Maker Hunt’s AMA with Thomas Knoll — Community Architect

Thomas Knoll has been building online communities for 19 years.
He has been a community architect, community cultivator, product designer, social marketer, customer developer, and startup advisor for companies including Primeloop, Taptalk, 500Startups, LaunchRock, Zappos, UserVoice, and Seesmic.

While he has a technical background, he prefers to speak in gardening and architecture metaphors. He is inspired by storytelling, psychology, evangelism, architectural theory, social economics, game mechanics, cultural anthropology, compassion, and ants.

He was studying to become a missionary, but left that path because he grew tired of the business of religion. Now, he helps businesses convert customers into communities of evangelists.

Oh, and he falls in love with almost everyone he meets.

Hi folks!!! Excited to be able to participate in one of these infamous AMAs.

Q. Community Architect…what does that entail? — Ben Tossell

Great question. So, I can far too easily climb up on my soapbox about everything wrong with using the title “community manager” for community professionals. I’ll spare you unless you really want to know. But, as a result I believe that the community professional role is either focused on cultivation or architecture, instead. Architecture is the side focused more on product and the spaces we create for communities to flourish. The greatest architects in the world don’t create buildings… they USE building to create spaces for people. And, as a product person, we need to be very intentional about the spaces we create for our communities. If done well, they will inherently inspire the type of interactions we want for the community.

Q. Can you expound on the “community manager” thing? — Eric Willis

Short answer is, you can’t manage a community. So kill the title.

Its offensive and misleading, and the title itself damages the relationship dynamic between the company and the community. Instead, pick a different title that actually reflects something meaningful to the community:

If you work on the product, Community Architect

If you work on support and “moderation”, Community Cultivator

If you are the “face and voice of the product” for the company, Community Advocate. And structure your relationship to an ambassador FOR the community within the company.

I ran the community team at shapeways and we had totally different titles along the lines of what you’re talking about.

We had a community outreach coordinator, community student evangelist, European community empowerer, Core Community Engagement specialist etc. and I was the director of global community as the lead in nowhere was there manager, it was nice. — Savannah Peterson

Q. What’s some ‘low hanging fruit’ in the community space that you think a startup should start with? — Michael Buckbee

The lowest hanging fruit for startups to focus on, is to actually talk to, and care about, the people who are excited and interested in their company. Far too often startups immediately jump to “growth hacks” and all the tips and tricks that will allow them to “do things at scale” which almost always treat people like numbers and charts and less like humans. So, we MUST do things that do not scale (reply personally to emails, chat with customers, invite them to dinner, send hand written thank you cards, personally introduce them to one another) etc. LONG before we start thinking about “well, this wont work when we have 1billion customers. And, in truth, even if you manage to GET to 1billion customers, you’ll still find a way to treat humans like humans if you make it a priority.

Q. What are your biggest community tips for people trying to build communities like ph? And for us, how to scale those communities? — Erik Torenberg

Obviously, the PH team is amazing and doing a brilliant job of building community around the original idea: discovering great startups. I wouldn’t bother to even try giving you advice on that. But, I would imagine the future involves one or both of two things: (1) expanding discovery beyond startups (2) going even deeper into the tools and opportunities that you provide for the people involved in your existing communities. I don’t have anywhere near the time to dive into all that… but here is how I would *start* asking the questions…

It is easy for y’all to dive into the startup community, because you already know the language, the culture, the memes, the power structure, where trust come from, the source of belonging, and the underlying values and beliefs of that community, because you are core members of that community… if you want to start growing into new verticals, then you would want to become a cultural anthropologist for that culture, and discover all the things I listed above about those people groups, so that you can truly understand what motivates and inspires them as well. going back to my architecture answer, you _might_ discover you need to create a different “building structure” for different groups.

Final note… the beauty of scaling communities is, if you do it right… if you truly allow the community to grow organically and through trust and referral, then it will scale itself.

Q: As we’re currently just starting to build a community (around http://toolc.at, quite fresh, posted on Product Hunt today) I wonder if you have any general tips for the early days of building a community. — Frank Helmschrott

Let’s back up for a second… The first question every company needs to ask before pursuing a community strategy is: Do we have a crowd or a community? Do we want a crowd or a community?

Have you been to an outdoor music festival?

Quite some years ago but yes ☺

Ok, imagine you’re there… at a concert… now look around you… (1) How many of the people know each other? (2) Who is in charge? (3) Is anything for sale? What? (4) How likely are those people to ever see each other again? (5) How much do they interact with each other? How much do they interact with the person/people on stage?

Sure, 1) probably none of the crowd, maybe some groups 2) the people organizing the event? 3) merch, food, tickets 4) most of them won’t 5) most likely not that much

Now, imagine you are at a beach bonfire cookout with a bunch of friends and people they invited… look around you… (1) How many of the people know each other? (2) Who is in charge? (3) Is anything for sale? What? (4) How likely are those people to ever see each other again? (5) How much do they interact with each other?

