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.


“Founder Labs was the best way to keep my thoughts innovative.”: The Volunteer Perspective

This post was first published on 7/25/11 on the Founder Labs blog.

Two weeks ago, Founder Labs’ first session in New York, lead by Shaherose Charania, wrapped up with an awesome demo night at the USV event space. Leading up to that evening, I spent many of my nights and weekends working with her and the teams as a volunteer, and I’m grateful to have been part of it.

What I found from the inside was that Founder Labs really is a different type of startup accelerator. The company is run by a team of brilliant and totally authentic women. When they advise on team dynamics, they’re leading by example. The participants were unique too. Every single team consisted of technical minds, business minds, and design thinkers. They all had widely varying experience and perspectives from all aspects of life. I spend my time in the startup world, and many of my coworkers and closest friends are white male engineers in their 20’s — and that’s ok. The thing was, you could tell at Founder Labs that everybody was a whole lot more interesting because there was so much variation in their ideas and teams. The positive feedback loop was apparent. 

Founder Labs is designed for professionals who are moonlighting. You go in and are encouraged to keep your day job, while being provided with a best-in-class network of mentors to help you figure out if you, and your idea, are cut out for building a real company. Of course, if you are doing this while keeping your day job, you’re making double the time commitment. Participants weren’t afraid to shed some blood, sweat, and tears.

At Shapeways, I’m focused on contributing each day to the long-term growth of a meaningful company. With Founder Labs, the opportunity for me to temporarily put myself back into the mindset of seed stage, pre-funding entrepreneurs was one of the best ways to keep my mind fresh and my thoughts innovative. 

If you’re thinking about whether or not to take the plunge as an entrepreneur, check the program out. It’s run by some seriously high caliber people, and rumor has it they may even be back in NY soon.


Unsexy Startups

When people build companies with amazing appeal in a hot space and get tons of press, I really respect that. I’ve found I have a soft spot though for those startups who aren’t as sexy and who’s products might take a little longer to take off, but in turn are dedicated to solving a thorny, very tangible human need. I have deep admiration for people in the tech space who know the impact they want to make on their users lives, take the long view, and are willing to forgo some of the quick glory in the interest of building a company that lasts.


Why I’m Loving the Switch to Ubuntu

Just about 2 weeks ago I made the leap. I finally wiped XP off my HP Mini netbook and installed Ubuntu. I’d wanted to make an operating system change for a good while, because Windows rapidly got to be the worst thing about my 10-inch laptop. At first I’d planned to Hackintosh but after some research found that my particular model tends not to take well to OSX. Ubuntu seemed like the next best option.  I still pushed it back though, mostly cause I was afraid of making some enormous, unforeseen mistake that made my netbook go from being really difficult to use (a la XP) to impossible to use (aka broken). I have not yet broken my computer and am really happy to report that Ubuntu is working beautifully. I think I may officially be a convert.

Here’s what’s shaping up to be awesome about it:

Ubuntu’s UI is both more technically oriented and user friendly at the same time, and honestly it’s very pretty. I love that my OS no longer bugs me about useless updates I don’t want and it’s way more stable than any Windows machine I’ve ever used. My battery lasts longer and the system lends itself to programming much more readily, which I want to spend a lot more time on. And, call me a hippie, but I love that this system was created through the hard work and collaboration of skilled people who pulled together to make this software available for free. I’ve only scratched the surface on Ubuntu’s inner workings, but I’m digging this.

Linux FTW, man.


Exhibit A

I decided it was time to make a space where I could write down my thoughts on tech, business, culture, policy, and whatever else that has my attention in any given moment…

This should be fun.