Grace Chan, Ben Smith: Building An Online Community Is Hard Work

We have seen it all. We’ve seen entrepreneurs set out to build loyal communities for newly minted products only to forget that they are more than just sales assets.

We have seen self-directed, self-driven developer communities outlast the products they grew up around, such as the one for Delphi, which survived Borland’s decision to sell the development tool in 2008. These communities support, extend and champion products more than any company ever could.

We’ve seen products built to enable active communities, like Stack Overflow for software queries or LinkedIn for business professionals.

Picture-sharing sites, such as Flickr, enable communities to do things they never could do efficiently before. Communities like these always seem to beat out better, more user-focused products. Flickr, for example, and Instagram crushed technically more sophisticated products, including Bellamax.

Community sites, such as Facebook and even MySpace, made short work of better personal website tools, like Homestead.

Communities can be among a company’s most potent marketing assets, yet among the most difficult to manage. People say they want one without knowing how to build it, exactly why it is valuable or the lengths they need to go to protect it.

Our early efforts at Spoke led us to invest in algorithms to encourage community development, while Jim Fowler at Jigsaw build a community to grow his dataset. With a $142 million exit to Salesforce.com under its belt, it is hard to argue with the value Jigsaw created through community building.

Later at MerchantCircle, we often saw people try to duplicate what we were building. Industry analysts and investors constantly were surprised when they dropped by to find a small team of 40 people running MerchantCircle. That was because we were not really building our community; merchants from all over the country were building it. We were simply building tools and searching for ways to enable people to do what they had always wanted to do. In doing so, we were able to connect local consumers to these merchants.

At MerchantCircle, we made a conscious decision to do a few things to support our community:

  • We put in place a community team with people who were advocates for the merchants and who were their passionate supporters. Robyn Hannah, our head of community, spent late hours coaching merchants on much more than just how to use the service. In doing so she inspired the community.
  • We put in place a commitment that every time we pushed out new products we included 10 things merchants requested. We gave merchants with the product ideas credit in the eyes of the rest of the community.
  • We established roles for leaders of the community. We listened to them closely and had them out to meet with the engineering team a few times a year.
  • We tried to put the merchants first in any decision, made them the center of our discussions and highlighted active merchants with credit that went throughout the community.

As an entrepreneur setting out to build a community, remember that you can build a product to enable a community or you can build a community to embrace a product. Both are powerful and tough-to-build assets. Once you have decided which way to go, here are five things to consider.

  • The community is always right. It wants to accomplish something, whether it is Delphi or VMware developers who work to build great software or craft hobbyists on Etsy. What the community wants to accomplish is what matters.
  • Communities need leaders. As long as we can remember, David “I” Intersimone has led the Delphi community. He has been the advocate for the community through about eight CEOs assigned to “run” the Delphi product. David has always had one goal: supporting the community and the leaders that emerged.
  • Communities are assets. They cannot be treated like things to be mined every quarter. They have to be nurtured and protected. This means making tough tradeoffs to protect them from quarterly goals.
  • Community members are not always right. As the community grows, early community members will fight change, bad actors will abuse the community and people will seek to control rather than lead community members.
  • Communities cannot be copied readily. No matter how great your new product is, you will have a hard time convincing community members to jump ship from an old product and the community they helped build, as long as the product is still being supported.

At MerchantCircle, we tried to build a community of local merchants. In some cases we knew what we were doing and in many cases we messed up. In the end, the community was the core of what we kept coming back to.

As you build your community, remember you are building it for them, not for you.

(Grace Chan (pictured above) has worked in product and marketing at MerchantCircle, Yahoo!, and HotJobs.  Ben T. Smith, IV (pictured top) is a serial entrepreneur, investor, and advisor to technology and media companies. He the co-founder of MerchantCircle.com and Spoke.com, and a former partner at A.T. Kearney. Ben is available on btsiv.com)

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