Most businesses say they want a community, but they actually have a crowd. And when it gets down to it, they actually _want_ a crowd.

They want to be in charge, they want people to buy the merch, they just want people to listen to them and do what they say when they yell, “throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care.”

They don’t actually want to focus most of their time on inviting people to participate, allowing others to shape the conversation, spend more time at the event listening to other people’s stories rather than promoting their own story, etc.

So, if you want a community, constantly imagine the beach bonfire, and structure your interactions to look more like beach bonfire cookouts than a band on stage.

Q. What’s the best way to deal with disruptive members of a community? — Michael Buckbee

Why are they disruptive? Are they just being jerks for fun? Or are they just behaving in a way that you don’t personally like, but are still hanging onto a kernel of truth?

There are a VERY small number of actual trolls in communities. And, I’m going to assume that you actually have community guidelines. And I’m going to assume that you have regular and ongoing open conversations with your community ABOUT those guidelines. So, the whole community is onboard with and understands the guidelines.

And, I’m going to assume that at least ONE of those guidelines has some version of a “don’t be an asshole” or “we treat each other with respect” in there.

In which case, you should always be actively removing people from the community who don’t believe in and follow the guidelines.

Now, back to the fact that most communities don’t have very many actual trolls.

Far too many ‘community managers’ are ban happy, and just react to content. Again, losing sight of the fact that communities are people in search of belonging and purpose, not simply numbers or content creators.

If this is true, then what most people need is (1) to feel understood (2) to feel like they can contribute and (3) to feel like they are not being persecuted.

For anyone who has a facebook account, you probably see week after week, people attacking other people… when they really are just either (1) attacking their ideas or (2) defending themselves from personal attacks for their ideas.

If you want to help people through this process, then you need to cultivate and moderate a conversation (not delete… interject, ask questions, allow people time to speak) so that everyone has a chance to grow and learn and forgive each other for misunderstandings, attacks, and reactions out of defensiveness.

Communities are like muscles, they only grow when they have an opportunity to tear, and break down, and then build back up and heal.

Q. How would you advise growing a community like MakerHunt? We are invite only and rely on pure engagement. Natural growth means that it becomes difficult. — Ben Tossell

Let’s back up. You have 800+ “members”, you have great conversations in multiple threads per day, a lot of people love the Maker Hunt community.

So, what do you want? more conversations? more members? more specific actions?

Specifically, more engagements in the AMAs, recently we have seen a drop off

So, you would be happy if 20 more people asked questions? Or…

We used to hold AMAs everyday at the beginning. It would just be nice to have a variety of people with different mindsets asking the questions. Whereas my questions may all be leading towards a certain thing. e.g. growing MakerHunt

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. So, how many of the 800+ members have you had personal conversations with?

Me personally? Uhm maybe 50 (including one line comments) — not all convos

Who are 5 people, right now, who haven’t asked a question and come from a different mindset, that you would love to be able to learn something more from by inviting them personally to come ask a question right now?

I don’t know specifically but I have had my own path to this community and lots of people have loads of various paths that I don’t know, so could come out with anything. Michael Buckbee is great at asking questions and some I think ‘oh yeah great ques’, but I wouldn’t of thought of that

I’ll let you in on a community scale tactic that most people are unwilling to try:

The fastest way to kill a community is to be an over-eager-greeter, being friendly and being helpful.

If I am responsible for building a community, and I am always the first person to jump in an welcome someone. Two things happen (1) the community learns that it is my job to welcome people, not theirs and (2) the person joining is called out immediately just for poking their head in the door, they didn’t get a chance to learn the culture and get a feel for what is happening in this room.

Yeah, this is something Eric and I try to do continuously to new members — Ben Tossell

That’s interesting. I try to say hi to most new members. A lot of people say they like it, but I need to find out if I’m turning people off with that. But I’m not the only person who does it..multiple people do. —Eric Willis

On the other hand, if I give that person time to get a feel, and then spend the exact amount of time I would have spent welcoming them, instead messaging someone else in the community and inviting them to welcome that person then two different things happen (1) The entire community learns that everyone can welcome people (2) the new person is welcomed by the community not the “owner” which feels more like it actually *is* a community.

Same thing with answering questions and helping people as the owner vs inviting the community to help and introducing members who can help each other.

Don’t worry about being over eager greeter… it is much better than not talking at all. But I think it would be an interesting test to spend 50% of the time you *would* welcome someone, inviting someone else to…. it is another touch point with that person. It gives them a feeling of ownership for the community too. And it might increase the retention of new people and help them get past the ‘lurking’ stage, because they have more than one person to talk to who they are comfortable with.

