Who “owns” community inside a company? Exploring hiring, metrics and alignment at early stage.
Who leads, owns and contributes to building community around a product or company?
And when’s the right time to hire a specialist to grow and lead this work?
As an investor in products with community at their core and, before that, an operator and angel investor with the same focus, these are questions I’ve asked and been asked, and they continue to fascinate me. Like any complex, nuanced topic, there’s no easy answer but, as always, we learn faster together, so this piece is an exploration of what companies working in different verticals or spaces do. Warning; I got carried away and it’s long.
Let’s start by defining terms.
“Community” is one of those hazy, often misinterpreted words that can trip people up, so let’s start simply; most communities centre around utility (“being part of this is useful to me“) and belonging (“I have or can build a shared identity or goal within this group” — think; the area you live in or hobbies you have). In the context of startups, community building is the work of connecting your users to the product and each other, with the aim of creating a thriving ecosystem around that product.
What this work looks like, and what you call it, varies hugely depending on what you’re building and the goals you have.
To give a few examples:
Event Store is the company behind EventStoreDB, the open source operational database for modern day architecture and data needs. Their goal is to build a community of developers and information architects who are passionate about this methodology of storing data to encourage adoption and evangelism of the product.
Odin is a community centric investment platform for startup investors. They automate the rails that investments in private markets run on and provide a communication and discovery layer on top of this. Their goal is to build a community who are segmented by topics or specialisms such as climate but united in their passion for startup investing, with Odin’s goal being the adoption and evangelism of the product.
The Lowdown are on a mission to put women in control of their healthcare decisions. Their platform is a one-stop shop for women to choose, access and use the right contraception and reproductive healthcare, powered by user-generated content, medical advice and prescriptions. Their goal is to build a community to drive trust, adoption and evangelism of the product.
These companies have different audiences for their communities — developers, founders/investors and women respectively — but similar goals across product feedback, adoption and evangelism. And some of the work they’ll do to build thriving healthy communities, from thinking about how new members are welcomed in, or hosting in-person get togethers, will also be similar.
So why does ownership matter?
You could argue that nobody has a neatly defined role in an early-stage company because situations and needs evolve too fast. But roles and responsibilities aren’t the same things.
Every early stage company needs to have multiple team members, if not everyone, speak to customers and users often. There’s no other way to listen closely, surface feedback fast and know if something’s working. But two-way dialogue between company and user or customer isn’t the same as active work to build peer-to-peer networks or nurture a community.
It’s rare that communities thrive without active planning and execution. If a thriving ecosystem is central to the success of your company, or your success is inextricably linked to the success of your community, then you probably want to put someone on the team in charge of this work (even if it’s part of their work versus their entire job), and collectively devise metrics to assess and measure.
And all this is before we get to naming. Titles matter because the work, and the person leading it, has to be legible to your stakeholders whether they’re existing or potential community members, wider scene, hires or investors. With this in mind, let’s dive in.
How communities start tends to rest on existing founder/CEO networks
Typically, the founders I invest in and support are working to serve a group they belong to (like their field of work) or solve a problem they’ve personally experienced. So, in the very early days, the community is immediately around the founding team; it’s easy to listen, participate and bring people together. So:
“Before EventStore began, our founders were active in various communities on the topics of domain driven design and event sourcing. Then in our earliest days, the founders spoke at meetups and conferences on this topic to introduce what we’d built. Their expertise drew early adopters to us — including me — who were willing to bet on this methodology and our product”: Yves, head of developer advocacy, EventStore
“We launched Odin in lockdown, and people were craving connection. When we started, it was literally just a Slack community of friends from our network, plus a few Linkedin posts I wrote that brought in others. In Slack, we started testing different ideas, like sharing and rating dealflow or connecting people based on shared interests. By speaking to everyone, we started to figure out what products would be useful and drive revenue, which led to our SPV product for angel syndicates. In parallel, I started a newsletter writing about stuff that I found interesting.
