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6 things we’ve learnt while building a community-led company

At Deepnote, we aspire to be community-led. Here are some of the things we’ve learnt so far.

Community is the word of 2021, but this has been long in the making. Community-building has become a point of focus for many software companies, and is now spreading to new domains. The success of community-led companies like MongoDB, Twilio and Confluent points to a clear business case: when you create value for your users beyond your product, empower them and create conditions that allow them become the best version of themselves, the community scales up your presence in a way that traditional marketing cannot. A successful community can expand beyond your user base, and reach others more authentically and in higher numbers than you could ever achieve alone.

Illustration by Виолетта Барсук on Icons8

At Deepnote, we’re building a new collaborative data science notebook. Our users have been at the front and center since day one. We are now shaping how we can gather and educate them, help them succeed using our product and become better data scientists, whether they are data science beginners, hobbyists or seasoned professionals. We are still in an early phase of our own community-building efforts, but we’ve been talking to those that have already successfully built thriving communities themselves. This article summarizes 6 key learnings so far and it includes resources that have been helpful to us on the journey. While we’re building a product for data scientists and developers, many of these lessons will apply to any community-led company.

A huge thank you to Bailey Richardson, Patrick Woods, Brian Oblinger, Demetrios Brinkmann, Francesca Krihely, Filip Hracek and Vishal Pathik Gupta for contributing your insights and perspectives! And thank you Jakub Zitny for your contributions to our community & this article.

1. Be clear on the purpose of your community

“In the early stages, you have little time for many things. Don’t spread yourself thin, prioritize — focus on doing the right things at the right time and the right place to make people keep coming back.” — Demetrios Brinkmann

Let’s take it from the beginning. The one piece of advice we’ve been hearing over and over again is to define the purpose of your community before you jump in. Define your mission statement, and make an effort to deliver on that singular purpose. This might sound obvious, but it’s easier said than done.

You can reinforce the clarity around your mission by asking yourself the following 3 questions:

  1. Who is my community? Who are the people that keep showing up?
  2. Why do they want to be the part of the community?
  3. What is the shared purpose bringing us together? What is connecting us?

Together, answers to these 3 questions will form a basis of your mission statement.

Our community brings together {who} {why}, so that together we can {what}.

Now that you have the mission statement, double down on that singular objective, focus on one or two channels and do those things really well. Building out a community takes time, so start small and remain consistent. Community is not about throwing people into a joint Slack channel — keep showing up, educating, offering advice, facilitating discussions, entertaining— a lot of giving before asking for something in return.

2. Build your community with, not for the people

“At HQ, you are in service of the community.” — Bailey Richardson

Building a sustaining community is not a top-down activity. When we started thinking about our community at Deepnote, I had an itch to treat it as intellectual exercise — strategizing, positioning, designing with control and running with my design — but very quickly it became apparent that community-building is organic and cannot be forcefully controlled.

In other words, it’s not “hey I own this community and this is what it does, come contribute” but rather, “hey, I really care about this topic, what is your perspective? Mind joining us and talking about it?”

Commsor, a company building an operating system for community-led companies, is doing this really well with their Community Club, an online community for community leaders (what a loaded sentence). The admins don’t impose an agenda or make the community theirs, they’re just the curators, supporters and facilitators of a safe & inclusive environment.

So how do you build a community with, instead of for, your community members? In their Get Together book, Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh and Kai Elmer Sotto suggest a simple framework that suggests you keep asking the who & why constantly and reviewing your activities accordingly. Adjusted for our purpose of early-stage communities, it goes something like this:

3. Find the right platform for your community to gather in

“As much as we love debating the nuances of our tools, we can’t forget that “community“ really just means “people.” — Patrick Woods

Once you have a clear mission statement and the understanding of what your community needs, consider the platform you will use to host your community activities. The use cases are many and you will have to explore what platforms best support the types of conversations you have with your community. If you’re putting together the building blocks for your own community, consider how different platforms might impact your engagement and other tradeoffs. For example, more forum-like platforms (like Circle) give more structure, but might come at the expense of engagement on other platforms that are more chat-like and live (like Slack).

