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.
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).
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.