Makers and Managers: The Community Version

I recently caught up with a good friend who also works with the developer community. They spend their days at one of NY’s more mature tech startups, and we discussed how community efforts took shape in the early days, and how they’ve evolved. They spoke of the process of starting off as an individual contributor, and moving to where they are 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. In organizations that know what they’re doing, one is not regarded as being above the other. They’re both viewed 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 those working on an 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.

Community Interactions: The Most Important Question You Can Ask

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 involved 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 you both extra strength and bandwidth so that you could each do what you do better. How would that get everyone where they want to be faster? Or make the relationship more durable? This line of thought is an insurance policy.

The only way to start is with yourself. Then you figure out how to incentivize your closest confidantes in the community to ask themselves this same question, and to share your answers or, as the case may be, your failings with each other. A small subset of a group practicing being thoughtful and measured in a shared effort in the face of conflict can change the nature of a whole network.

When to Hire a Community Manager

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.

Disappointing Users = Disappointing Friends

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. 

Are You Ready to Run a Customer-Centered Business?

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.

The Importance of Informality

How informal is your team? Do people follow social protocol, or display certain types of etiquette? If so, do all those little things and the extra seconds and thought cycles people spend on them move your company’s mission forward when aggregated? 

Informality is one of the most essential ingredients in enabling fluid exchanges of information between people. If you’re willing to set aside some of the established ways of operating socially, because you agree amongst yourselves that they’re unnecessary, you’re making yourself more vulnerable. It’s about being just a little unguarded. If you’re doing that all at the same time, together, that fosters trust.

And I don’t need to tell you that trust and free flowing information are crucial when a group of people need to pull together to solve difficult, exciting problems.

Informality is also a happy by-product. An output, not an input. Informality arises because of the other things you’re doing right. There are external signals associated with informality, especially in the corporate world, but just because an office lacks suits doesn’t mean the people in it trust one another. Don’t confuse the external signals with the internal substance.

The meaning of work, and the relationships we have with our coworkers are transforming fast. So what are you doing to foster trust?

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

This is Part Four in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

Somehow I’ve reached the 4th post in my experiment. Nice. I’ll end off with some suggestions on where community managers can look in order to get a deeper understanding of our own work.

Even though companies hiring people to nurture communities is a new thing, the dynamics of communities go back a looong way. So its not surprising that lots of other disciplines have great bodies of knowledge to draw from.

If you’re like me, and are trying to seek out and learn from a few of them, here are some places you might want to start:

1) Open source

Open source is pretty much the grand daddy of modern digital communities. People donate their time to a project to contribute to the greater good, and the results are owned by everyone. Now if your community surrounds a for-profit product, its probably structured a little differently. But when you’re considering how to create buy-in and foster a distributed sense of ownership, there’s much to be learned from open source practices. To start, check out the Starfish and the Spider, and read up extensively on Linux.

2) Behavioral Psychology

The study of why we do what we do is pretty important when you’re looking to reach large groups of people and persuade them towards positive actions. Like it or not, as humans we have patterns to the way we respond to things, and behavioral psychology puts many of those patterns into tidy little packages. Influence by Robert Cialdini is a fun read on the topic.

3) User Experience and Interaction Design

UX design is all about understanding your users, and Interaction Design deals with crafting sequences that engage and delight them. They shape the way a platform interacts with its users, then we as community managers mold the way users interact with one another atop that platform. After users have spent some time with your product, usually they begin to have suggestions, which can then be sent back to Product, creating a positive feedback loop. Getting to understand how product designers think, and working together seems wise, given the meaningful ways our work impacts each other. I strongly suggest reading Seductive Interaction Design, and Subject to Change.

I hope that as community management develops, we all get smarter about drawing from established disciplines. The sooner we can put into perspective where this stuff comes from, the more effective we’ll be.

Community vs. Marketing

This is Part Three in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

What’s the difference between community and marketing? Moving from the all-encompassing view I took in my last post, and back to the more specific realm of web companies, this is a question that me and my peers are asking often as we figure out our teams and our strategies.

This would be my take on it: metaphorically, marketing gets people off the street and in the door, and community makes sure they want to stay once they’re there. They’re situated at different parts of the “funnel”.

