Many online ventures are now incorporating a community element into their business model. After all, everyone’s seen how quickly and cheaply major community-based sites grew (e.g. Facebook, Myspace, Wikipedia, and Flickr).
How do you start a community of your own?
First, let’s start with some wise words from Derek Powazek and Heather Champ, the good folks who started JPG Magazine, a photographic magazine created by a community. They presented at the Web 2.0 Expo earlier this year on the topic The People Formerly Known as the Audience. One of their major messages was:
"Community is grown, not built"
Reflecting on their words and some of my own experiences, here are a few tips for for new startups:
- You’re not in control: Your community will have a life of its own. Sure, you started it but the participants own it as much you do. Expect to be surprised, both in good ways and in bad. It may focus on odd things. It may grow slower or differently than hoped. Forget about control, settle for influence, and enjoy the ride.
- Growth is organic: Think about gardening. You don’t build a garden, you grow one. Sure, at the start it looks like building: you do the initial design and earthworks, choose what to plant, and put stuff in the ground. But that’s where building stops. From then on you can only tweak the environmental conditions: provide water and fertiliser, encourage some growth paths and discourage others, add a few new plants, and remove the occasional weed.
- Invest time regularly: If you build something, it generally stays put. But communities are living breathing things – if you neglect them, they change over time (and maybe even die). To grow your community into something like what you imagined, you need to actively take part, provide leadership, and listen to people.
Planting the Right Seed
Remember: you’re in control of the initial conditions – i.e. how your community starts off. This has a powerful and lasting impact, so make sure you get it right! Put aside your dreams of rapid growth for now. Focus on getting the right people, content, and culture in place. Newcomers take their lead from this, and it becomes self-reinforcing over time.
This is something I think we did well at RedBubble, an online art gallery and creative community. We rounded up some creative friends and got them involved in a early prototype. And all staff got actively involved too. By the time the site was functionally ready for public launch, we had 100 members, lots of interesting content and a friendly, creative vibe. And, less than six months later, the site has become a thriving community of 10,000+ artists, designers, photographers and writers.
Have you set up an online community? Or perhaps been among the first few members? How would you describe the experience and what did you learn? Any tips for people looking to start a community?