Building a (Developer) Community from Scratch

I’ve been thinking about building out our customer and developer community as we start putting things together here and there’s so many exciting opportunities to do this really well (and a ton of great resources and how-tos) that can be used for modeling.

And, to a certain degree, there isn’t a right or wrong way to build a successful community around the product, assuming that you have the right ingredients to get things kicked off. Our team does has some significant experience building communities, developer-centric ones especially, but there are always newer tools to consider and ways to engage.

So, exactly how does one start?

As I think about putting a new one together my initial thoughts move quickly to first-principles, or rather thinking through the things that are fundamentally necessary to create a community of any size and of any worth.

I’ve come up with 3 core tenets that feel good and that I feel any good community needs to work reasonably well. Here are my thoughts as I put things together:

It should feel like a conversation between friends.
It should feel like a conversation between friends.

1. Great Communication

I was going to put the word “transparency” here first but I realized that transparency happens when a good organization communicates well with their community. In other words, transparency is a direct result of great communication.

Communication in general is the lifeblood of any good team, business, and of relationships in general. The question is whether or not we, as an organization, are fully committed to functionally be the best communicators possible.

This means implementing tools and using technology to consistently and effectively communicate with our community. It’s important to remember that the tool choice is far less important than the act of doing it consistently and well over time!

For instance, there are plenty of ways to communicate to your (growing) audience through social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and more), through blogs, bulletin boards, forums, and public / private Slack channels. Whatever you end up choosing you have to manage it well and communicate even better.

This also assumes that the organization understands that great communication is always a dialogue, not a monologue. Tool choice should then be chosen to maximize the ability to get and receive feedback, in the most frictionless way possible. A dialogue is only capable when trust and mutual respect is in place and allowing that culture and climate to be naturally birthed is an uncompromisable part.

Finally, it’s also been my experience that choosing less tooling and being amazing at a smaller set of tools is vastly better than being mediocre at many. Tooling and technology implementation is so easy these days that it takes just a few seconds to sign up to a new account but therein lies the danger of not being able to manage those channels well. Far better to choose a few of them (maybe just one to start out with!) and kill it.

Someone always has to go first.
Someone always has to go first.

2. Leadership and Vision

Regardless of how “organic” many of the online communities might feel there have always been (and will always be) someone who took the first step, someone who setup the community or the software or was the first person to the proverbial table, sotospeak.

In that way, great community, especially business and product-centric communities, will have leadership naturally baked in but it won’t always look and feel like “traditional” leadership. The open source movement and philosophy has allowed an introduction into a new form of collaborative leadership that allows many voices to participate fully in building something great.

Specifically, someone (the founders, typically in a startup) have a vision for a future that they are trying to create and they begin to build a product that allows that vision to become a reality. In that way, the new community should naturally rally around the original vision and any and all dialogue should be in line with the vision.

In the same way I’ve encountered many Developer Evangelists perform a similar role and they’ve been granted the authority and fluidity of expanding on the vision of the founding team and vision by executing against it in specific ways. Sometimes these look like meetups or hackathons or creating digital collateral and blog posts or even keynote speaking and traveling to do demos.

All of these things are capturing the original vision and the team responsible is executing against it as best as they possibly can. But someone needs to lead the charge, not in a command-and-control way but in humility knowing that they are there to facilitate and encourage great conversation but not dominate it.

It’s a tough challenge but striking the right balance grants the organization and business the right to engage with their growing community and ultimately affords them the ability to gain access to the amazing intelligence, wisdom, and advice from a community that wants to see them succeed.

Finally, true leaders are ones that invest in future leaders and a big part of a great leader’s job is to recruit, train, and to empower the next generation. This happens within the direct organization as well as within the community. It might feel risky at first, but, allowing your more engaged and passionate community members to become part of the leadership and to help carry the vision can make the difference between a stagnant community and a thriving one.

It all goes somewhere, right?
It all goes somewhere, right?

3. An Obvious and Functional Feedback Loop

Naturally, a great community will make suggestions for improvement to not just the product but even to the business itself. Remember, an engaged community wants all parts of the business to succeed because they succeed when it does.

And, a healthy community will be one full of rich and diverse opinions, perspectives, and world views. If you find that your community is a bit too homogeneous then you’re already in trouble of getting lopsided feedback and support.

Listening for feedback is vital but great leaders not only provide that avenue but also define a pathway for that feedback to be consumed, dialogued about, and then deployed. There’s nothing worse than a community that feels that their needs are not being heard or that there’s just an unmanaged inbox to receive requests without a trail of receipt; essentially, a “black box” drop-off.

The best communities that I’ve been able to create and participate in are the ones that have a clearly defined pathway to not only give and receive feedback but also see the pathway towards implementation. Sometimes this is done by literally showing the feedback cycle and how those suggestions make it into feature changes or updates to the product and business or by providing consistent updates connecting suggestions from the community to changelog activity.

The way in which this is done is not as important as the fact that it’s clear for the community. If the community gets any idea that they aren’t being heard or listened to then they’ll end up going somewhere else.

Remember, a great community is based on healthy relationships and healthy relationships have a healthy cadence of communication, aligning expectations with reality and being honest and humble when those things go wrong or when expectations aren’t met.

And, of course, your implementation and tool choice isn’t as important as your ability to be explicit about how the feedback loop works. Good leadership fills the gap.

Building a great community around your product and business can take time but the investment is more important than ever before. Keep it relevant, honest, and actionable. Invest as soon as you possibly can.

Also published on Medium.

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