📻 — Monica Lent on Community as a Foundation to Kick-Start Your Product and Brand

Good morning yenizens!

Today’s issue is badass. Why? I tweeted this 4 days ago:

🛑 — This is Part 1 in a 2-Part Series! Tomorrow, I’ll break-down how I used the exact same workflow for building this very project!

So make sure to subscribe!

To infinity & community,

— john

The Product Bakery Podcast (hosted by Alex Dapunt / Christian Strunk) is a new find for me that I immediately fell in love with! As a child of the early-80’s I love all-things retro gaming and anything 8-bit — it’s just the 🔑s to my ♥️.

On this episode Monica Lent drops community & product-building bombs, sharing her process both strategically and tactically. My tweet, above, really captures it as well as anything so here are my personal notes on this #deepdive — enjoy!

From the show notes:

Monica Lent is a passionate Software Engineer & Entrepreneur with more than 10 years of experience. Next to her first startup Affilimate, she regularly launches new products, services, and communities such as Blogging for Devs.

Monica shares in this episode many practical tips and examples on how to build up your own community and the need for companies to move beyond acquiring customers and connecting closer to their audiences. Here’s Monica’s homepage and twitter.

Here are Monica’s reads & recommendations shared in the show:

One Startup a Month?! Yes.

To start, Monica shares early in the program that she is currently building one startup a month and, as she explains that this is actually much more possible than most folks imagine.

Building the product itself, she mentions, only takes “a small amount of the month” while the rest is talking to people, customers (asking folks in advance), and trying to find the “patterns in the wild”; validating quickly on Twitter and “keeping it lean” on the customer discovery / development side in an effort to focus on production.

The “product” that Monica uses as an example is her paid community — she used a “rolling launch” using services like Product Hunt as marketing channels and podcasts and features in other channels.

She opened the paid community first to “beta users” (100 in total) and switched it to paid and had great success, making $5k in the first week! So, there was a lot to do.

She opted not to do a paid newsletter and instead decided to build a “community garden,” a model that Rosie Sherry supports, curating the content that is developed by the community and knowledge that is being created by the members.

“Community” versus “Customer Base”

In regards to “community” vs “customer base” she doesn’t really think in those terms. Instead, she focused on being a “place of support” and help for the member so that they can achieve the results that they both desire.

Monica also mentions that community “scales differently than product” and she specifically calls out the sentiment one might have for a “community member” versus a customer, especially in a scaled SaaS business for instance — they just do not have the same “dynamic”.

There also seems to be an optimal size for communities and she’s not entirely sure how one can scale it effectively a’la SaaS — I think this distinction is interesting and useful, but, incomplete as I see my customers as-part of my community or, in many ways, the community.

This might seem like semantics but I think it’s an important difference as I have a larger, more encapsulating definition of what community is to a financial institution (i.e. business) including even the paid staff members, volunteers, and (*gasp*) the venture capitalists. 😜

Community as Product Feedback

One of the more obvious benefits that Monica shares is how useful her community is for getting direct feedback on the product itself — they can just chat and communicate directly with their members whenever they need.

Folks can ask questions about their websites and even get help from other members who are more advanced and experienced. She then bundles up those updates in “digests” that might work to help connect members more directly with one another on specific topics.

She does have a Facebook Group as well that is used for her SaaS business as community and support. Facebook still is a great community-building tool, despite how much many of us may not like the parent organization.

The Importance of Building a Community for Business

I love this:

The best thing to do when building a product is to become friends with your users. People will more likely give you feedback, more likely ask you a question before buying a competitor’s product, it raises the “affinity” of the user to the product and brand.

Monica Lent

It’s also much, much better if other folks are talking about your product instead of yourself — it lends a lot more credibility than just saying “I’m so great!” Your community is your “most die-hard” and passionate users and are the ones who will most-likely refer their friends.

When the community is engaged, she can find these patterns in the content and see what resonates the most for features. She can also repackage the content into newsletter format or even use it as material for future products.

This is a clever use / re-use model of content that I’ve been using for decades so I know that it works! Monica’s tacit understanding of composability is evident and what I imagine she’s doing is essentially creating bespoke components that she can assemble at-will into a variety of outcomes, products, and services based on user-behavior, requirements, demand, or just plain interest.

💣 — Monica is someone we all should follow because it’s clear that she came to drop bombs.

A product-within-a-product is a fun idea too.

Validate Value

Monica is fair and kind when she mentions that most folks do not know how to validate a product concept and/or prototype until you “ask someone for something” — in Monica’s case in the first step was to ask for an email and then it was then asking for money.

Getting this financial commitment was something that Monica really highlights as important because it clears a pathway for better product design and development.

A good example of this is Affilimate.

She started with a waitlist (in Facebook) and she got 60 sign-ups. Then, she did customer interviews with the folks, explaining how she was going to manage affiliate links and helping them understand how to make more money.

After interviewing she realized that there were two types of users: Power users and normal users with features specific to each. Now, they are focusing on building features for the customers who love the product and then expanding into outreach, marketing, and larger sales.

She is still trying to figure out Product-Market Fit (not Community-Market Fit!) and she’s not working on Affilimate alone — she’s got a partner as well.

