30 Valuable Lessons from a Year of Building Community

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Note: I originally posted this on Medium.

Last year, I wrote a post about all the things I learned as a community manager in 2013. I shared some fairly straightforward learnings that I carried with me throughout 2014.

But even if you learn from all your mistakes, you still make new ones. I was not equipped to deal with everything I lost and re-gained this year. So now I have some new lessons to share, which I’m offering in brain-dump format this year because time always moves too fast.

If you read nothing else, read this: Be kind to yourself, community builder. Forgive yourself. Practice compassion toward yourself before you even think of practicing it on others.

My 2014 Year in Review:

  • At the end of 2013, I left my job at Chegg after facing insurmountable medical issues. I loved that job. I loved my team. It was a hard loss all on its own.
  • I worked half of 2014 at Scribd, where I quickly learned that they were not ready to invest in community as a core business value. That’s fine. It is what it is. I decided to leave, then was consequently “laid off” instead of having time to close out my projects and relationships (I’ve since learned this is not an uncommon phenomenon and I take responsibility for not seeing red flags). I loved the work I did — and still am close with many community members — but you can do work you love in the wrong place.
  • Left full-time work to work for myself as a community consultant, taking on early-stage startup clients from all over the world. Then I started working with CMX.
  • Grew the SF Community Manager group to over 800 members.
  • Started working with the incomparable David Spinks as editorial director of CMX Media. Working with badass people makes you more badass.
  • Met and interviewed a healthy handful of the best and brightest community builders in the world (and, my goodness, am I honored!)
  • Watched a lot of friends and colleagues leave community jobs and start new ones.

It was a busy year, and here is what I’ve taken away from it.

On Time, Yours and Others:

  1. Time is a more valuable resource than money. Your salary is important, but your time is invaluable. Avoid people and work environments that waste your time. You can never get that back.
  2. Taking a walk or taking a vacation is the most productive thing you can do when you feel overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how long you’re gone. You come back better. And, while you’re at it, forgive yourself for being imperfect.
  3. You have to condition people to respect your time, especially in communities. People think their problems are more important than yours or larger company issues. How do you condition respect? Over-communicate, but do not make yourself overly available.
  4. If people can’t say precisely why they want to build a community, do not work for them. A lot of people will say that they want to build a community, especially a lot of people in marketing. What they often really mean is they want an amazing, owned, unbreakable distribution channel. Wouldn’t that be nice to build without years of effort?
  5. There is no such thing as balance. In fact, the entire BS assumed premise of work/life balance is what leads to burnout in American culture. There is only what you prioritize. There is no balance.
  6. In every situation that stresses you out, think: What is the worst actual, real thing that could happen if this does not work out? Will you die? Will someone else cry? Chances are, the answer is actually nothing so serious. Laugh at your stress when you realize this.

On Self-Care:

  1. Take care of yourself first before you even consider helping others. I have thought a lot about the airplane example this year: if cabin pressure changes, oxygen masks drop down from ceiling. When they do, you’re supposed to put your own on before helping anyone else. When I was younger, this seemed insane to me. How could you not help a child first? But now it makes perfect sense. In order to save a child, you must be healthy and safe. You come first. This is not selfish.
  2. Emotional scarcity is a made-up idea. There is no emotional scarcity. There is no finite amount of love or care we may dole out. There is only scarcity of time and resources. The more we share our emotions (especially love), the more we multiply them.
  3. Money is important (and negotiating skills are essential), but they are not everything. I’d take a pay cut to work with amazing people on things we own rather than make six figures and work with people who talk a lot of big talk and do nothing.
  4. Say “no” often. I organized a hackathon this year with my now-ex boyfriend. The stress of it almost conquered me. Say no to things that don’t serve you immensely, that don’t make you overflow with gratitude.
  5. Question assumptions that you make on a regular basis. It’s quite possible that your assumptions are unfounded. For instance, do you really need to stay in one place to do work you love? Do you really need to own a home… ever? Why do you assume these are things you need in your life? American work culture is set up so that we make assumptions to keep us constrained and vaguely comfortable. Question everything.

