A Sense of Belonging

Product-led communities foster authentic connection and the pursuit of shared goals, which can be valuable to companies, as well as society.

Shripriya Mahesh
Mar 11 · 5 min read

Part 3 of 3: What do product-led communities look like? A sampling of case studies.
You may also want to read
Part 1: What is a product-led community and why is this happening?
Part 2: A breakdown of existing models; how companies are building product-led communities

By Shripriya Mahesh, Sara Eshelman, and Stephen Wemple

In our last piece, we talked about how product-led communities differ from other community types in the ways they are structured and monetized, as well as in the ways they deliver value to their members. In this post we’ll take a look at a handful of successful product-led communities to see how they do it.

Product-led communities vary along two primary vectors: the time horizon (immediate consumption vs. long-term investment) against which the user is seeking to achieve a goal, and the amount of friction required to participate in the community. Longer time horizons required to achieve goals coupled with lower friction ways to engage is a sweet spot where we’ve seen community enhance a member’s experience meaningfully. (See table for more detail.)

Areas that require high levels of long-term investment (top of the y-axis) are ripe for community. These tend to be places where people are commiting a lot of time, attention, and/or money with the expectation of a future payback in the form of better health, career advancement, or mastery of a skill, for example. A goal that is far in the distance with long feedback loops, requires greater patience and persistence, making it harder to reach. For high-investment, long-term pursuits, community can provide users with the feedback, inspiration and motivation they need to keep going.

In contrast, categories towards the bottom of the y-axis often require less work and deliver shorter-term benefits. The desired outcome may be immediate. When I take the bus, I want to go from point A to point B. I get what I want in 20 minutes; I don’t need to seek feedback or motivation from an outside source. The same is true for purchases such as clothes or cosmetics. No doubt communities exist in these categories, but we don’t expect to see as many deeply committed communities built around short-term, consumption-driven pursuits.

Low friction — the easier it is to engage and extract value — is also key. For a community to be valuable to the user, it needs to be available on the user’s terms. Given the struggle associated with long-term, high investment pursuits, it’s important that community engagement not add unnecessary friction to the experience. Community should provide users 10X additional value without significant added cost. High-touch, high-friction interactions can be impactful in theory or at small scale, but can greatly hinder the potential long-term reach and scale of a community.

Technology and the internet make things more accessible, more affordable and often more effective. Widespread internet and mobile adoption have made gathering online evermore ingrained in our culture — reducing friction and making it possible to deliver richer community experiences in more places.

At the heart of the most successful product-led communities is the idea that community makes the product or experience better than the alternative. Better can mean many things: stickier, easier to use, cheaper, more effective, etc.

Take eBay as an example. eBay has always been more than just an auction platform. If it wasn’t, it would have faded into non-existence like many of the other auction platforms that eBay competed with in the early days. eBay was different because of eBay cafe. The eBay cafe, built alongside AuctionWeb (eBay’s original monniker) was a vibrant, eclectic community of collectors, sellers, and internet junkies who wanted a place to gather and connect. Experienced sellers coached new sellers, button enthusiasts connected with button enthusiasts, and micro-communities were built around passions and hobbies.

Pierre Omidyar, eBay founder (and Spero LP) summed it up perfectly: “What we’re doing is building a place where people can come together…they just happen to be coming together around trading”.

The eBay community helped shape the eBay experience and product. Community members became employees, highly efficient customer acquisition channels, and some of the best customer success voices. The community is what set eBay apart from its competitors early on and established it as an enduring brand even today.

Skillshare (a Spero portfolio company) saw the same opportunity to build a space for their creators to connect, learn from one another, and trade best practices. Their product is built to tap into users’ identities as lifelong learners and the company has been intentional about bringing users together around this shared passion.

Peloton is another great example of how removing friction can create new forms of community. Whether or not a Peloton class is truly live, it always feels live. They have mastered merging synchronous and asynchronous to deliver a product that is 10x better than biking at home by delivering community on-demand, anytime anywhere. This is 10x better than biking by yourself, and arguably even biking in an in-person class. Core Wellness (a Spero portfolio company) is in the early days of building a similar experience for the meditation community. Check out more here.

We see this playing out in five major buckets:

  1. Health and wellness — exercise, healthy eating, disease prevention and management;
  2. Professional — within companies, industry-specific communities;
  3. Education — classmates, career changers, fans of a college sports team, neighborhood school;
  4. Hobbies — live music, cooking, arts and crafts, antiques, hacking; and
  5. Personal life — family, religion & spirituality, neighborhoods, friends.

In venture capital, the team is the product — and we aim to be a product-led community (albeit not as scalable as the ones we’ve described above) ourselves. We believe strongly that our community exponentially enhances the value of our offering. We are very intentional about building curated, goal-focused gatherings, from product leader summits to theme-based founder breakfasts and more. Please reach out if you’d like to apply.

Spero Ventures

News, podcasts, and insights from Spero Ventures.

Shripriya Mahesh

Written by

Founding Partner, Spero Ventures. Venture investing in the things that make life worth living. Product. Formerly @eBay. Filmmaker. shripriya.com/newsletter

Spero Ventures

News, podcasts, and insights from Spero Ventures.

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