At Deepnote, we’ve recently moved away from using Slack as our community platform. In our case, after the initial evaluation and some cut-off criteria (e.g., OAuth integration, search engine indexing, ability to customize, white-label and embed the platform with our core product), we ended up deciding between Circle and Discord and went with Circle in the end. Our decision-making framework looked something like this:

Consider the pros and cons of the platforms at hand and learn from the experiences of other community-led companies. You can find help in articles like this one from Patrick Woods in which he compares Slack, Discord, and Discourse. Patrick also describes in detail Orbit’s experience with the migration path from Slack to Discord.

4. Tackle fragmented learning early on

“Be mindful of the ways your community likes to learn, where they converge, and share the learning content where they need it most.” — Demetrios Brinkmann

At Deepnote, we are building a platform for data scientists that helps them collaborate, become radically more productive and create their best work. As such, we have a lot of learning experience with products that are fragmented in multiple places: technical product documentation, showcases and educational content supporting our community in using our product, and a ton of amazing user-generated content.

Now — we have not cracked this one quite yet, but it is becoming very apparent that consolidating that material and unifying the learning experience is important. It needs to be thought about early, before technical debt accumulates. We are seeing that fragmented learning in developer communities is a real pain, but it’s not something that can be resolved overnight — it requires constant iteration and commitment from the team to keep consolidating and distributing the content to where it can be seen. Ultimately it comes down to user empathy and knowing your users really well — map out the different channels where your users converge and hit them at those touchpoints.

5. Keep things fun

“What are others not doing? Do that.” — Francesca Krihely

COVID has certainly been one of the key factors for community growth in the past months. People strive for authentic and meaningful connections more than ever, but we also find ourselves fatigued by infinite virtual happenings and webinars. How can you create a truly distinctive experience? We’ve asked around and here are some of our favourite ways that community-led organizations fight the Zoom fatigue:

  • GirlTrek is a health movement for Black girls and women encouraging them to walk together. When Covid hit, GirlTrek moved online and started a walking meditation series of calls and podcasts. Anyone can now join, listen in, and continue walking with the community without feeling isolated.
  • Snyk did a DJ set as a part of their virtual SnykCon 2020 conference. They brought in a coding musician who used a code-based tool to code beats and create a fun atmosphere during the conference’s happy hour.
  • Orbit uses custom emojis and badges to reward community members in their Discord forum.

When designing any core community activities, virtual or personal, ask yourself: “What is something that speaks to our purpose, that is better when shared or experienced as a group?”. According to Bailey Richardson, the activities should adhere to the following 3 principles:

  1. Participatory — Your community is not your audience, they should do things with you and participate from the very start.
  2. Purposeful — The activity should speak to the shared purpose you & your community have.
  3. Repeatable — Communities need time to take shape; even if it does not take off the first time, try more and only iterate if doesn’t take off after a couple of efforts — consistency is key.

6. Get comfortable with the fact that there’s no “growth hacking” your community

“There is no growth hack for growing your community. “— Brian Oblinger

Last, we’ve quickly learnt that the build stage and laying down the foundations for your community is all about creating useful content, education, and legwork. You want to delight and support your users and community members. There is no way to “hack the growth”, it’s just about doing simple things the right way, in a repeatable manner.

The growth stems from these foundations — pay attention to the community members that keep showing up, nurture them, shine the spotlight on them and celebrate these outstanding community members to inspire others. Ultimately, you can then empower the most engaged members to take the lead themselves, and make them co-leaders in owning the growth of “your” community.

Long story short — building a community is not a push activity. Create a clear valuable incentive for your users to keep coming back, delight those who do, and work with them to send a clear, authentic message to the world about your product. Community is all about the pull.

At Deepnote, we are currently looking to hire a Head of Community that can help us materialize these ideas. If you are excited about our ambition of building the best data science notebook and a thriving community of data scientists, do reach out! 👋

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Elizabeth Dlha

Elizabeth Dlha

Product at Deepnote | SF by way of NYC by way of PRG