Then, as lockdown ended, we started to do private dinners for these core customers. These had no agenda; we’d just bring together people me and Mary [cofounder] thought were smart and interesting. And we don’t pay for these dinners. They’re intentionally non-transactional — we aren’t bribing you to use our product”: Patrick, co-founder and COO, Odin
“Community for us is about people feeling motivated to contribute to something that’s bigger than themselves. On our contraceptive review platform, women feel compelled to share their experiences with methods they’ve tried in order to help other women feel more informed about what to expect.
But in the very early days, building community was a very hands-on process. Friends added initially reviews and feedback, then I realised it was working as women were automatically sharing the platform with each other” — Alice, founder & CEO, the Lowdown
When’s the right time to bring on an owner beyond the cofounder or founder?
“We hired someone to lead community when it became unscalable for me to be at the centre of the conversation all the time. I love building and getting feedback from our community, but for the business to grow and thrive, we needed to prove it would work without me at the centre” — Alice, the Lowdown
To build a scalable business, communities need to evolve beyond natural peer groups and founder/CEOs need to delegate and hire specialists. Companies often decide to hire or carve out space in an existing team member’s commitments when there’s an inflection point; a decision taken to push more on adoption, or a need to formalise and improve how they engage with existing members of their ecosystem.
For Event Store, Yves says “we had lots of users we didn’t know, or we didn’t have time to deeply engage in places we were active. All employees have a role to play in community and advocacy-type activities, but bringing on someone with actual experience and knowledge is essential. Community can’t be done part-time”.
For Odin, “Just like sales, I think community strategy is best if its founder led at the beginning. Everything you say and do informs the sort of community (and hence brand) you end up building and you’re still figuring out what works and doesn’t. We hired a head of community after our pre-seed when we’d just launched our first SPV product but it was too early.
We’re now past our seed round and hiring two roles in this space, when the timing feels much better. The first is Growth Manager: community and content focused on top of the funnel. I do a lot of the content, and Mary, my cofounder and CEO, is very focused on building out the communication and networking tools, so it makes sense for this person to report into us. The other is “Growth Manager: demand generation” who will convert this community into customers and they’ll report into our commercial director Rich.
We see both roles as part of “growth” because, ultimately, this is what all community activities are trying to drive; more engagement and more customers” — Patrick Ryan, COO, Odin.
In Event Store’s case, developer advocacy was about the right product feedback and the right evangelism, so it made sense for this newly created role to report to the CEO, who is technical.
Finding the right first external hire
When you’re ready to hire, start with a compelling job description. In it, focus on what outcomes or results the right hire could lead for you, rather than what tactics you want them to execute. Often, the right founding hire for an early company will want to build the strategy themselves, informed by the guidance, opinions and proof points the founding team has already gathered.
And a common mistake to avoid here is under hiring. Community as a function is still new; job descriptions that are lists of tasks (do social media, run events) can result in candidates that are enthusiastic but junior. Without direction, metrics or a sense of what community means for strategy, these hires do their best but struggle to make a difference, leading to dissatisfaction all round.
Bethany Crystal’s deeper post on hiring community managers of all sorts is great, but as one small example here’s a job description I helped Superthread put together to find a foundational community/GTM hire for a multiplayer software product:
- You’re a relationship builder working to build strategy and execute against it to kickstart the community of earliest adopters.
- You’re a sharp wordsmith able to fashion narratives that drive trust, engagement and ultimately sales.
- You’re experienced in partnering with product/technical teams to surface and handle legible product feedback.
- You’re a strong communicator, deeply empathetic, able to balance strategy and tactics, and excited by the ownership available and expected in an early-stage startup.
This particular advert emphasises a few things:
- Compared to other examples here, the Superthread community is less fully formed; so the right lead has the chance to build this from scratch and tweak as they go
- It makes clear the link between trust, listening, adoption and expansion
- And anyone who joins a company this early has to act like an owner, so independence and autonomy are critical
Once you decide you’re ready to hire, typically the best person for the job will come from your existing community. They’re already interested in the topic or mission plus have credibility and trust with your audience; for example, while I’ve seen some amazing upskilling over the years, I’ve also seen technical groups struggle to build trust with truly non-technical developer advocates.
