Community as a GTM strategy
“Community” is a buzzword now — but there might be a good reason.
The hype around community can be annoying, but it’s a symbol of a greater reorientation happening. Silicon Valley has long focused on growth above all else. This has shaped product strategies, company cultures, and resource allocation. Now, though, we’re shifting to a world where companies are oriented around value and retention. The rise of community is one manifestation of this shift.
The rise of community is a manifestation of a shift somewhat away from growth, toward retention.
Of course growth is still crucial for venture scale businesses, but not all growth is created equal. The orientation towards value and retention leads to more sustainable and higher quality growth. Increasingly, founders are internalizing this and choosing to start with community first. They are leap-frogging the traditional community approach of “build a customer base and then try to turn them into a loyal, sticky community” and are instead starting with that loyal, sticky community.
I’ve seen a few consistent go-to-market approaches anchored in community gain momentum lately. Most notable are product cults, direct-with-consumer launches, and community-based customer discovery. These community-driven strategies help founders build better products oriented around retention, and build brands around their most loyal customers’ identities.
Examples include Roam Research, Notion, Repl.it, Clubhouse, RealTime, Eternal
Product cults tend to manifest as consumer companies that mix a combination of hype and an excellent product to develop an early community of users who become evangelists for the product. These evangelists do not see themselves as customers, but as members of a community who believe in the same future. The product represents a glimpse into the future. In the case of Roam Research, Roamers believe that a democratized, open-source map of human thought will accelerate progress. They’re staking a piece of their identity in Roam the company because they believe in the companies mission.
Product evangelists see themselves not as customers, but as members of a community who believe in the same future.
The community creates buzz with friends and on social media, driving acquisition and FOMO. They push the product to its limits, paving the product road map for the team. In some cases, they push past the constraints of the actual product and start building an ecosystem around it. For example, markets for Notion and Roam “experts” and “consultants” have emerged.
This is a hard dynamic to replicate, and Roam has a passionate set of users, but these cults represent a relationship with your customer that leaves nearly no room for disintermediation. The company’s product reflects its users, and its users reflect its brand.
Examples include Instagram, Glossier, Pattern Brands, Geneva Chat, Fiveable, and DocSpace
The geniuses from Gin Lane coined this term when they launched their new company, Pattern Brands. Gin Lane was at the center of the direct-to-consumer boom in the 2010s, helping build some of the most notable companies of that era. They saw firsthand that strategies focused on brand and acquisition alone were not enough. Real brands win with retention, and community can be a powerful source of retention. When they launched Pattern Brands, they called it a “direct-with-consumer” brand. They were setting the intention that their products would launch alongside community. And that they would look to their community to help shape future brands and products.
Glossier is famous for this strategy. They build small communities around future product lines. Geneva Chat has taken the ethos of the direct-with-consumer movement and built a platform to help new brands and companies launch with their consumers. In practice, that means a platform that optimizes for community engagement and connection.
The difference between the direct with consumer approach and the product cult approach is that you don’t have to have a product, you only have to have a brand identity.
Companies that use this approach build a small community of super users. These super users should reflect the company’s consumer base at scale. Companies then leverage their insights to build their first products and brand positioning. Instagram used this approach during their launch. They built a small community of “visualists.” They then leveraged the community’s insights to build the product and and their influence to build the platforms early user base. The People + Co. team call this a companies “kindling.”
The by-product of this approach is a committed early community that has skin in the game. The community has helped shape that product. They aren’t just your first customers; they’re also your biggest advocates. If they can get their friends to buy the product or use the platform, it validates them because they helped shape it. They also may some day become employees!
Community-based customer discovery
Examples include Modern Sales Pro + Atrium, Commchat + Commsor, and CMX + Bevy, and Dreamforce + Salesforce
Before launching Atrium, Pete Kazanjy and Jason Heidama launched the Modern Sales Pro community. It has since grown to a thriving community of 15k+ leaders in the sales world. Pete and Jason identified an emerging and underserved population of sales leaders that were thinking about sales organizations differently. In creating this community, Pete and Jason validated there was a market before ever having a product. Or, another way to think about it is the community itself was Pete and Jason’s original product. They have since gone on to launch Atrium, a powerful tool for data driven sales organizations.
Beyond validating the existence of a market, this community-based approach also shapes product development.
Beyond validating that there is a market, this approach also shapes product development. That’s because the most natural behavior in a community is people helping other people solve problems. This approach gives founders a differentiated line of sight into the problems that their future customers have. They can then productize the solutions or develop a single solution that is an abstraction of the many problems presented by community members.
Commsor, which will launch soon and already has a ton of momentum in the community space, has taken a similar approach. They run a Slack community with over 1,500 community leaders, and they hosted their first Virtual Community conference in June of 2020. The insights gained from building their community have evolved into Commsor — the first operating system for community.
The difference between this approach and the direct-with-consumer approach is that these communities can, and should be, big. The goal is to capture your target market’s attention and put yourself in a position to thrive once your product is launched.
The upside of these communities, if executed properly, is dramatic. Community members can help shape the product, the company earns its community’s trust by creating value before ever selling a thing, and the company builds a deep pool of potential first customers. Over time, these communities turn into defensible brand assets and can even become meaningful revenue streams. The pinnacle of these communities at scale is something like Dreamforce.
Yes, community has a lot of buzz right now. It is by no means the right solution for every company, but the way I see it, community is simply a re-orientation by founders and the tech world towards building products that optimize for value and retention. And we are all better off if the future is pointed in that direction.
If you are leveraging one of these strategies to launch a company, or want to learn more about how I’m seeing the community world evolve, please do not hesitate to reach out to Stephen at spero dot vc. Learn more about our Product-Led Communities thesis here.