If you want to make big gains you have to be vulnerable.
- Define your standards. When push comes to shove, maintain them.
The world will always be too complicated for us to know every answer ahead of time. Pick your axioms, and in moments of doubt, fall back on them.
Thanks to Buster Benson for his ‘A Few Rules I Try to Live By’ which helped inspire the thoughts above.
When 2012 began, I was determined to make it a year of change.
Personally, I forged relationships with people who I expect to know for years, and strengthened existing ones with friends and family. Some fell apart, and came back stronger. I can honestly say I’ve never been surrounded by better people than I am today. I started a yoga practice. I began weight training. I’ve been experimenting with how personal discomfort can be a teaching tool.
2012 has been exceptional. My only regret is not having been present for more of it. I’ve dug into whatever’s come my way, and sometimes, I’ve let the hours and days pass me by. I haven’t taken sufficient time to think.
My hope is that 2013 will be similarly dynamic, but I want to increase how much I synthesize the experiences I’m having. We only get one life, and I want to make sure I’m feeling the seconds.
Here’s to lots of laughter and learning in 2013. I’m glad to be on this ride with all of you.
I first started frequenting NYTM about 4 years ago, when I was still working in the service industry, and decided that tech was the biggest untapped opportunity in my home city. I met Tony there the very first time the meet up gathered at FIT, instead of the IAC center (remember that?). I struck up a conversation with Peter Chislett, who was kind enough to lend me his iPhone charger after the demos wrapped up, and promptly introduced me to Tony. We hit it off instantly. I explained that I was looking to start getting more involved in the tech ecosystem, and he asked me on the spot to come by New Work City to discuss how we could get me involved in their efforts there.
After that chance meeting, I started running events for New Work City, designing gatherings for the membership, and interfacing with other leaders from around the fledgling tech community who often used NWC as their base. This taught me a lot of what I know today about community management and led to my picking up freelance work through the relationships I built. Eventually, this allowed me to move from the service industry, to my chosen industry full time. To this day, nearly every friendship or working relationship I have has come from either NYTM or Tony and New Work City.
Now, Tony is running for the NYTM board.
Tony to me is the picture of what NY tech could and should be. He’s welcomed in and connected countless people — I’m just one of many who’s benefitted from his enthusiasm and kindness. He’s a founding member of this community. The years he’s spent building New Work City points to his steadfast commitment to making relationships and infrastructure that last.
We’ve got the opportunity to have someone as exceptional as Tony be part of our leadership in NY tech. Let’s not miss out on this.
Every few weeks, Meghan Gill and I pick a weekend to get together in either her neighborhood in Queens, or in mine in Brooklyn. We catch up over brunch and then spend a few solid hours writing code. The work she does for 10gen and the work I do for Nodejitsu are similar in many ways, and it’s great having the chance to become a better developer alongside someone who’s working on the same kind of developer community questions as I am.
This past Sunday, an interesting thought came up. We were talking about how community efforts at 10gen took shape when the company first started, and how they’ve evolved since. She talked about the process of starting off as an individual contributor, and moving to where she is now: facilitating the work of a team of individual contributors.
It got me wondering, is this the only way? Is it is always necessary for more mature community managers to become team leaders in order to feel their work is relevant? Or is it possible for a seasoned community manager to stay hands on working with their communities, facilitating interactions directly on the ground, and to still feel like they’re adding value and making traction in their careers?
In the software development world, there are typically two tracks for an engineer: become a manager, or remain an individual contributor. One is not regarded as being above the other. They’re both looked at as critical but different ways to add value. Baked into this is the fact that software engineering is a highly specialized skill, so the people doing the day to day work of making software are viewed differently than, say, those working on an auto assembly line.
As community management gets to be more mature, my peers and I are increasingly moving into team leadership roles. While it definitely suits many of us, I also think we’ve felt like since the product of our work isn’t code, we haven’t had much choice. We’ve needed to follow traditional business protocols that show when we’re stepping up. I wonder whether by following some traditional assumptions, we’re potentially misusing great talent.
As good companies move beyond the startup phase, and start considering what it takes to keep community managers (and teams of them) happy it’ll be an important thing to consider.
A few years ago when I left school and began exploring New York tech, the community was pretty much a hundred people in a room once a month for NYTM. This was before foursquare. Tumblr was a speck on the horizon. In my hometown, finance still reigned supreme. Since then, the community has grown to be thousands strong (NYTM’s current member count is 27K). NY has surpassed Boston as the country’s #2 tech hub. There are now hundreds of early stage tech companies here, and we’ve nurtured more mature players like Etsy and Meetup. Finance guys are jumping ship and trying to get into TechStars.
There’s just one problem.
NYC’s developer community is still a pale comparison of our West Coast counterpart. Our industries in NY have been dominated by the brightest minds in finance and media. That’s a great thing, but engineers here simply aren’t surrounded by people they can relate to. The result is that the developers who are in NY are missing the support structure, the exchange of ideas, and the technical mentorship that their counterparts in Silicon Valley benefit from. In order for developer culture to thrive here, developers can’t feel like the odd ones out.
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Opening night party is at Brooklyn Brewery on October 21st. See you there.
Communities and organizations are made of relationships. They consist of the connections we make between one another, and how we either move those connections forward or get in their way. It’s that simple.
Relationships which don’t benefit everybody don’t last. They may continue for awhile, because one person or group is in need of what they get from the other. The alleviation of their immediate short term pain is worth the hit they’re taking. But as soon as the one in the disadvantaged position gets the smallest edge on the situation, they’re going to look to flip the game. If you squeeze too hard on the advantage you have, you ultimately you lose a supplier, a team member, or a customer. So how can we can counter this natural, but totally destructive cycle?