For Event Store’s head of developer advocacy Yves, “I was quite active in the Slack channels which is where I saw the open advocacy position. The priority in the hire was on people who were active and trusted in certain communities and known to be helpful to others”
Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the right candidate is already at the company in a different role; at Zoe, the team noticed Alex, a nutrition coach, loved working closely with their members, who saw her as approachable and credible.
Nobody obvious? Then map out companies with similar audiences and who leads work there; Kate, who runs community and partnerships at Framer, moved over from Webflow because the creator audience both serve is one that she knows well.
Be intentional about what community means for your company, because this informs how and what you measure
While things can and should be evolved and iterated, how you start influences where you go. As one small example, the profile of the first dedicated hire you make to own this work often means the community is built in their image. So it’s important to understand what community means for your company and track what success looks like. Often, this comes back to a foundational behavioural insight that ties into your company’s reason to exist:
“Community is especially relevant for us because investing in startups is community-driven by its nature; people invest in and with people. And Silicon Valley’s success, in large part, is down to the fact that a high density of ambitious people live in one place; as a result, people inside that ecosystem form strong, high-integrity relationships and play long-term games. It’s more fragmented in Europe. Your friends might think what you do is obscure. So when we think about community, we think about how we can connect all those people offline and online to their peers. The better we do this, the more likely this group is to use our products, and tell others about them.
In the broadest sense of the word, our community is all the startup investors, operators and founders our product touches. But there are layers to it; we have an inner circle of close customers, friends and shareholders; then an extended group who have invested using our product or get our newsletter. The people in your network talk about you online; how they connect with each other and the way they behave around and interact with your business becomes your brand.
We think about this community in every decision we make; they’re the lifeblood of our business. There’s rarely any misalignment between supporting and delighting this community and driving long term value for our shareholders” — Odin
This alignment for what community means, and buy-in for what community is for within a company is crucial, because it also informs how and what you measure.
“We knew that community was working for us as a strategy because, even as a small scrappy team, we’ve always seemed bigger than we are. People in our target audience tend to have heard of us before we speak to them. In the first 18 months, 95% of our business came from referrals so we’ve always tracked referral rate as a core metric. We reach $1M run rate without a sales team” — Odin
Alice adds, “In the early days of the Lowdown, we measured responsiveness; the fact that women were writing paragraphs of text and really spending time sharing. That was such a strong signal of engagement. Now we focus more on repeat users, and the ratio of core users versus lurkers, and conversion to purchasers”
“For Event Store, community members are the best advocates to encourage others to use our product; it’s a new category of database which can require novel ways of thinking about systems in general. Often, developers in our community use our product in unforeseen scenarios that we, as a company, couldn’t imagine. When they move roles or companies, they take our product with them”
And Alex Rowell, EventStore’s head of community adds, “we do track things like new joiners and questions asked, but I tracking returning members and active engagement more useful to gauge overall health. On the more holistic side, seeing community members have conversations with each other and answer questions without a member of the team responding is one of the best indicators that we’re building a healthy space for discussion”
As you can see from these examples, at early-stage it’s worth testing out multiple metrics (eg. NPS, referrals, product feedback contributions, public endorsements like GitHub stars, event attendance) to assess if this work is trending in the right direction (the brilliant David Spinks has a great matrix of goals and the metrics that can work to track them here). If you look at the metrics you want to track and they feel too expansive to be purely owned by someone leading community then split them; here’s a great case study on how Twilio (admittedly a far larger company than those mentioned here) built shared goals between DevRel and sales.
Ultimately where this sits in a company’s org chart at early stage is less important than the work being owned and understood.
From speaking to Yves, Paddy, Alice and the many founders, community managers and developer advocates who keep informing my thinking on this topic, I’m more excited than ever about building the field of community as a function.
If you’re building a product with community at its core, hit me up via the Common Magic website — I’m always down to chat about this kind of work.