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7 reasons why you should focus on building a community around your startup — January 21, 2014

7 reasons why you should focus on building a community around your startup

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

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

I know, because I’m a startup founder myself.

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?

7. 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…

6. 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.

5. 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.

4. 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.

3. 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.

2. 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.

1. 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 for your startup, and understand how community dynamics work, come join us at CMX Summit on Feb 6 in San Francisco. (Use promo code ‘thefetch25’ for 25% off.)

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.

About our contributor // David Spinks is the CEO of TheCommunityManager.com and LetsFeast.com. Lifelong student, community builder and writer. Follow him on Twitter via @DavidSpinks.

Image credit: California Pass

Interview: SF Local, Neal Gorenflo of Shareable — June 28, 2013

Interview: SF Local, Neal Gorenflo of Shareable

This week we interview Neal Gorenflo, Publisher of Shareable Magazine. Follow Neal on Twitter via @Gorenflo.

Neal Gorenflo
Neal Gorenflo

Shareable’s tagline is: “Sharing by design” – what exactly do you mean by that?

We mean sharing with the intention and rigor that comes with design. In other words, sharing done well.

I believe sharing takes more thoughtfulness than buying, but done well, yields much more satisfaction and practical value.

What were the greatest lessons you took away from moving from the corporate world to starting an online magazine?

That the power of commitment is immense. My commitment to sharing is the first time I’ve felt truly committed to anything. I had been searching for something that I could believe in my whole adult life. It was such a relief to finally find something that was meaningful to me. This commitment is my fuel and compass. It keeps me on track and powered up to do what ever it takes to reach my goals.

You’ve said that you are working towards a resilient society. Why is resilience important?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from “disturbances” and maintain structure and function.
This is important because life is characterized by cycles, which includes high points and also big setbacks. Setbacks are a chance to rebuild and gain even more resilience.

This is true for individuals and also our civilization. And in a time of big, converging, and urgent crises, we have a chance to go for something better than what’s been before.

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Do you find a political or socio-economic typecast exists when it comes to valuing the sharing economy? Is it for everyone?

Yes, but our story about who we are and what makes us strong in the US is badly distorted. We believe our strength comes from our individualism and our market economy. This is backwards – we’re strong and resilient because of our social ties, our cooperation, and what we share. We take all that we share for granted – language, culture, nature, scientific knowledge, information in the public domain, industrial standards, streets, sidewalks, parks, public transportation, open source software, and more. The health of our market economy depends on the health of these commons. These commons are the feedstocks and building blocks of creative activity. Without them we can’t be the individuals or have markets that we imagine are good for us.

This isn’t to say that individualism and individual freedoms aren’t important. They are, but I believe our real strength comes from being individuals and in community at the same time.

The remarkable book, Made In America, which analyzes the American character from the revolution to today, makes the case that yes, Americans are individualistic, but they also know that to get what they want, they must work together. Americans have a unique drive to work together to pursue common interests, and do it in a bottom up fashion relying on our own initiative aside from government. This is evident in our large and diverse nonprofit sector, and the incredible number of professional and trade associations.

A Henry Miller quote comes to mind:

“To be cured we must rise from our graves and throw off the cerements of the dead. Nobody can do it for another – it is a private affair which is best done collectively. We must die as egos and be born again in the swarm, not separated and self-hypnotized, but individual and related.” ~The Rosy Crucifixion

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What are your favoriting sharing and collaborative consumption startups?

I use Yerdle, RelayRides, Getaround, Sidecar, Lyft, Airbnb, TrustCloud, Scoot, TaskRabbit, Hub SoMa Coworking, and more. I actually conducted a life experiment called, The Year of Living Shareably, where I tried many of these services out for the first time. My family saved $17,000 that year and we made a bunch of new friends.

I’m also interested in the free coworking movement, represented by Seats2Meet in the Netherlands, the new wave of Freecycle-type businesses like FreecyclePlus, and all the new food sharing startups like Feastly and Cookening.

What’s next for you and Shareable?

We’ve built the largest online audience about the sharing economy. We’re going to leverage this to catalyze more sharing on the ground. Stay tuned!

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About our Curator // Kate Kendall is the founder and CEO of The Fetch, a community where professionals can discover and share what’s happening in their city. Before this, Kate led product, content and digital at magazine companies, handled outreach for new startups and organised too many communities and events to mention. Follow her on Twitter at @katekendall.

Interview: SF Local, Emily Castor — July 16, 2012

Interview: SF Local, Emily Castor

Name: Emily Castor
Website: lyft.me, collaborativechats.com
Twitter handle (s): @emilycastor, @lyft
Works: Lyft Community Manager at Zimride, Co-Founder and Host at Collaborative Chats

You recently starting looking after community at Zimride’s new product Lyft – what is Lyft and how is it positioned in the market?

True story! I am pouring all my energy into starting up Lyft these days and having a blast.