On Building and Structuring New Communities:

  1. New communities scare people. They scare founders, marketers, and VPs overwhelmed with the Sisyphean task of building something from nothing. That’s why I started consulting in the first place: Communities don’t scare me, and they shouldn’t scare you. What is scary is inaction. Just do something.
  2. There are so many unknowns when building community that most people don’t ever start. Instead of thinking about building a community, think about building one relationship. A coffee meeting, if well-intentioned, is never a waste of time. Set 100 coffee meetings if you must. You’ll naturally build connections.
  3. Here’s the flip side to that: Getting started is not the hardest part of community building, even if it seems that way. I have worked with clients from all over the world who will ask me a bunch of questions about community psychology and how to approach a problem, and I will answer them patiently. But the truth is this: if you do one thing — if you just get started — you’ll answer your own questions.
  4. Speaking of psychology, there are some basics you should know to build great communities. Here are a few: Understand the principles creating a sense of belonging, the longing for connection among humans, the commitment curve, and the desire for exclusivity.
  5. Identifying community leaders is fairly simple. A great community builder is someone who exemplifies the spirit, passion, and dream of a community. This person need not be an extrovert or a social butterfly.
  6. Asking is often the hardest part. You have to find a way to ask for something in order to build a community. If you can’t ask, you’ll never receive anything. People want to build movements. They want to build things with you. Let them. Ask them.
  7. For community to truly, beautifully work, there must be buy-in from every single person in a business — founders to interns. This is as true at Yelp as it is for Moz. You can create community initiatives without true buy-in, but you won’t get the results that others have gotten. Community is not a short-term solution to any problem.

On Community Leadership:

  1. You have to take a stance, not shrink backwards. Whatever you believe in your community, own it.
  2. People want you to lead them. I read a lot of Seth Godin this year. (He says a lot of really great things, blah blah blah. You should read his books.) One thing he says has really stuck with me: people want you to lead them. They’re lazy. I’m lazy. But if you pick one passion and take the lead in it, people will be glad that someone is doing work for them.
  3. Letting go of control is the most generous thing you can do for your community. Give people the tools and let them build whatever they want. Trust in them, thank them, and show your gratitude. I did it with SFCMGR and I’ve heard leaders like Tina Roth Eisenberg and Marcus ‘djWHEAT’ Graham echo these same sentiments at Creative Mornings and Twitch, respectively.
  4. Overcommunicate at all times. The beauty of consulting on community projects is that I get to sit down with large teams and, within moments, I can pinpoint the gaps in communication. All of it can be solved with respect for one another, regular off-sites, team meetings, defined reports, and embracing rather than rejecting communication.

On How Community Works in Business:

  1. Don’t work for a company that doesn’t understand what you do, unless they want to pay you a lot of money to explain it to them first as a consultant. That may seem kind of cold, but you’re better off spending your time building community somewhere that matters and somewhere that you’ll be appreciated. I wrote a post about this.
  2. Community-centric business is the way of the future. People have resources. They don’t need more useless crap in their lives, even if they think they do short-term. What customers really want is connection. If you’re not connecting with your customers and connecting them to one another, you won’t exist in 10, 20, 50 years.
  3. You can’t create a community roadmap if you haven’t talked to your community yet. Simple as that.
  4. You should not start a community just because your competitor is doing it. I’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating. You should start one because you have a clear value proposition for your customers and a clear idea of your mission. If you’re curious how to build a value proposition, David Spinks and I can help.
  5. Branding is everything. It is your mission. That’s why people often confuse community with marketing/branding. If you can’t sum up your brand voice, don’t start a community. You won’t know how to write guidelines, how to engage your members, or what to ask them to do.
  6. Community starts with unscalable relationships. It takes time. If the idea of building those relationships overwhelms you, you’re not building the right community.

On Vulnerability and Personal Transparency:

  1. Work and life can all be one and the same. Making my work part of my life has been the best thing I did in 2014. We all build communities naturally in our lives, but I get to do it for my work. I am blessed, and it is a privilege to build communities of giving people working towards common goals.
  2. Being broken is brave. Vulnerability is power. For me, it has opened doors I’d never want to close again. I’ve reconnected with old loves, best friends, new builders, and family. I’ve had better conversations and made deeper connections. I feel more complete the more broken I’ve become.
  3. Gratitude is everything. Practice feeling grateful and notice how your gratitude multiplies each time you do.

I’m sure you learned a lot in 2014 too. What’s one lesson you’ve learned as a community builder this past year that you’re taking with you into 2015?

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