At Red Sea Ventures, we’ve invested in a number of companies that build strong brands and view community as a fundamental asset of their brand and business. Those that have done it well have done it really well and through working with them and through the work I did at Seeds of Peace building a community of thousands of young professionals volunteering countless hours to host events and raise awareness, I’ve distilled a few big lessons which I’ll share periodically as updates to this post.
The term Community is in my opinion way overused. At RSV we care a lot about community because, when it is built properly, it makes the company more defensible. It is what often affords a company the patience of early adopters when there are early product missteps or other aspects of execution that go wrong (which is inevitable). The Community supporting that company and product is willing to tolerate errors because they, together with that startup, form a community and feel a shared responsibility for the success of the founders and the company as a whole.
Those communities can exist amongst employees, customers, partners, volunteers, neighbors, etc… . Just to level set what community actually means I’m going to copy+paste from Wikipedia (my college professors would kill me for quoting this source — but i wonder what todays profs think about Wikipedia as a reference source — I digress):
A community is a social unit of any size that shares common values, or that is situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a village or town). It is a group of people who are connected by durable relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who usually define that relationship as important to their social identity and practice. (…)
Human communities may share intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, andrisks in common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.
Community is not just a bunch of random people who buy your product because it’s cheaper than anywhere else. It’s not a group of people who use your software without any shared values, beliefs, and needs. And in my opinion communities where there is no real connection between each node but only a connection from hub to spoke (customer to customer vs. customer to company) is not a defensible community worthy of that appellation.
We’ve seen companies like Sweetgreen build an incredible community by empowering all their employees with professional development opportunities, connecting them to each other, the company and the founders in a way that helps them evolve as individuals and as members of the Sweetgreen family. I think many would also say that Sweetgreen’s community translates into customers buying into and sharing common values and expressing their identity by choosing to eat at Sweetgreen even if it means waiting in line for 30 minutes for a salad and an amazing fresh juice. Sweetgreen has also invested in hosting events for those local to their restaurants whether it be a live music event that turned into a major music festival a few years later or a meditation class at their latest store opening.
We’ve seen Casetext build a community of law practitioners and researchers sharing their interpretations of caselaw building a database of research annotations delivering democratized access to alternative legal research tools when the only alternatives are paying $50 every time you hit the search button on LexisNexis or Westlaw.
WayUp has helped college students and recent grads develop job hunting skills and placing them in part time jobs that help pay their way through school.
Outdoor Voices that makes “technical apparel for recreation” … empowers you feel good about just going out for a run or to play a game of basketball without feeling like you need to in #beastmode on the court. They also build community through a series of events including sunday morning dog walks with coffee and dog treats at the end of the walk and more recently#DoingThingsDay which brought together hundreds of people to do yoga in celebration of the pursuit of happiness through communal physical activity.
These are just a few of our partner companies that build community through their products and services but they are emanate founders who have understood the importance of building community for all the stakeholders in their success. Most importantly they’ve understood that just building a good product for your customer isn’t enough anymore. When customers buy your product today they’re also expressing their identity and their values and choosing to support your company rather than all your other competitors. So the activities that make up community building are the ways that you tell your patrons who you are and why they should choose to align who they are with your brand.
So I’m going to boil this down to the 4 Pillars of Community. In order to build community, you have to look at everything you do through the following lens. You don’t need to build all 4 of these pillars (though its better if you do) but you need at least 3 and #1 is not optional.
1/ Mission — REQUIRED/NOT OPTIONAL: For a community to have the chance to withstand the test of time and missed expectations you need to define the values and the shared mission of the community and communicate those to your prospective community members. If you don’t have mission and values that are shared and infused in everything you and your company does, then you cannot have a shared mission or purpose. If you don’t have shared mission or purpose, then you don’t have community and as soon as anything gets tough, your customers, your employees, and your partners will turn their backs on you. Give them a chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves by giving them a mission to believe in that is authentic to you and to the product you’re building.
2/ Social Networking Opportunities: Everyone wants to meet people they like and get along with. If you don’t offer your stakeholders opportunities to be around like minded people that they will respect, then your community doesn’t enrich that person’s life sufficiently and they will go and find some other community that will. Whether that is meeting someone to date, get married to, or a new friend, this is an important part of connecting people to each other and being the center of what brings them together.
3/ Professional Networking: Everyone needs to make money. We all have basic needs to pay our rent, buy a home one day, provide for ourselves and our families, pay student loans, etc… if your company has the potential to connect people to each other in a way that may help them progress in their careers, get a new job, make more money, your organization or company will have a special place in their hearts for a long time.
4/ Personal or Professional Development: If you can give people opportunities to grow personally or professionally, you’ll be the platform that has helped them improve their sense of self-worth and gain valuable skills.
Community requires constant nurturing. You can’t build it, set programs in motion and then neglect to maintain them, allocate resources to support the community, and continuously improve it. Nothing is forever. Keep investing. If you don’t, then the community disintegrates and your brand is quickly irrelevant.