Courtland Allen: The Strategic and Tactical Elements of Community

Hey yenizens!

It’s hump day… … so… … yeah.

To infinity & community,

— john

Courtland Allen joins Ben Tossell of Makerpad for this candid chat between two experienced business & community builders!

This is the goods as these two unpack not just the high-levels of community building… but the nitty-gritty, this-is-how-I-did-it details.

As we do in these breakdowns… here’s my notes in easy-to-read, digestible format! And, if you like these, don’t forget to subscribe as I do these multiple times a week!

Let’s go…

Ben starts off by asking Courtland about Indie Hackers (one of the best networks out there!) and he shares that it’s still very much a small team with himself, his brother Channing, and a recent Stripe engineer who moved internally to help them work on the project.

I know that Rosie and Halden also contribute in very meaningful ways to the larger enterprise and what Courtland now calls a “small social network” — neat to hear it called that, to be honest.

Note: It’s also encouraging to hear about Stripe’s continued investment in IH! Very positive, indeed, especially since I love it so! This is also one of the reasons I’m a paying member of the Makerpad Community because these candid chats oftentimes give a “peek” behind the curtain, sotospeak, and you can find rare gems and insights from folks who are doing neat stuff!

Indie Hackers

Courtland shares a little bit more of the background of IH:

  • Got his start in SF, aiming for a “high-growth, unicorn” company and he was tired of the “get a billion dollars or die trying” type of lifestyle.
  • There wasn’t a lot of media / news of folks who were trying to build a non-unicorn type of company. He spent 3 days looking for folks just like him!
  • By identifying similar issues (via comments) he started engaging with them, interviewing them and asking questions that would help makers.
  • He took these answers and published them on a website called Indie Hackers in 2016! In 2017, Stripe acquired it and he reports directly to Stripe’s CEO.
  • There are > 100,000+ members now in the community forum, 12k+ products in their directory, and the goal is to continue to do what they’ve always done: Highlight stories of makers and share their learning — building in the open.
  • One of the inspirations what Hacker News but there was a “gap in the market” for indie makers. For Courtland, HN didn’t have the specific (community) features for a sub-culture of the larger community that were looking for the type of content that he wanted to read, digest, and share. Indie Hackers was, in part, a response to this bundling / unbundling.
  • Courtland shares that he had tried quite a bit of other projects and startup ideas before Indie Hackers but the key differentiator was that he was much more intentional about validating the idea before he started building. This is a common mistake for many builders, creators, and first-time founders!
  • A few tactical things that he wanted to have “in place” before he started building (Indie Hackers):
    • Is this an idea that I’m excited about working on for many years?
    • Is this an idea that my friends and family will like and understand? Courtland shares honestly that it was demotivating for him to work on things that those closest to him didn’t fully grok.
    • Is this an idea where there’s an obvious marketing / growth channel (“Because finding your first customers is really hard!”)?
  • He also attacked the IH opportunity from a “problem-first” perspective: Spending more time in the beginning of his startup foundation by taking his customer’s perspective instead of his own. By his own admission, this is “unnatural” and difficult to pull off (it takes practice).
  • Courtland uses the same framework for thinking about new communities as well. Questions he asks:
    • Why do people belong in communities?
    • Why do people want to belong in this (new) one?
    • Why do people converse, share, and exchange ideas?
    • How can we make all of the above better?
  • Super-tactical tip is to watch and look for the patterns of questions that people are asking — for instance, every one of his original customer base would at some point ask the question “How much are you making?” and Courtland realized this could become the basis of his interviews and eventual podcast show.
  • The focus on transparency in the early-stages of Indie Hackers made it a very unique website — now, as more folks are more candid about sharing actual revenue figures, this is less so but it was useful to help jump-start the growth.
  • Very inspired by Pieter Levels and Nomadlist for both the community and product (resources) that was created for the community (“compelling content”).
  • Courtland breaks down his step-by-step process of building Indie Hackers:
    1. Write compelling content based on his research (patterns of questions his customers were asking).
    2. Create a clear customer profile which will naturally exclude a large segment of the population.
    3. Create an easy way to connect with his readers (i.e. Mailing List) — a form that allows them to subscribe via email was all it took.
    4. Build a place to gather and connect — this ultimately became the forum and website.
    5. Email the growing list of readers compelling content every week while also mentioning the community forum. Rinse and repeat.
  • Courtland shares that he “seeded” the forum with “fake” accounts chatting around “weird topics” on the forum — it was effectively Courtland talking to himself, a time-tested, proven strategy! Reddit is most-famous for doing this in the early-stages of the community lifecycle.
  • Ben also shares his story of how he got Makerpad started which was fundamentally the same process: Create compelling content (AMAs via Slack for Product Hunt’s small-but-growing community) and then that continued to grow a following (mailing lists) until eventually they needed their own “place” to gather and connect deeper.
  • Courtland takes a moment to remind the audience about how important it is to take a moment, even as much as once a month, to reflect on the larger questions around the project, even questioning what you’re trying to accomplish with the project and/or community. This self-reflection and intentional time to retrospect is a super-power.
  • Courtland suggests that you consider 3 things when formatting / forming a community space: Time, space, and format. More specifically, how much content (and when), are their strict guidelines on format or organic?
  • When Ben asks Courtland about whether he’d “build or buy” he of course, being a software programmer, would write his own but for everyone else he suggests using free software, starting with a system tool like Slack, WhatsApp, or a Facebook group and migrating when you need to scale or need different / better features. It’s okay to “lose some folks” in the transitions because these folks are also not usually the most active.
  • Courtland shares that he IH was making close to ~$7.5k per month in ~8 months before being acquired by Stripe. Monetization models included sponsorships and advertising into the website, forum, and mailing list (~$400-500 per week).
  • A very fascinating deep-dive into the topic of communities versus platforms (and how to transform one into another) which is presently on Courtland’s mind as he continues to think about the next stage for Indie Hackers. Every successful platform eventually finds a way to incentivize users to share instead of just being in service of self-promotion.
  • Managing “churn” or “graduates” of a community can be difficult. For instance, eventually, a successful “indie hacker” builds a really big business and leaves “indie hacking” — how do we get them to never leave (and continue to build value for members)?
  • As we get to the end of the interview, Courtland doubles-down on a few things that he considered important as he started his project. The first is branding — he gave it a lot of thought and wanted his users to be called the same thing as “the product”. The second thing is tightly-coupled with the first, is how the site looked: He was very intentional about using dark and unique colors which helped the site stand out, making it memorable.

Whew! What a ride! Thanks again to Courtland, Ben, and the Makerpad Community for making this happen! I learned a ton.