I tend to find that doing marketing work vs. community work really do involve different types of thinking. In the marketing mindset, you’re thinking in terms of what’s going to catch people’s eye, and how to maximize appeal. When you’re in the community mindset, I find you do more thinking about the emotions and the behaviors of large groups of people, and trying to tweak a network to maximize harmony. They both still have a lot to do with company values and identities, which is why people in both roles need to see eye to eye.

Especially in really early stage companies, one person often fulfills both needs. In the context of the startup where everyone wears 5 hats, this makes sense. However, what’s best from a community perspective isn’t always best from a marketing perspective. That’s why when your company gets to the point where it makes sense to have one person handling marketing and another heading up community it can be a beautiful thing, so long as they’re upholding the same values.

What Are Communities Made Of?

This is Part Two in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

For the second week of my experiment, I want to share thoughts on something I’ve been working to crack for a long time. What makes a community?

For those of us asked to build communities for a living, we really need to define the overarching principles of what constitutes them. While the internet is one of the best community building tools of all time, our thinking shouldn’t be limited to it. With this mind, here’s my best shot:

A community is a group of people who

1) Have a shared stake in something

It could be a baseball team, a neighborhood, or an online network. Usually, people have come to feel this ownership because they have similar values, and the thing they’ve chosen to identify with are an expression of their values. 

2) Are willing to provide value to one another without immediate return. 

Whether that’s neighbors holding the door for one another in a local shop, or an experienced member of an online forum doling out helpful advice to a newbie, a community doesn’t work if its members don’t feel its worth their time to ‘pay it forward’. Members give now to the community without asking for anything in return, because if they need something in the future, they have good reason to trust they’ll get it. Of course, this can get violated by certain individuals within the group. That leads to #3…

3) Have a set of guidelines for their dealings with each other.

In order for a community to flourish, there need to be social norms. You know how with your closest group of friends, you probably have a unique way of speaking with one another; you can trade comfortable good natured teasing, and at the same time, you know there are lines you just don’t cross. I see community guidelines being very similar, just on a larger scale. Customs for how people deal with one another are helpful for letting people know how they can share positivity, as well as for spotting someone who’s violating the code of conduct from a mile away. Guidelines are needed in order to keep the community cohesive.

I hope the above serves as a useful building block for others. This is a starting point though, not an end in itself. What do you think I’m missing?

When Building Communities, Simple Actions are Sometimes Most Powerful

This is Part One in a Four-Part Series on Observations on Community Building

I wanted to try an experiment on my blog where for four consecutive weeks, I write down and share one thought or observation that’s been kicking around in my head regarding communities, and aspects of building or managing them. I really hope to spark some conversation from others in the comments, so please weigh in.

To start with, I’ve been considering the pattern I keep on seeing where often times, the things that really make a powerful impact on communities are simple, low-tech actions, applied thoughtfully. No new platforms, new technologies, or engineering cycles needed.

For example, at Shapeways in the last few months, I’ve put together something we call the Materials Status Page. Each of Shapeways’ different materials have different lead times associated with them. But what happens when there are issues with a particular material, and things don’t go as planned? While our real goal is to make the Materials Status Page obsolete, for now, we update the page to reflect what speed the material is running at (green, yellow, or red like a traffic light), let you know how many days behind it is, and offer a comment or two to provide some context. This page is nothing more than a table, written in HTML, and me and another non-tech member of my team were able to throw it together (hi Nancy!) in an hour or so. But as soon as we published it, it was adopted instantly, getting passed around our community to help people in their decision making process about what and when they order. It’s also become an important tool for our Support team.

Another more general example is the rise of coworking, as a movement. It’s really nothing fancier than a bunch of people who have decided to sit together and work in a room (versus sitting alone to work in a different room). However, because of the people who have driven the movement, and the way they’ve set the tone, this incredibly simple act tends to draw a particular type of person (entrepreneurial, creative, people-driven) and the practice of coworking has created a happier, more meaningful work experience for thousands of people.

My point is that you don’t necessarily need anything complex in order to meet your community’s needs, or create meaningful experiences for them. It’s got a lot more to do with who you are, who your team is, and the motivating factors behind your actions.