Lyft is a new iPhone app for on-demand rides from awesome local drivers. You request a pickup and the nearest driver responds immediately to confirm. You see their name, star rating, personal and vehicle photos, and ETA. They arrive within minutes, scoop you up, and you sit shotgun on the way to your destination. Upon arrival, you see the suggested payment amount for your ride, which you can adjust to reward a great driver. Drivers go through a selective vetting process and background checks to make sure they are cool peeps AND safe behind the wheel.

Real-time ridesharing is obviously a hot space right now and different companies are taking different approaches. What distinguishes Lyft is the experience we offer to our users, both in the app and in the car. Taking a Lyft is like getting a ride from a friend. We see drivers using the service as passengers and passengers becoming drivers. So we’re offering incredibly affordable, convenient on-demand transportation as well as a social experience.

We just finished our first month of beta testing in San Francisco and the lightning pace of growth is keeping us on our toes.

How do ride-share services get past regulatory hurdles?

The current regulatory framework governing ridesharing and passenger transportation in California was crafted years ago, long before mobile and location technologies made a service like Lyft possible. That means the law is a few steps behind this kind of innovation. Fortunately, it still leaves enough space for our drivers to operate legally.

I would love to see policymakers adapt the law to actively encourage ridesharing as a environmentally-friendly, community-based transportation alternative.

Ridesharing reduces road congestion and carbon emissions and brings people closer together. It allows people to defray their costs of car ownership while providing a valuable service to their neighbors. Our task is to educate lawmakers about these benefits while acting in good faith to comply with the law as it is currently written, even though none of the existing boxes were designed with something like Lyft in mind.

You started Collaborative Chats just near the beginning of the year – what are the events like and where can people find out more?

Collaborative Chats has become a wonderful community for a diverse mix of players in the growing “sharing economy” of peer-to-peer marketplaces (think Airbnb, Zimride, TaskRabbit, or Wheelz).

The series attracts folks working at related startups, VCs, journalists, sustainability-minded graduate students, and power users.

Each event is a multi-disciplinary panel discussion with interesting thinkers from the tech world, academia, and government. I engineer the panels to include these different perspectives to break us out of the Silicon Valley echo chamber. Collaborative consumption has gotten pretty trendy; I like to bring in people who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid to ask tough questions.

I post news and video from each Collaborative Chats event at collaborativechats.com, and you can also find us on Facebook or follow us @CollabChats. We’re taking a summer break right now to cook up some exciting changes for the series – stay tuned!

What was your first job?

I worked as a pizza cook and phone order-taker at Round Table Pizza when I was 15 years old. I loved it. I can still remember the script I said every time I answered the phone and the computer codes for all the different toppings. I got a charge out of connecting with people I’d never met before. I guess I’m still that way!

My first real job when I graduated from college was as a Staff Assistant to Congresswoman Susan Davis on Capitol Hill in D.C.

It was a far cry from pizza, but I learned a lot about what happens in the kitchen of American politics.

You come from a background in public policy and politics – how did you go about pivoting your personal brand, so to speak?

When I first decided I wanted to work at a startup, I was intimidated. I thought no one would take me seriously because I had no professional background in technology. But I was relentlessly passionate about it, and I knew it was what I would love doing most. I began attending startup events, reading tech blogs, and engaging with people on Twitter until I started to understand the ecosystem and get connected.

Then, I was fortunate to stumble into a niche that was a great fit for me: collaborative consumption. The sustainability and community benefits of peer-to-peer marketplaces for sharing assets resonated with the goals I pursued during my years in the public sector. It was a specific enough niche that I was able to get to know a critical mass of the players in the space very quickly, and I became incredibly passionate about it. Passion is always compelling. I also established my credibility by becoming an active power user on a few of the sites and writing about my personal experiences. That made me valuable to the companies involved, who were able to leverage my stories to generate earned media coverage.

The other big pieces of the puzzle for me were extremely active networking, the magic of Twitter, and the exposure I gained by creating and hosting Collaborative Chats. Speaking at events – and giving others a platform to speak – is a great way to build your personal brand.

It all snowballed quickly this spring and led me to the most exciting, fulfilling challenge I have ever tackled – joining the team at Lyft.

How important has your Ivy League education been for your work today?

Going to grad school at Penn was an empowering experience. Succeeding there bolstered my confidence, teaching me I could compete and excel at the highest level. I am sure the prestige of that credential also continues to benefit me among those who use the school’s reputation as a proxy for my abilities when evaluating me. That being said, I am equally proud of my undergrad work at UC San Diego, which is where I really learned to think analytically and to write.

Who other events in our community do you attend and recommend?

I enjoy Women 2.0’s Founder Friday, events at RocketSpace, Chelsea Rustrum’s Sharers of SF Meetup, and various others I find through The Fetch and Startup Digest.

Lately, however, I’ve mostly been working through prime event hours! Duty calls.

What’s your favorite SF neighborhood?

My utterly biased opinion is that NoPa is the best neighborhood in SF. It also happens to be where I live. Its central location, relaxed vibe, proximity to the park, and great coffee shops earn it high marks in my book.

What’s next?

Blowing up Lyft!

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