Important Community Questions for New (and Big) Projects

Not all startup ideas are big. In fact, all of them necessarily start small, solving a singular problem really well. A few “breakout” but most of them begin—and end—as small, hobby projects that only ever solve their creator’s personal problems.

I know because I’ve built hundreds—from browser plugins to desktop macros to small web-based “scripts” that save me a few seconds per action—most of them never see the light of day beyond my own notebook computer.

I won’t lie: It can be difficult to determine which ones should survive and which ones should most-definitely die. Every entrepreneur and project creator has their own process of coming to terms with this inevitable fork in the road—my process has always been community-driven.

You see, big decisions feel heavy when done alone but can feel much lighter and easier to work through when done with others.

This is especially true when the community is strong, where a shared sense of purpose is built and where a small group of folks agree that this project (whatever it might be) is worthy of our most precious, valuable, and limited asset: Our time. We all have to work—we might as well work on things that really matter!

It’s as if Twitter read my mind: Magically, their algorithm put a timely quote into my feed which touches on these subjects and I marinated on it with anxious excitement:

Pick a big enough project, something that’s really hard, something that over the years you can work on.

Jessica Livingston

The truth is that I’ve been building community-centric, social software for quite some time—one could say that I’m more than obsessed with things like community building and community data!

From the very beginning of my technology career I’ve been learning (i.e. “getting schooled”) about the potential and power of community by, first, following and studying them closely, and then building tools to serve them.

The results have never ceased to amaze me as I have experienced, first-hand, what people can do via the distributed and decentralized web. Networks, tools, and workflows like Twitter, Slack, and GitHub were built with collaboration and communication as fundamental parts and their communities made them strong, meaningful, and profitable (eventually).

But there’s still more work to be done in community tooling.

Datecraft (circa 2008): A dating website for the World of Warcraft community.

I know this because I continually encounter the same challenges, every single time I start a new project! When I was building my one of my first startups, a dating website for World of Warcraft players, I shared this incredible learning, just before a relaunch of the version 2.0:

But here’s the thing: One of the most amazing things that I’ve learned in the past number of months or so is the power of real and intimate online communities.  And the passion that a community has for its online identity.

The result?

Trust, loyalty, a feeling of overwhelming support, and a lively membership that enjoys each others company and has enjoyed making new friends and relationships.  It’s been truly inspiring as I’ve met hundreds of people and chat with a few daily about life, relationships, ramen noodles, the dark knight, etc…

These conversations and relationships are as deep as an online friendship can get, and the farthest from superficial that I would have dared to imagine when I first launched the site many months ago.

July, 2008

Clearly, this was one lesson that I would never forget—and ever since then I’ve intentionally implemented community-building as a fundamental part of not just product design and development, but of business building, period!

In other words, I’ve learned that community development (also known in most circles as “customer development” but it’s much bigger than that exclusively) is something the business should invest just as much as software development.

In fact, I’d argue strongly that the activities of building a community should start way before any software is written (and those activities should never stop). Although this may make the most sense for early-stage startups or entirely new product lines, it’s really a universal business truth because any company’s (future) customers originally begin as just community members who haven’t purchased a product or service yet.

Consequently, every new project that I start must first begin with asking (and answering) important questions like, even before writing any software:

  1. Who is my community around this project and how do I define it (and how do they define it)?
  2. Where do these people live online (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc.)?
  3. Who are the more engaged folks?
  4. Why are they so engaged? What draws them to the project? What draws them to me and the founding team?
  5. What am I (already) doing that keeps them engaged?
  6. How did we first connect? How long have we been in a relationship (e.g. followership)? What were the specifics of that first encounter? How has our relationship grown since?
  7. Are folks connected to me via multiple social networks or just one? Why?

This list isn’t comprehensive but I always run through this list internally as things begin to spin up and it occurred to me that many of these questions have discrete and concrete values tied to them! In other words, there’s data in them hills and I think it’s high-time that I take a deeper look.

So that’s what we, literally, plan on doing.

You see, we believe that building our community and really understanding who they are is more important than just building yet-another product to sell. Sure, we’ll get there, but, we’ve prioritized knowing our customer before building something for a customer we don’t really know.

Naturally, understanding and investing in the community around your business is, well, good business for every business—they are, and will always be, the very lifeblood of a healthy, profitable, and happy company.

This is even more true when you begin to expand the definition of community a bit wider. For instance, the “community” around YEN includes the following:

  1. The founders
  2. Our staff and extended team
  3. Our investors (venture firms and angel investors — 👋🏼!)
  4. The early beta testers — you all are amazing!
  5. Folks on Twitter, YouTube, and the newsletter
  6. And many independently managed, user-generated communities, some that we’re aware of and many that we are not!

When you start thinking about community in these terms you begin to understand that any eventual product that tackles this space will be necessarily large; ergo, it’s going to take a significant amount of time to build (h/t Jessica Livingston).

You’d effectively have to tackle the entire “community stack,” as I like to call it, that includes both internal and external tools because your community straddles it all. This effectively means that you’ll end up building features that will touch most of the organization’s other (if not all) systems of record.

But, we’ll get there eventually and I promise that we’ll do it together. I hope you can follow along in our growing #yeniverse and join me on Twitter, our YouTube channel, and our newsletter as we’re doing most of our intentionally community building (and product testing) there!

My hope is that via Twitter / YouTube we can continue to build a strong and diverse community of #doers, #creators, and #builders that encourages each other to build meaningful projects, companies, and communities!

And I believe, if I can be so bold, that that’s an objectively good use of our time.