The 5 Golden Rules of building a Community-Based Platform
When Seedcamp started back in 2007, there was a lack of great support networks for founders across Europe, and as such, we embarked on a mission to help connect those founders with the best people from across a network of founders, investors, operators, and functional experts.
That became the foundation of what we now call our platform, but our community and how we engage with it has not remained static over the years. Rather, it has been in constant evolution, and as more and more investors seek to build out their own networks or platforms, we are constantly learning, taking inspiration from various sources, and iterating on how we can best serve the needs of our founders.
In the same spirit of how the broader community has shared with us over the years, I’d like to share some insights about how we think about our network and how we have evolved to serve its needs. Perhaps a good place to start is in defining the key terms, and then laying out what I now consider to be the 5 golden rules of a platform from my personal experience and observing how others have approached things.
I see these terms (network, community, platform) used interchangeably, but to help provide some clarity, this is how I define them: a community is a group of people that has access to each other and can reach out to each other without necessarily needing much assistance from a node, a network is very similar to a community, but typically requires the assistance of relational nodes that can connect people together that don’t know each other in the community, and a platform is the structure upon which a community and a network can build, flourish, and interact.
Now, as the platform is the structure that ties a community and a network together, I believe it can be a constructive structure if it follows 5 simple guidelines, which I’m calling ‘rules’ for simplicity. Those rules are:
1) Know your customer — It’s hard to build a community & network for an abstract person or for too broad a group. Although you will naturally have outliers above and below, it’s good to get some conviction around what kind of person you’d like to focus on, what their skills are, what their needs are, and most importantly, what their time pressures are. Btw, ‘customers’ aren’t just limited to founders, they also include those that will contribute time to help founders, be they lawyers, bankers, investors, and friends.
Seedcamp’s role in the ecosystem has naturally changed over the years, from the early days we helped spread best practices with the help of our community that would share their learnings and thoughts via events we hosted (some of you might remember our mini-seedcamps!), to current day, where the ecosystem has matured so much that there is no lack of specialised events catering to every type of founder in most geographies. As such, our ‘customer’, both from our investor base, functional experts, and founders, has evolved along with that and what they want to get out of what we can bring together has changed as well.
For us, though, what’s not changed, is our focus on early-stage founders and founding teams. Yes, we are open to pre-product ideas, but our main focus is around teams that have come together and built something, no matter how crude, that serves a clear customer, even if there is limited-to-no traction & revenue. It might not seem like much of a distinction, but it is, by focusing on founding teams + early product at the earliest and seed-stage, pre-series A founders at the latest, we can build a community of people around them that can best help and assist them on their journeys.
2) Define a culture for your platform- This seems like a funny one to add as typically ‘companies’ have a culture, not ‘platforms’ as such, but as sometimes funds or programmes have different teams for investment vs. support, it is critical to get the culture right across both. To help create some measure for platform culture, I’ve found that platform cultures can range from educational to peer-based on one axis, and from formal to hyper-informal/ad-hoc on another. The permutations within these axii are almost limitless, but what matters most is that they address the needs of your customer, otherwise the platform will have a poor connection with those it serves. The outcome of how you define your platform’s culture can have a massive impact on decisions such as: how often you communicate, what tone you use, what channels you use, whom you partner with, and are offerings unlimited or with restrictions based on certain attributes.
During Seedcamp’s evolution to date, we’ve migrated slightly on these two axii. When we started, we were likely heavily on the educational and hyper-informal end of the spectrum, but today we sit on a different intersection point. Rather than focusing on what founders need to learn to avoid mistakes, we are now more about helping founders better understand how other excellent founders have tackled similar issues, and the knock on effect of this has been that we’ve had to shift away from being hyper-informal to something more structured, but without losing our Seedcamp culture. In the end, we feel it is a right mix for where we are right now in our journey with our community.
3) Hire the right team for your stated culture — Hire a team that represents your culture so the experience feels genuine. There’s nothing worse than hiring one type of character (I won’t go into job stereotypes here about the previous roles of those you hire) to interface with your community if they won’t be able to represent your tone, personality, values, and spirit well. It will end in disaster. The great thing if you do hire the right team, is that they will be able to add value to the platform with their creative inputs as it will be clear what should be within it and what should not.
We’ve been very lucky with our hires within Seedcamp. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest people I know, and no matter where they were in their careers when we first met, they all had attributes that resonated with our culture and how we communicated with our community.
4) Put Elbow Grease In — Running a platform, particularly one that is based on a community, is not a set-and-forget type thing. You can’t just hire a team, put a structure based on a hypothesis of what the platform should offer and then let it run. Rather you need to be putting some serious effort into expanding it, refreshing it, and catalysing it. Iterate it as often as you can afford to without being disruptive of the very value you’ve promised in advance.
At Seedcamp after every event we reflect what went right or what went wrong, it’s not always a super formal process that’s time consuming, but it’s important to do nevertheless. Every year we reflect on what formats are working and which aren’t working, and every two years, we do a sense check of how we are engaging with the community on the two axii and how we can best serve the community. On a more micro-level, as of about a year and a half ago, we also started rolling out a new format to catch things on a tighter time-frame which we call Seedcamp Essentials and which I covered here — https://medium.com/@cee/seedcamp-essentials-97d589eb6758
5) And the most important rule — Don’t overdo it — Just because you offer a platform to add value to your community doesn’t mean it should be a distraction for founders or other members of your community. It should be genuinely useful and have the needs of your ‘customer’ at heart. At Seedcamp, we make sure we keep this in mind as we come up with modifications and additions, and we integrate their feedback into this process. It is very tempting to constantly want to promote it as a basis of differentiation (as more and more investors want to offer something) and add more and more to it, but keep the number one rule in mind — is this what my customer truly needs?
As you compare our decisions on the above to your own, one last comment I want to add is that I don’t think there is one ‘right’ platform, just optimal configurations of the 5 golden rules/guidelines as they apply to a set of ‘customers’. What I mean by ‘optimal configuration’, is that naturally, every one of these 5 rules can be set across a spectrum to fit your needs. If your community is focused on startup building, you’ll likely have a different culture and team than if your community is focused on creatives and freelancer workers, for example.
Therefore, any one platform format that is espoused by any one organisation runs the risk of failing to deliver the right engagement for the new ‘customer’ the platform is trying to engage; in other words, you can’t re-use someone else’s magic and expect to get the same results. I’d rather the reader think of these rules as a framework upon which you can personalise a configuration that works for your community. My hope is that these 5 rules, guidelines, or whatever you want to call it, allows you to engage in a conversation about not only how they are interrelated, but also how they ultimately face trade-offs.
As a final point about us, Seedcamp’s platform today is optimised around building and supporting Europe’s strongest founder network. To that end, today, we are an evolution from where we started back in 2007, but we took many of the learnings of those early days and applied the 5 golden rules to create a platform that starts with building connections quickly between founders, highlighting key areas of company failure and success early, having a reasonable pace of updates and support cycles for newly invested founders, providing structured access to functional experts in our community at the right times, and organising thought-leadership events that are apropos to the needs of our community in any given year. I hope the above helps you with any projects you are considering!