What happens behind the scenes of community building

The work that you don’t see happening to help grow the #yesphx community

Jonathan Cottrell
Published in
8 min readApr 25, 2017


I’m a big — no, huge — fan of community. Years ago, when I was writing 10 facts about me in 20 words, community builder is one of the phrases I felt defined me. In fact, if you asked me only three things about who I am at my very core, I would say I’m a son, starter, and community builder.

So, you can take it from me when I say that building community takes work. As much as we may like to think community just happens, it doesn’t. It requires intention. It demands diligence. It takes a willingness to deal with the greatest variable we will encounter throughout life: people.

Regardless of the work involved, people are the driving motivation and relationships are the reward of authentic community. Relationship is what gets me out of bed every morning, whether those are with my family, my friends, or my fellow Phoenix citizens.

Since starting #yesphx three years ago, it has been incredibly rewarding to see the community that has evolved. I need not repeat here all that’s happened as a result. I don’t think I need to share the hard-earned lessons that have been learned, either.

But I do want to clarify and provide additional transparency into some of the behind the scenes work that goes into building community for those in the Phoenix entrepreneur community — or any community, for that matter — as a point of reference.

The wild truth about wildcards

In every healthy community, wildcards will emerge. These are the folks who are often times very vocal. Some of them have personalities that may not naturally mesh with others. Or perhaps they communicate things that don’t seem to align with the overall ethos and mission of the community. Each one has a slightly different flavor.

I say this out of pure Love for these people. In every community, inclusiveness is a key aspect to growing it. These wildcards belong here and should never be made to feel on the fringe or like they don’t have a place or voice. Their voice is just as important as anybody’s. We should judge people based on their consistent actions and contributions, never by their differing personalities, opinions, looks, or backgrounds alone.

Just like any community, #yesphx is fortunate and thankful to have some of these wildcards belong to it. In fact, the people you consider a wildcard may be different than those I consider wildcards. I’m absolutely confident I rub some people the wrong way, just as much as others may personally rub me the wrong way. #FactsOfLife

How we deal with wildcards

I’m primarily writing this because it has recently come into question how #yesphx deals with these people and situations as a community. Allow me to elucidate the work that sometimes takes place behind the scenes. It’s not all that complicated and it’s absolutely apolitical.

Step 1: We talk with them

Shocker, I know it. If someone starts oversharing content, self-promoting, or generally breaking our very loose community guidelines, a volunteer community manager* chats with them. If someone is newer to the community, we reach out and try to meet them for coffee. We simply get to know them so we can share a bit of what we’re about for their own context.

*Note: While #yesphx is not a “we” so much as a diverse, sprawling community, these amazing community managers include digital overseers Caitlin Waters, Vincent Orleck, and Matt (Meanders) Simpson. They are, quite simply, the best! I will use the term “we” as shorthand, but again, #yesphx is not a person or group of people — it’s everyone.

For those who have been involved in the community a while and start getting a little wildcardy (yeah, I made it up), someone usually reaches out to try and coach them up and steer them toward different behavior, while still encouraging they maintain their own unique brand. I would personally argue that, most times, the problem each individual may have with others is not with what they share, but how they share it — or how many times they share it.

Step 2: We extend grace

Not everyone gets the clue the first time. In such cases, we don’t just shut them down. Community managers don’t even delete “controversial” posts, either. They extend grace and remind people about the guidelines. It’s all very friendly. This happens very rarely, but yes, it does happen.

Step 3: We keep working with them!

More grace. In fact, we repeat this loving coaching as long as possible. So long as people continue responding and working with us, we understand. In rare cases, this may get a little…personal. We’re not being mean, though. We’re just trying our best to keep everyone else in mind.

Step 4: We respectfully part ways

In over three years, #yesphx community managers have only had to “ban” three people online. They shall remain nameless. We wish them all the best, but after numerous gracious attempts, they continued to blatantly violate our friendly guidelines and put themselves before others. Worse, they usually went silent as our gracious moderators tried to communicate with them about the issues.

All in all, we feel one ban per year is a pretty strong record, even though we wish the number was zero. As we say in the guidelines:

“If you can’t abide by these ideals, maybe #yesphx isn’t for you. Sorry.”

