How to Build a Community: Starting with "why?".

My origin story

In November 2018, I moved from Sydney to the US to take on a role managing the dbt community. I’d been a member of the community for the two years prior, and in that time had gone from a data analyst who knew enough SQL to be dangerous, to someone who understood the data space deeply enough that I wanted a new challenge. And I’d learned almost everything about data from the dbt community.

Over the last few years, the dbt community has been incredibly successful — since I started, we’ve grown from 1000 members to over 10 000. In December, we hosted a conference that had 5 000 registrants, and received incredibly positive feedback. Late last year, when our eventual Series-B investors reached out to a dozen community members and asked for their NPS, we received an average score of 10.2/10 — no, this is not a typo, apparently someone gave us as 12/10. (If this was you: you should know better as a data person! You’re really messing up my numbers here!). Most of these community members cited the community as a reason for their high score.

Finally, around once a week I get around one DM a week saying thanks for everything we’ve built!

If you had asked me when I joined in November 2018 what our community would look like at 10k members, I would have guessed that it would have become like most other online communities: full of unkind people and extractive behavior (after all, good things don’t scale). I would have been scared of that day.

Yet somehow, despite my worst fears of growth (or perhaps because of them), people still find being a part of the dbt community to be a net-positive experience. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s still pretty good!

As a result, other companies in the industry are noticing, leading to a number of “can I pick your brain?” meeting requests¹ over the past few months. Most days, I feel wholly unqualified to give an opinion on why, or how, we’ve been so successful, I’ve just been making it up as I go along. But when I look at what we’ve achieved, when I talk to new starters at our company, or when I do let someone pick my brain, I realise that I do know something about this whole community building thing, and perhaps that thing is worth writing about.

So, this is the first of who-knows-how-many posts on How to Build a Community.

Why do you want to build a community?

Often folks end up in my inbox because their CEO has heard that community building is the latest hotness, and they’re scrambling to figure out what that means, and how they should do this.

My first question is always “why do you want to build a community?”. Here’s some common answers:

  • “Well, it must be fantastic at increasing your top of funnel for sales and marketing.”
  • “It just feels like your community creates incredible hype around your product.”
  • “I guess we’ll be able to understand our users’ needs better, and get more product feedback.”
  • “After all, you get free content, and get to outsource a ton of other work.”

These are pretty reasonable answers on the surface, especially if you’re looking at our community as a model of success — after all, we do in fact get all of these benefits.

But if these are the primary motivators for why you’re building a community, I’m skeptical that you’ll succeed. These reasons put the benefit of the company ahead of the community member, and I’m pretty sure that any of our community members would see right through these motivations.

Building mission-driven communities

So if those answers aren’t quite right, what is a good answer? Here’s my two step process to identifying why community might be right for you:

  1. Find for your company mission, and
  2. Ask yourself “does building a community help us achieve this mission?”. If yes, then that’s your “why”.

Let’s take the mission of the company I work for, Fishtown Analytics, as an example:

Fishtown Analytics is on a mission to empower analysts.

(OK there’s actually a little bit more in the mission, but this is the part that I like most).

Another great example is Animalz:

Set a new bar for quality content marketing.
We envision a world where the internet is dominated by content that’s informative, insightful and entertaining.

In both of these examples, it’s so clear that community is a tool for the company to achieve this mission — yes, a company can provide software and services in pursuit of this mission, but to really achieve it, one needs to be thinking bigger than this.

How does this play out?

For the last two and a half years, I’ve approached community-management from the perspective of trying to achieve our mission of empowering more analysts. Often, this leads us to make decisions that look different to other companies in our space.

  • On creating events:
    • Other companies: I recently saw the info sheet for an event that a vendor wanted us to participate in. At the top of the sheet was the goal for the event: “Create $X of sales opportunities”. Most of the talks were a thinly-veiled sales pitch for their product. I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything by attending, and I won’t be attending next year.
    • My take: When planning our inaugural conference, Coalesce, our goal was to create an event that advanced the practice of analytics engineering. When selecting talks, we chose the ones that we felt helped data teams be more impactful.

  • On speaking at conferences:
    • Other companies: It’s not uncommon to have Developer Advocates whose role it is to speak at conferences.
    • My take: In comparison, I prefer to work with our community members so that they give the best conference talks possible (note: I have spoken at the odd-conference here and there – it’s a great way for to make sure that I’m well placed to give community members advice on how to make talks great!).

  • On getting product feedback:
    • Other companies: If I had an Amazon gift card for every time a company sent me an email asking me to do a product survey (in exchange for… an Amazon gift card). Some times, it’s up to the community team to bring feedback back to the company.
    • My take: I think more about how I can bring our team into the community — I’m very lucky in that all of our product team are data people themselves, so have a shared context with our community. But even our non-data teammates are building connections in the community — everyone on our team is great at what they do, and our community members often enjoy getting the chance to speak to a fantastic product designer and learn from them.

  • On recognizing community members:
    • Other companies: Ever been to a conference that had a points system for swag? Or seen a community that had a leaderboard? In these cases a company is trying to incentivize someone to give them something.
    • My take: If someone does something wonderfully kind, I’ll try to say thanks with a small gift. As much as possible, I’m trying to recognize, rather than incentivize.

I think part of this is also just treating our community members with respect. Our community is full of incredibly bright, curious, and kind human beings — they’d see right through us if our motivations were related to dollars.

The incredible thing about this approach is that we do end up getting all of those benefits that I listed above — yes, we have a great sales funnel; yes, we have huge reach; yes, we stay in touch with our user needs; yes, we have people contribute work that we could not do ourselves. But we only get to sustain the good vibes (even with our growth) because we stay true to our mission.

OK, but what if my mission doesn’t align with a community strategy?

That’s okay! But I think you need to be realistic with what you’re going to achieve if you try to build a community. Maybe your team isn’t going to build the <insert field of practice> community, but perhaps there’s ways you can generate goodwill by contributing to adjacent communities.

A lot of this mindset also applies to other interactions with your users, crossing over into the world of “developer experience” (i.e. how easy it is for a developer to be successful with your product) — by putting your user first, you’ll still create a lot of virtuous cycles.

No matter what your mission is, I encourage you to ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community.

Next time on How to Build a Community

We’ll see, this is my first time writing about community, and I have no idea how it will land.

Here’s a few topics I’m thinking about:

  • Managing the growth of a community
  • Measuring the success of community
  • Assessing community-market fit (or: when community isn’t the right strategy)
  • What to look for in an early hire

If one of these appeals to you, let me know via the bird site or email.

¹If you are reading this, and you have sent an email to someone in the past asking to “pick their brain” via a 30 minute meeting with no agenda, please don’t do this. Instead, send an email that includes the specific questions you are interested in, and don’t assume that the best way to get them answered is via a call.