Community Rules!

Apr 25, 2007

I’m becoming convinced that the notion of “community,” when applied to a web company, is not well understood.  I hear at least every couple of weeks how a company is going to build some such community as a foundation of their business.  This is a problem for me as I don’t believe that entrepreneurs build communities but instead believe that communities build themselves.

If I were to translate this ill-conceived notion of building community to the very vibrant community where I physically live, then the entity that “built” my community would be the real estate developer(s) who re-zoned and cleared land, divided lots, installed water/sewer and utilities, and built the homes approximately 60 years ago.

Nope.

Those developers did play a very important role in defining what the community could be, but they could not have known that my town would transform from a summer home for fogged-out San Franciscans to a suburban village, that the local train service would be ripped out and the tracks paved over to created hiking and biking trails, or that eventually BART would reach out to provide a non-bridge commute option for the community.   The placement of schools and roads, configuration of lots, proximity of retail and commercial areas, and highway access were well thought out, but they provide only the backbone on which the community was built.  The character of the neighborhood – the community –  is more defined by the quality of the schools, the creation of a local park, the speed bumps on the street to slow down traffic, the ease with which most neighbors are quick to offer ad hoc child care when you need to make a quick trip to the grocery store, and the promiscuous sharing of baked goods. All of these features were created by the community itself.

Similarly, an entrepreneur who believes a community might be built around a company needs to follow three simple rules:

1) Create a thoughtful, lightweight infrastructure and set of tools around which might be useful to a group of folks with some shared interests.

2) Continually push the responsibility and decision-making ability for building the community back on to the members of the community.

3) Be patient.

Only then, and only if you are lucky, might a community develop.

The first rule is well understood.  Technology entrepreneurs are great at building infrastructure and tools.  A quick survey of the companies reviewed on Techcrunch in the last year show a ton of these companies.

The second rule is much more difficult.  “Letting go” is uncomfortable enough for normal folks; for entrepreneurs it can be terrifying.  I often hear questions such as “What if they take the community in a way I don’t want them to go?’ or “ How will I be able to monetize that sort of activity?”  Yep, those are problems.  Or, more definitively, those are your problems.  But they are not the community’s.  If you are depending on a community to become a big asset for your business then you are at their pleasure, not the other way around.  It’s dicey, indeed, but entrepreneurs who have successfully negotiated this narrow path like Philip, Kevin, Jimbo, and Pierre have seen staggering growth.

The third rule is tough for entrepreneurs and investors alike.  Growth in communities is usually not linear; it is bursty.   Look at twitter.  I had been a user since the beginning, liked the small community it had become, and blammo! something happened (in this case, SXSW happened).

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It couldn’t have been predicted, however, it did follow the three rules.  While you are in patience mode, all you can do is spend money behind the growth and manage your burn such that your patience runs out long before your capital does.

Discussion and Comments

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  1. Dave says:

    interesting observations, #2 in particular.
    and i don’t know if it’s easy for entrepreneurs to be patient, but i agree with you that “building community” can often be akin to “pushing on a rope”.
    i think there’s a useful interplay between your #1 and #2 tho… you have to provide a set of tools & rules in #1 that allow the community to do the building (aka posting news for Digg, writing articles on Wikipedia, building reputation history on eBay). if the tools don’t fit, the community won’t grow itself.
    that said, i do think there is a role that can be played by the company in assisting /educating the community on how to use the tools, but it’s an art i’m still trying to master.
    damon billian did a pretty good job of community outreach via forums when he was at PayPal / eBay. (and we tried similar things at Simply Hired, altho they seemed to catch on more with Simply Fired than Simply Hired ;)
    - dave mcclure
    http://500hats.typepad.com/

    Commented on May 21, 2007 at 11:20 am
  2. Eric Eldon says:

    Yet again, I’m reminded of the irony of the term “evangelist” being used to describe internet promoters.
    Getting people to use a web site is exploratory, as opposed to urban planning — which from my Sim City-influenced perspective seems to be limited in scope. You wouldn’t, say, purposefully build a neighborhood mixed in with a shipyard and depressed industrial zone then plan for underfunded schools and rampant crime.
    But, like a missionary trying to get the locals to live in the mission, a web site will try to attract users — they don’t necessarily want to be there, but the entrepreneurs think it’s best for them, anyway. Whether it actually is or not depends on one’s perspective (technology cuts both ways even when it’s a net good, right?)
    And so, like any good evangelist, a web company will tap into people’s existing needs, habits and communication channels regardless of the value being provided.
    Quite unlike most types of proselytizing, however, viral growth in web communities seems to rely on things like members posting hot pictures of themselves and their peers (*cough* myspace).

    Commented on May 22, 2007 at 12:02 am
  3. Ted Rheingold says:

    Rob,
    You nailed it. I find myself explaining the same exact 3 requirements over and over again. Most people glaze over once I get past point 1. They’ve come to believe that community is a acquirable commodity they can simply roll out.
    Many think if they just buy some seeds and plant them, they’ll have a giant thriving garden by the next morning.
    It’s point 3, I think, that keeps so many traditional entrepreneurs and businesses from succeeding at the community “game” as they just can’t handle the waiting game.

    Commented on May 25, 2007 at 2:06 am
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