communities should start small

Published on May 11, 2020

Building communities is a real challenge.

The essence of a community is people getting together, talking, and collaborating toward one goal. On its surface, this does not sound too difficult to achieve: if you put people in a room, they will start talking, right?

This is exactly the approach which I think kills communities that could have been great before they have had the chance to be recognized by the world.

When you are building a community, it can be tempting to optimize for growth. In Silicon Valley especially, growth is seen as a positive sign that your idea is working out. The more people who join your community, the more validation you have that you are doing the right thing, or are on the right tracks.

But if you try to get too many people involved with a community too soon, then a number of challenges present themselves.

The first is that managing a community of ten or twenty is a completely different ballgame to managing a community of one hundred or more. Before you can manage a community of one hundred, you need to nail down the member experience -- people need to feel as though they are getting value out of the community from day one.

If you skip this crucial step -- figuring out why people are joining your community -- then all you have is a room full of people.

Would you call a conference room with one hundred people in it a community? Even if those people all had a common interest, they still would not be a community. Those people need a binding factor; a reason why they should all be interacting.

Growing a community too soon can also make your core members leave before they are ready. If you join a community and see that it is growing by a factor of 5x each week, it becomes really overwhelming. How do you keep track of new members?

As communities grow, the identity of their members change. The fifth joiner in a community would have to be really active in order to create a good community vibe. The one-hundredth? They don’t need to contribute as much, because there has already been a lot of value created in the community.

If you are looking to build a good community, you should start small and work your way up.

Elpha, the Y Combinator-backed community company, started as a wing of YC. On Deck started as a dinner series. Product Hunt started as a newsletter.

These communities have all turned out to be successful, but that was only possible because their early employees focused on creating a delightful member experience for everyone. Ryan Hoover hosted brunches for Product Hunt members. That doesn’t scale, but it does make everyone in a community feel a little bit closer together.

The temptation to grow a community as soon as possible is something that any community manager will have faced. Indeed, the goal of many communities is to support a large number of people at one time -- which is likely why the founders chose to start a community over a one-on-one support service, or a marketplace.

It is not in the best interests of a community in the long-term if it grows too quickly. Members lose their identities. It becomes more difficult to keep track of what is going on.

Start small, get to know your members, then scale up when you have a better understanding of who your members are, why they joined, and why they are sticking around. Once you have these insights, you’ll understand your community in a new way, and will be better qualified to start scaling up to a hundred or a thousand members.

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