What Skillsets Required to Launch a Paid Community?

Monica opens this up by sharing a quote via Justin Kan:

First time founders are obsessed with product. Second time founders are obsessed with distribution.

Justin Kan

Monica shares that she’s had to learn this the hard way (as most folks do, including me)! I’ve written on this topic way too much!

She has a good advantage and skillset of being a developer so she’s able to execute on her ideas than some other folks, but, with the rise of the #lowcode and #nocode movements, there shouldn’t be much trouble for folks who are motivated to build something they’re super-proud of and that makes them money to support their needs.

A Proven Product & Community Playbook

A simple product and community-building playbook that Monica has used (and many others before) is as follows:

  1. Start with a landing page with an email / waiting list subscription, get as many emails as you possibly can.
  2. Connect & interview subscribers to understand their problems.
  3. Build a product that solves their problems.
  4. Launch to the email list from the landing page.
  5. Start building a community and profit!

She recommends starting with an info product first because it’s easier to convince someone to buy a product one-time instead of a subscription although it’s possible to use a similar approach to building a SaaS product but, as she mentions, it will more than likely take a longer time.

For the record, I have used this workflow a number of times with very successful outcomes, including an indie macOS app that won “Best Apps of the Year” via Apple, 2 years in a row! 😂

I recently shared a bit more of that story in a tweetstorm:

I am also using this very same playbook as we build out the yeniverse together! I’ll share those exact steps in detail in tomorrow’s issue!

As Monica mentions, it’s better to start as small as possible, recommending a number of resources that have helped inspire her (they are listed above near the top of the issue under “reads & recommendations“).

She reminds the audience to start small, especially for those who are considering moving to a SaaS-type of product. She shares candidly and openly her own struggles and specifically calls out that she doesn’t feel as if she has built-out her distribution model quite yet for her own SaaS.

The point is, it’s a long journey on the road to building a SaaS because managing support and building a complex product with limited resources / solo (small team) is still incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and energy-intensive. This is in addition to any other life matters (COVID anyone? Please, vaccine, soon!).

She shares her goal of wanting to get to $1M in ARR and perhaps even selling it through a sale or acquisition. She’s still learning and using the 12 Products in 12 Months as a way to keep her from “going back to work at one of the big companies” — she loves working for herself!

Bootstrapping or Venture Capital or Spending Money on Advertising?

Monica shares her experience with advertising and working through those advertising markets like Facebook ads — she hasn’t had much success.

She wants to learn more and hire folks who can specialize in these areas in the future. She continues to share that her experience in venture-backed companies wasn’t for her and that type of commitment (long-term) is not what she’s doing right now.

I love this honesty, by the way, because it really shows her self-awareness about who she is and where she is in life. These types of honest assessments are so crucial because they help us not just unpack our decision making process (and the outcomes) but they also help us understand where we need to go next.

It personally took me awhile to figure these types of things out and I’m so impressed with Monica — big fan!

She shares that if she had a long-term goal or passion it would make a bit more sense to raise venture capital but that’s not something that she has right now.

5 Quick Tips on Building Community for Your Next Product or Brand

They really tee’d this up! 🤣

This is essentially parts of the “playbook” as-shared above but with a bit more detail from Monica as well as a few additional notes around technology and workflows.

So, without further ado, here are Monica’s 5 quick tips on building community for a new product or brand:

  1. Starting with a newsletter is a very natural way to start a community because it creates a common goal and direction for a concentrated amount of people. Some people build paid communities “on top” of the newsletter as well. Having a well-known and/or well-distributed newsletter can help you build trust and win customers long-term. This is especially useful for SaaS companies and products.
  2. Optimize your welcome email! You want to start having one-on-one conversations with your newsletter subscribers and if your welcome / intro email is optimized, you can get better responses for feedback and customer interviews. She notes, very importantly, that existing community members want this type of engagement from you.
  3. Start with a waitlist but challenge them to give more. Monica shares that she sent personal emails to all ~113 folks who initially signed-up. This level of personalized attention goes a long way! She optimize her responses around the folks who would give the “best answers” to her questions which is essentially a “pre-qualifier” for moving the customer through the discovery and sale process. She then targeted those folks specifically when it came time for conversion.
  4. Community is not about the tools or the features but about connections and the value of the conversation. She reminds the listeners that the “product” that your selling to your customers aren’t the technology platform that you’re renting or using — it’s the value that is created by the people there, amongst themselves, on the platform and outside the platform(s).
  5. Being mindful of who you attract and especially mindful of the personas that you’re attracting with your content. She cites her desire to attract bloggers of all stages on their journey and counsels folks to think intentionally about these personas so you can create the right value for the right persons.

Finally, she reminds folks to favor personal attention and touch over automation, which is a perfect reminder of how it’s not about things like community-product fit.

Monica ends her podcast interview by sharing a little about her SEO course / product that she’s building as well as a new product that she’s released that tracks developer blogs.

Wow. What an interview. Whew! Thank you Monica!

And don’t forget to subscribe for tomorrow’s issue where I share how I’m using the exact same playbook / workflow for YEN.FM and our community at-large, the yeniverse!

Oh, hey… here are a few good reads:

Have a good day folks!