Finding Value in Community Creation
There are many reasons why people get involved in community-building activities, from politics to religion, personal gain to professional development. The reasons may be different, but the methods to sustain a successful community are fairly consistent — at least in my experience.
In my 25 year career, I’ve supported or helped create a number of community-building efforts, almost entirely around technology and entrepreneurship. User groups. Networking events. Breakfast meetings, lunch-and-learns, and dinner gatherings. Technology events in donated space, and in expensive hotel conference space.
Probably the most formative experience for me was eBig.org
Sometime in early 2002, I was working for a very well-funded software startup in Redwood City, California (E2open), and was approached by some folks I had met at one of many community events in the Bay Area about the creation of a non-profit to extend the technology and entrepreneurship experiences so common on the peninsula and south bay over to the east bay. After a couple planning discussions, the East Bay IT Group (eBIG.org) was born. We had a little bit of funding, some part-time technical resources to build a site, and a grand vision of bringing user groups, networking events, and top-tier speakers to the east bay. We were tired of driving into the city or down to San Jose to attend interesting events. We wanted something close by. But the established groups, at the time, had no interest in hosting activities so far from their safety zones. So we did it ourselves.
Months later we had our 501c3 status, a website, and a plan. I went door-to-door in Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin, San Ramon, Danville, and Walnut Creek on weekends and available afternoons to pass out information, meet local business owners, and build the brand. We faxed, emailed, and called people. We attended regional events, had lunch with bankers and lawyers and venture capitalists. And we reached out to established user groups and sold them on the benefits of folding their brands into a centralized organization.
By 2004, our membership was over 4,000 and I was running a collaboration user group at Hurricane Electric in Fremont, and a software-as-a-service user group at a Hewlett-Packard location in Pleasanton. I was co-hosting networking events almost monthly, special topic events with guest speakers on a regular basis, and was doing my best to connect members with investors, bankers, and technologists from my rapidly expanding professional network. By 2007, we had over 10,000 members, and soon after merged our non-profit with another (the group has since been shut down, but what a run we had!).
Starting (and maintaining) a community is hard. Not many of us are out there with feet on the pavement, making connections from the ground up as we did with eBig. Building community around your own products or services takes commitment and consistency — and you need to be present. You can’t just blow into town, spend a bunch of money, and expect things to work out. It just doesn’t work like that. People want authenticity. They’ll eat your free jumbo shrimp and take your free t-shirts, but they won’t stay to buy, nor respect your message if they view you as just another out of town vendor trying to buy a customer list by sponsoring yet another event.
I’ll say it again — starting a community is hard. You need to be authentic. You need to be consistent. You need to be have a message and be passionate about what you’re doing. And you need to be there, week after week, month after month, year after year. That’s how you build the trust. Showing up is 95% of it.
I’m proud of what we were able to build with eBIG. I‘ve taken those experiences and created dozens of other events across the western US, and current sit on the boards of a couple non-profits, including my local SharePoint user’s group (PSSPUG.org). But what I really value from my time with eBIG were the intangibles: learning to market without money (we were a non-profit, after all), negotiating partnerships and funding, and the power of networking to open up doors.
I wouldn’t trade my experiences with eBIG for anything.