I’ve become fond of a simple qualifying question:
Is this helping us both be the best version of ourselves?
Whether you apply this question to an interaction between two individuals or to whole subsections of a big group, the effect is the same. Personally, it gets me to stop thinking about the next few hours or weeks, and helps me to see things in terms of years and defining moments, how the small choices I make everyday actually make me who I am. It frames you and the other guy as both having valid goals and things you care about, and things you’re probably both working towards. If I’m squeezing the situation too hard, its the wake up call I need to stop.
Communities can’t thrive if the people in it are treating each other like resources to be exploited. Consider what it would be like if the relationship in question gave both parties extra strength and bandwidth so that you could both do what you do better. How would that get everyone where they want to go faster? Or make the relationship more durable? This line of thought is an insurance policy. First, you start with yourself. Then you figure out how to incentivize members to ask themselves this same question, and put the answers into action.
Have you ever seen this save working relationships? Alternately, do you think this approach is totally off? Hit me up in the comments.
Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with founders looking for advice on when to bring on a community manager. People are increasingly hiring for the role, but the question of when (and whether) it fits into the company is often still a mystery. To help everyone figure out what they want and end up happier, I’d like to shed some light for founders and potential candidates.
Hire a community manager if and when:
* You have users
It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this isn’t the case. There are lots of companies who hire someone with the community manager title to get users when they don’t yet have them. I believe that’s turning the wrong dial. Your initial users will come, or not, based on your product and if user adoption at the early stages is less than expected, you need to tweak and reflect on your product. Throwing another person into the mix will likely add to the confusion. Make sure you’ve got a healthy engaged user base to start with, before you consider hiring a community manager.
* Your interaction with your users has gotten to be more than you can handle
Having a sizable engaged user base on its own is key, but it isn’t enough. There needs to be an element of critical mass. What do I mean by this? In the best cases, a founder manages all interaction with users at the beginning. Support, customer feedback, and just being there until you know the key players by name. If the pieces are in place, these interactions will increase in depth and number. There’s going to be a certain point where the relationships are both too valuable not to nurture, but too numerous to keep up while also fulfilling other duties as a founder. This is when you might seriously want to consider bringing someone else on, but you need to think about one more important piece.
* You’re ready to put your customers at the center of your business for the long-term
This requires some self reflection. Building and scaling a people-centered business is both hard and insanely rewarding. I wrote a bit about in a previous post (Are You Ready to Run a Customer Centered Business?). Hiring a community manager is the single biggest step you can take towards investing in your users. If you want to make user happiness a core business competency, and create an ecosystem in which people can impact each other’s lives, go you!
I simply urge you to consider what you’re taking on preemptively and make this choice deliberately. There’s nothing worse than when the community manager is the only person in the company who really cares about the community. Think a few steps out and save yourself the internal strife later by deciding how much this matters to you now.
Just running through these bullet points giving a simple yes/no will provide visibility into whether it’s right to hire a community manager (or whether the company you’re interviewing with has it right). My hope is that this framework can help founders and candidates get more out of their efforts by providing a little more rigor, and setting expectations more effectively.
Four weeks ago I made a big move, quietly updated my Twitter bio, and dug into a new adventure. Now, I’m pleased to officially announce that I’ve joined Nodejitsu as their Head of Community.
The decision to leave Shapeways was one of the toughest I’ve ever made. I watched the team in the NY office grow five fold, saw the community double in size, and connected personally with the creatives who are pioneering 3D printing. They remain close friends and it was an honor to be able to contribute when I did.
To my many friends who have been there throughout this transition, listening, looking out for me, and when necessary, calling me on my BS — thank you. I’m humbled to be working alongside you while we make our little corner of the world a better place. I’m excited for this new story to unfold. Let’s do this!
One of the rules of thumb I use to judge the quality of my work is how much interacting with community members feels like interacting with friends. This is especially evident in how you handle disappointing people.
If I have to let my community down (which at some point will be inevitable), it should feel like I’m having to disappoint people who know me, put their trust in me, and who expect better. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. But the discomfort far outweighs the value. By the same token, if I do a gut check, and it doesn’t feel pretty much synonymous, that’s a sign that I need to reorient my approach. Time to reassess.
The irony of course, is using a more emotionally difficult feeling as a rule of thumb for something positive. It’s something you find a lot when you work with communities — embracing difficult moments with your members is one of your greatest strengths. It ultimately put you on the path for a deeper, happier connection with them.
Running a company whose end goal is making your customers happy is hard. Obviously running a company at all is hard, but a business all about your users is fundamentally different. Have you considered what it means to be responsible to for a lot of people’s happiness, to set that as part of your mission?
Everyone says they’re pro-user. Let’s face it, nowadays if you’re building something on the internet, you’re expected to talk that game. But it’s important for founders and their teams to understand what they’re signing on for. Once you’ve gotten your first few thousand users, and maybe closed a round of investment, and are suddenly hunkering down to try and create exponential growth, and thinking your very first thoughts about scaling, a shift begins to take place.
To build from this point with a close connection to your customers is going to be a whole different kind of hard. Have you thought about how it’ll change your day to day? More bug reports with more urgency, apologies, communication around issues. Having a developed understanding of how your community will respond to things affects your decision making. Before you’re at the point of hiring someone to lead your community, figure out whether or not you want a community.
Assuming you’ve done a good job, and hired the right community lead, they’ll be in your face all the time with things that need to be handled for your customers. They’ll push you to make things better for them. You need to know whether that’s something you want.
If you don’t feel you’re suited to run a community driven company, that’s ok. There are verticals and business models, even in tech, that don’t require you to place user engagement and happiness as your raison d’etre. But do some soul searching beforehand about yourself, your team, and what you want to build, and know where you fall on that spectrum.