In my humble opinion, no one entering a community should feel entitled to a certain response from others. The responses everyone receives should be based upon the merit of their content, their delivery, and over time, their proven character. (Crazy, I know.)

What’s the point?

Even if you don’t see a conversation happening between those who may be ruffling your feathers, you have one of three rather simple options as you help Phoenix continue building the world’s most generous community for entrepreneurs:

  1. Assume that someone is already taking care of it behind the scenes.
  2. If their behavior continues to bother you, let our moderators know so we can coach them up. (Tip: Focus on the behavior, not the person!)
  3. Do the work yourself* and lovingly coach the person. We’re all in this together.

*Note: Many people do! Whether via Twitter, Slack, Medium, Facebook, email, phone, or face-to-face, you would be shocked by all the conversations that are taking place between community members behind the scenes. For example, roughly 80% of our very active Slack community conversations are sent via direct messages.

It’s easy to confuse public silence with private silence. This is not the case. We are not for publicly shaming others. Nor are we for overreacting. Building community requires patience … with one another.

We are all part of the same tribe. When we start with that understanding, realizing that all of us are in this thing together, building Phoenix, it gives us an excellent starting point for an honest, two-way dialogue.

As a key part of all this, I’ve asked my friend and faithful #yesphx community member, Mat Sherman, to share some of his own thoughts on this matter. I’ll be frank: based on reactions he has received from some people, he has been viewed as a bit of a wildcard at times. Personally, I love him. Whatever your view of him (or me!), he has received both affirming and correcting feedback behind the scenes and can speak to his own view of our process. His voice matters. And I’m thankful he’s willing to share it.

Mat here…

In high school, the teacher rules the classroom. If a student speaks out or disobeys the teacher, the teacher sends him or her to the principal’s office. Usually, the student prepares for the worst in this situation: the school calling mom. In my high school experience, from the few times I visited the principal’s office, it was never as bad as I expected. He was empathetic to my situation, understanding, and give me tips on how to not end up in his room again.

Luckily, I was never in his room that often, because I am a quick learner. I can’t say the same for all the kids. Some made the same mistake over and over again. Trip after trip to the principal’s office, nothing changed for them. They were still causing trouble for the teacher and the school. After working with them several times on how to improve, the school had no option but to suspend them.

Note, this doesn’t look good for the school. They would love for every reckless student to learn from their mistakes, but some never do.

#yesphx is a lot like a high school

As Jonathan puts it above, I can be viewed as a wildcard. That may be an understatement. As people who’ve been a part of this ecosystem for over a year know, I have my opinions. They are often unpopular and they are not presented in as welcoming a way as possible. The community plays teacher in this way.

Instead of a “teacher” sending a kid to the principal, the community expresses dissatisfaction over something another community member has done. We are led by each other, which is part of what makes #yesphx so special. In my particular case, the “principal” was Jonathan.

There have been a few times when he has messaged or called me about something I have posted. I was just as scared of him the first time we talked as I was of the principal at my high school. I shouldn’t have been.

Here’s what happened.

We talked about it

That’s it. He didn’t scold me. He didn’t yell. He didn’t ban me*. We just talked via private messages and phone conversations. I told him how I felt. He listened. After I was done, he gave me some tips on the situation and how to best handle it in the future. That was it.

*Note: For the record, Jonathan isn’t even able to ban people like me on Facebook. He’s not a moderator. He’s just one of our many community champions.

#yesphx is about building the strongest community possible. We should all value differing opinions, as that is how a community grows. With that, we should all be willing to do anything that keeps this community as strong as it is today, growing stronger day by day. Sometimes that means getting talked to behind the scenes. Like a school, #yesphx never wants to suspend anyone. They always try to work it out, and they never want to pull out the ban hammer.

So, if you get a DM from one of these community managers about something you’ve done, don’t be scared. Don’t ignore them. Just talk to them, because that’s all they want to do with you.

We’re all ears

Thanks for listening to both of us. If you have any additional feedback for how we can make #yesphx even more inclusive, improve our process, or make others feel safe to share their opinions, please, please, please let us know by leaving a comment below or sharing your feedback privately. We’re listening. (Even when you don’t know it.)



Jonathan Cottrell