Why Startups Should Care about Building Community

The following guest post was written by David Spinks, CEO and co-founder of Feast. Attend CMX Summit on Feb 6th in San Francisco to learn how to build thriving communities with talks from 500 Startups, Apple, Airbnb, Behavioral/Community Psychologists and more.

I know, it’s a bold request to ask a startup to focus on anything other than their product and growth.

I know, I’m a startup founder myself.

I know that time is our most limited resource and that you have to say no to a lot of things in order to maintain your focus, and sanity.

So why am I writing a post telling you to focus on community? Because I’ve seen first hand, and in the example of many other startups, the power that community can wield even at the earliest stages of your growth.

Lyft, Airbnb, Eventbrite, Lift, Foursquare, Soundcloud, Skillshare, Udemy, Github, Binpress, Yammer, Hootsuite, Buffer…I could rattle off startups all day who have invested a great deal of time and resources into building community. Social products, b2b, b2c, technical products, toys, fitness, non profits… name the kind of company and I can name several companies building a strong community around their brand and products.

Why is that? With all the things a startup has to figure out, why do they focus on community?

Create highly engaged evangelists

The simplest and most valuable thing you’ll get from a community is highly engaged customers or users.

When done right, your community creates a sense of belonging. Members feel like they’re part of something important and they’re proud, they feel special. Their experience with your brand then becomes so much more than just products and features. They develop strong emotions around your brand. They build relationships with other members.

My mentor Aki Sano once said something along the lines of “You’ll know you have a great business when you can find just one person who’s absolutely in love with your product”.

I’ve seen first hand how building a strong community can create an environment where your members do in fact fall in love with your brand.

This high engagement leads to the rest of the benefits…

Stay close to your customers

Perhaps the most important value is that you get to stay very close to your customers.

Your community = your customers.

By creating a community where your users/customers can interact, converse, share and help each other, it gives you an opportunity to be a fly on the wall and learn more about who they are.

There are things you’ll learn from watching them talk to each other that you’ll never see in a survey.

And when you have a highly engaged community, you have a pool of customers that you can call on individually to give feedback, test features, hop on a call or whatever else you need to do to learn more about their experience.

Support network for reviews and rebuttals

For many companies, getting good reviews early on can make your product. Your community will jump at the opportunity to support you and show you some love.

They’ll also be a great resource for testimonials. When we needed some more customer quotes for our homepage, it was as simple as posting in the community and asking for volunteers.

At the same time, there’s a good chance if you’re building up some steam that there will be trolls out there to pull you down. Your community can be the people who stand up to defend you and call out their bullshit.

Build the foundation for a movement

A community comes in many forms. It’s greatest form, some might say, is a movement.

You’re an entrepreneur, which probably means you’ve set your sights on a real big vision. You’re not looking to just make a quick buck. You’re in it to change the world.

Well, community is what can help you get there. All of the massive companies you know today started with a small, loyal community. That first community serves as the foundation for growth for years to come. Look at Facebook, Instagram, Ebay, Pinterest, Craigslist, Couchsurfing, Meetup, Yelp… I can go on. They all started with a small, loyal community that developed into a larger movement.

Improve your customers’ experience

Humans need community. It’s helped us evolve and survive since the beginning of our time. It touches on a basic human need.

So when we have the chance to become part of a community and feel that sense of belonging, we’re happy. That means that community can serve as an added bonus for your product. Not only do your customers get access to your features, they get access to a support group, a network of peers.

Most products become better when people don’t feel like they’re alone in the game.

Defensibility

Anyone might be able to copy your product, your brand, your design and even your voice. But there’s one thing no other company will ever be able to copy and that’s your community.

There’s no faking community. A true community is built on relationships that can only be formed through genuine interactions and a dynamic of trust and respect. This dynamic can take a long time to develop.

Your community members are loyal, and they’ve invested time into building a reputation amongst the group of peers that you’ve brought together. It will take a lot for another company to take that away from you.

Make more money

In the end, it’s just a good business strategy. Your community members, being more loyal and engaged, are more likely to come back and buy again.

Make people happy. That’s what it’s all about. If you can do that, with your product and potentially with a community, you’re on your way.

Now I’m not saying every startup should blindly jump into building a community now. It’s important to understand why you need a community. It’s important to tie it back to your goals and make sure it’s in line with everything else you’re working on.

So take a look at what it is you’re really hoping to accomplish and then think about how a community might be able to help you achieve those goals.

Not sure where to get started?

If you want to become more efficient at building community, and understand how community dynamics work, come join us at CMX Summit on Feb 6th in San Francisco.

We’re bringing together some of the world’s leading minds with completely unique perspectives on how to build communities. Or if you’re looking to hire a community manager, you’re guaranteed to meet the industry’s best at CMX.

Mark Saldaña

Resident marketing manager and baker at 500 Startups.

Never miss a beat

  • Tom Jackson

    As co-founder of a soon to launch startup, this is very top of mind. GetSatisfaction seems to be the standard. But for a boot-strapped startup, are there other recommended community building platforms that don’t hit the wallet so hard? Thx

    • Jonathan Peterson

      Hey Tom. I have thought about that same question for a while too. And the reality is NO. If you want to get traction and really scale your startup you need money and lots of it and you need to use it all on advertising. Yeah, you could just work on your twitter, facebook, etc accounts but come on, who’s going to follow you? You have no credibility and 0 user base so your going to be forced to fake it till you make it. (fake profiles, fake activity, and fake fans.)

      You could get really creative with some email campaigns, thats free right? Take AirBNB for example. They hired a marketing company that had a BOT scrape email addresses off of craigslist adds that had to do with rental homes and then they spammed the hell out of them… Now they say they didn’t condone this type of marketing and fired the firm but you know deep down inside they were like JACKPOT!!!

      Or paypal that listed stuff for sale on ebay and told the auction winner that the only way to pay for the item was with PayPal… LOL… Amazing.

      So there are ways (not most ethical) but you have to be very creative.

      Another solution would be to get your @$$ into some accelerator/incubator program similar to a Y combinator or 500 startups and get some publicity through them and the opportunity to get funded at the end of the semester, because we all know thats the only way to get funded by Venture Capital Funds. Unless you come from a previous startup that was funded.

      What I would like to hear are more stories like pay pal and AirBNB and how large companies like them got their first 100 or 1000 users. Anyone know a good story?

      • Tom Jackson

        The nature of the service we will offer doesn’t lend itself to these type of aggressive efforts (plus I’m not sure I’d have the stomach for it), so we need to find a balance between sheer effort, external partners (we’ll be in a B2B2C situation), money and growth. And coffee. Lots of it.

        • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com/ David Spinks

          I would ignore all of that advice. But that’s just me.

        • Ivan Eustace

          Hi Tom. This is a useful video from Seth Godin on “tribes” and how the internet has enabled communities. Well worth a look and really helped my thinking. http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_on_the_tribes_we_lead.html

          • Tom Jackson

            Thanks Ivan. I’ll check that out now. I like the way Seth thinks, plus I need a break from software testing :)

    • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com/ David Spinks

      I almost always go with facebook groups when I’m just getting a community started. They’re extremely effective and versatile. I know a lot of successful companies and startups that still use them as their main platform for their community.