Q. Can you give generic tips about growing niche communities? For example, what would be your best strategies to give people awareness about a software engineering community and to get people to sign up? — Tamar

I’ve just worked on so many communities and they are all unique… so hard to give general advice.

I have another exercise for us…

So, imagine a football/soccer stadium… (1) where do the lights point? (2) what materials are used to build the stadium? (3) how are the ingress vs egress designed?

(1) There are bright lights on the field, but there are also bright lights pointed at the fans. (2) They are made out of cement/concrete and metal. (3) They let people in one at a time (through multiple turnstiles) but they dump people out in huge ramps.

Now, imagine a theatre…

(1). There are very special light systems built for the stage that control many different settings, and the lights go down to pitch black (except for exit rows) in the seating. (2). They are covered in soft chairs, and curtains on the walls, lots of felt and softness and foam. (3). People can come inside and hangout for a while in the foyer, and then go to their very specific assigned seats.

None of these are accidents. they are all very intentional and used to control the space.

Stadiums are loud, and echo-y to increase the gradure of the crowds… who face off against one another with their team colors just as much as the teams on the field. They can all see each other just as much as the game happening. And when it is time to go… everyone is dumped out quickly because it’s “over”

Theaters are designed to absorb all the sound, except for the sound coming off the hard wood on the stage (and maybe speakers), the lighting is highly specific to change every subtle mood of the story, and none of the audience can or should see each other… and they can hang out after in the foyer to continue to discuss what they are watching during intermissions and before and after the show.

All of this to point out that when it comes down to general tips, or what kind of software to use, or should we have comments or not, etc. there is never a right answer for “communities”

All of those things need to be highly tuned and designed specifically for the community that you want to enable for the space.

Q. So I run another Slack and we have issues with established members feeling weird about new people joining — and then not feeling comfortable about sharing anymore — any ideas? —Michael Buckbee

That is a very real part of the community experience. Some communities don’t want others or outsiders. Other communities very much want to grow and to invite people. That is part of the core culture of the community itself, and has to be discerned and defined by the community.

Whether or not a community decides that it wants to grow, they will always naturally at a core human behavior level have trouble with inviting new people. But, if they decide it is a value, then we can be intentional about working on it together… primarily by naming it, and calling it out, and also reframing it to focus on who we desire to be as a community.

You cannot have community without an “us” AND and “them”. Belonging inherently requires non-belonging. So we need to be intentional about the way we define what belonging means for our community. A significant part of community work is actively inviting people to find another place to belong. e.g. when zappos invites every employee to accept a $4k check to quit the company.

It’s because they understand that not everyone will actually like the culture, and wants to make sure they have the freedom and comfort to leave and find something better for them, rather than leaving them trapped in the company.

Reality is that communities own communities. I didn’t say that there is nothing that a community cultivator can *do* to help structure and create the community that is desired.

But it is never owned.

I think it was Kmart who did a back to school special a couple years ago, and decided to do a big “community” promotion for their facebook page, and get a bunch of college kids to talk with their roomates about what they wanted to buy for their dorm rooms. They wanted to own the conversation with the people on their facebook page “in their space”. But, the college kids turned the whole thing into a conversation about employee benefits and treatment of disenfranchised employees. They had an opportunity to engage in the community, but instead they decided to close the doors.

And, I’m sure all of us could share stories about hijacked hashtag campaigns.

All of these point to the fact that communities are not owned by whoever decides to open a door.

Falls in love with everyone you meet? I’m curious how that is sustainable? ☺ Must have a BIG heart. —Josh Muccio

I’m not sure that loving people is sustainable. But, so far, it has been worth it. If you want more insight check out

Whoah! That’s intense but very cool. It’s important to have empathy for others. Otherwise we’ll spend our whole lives focused on ourselves.

Definitely intense.

So you’re saying there aren’t any barriers to entry? But yet it’s super hard to do on a daily basis, yes?

Only our own fear of a brokenheart. The doing is easy… the experiencing is hard


Thank you to everyone who asked such great questions today, and thank you for indulging my way-too-long answers. I’m happy to chat more about any of this stuff. And I am trying to finally write a book about all of this. I’ll let you know when I know. ☺


Next AMA is with:

David Spinks —Founder of @CMX. I help people and teams build communities. Mentor at@500startups @startupchile..— 3pm EST 1st June


If you liked this AMA please Recommend ☺. Keep an eye out on our Twitter — @MakerHunt for details/updates.

Special thanks to Thomas and everyone who participated. If you’re a maker with a product on ProductHunt, be sure to sign up to participate in the AMAs and connect with others.

Already a member? Get your questions ready for the next AMAs! For any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to: Eric, Jonas, Remco, Cat or Ben.

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