Four Ideas for Building Authentic Startup Communities

Laís de Oliveira
on March 07, 2019

Last week, over 8,000 people filled the streets of Redwood City, CA, for the Startup Grind Global Conference. They walked in as a crowd, but left as a community.

That is what this conference (and this article) is about.

I had the chance to moderate a panel with two exceptional community builders:  Startup Grind founder Derek Andersen (who’s currently running the community building platform Bevy), and Courtland Allen, founder of Indie Hackers (acquired by Stripe in 2017).

As seen on our 2018 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, Local Connectedness matters. How can you foster a strong sense of community in your startup ecosystem? And how might you create a successful community-based organization? Based on the experiences of Derek and Courtland (and my own with Startup Grind), here are four takeaways.

Be true to your own values

Startup Grind started as a small workshop of sorts, hosting small handfuls of people for interviews with founders in Silicon Valley.

Derek started it as an way to get mentored by great founders while building himself a supportive community around entrepreneurship, inspired by the values of “giving, not taking,” “making friends, not contacts,” and “helping each other, not just yourself.”

This may all sound hokey, but it is truly authentic to the people and organization. As Courtland has pointed out, “entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey.” Things like “making friends, not contacts” may sound idealistically abstract, but they make a real difference to founders in the throes of that loneliness.

Both Derek and Courtland had strikingly similar motivations to start their communities: to create an authentic and vulnerable space where founders could share knowledge and help each other. Being true to your own values, of course, implies that you know what those values are. Self-awareness is an important asset for founders.

Start small and keep it simple

Both Startup Grind and Indie Hacker started with core groups of people most aligned around a safe space for founders to help each other.

“At the start, it was just me doing interviews and posting content on the website,” Courtland explains, adding that he’d drive traffic there by knowing “where to find the right people.” Over a month, he’d be getting 10,000 visitors and would foster interactions by creating himself multiple profiles that would talk to each other, until the community gained momentum and could sustain the forum by itself.

“Starting big is like hosting 15 people in a stadium,” he explains. You don’t need a “Reddit-like” infrastructure to get an online community started. You can start from one single content page, or a weekly newsletter, or a monthly or quarterly event.

Open up brand identity

Community-based businesses can achieve great success, as both Startup Grind and Indie Hacker demonstrate. Other examples include GitHub, acquired by Microsoft in 2018, and Reddit, acquired by Condé Nast in 2006. And, of course, Startup Weekend which, as part of Up Global, was acquired by Techstars in 2015.

But, how can a sense of belonging be scaled without eroding that sense of belonging in the first place? Building a community means adding value beyond your offering: this includes the valuable connections amongst your customers—what Derek calls “C2C”—the added value of a Customer to Customer experience.

It is about letting your community members (who may also be your customers) take charge and allowing them to define your brand with you. You know you’ve made it when people feel well represented and safe under your brand.

Nevertheless, persist

Overnight success is rare: most early-stage ventures will hit some sort of rough patch. Even community-driven businesses, fueled by common interests and values, have their share of struggles.

Startup Grind started as a side gig to Derek, who kept working on it until someone came around willing to start a chapter in Los Angeles. From there, Startup Grind grew chapter by chapter, powered by Derek’s persistent follow-ups with individuals from different cities all over the world.

Today, Startup Grind is present in over 600 cities around the world and has spinned off into Bevy, a community platform which recently acquired CMX (world’s largest online platform for community professionals)

At the beginning, IndieHackers was a simple content website. Courtland would post articles from interviews with other founders and, in order to promote participation in the discussions, he candidly shared he’s create and post from multiple profiles to foster engagement.

It took IndieHackers roughly a year to gain the relevance which would get it acquired by Stripe.

Sense of Home

On a personal note, attending the Startup Grind Global Conference felt like coming home, after two years away from the organization.

It was a fluke that I joined the Startup Grind community back in 2012, founding the Buenos Aires chapter and running it until 2014, when I moved on to start another chapter in Kuala Lumpur. I eventually joined headquarters, coordinating community growth for Africa and the Asia-Pacific. Today, Startup Grind has over 600 chapters and, all the while, the sense of community has stayed constant. As I walked through the crowd, greeting old friends, it felt like I had never left.

Home is what communities should feel like. And to build a home, you must go brick by brick.

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