How to Cultivate Community during Uncertain Times

Bo Ren
Samsung  NEXT
Published in
6 min readApr 15, 2020


We are navigating through unprecedented times as community builders, founders, operators, investors, and society as a whole. As we migrate from offline communities to online due to the COVID-19 crisis, we see a cultural, social, and economic paradigm shift in how businesses, communities, and organizations operate.

At Samsung NEXT we have been pondering the question, “How do you cultivate communities online during changing times?” To answer this, we gathered Community Lead at First Round Capital Serena Bian, GM of Startup Initiatives at Zendesk Pedro Muller, and Head of Developer Relations at Samsung NEXT Jesse Freeman to share their insights and best practices. Here are key learnings from our virtual salon on “Cultivating Community During Times Like These” hosted on April 8th via Zoom.

Get more tactical and more targeted

As we shift from offline to online events programming, Serena explains that most community tools have been grounded on the “socialness” of an event e.g. retreats, breakfasts, diners, etc. Given the current COVID-19 challenges, Serena admits “there is a social component to events that is very hard to create virtually.”

She asks herself, “How do you build 1–1 community intimacy in a space like Zoom?” For Serena, instead of trying to recreate social components in virtual events, she focuses her efforts at First Round on supporting startups in tactical ways. Jesse tries to be “the introduction powerhouse for our community” connecting First Round’s founders to knowledge experts in their community.

Be expansive and inclusive in your community offering

When it comes to tactical support, Serena recommends a more inclusive approach:

“Be more expansive in what it means to support our founders.”

A lot of the founders in First Round’s community are parents with children. As a result, First Round has organized tactical ways to support working parents through hosting weekly virtual parenting office hours, virtual children reading sessions, remote work forums, and weekly virtual yoga. To ensure these offerings are effective, Serena monitors her community’s health through sending out frequent micro surveys.

Focus on Quality over Quantity

When it comes to virtual event curation, Serena recommends focusing on quality over quantity. Everyone is doing the same thing trying to build intimacy at scale and competing for attention online. Try to do something different.

Before coordinating a virtual event Serena thinks through two criteria:

1) how can you do less?

2) does the event target hypersegmented audiences?

She asks herself, “How can we send people less emails? How can we ensure that each email received is segmented and efficient and not too much?” When it comes to audience segmentation Serena focuses on gathering smaller groups over optimizing for sheer quantity in order to engage deeper and more thoughtful discussions.

Prepare for a cultural shift in community-building

Jesse, Head of Developer Relations at Samsung NEXT, observes,

“We are undergoing a huge cultural shift.”

He believes how we convene as a community will be fundamentally different after this pandemic. Jesse said, “This isn’t a fad. This isn’t going away. This is going to be the norm.” He predicts new community behaviors will emerge and social norms developed around events gathering in the online world post-COVID-19 era. He ponders, “Will people want to go back to old events?” He recommends community builders take the time to figure out new models around migrating offline to online communities, anticipating lingering effects to persist post-pandemic.

Jesse predicts,

“We will see the shift online is way more important in person for the foreseeable future.”

Be ready to ask yourself questions on how to migrate people back to offline events after all this over. It’s plausible a portion of your community will prefer to remain online after this pandemic is over so be prepared to navigate the new ambiguity of offline and online communities.

Get others to share your message

To navigate this paradigm shift from offline to online communities, Jesse has been honing his writing skills, penning articles on Medium.

He follows a simple rule,

“Write and do interesting things that other people want to share in an organic way.”

To measure success in his writing and online events, he asks himself a simple question:

“Are [people] sharing our message with their community?”

Through writing online, Jesse creates brand advocates and evangelists about a concept or product. However, you want more than just retweets but rather passionate evangelists who can share your ideas, thesis, and products for you. This creates a scalable model for you to disseminate your organization’s ideas or products.

Find new ways of measuring success

When it comes to fostering online engagement, Pedro, GM of Startup Initiatives at Zendesk, has been developing new ways of measuring success. Fundamentally, his core business KPIs have stayed the same but he has changed how he tactically executes online events through a couple of new metrics.

To measure the success of events, he tracks the following:

1. Average time spent in the event

2. Dropoff points of attendees: when did your audience lose interest?

3. How many questions did people ask? Was your audience engaged in the content?

Pedro recommends creating an experience where attendees feel like “they are building with us.”

To do so, he recommends shifting from marketer to community builder mindset. Do not create a one way channel to massively broadcast your message, instead create a dialogue between you and your attendees in virtual events, permitting shared discussion and intimacy.

Key Takeaways for Community Building in the New World

It’s not easy to be building a community in a changing landscape, to better equip you to navigate through uncertain times, Serena, Pedro, and Jesse share the following takeaways:

  1. Prioritize quality over quantity. Serena recommends being hyper focused on your topics so you can cut through the noise and attract your target audience. Make sure your topics are relevant and segmented to a specific audience e.g. founders, product managers, designers, engineers etc.
  2. Execute fast. “The speed of execution has increased.” By the time you put on a virtual event or publish a blog post in two weeks that topic may be obsolete. “Sometimes you need to put on an event in a week” said Serena as the window of relevancy shrinks online. The response time to new events and content is faster, which accelerates the speed of execution. Your audience needs are changing faster so you must adapt as well. The speed in which our world is changing creates a sense of urgency in executing faster to stay relevant while still maintaining quality as the highest metric.
  3. Reassess and reevaluate regularly. Pedro recommends reevaluating all your projects and focus on the ones that drive growth and community engagement. Don’t be afraid to question everything as you know it — wind down certain projects and accelerate others. Ruthlessly prioritize high impact projects and discard what’s not working — nothing is precious.
  4. Experiment, test, and iterate. Jesse recommends maintaining an open mindset for experimentation. We are all figuring this out as we go. There is no right way to do things anymore as all the rules have changed. Jesse recommends maintaining a growth mindset when it comes to experimentation and agile development of virtual events and content. Come up with new hypotheses to test, ship a MVP version, gather rapid feedback and rinse and repeat.

As we collectively navigate through paradigm shifts in community building, we hope that founders, community builders, and operators continue to innovate in this new world. Maintaining a growth mindset is critical to overcoming challenges and paving new ways of thinking. History shows us that innovation happens during critical paradigm shifts — policy/regulation changes, macroeconomic crises, and political changes — what’s important is we continue to test, experiment, and iterate through time.

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Bo Ren
Samsung  NEXT

Product-focused investor empowering underestimated founders. Writer. Advisor.