6 considerations for building your company’s community – and how to expand your own

With Amber Atherton, Head of Strategic Communities at Discord and Executive Director at GBx
12 May, 2022

Online and ‘irl’ communities are fast moving to the center of companies’ growth strategy. You only need to look at the rapid growth of web3 to see the critical role that communities can play in expansion, idea adoption and customer retention.

Equally, as a founder, your community can be an invaluable tool. Building is an intense commitment, where you’ll probably find yourself thinking about your company most of the time, working longer hours, and even down the line, potentially relocating. 

To stay sane, it helps to be around people who get what you’re going through. It’s why at EF, we focus as heavily as we do on community. Your cohort aren’t just where you meet your co-founder – they’re your people, and your support.

A lifelong founder, Amber Atherton is an expert in both functions. 

She has spent a career immersed in community-building, perhaps most prominently as CEO of Y Combinator-backed startup Zyper, and following its acquisition in 2021, as Head of Strategic Communities at Discord. In addition, she serves as Executive Director at GBx, a private community for British founders in Silicon Valley to meet both professionally and socially.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that she shares our passion for community.

In this interview, she shares her advice on how founders, from their earliest stages and beyond, can build community – both as a part of their growth strategy, and as support on their journey.

EF —

What role has community played in your own journey as a founder?

Amber —

It’s been essential –  your relationships are the best capital. Throughout my career, I’ve formed very strong friendships with founders who are in the process of building. They’ve been my support community; whether in the UK, through Y Combinator, or now, at GBx. 

In addition, my career itself has revolved around communities. My previous startup, Zyper, helped businesses and brands connect with the top 1% of their fans, and provide a private space for their community to congregate. Last year, we were acquired by Discord, where I now work on expanding our communities beyond our gaming stronghold.

EF —

What advice would you give to founders who want to embrace community as part of their growth strategy?

Amber —

For me, there are a few things that you want to consider:

  1. Your industry. If you’re in web3, community building is basically the first step – your users need to have a sense of ownership, and so you need to be involving them from the get-go. If you’re in biotechnology or healthcare, you’ll need to be engaging with potential customers and brand advocates very early – but these are likely to be more high-touch, personal relationships than a forum. Make sure you’re thinking about this realistically when you’re fleshing out your strategy.
  2. Why you want to build a community. Communities are a huge trend for a reason – done well, they’re one of the most powerful tools in relating to and reaching your customer. However, they are deceptively hard to build out, and will require a lot of your effort and resource.

    It’s also a very nascent space, and there’s not necessarily an immediate business return; it’s a longer term, sustainable project. You need to be very sure it’s the right thing for your company.
  3. What a member gets out joining your community. People join a community because it offers them something, not because they want to be sold to.

    Consider, if I am joining your community, what value you’re going to give me. Is it utility, skill sharing, networking, or even just humour? Make sure the value exchange is very clear in your mind when you go into this, and craft your strategy around it.
  4. Your niche. Don’t be too broad in your activity, and instead think about the subsectiont that you specifically can cater to. It’s far harder to keep all members of a community of ‘runners’, of infinite different levels and abilities, engaged than it is a community of people trying to get back into running 5k after an injury.
  5. Who should join your community. A mistake I often see founders make is going big early, because they want as many people as possible to interact with their brand. However, a community is not the same as an audience – its value comes from its members, not your company. A sense of exclusivity can be beneficial.In the earliest days, you want to be selective about those coming in, and be sure of the value they’re bringing to the conversation. The most effective strategies start small with 10-15 power users who will, with you, architect the community and become your evangelists, thanks to their stake in it. They then grow it steadily from there. This keeps the community engaging and active.
  6. Your community’s architecture. I often tell founders to think about architecting their community as if it’s a video game. What character do you play in the community? What are the secret levels? What are the cheat codes? How does it feel like a fun game to be a part of? Thinking about it in this way keeps people engaged and having fun.

Above all else, remember the basic importance of friendship. When I look at all the online communities that I’m involved in, or when I’m working with businesses, or startups, or GBx, it comes back to that same funnel. You find a topic you’re interested in, you start a conversation, you participate, and you form a friendship. 

What distinguishes really successful communities that are evergreen, from the perhaps less so successful ones, is that they are truly about giving people a place to find friendships.

EF —

How should founders approach expanding their community?

Amber —

It’s very relative to the different stages of your journey, and you want to be surrounded by people who are at the same stage as you. If you’re at EF, you’re just starting up, and you’re in a room full of people all going through this fun, intense, crazy time of building. If after that you move onto another accelerator, like I did with Y Combinator, it’ll be the same.

You don’t lose that need further down the line. One big challenge I encountered was relocating – like many founders, I moved out to San Francisco for my startup. That’s how I got involved with GBx in the first place. Everyone was in the same niche: a ‘Brit in the Bay’, and the founder of their own company. Wherever you go, keep looking for the EFs and the GBxs – the people in the same place as you. 

You should also think about it socially rather than just ‘advantageous’ connections. Consider what you’re truly interested in and passionate about, and seek out those communities. Is it a local club, or is it a forum – on Discord we have servers for people new to owning houseplants, and even a virtual diner. And most importantly, don’t just lurk in the group chat. Participate in the conversation. Be a member of the community. This will hugely expand your network and offer you some relaxation outside of work.

Even though these things might sound like they’re ‘outside’ of your startup, connections can be surprising. And if you’re using communities in your company’s growth strategy, it really pays to be a part of them to understand how they work first-hand.

EF —

What do you think are the biggest trends we’re going to see in community building?

Amber —

It sounds very simple, but I think humour is becoming the greatest form of social capital. Being a professional community builder sometimes feels like being an anthropologist. One of the things I’ve become obsessed with is how communities are developing around memes, especially when it comes to channels like Discord, Reddit and TikTok. web3 is practically built on them. At the end of the day, we all want to laugh. Humour is one of the most effective ways a brand can relate to its community, and its community members can relate to each other.

I’m also excited to see how the growth of the metaverse and VR is going to affect communities as well. I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in VR chat with my Oculus Quest, where you can join people in virtual cafes. It’s got me wondering what else can be translated into that kind of environment, to capture the serendipity we’ve all been missing from real-life events during the pandemic.

EF —

You do a lot of work with GBx, who support British founders who move to San Francisco. How does that work?

Amber —

Founders typically join GBx once they’ve raised a seed round and/or they’re moving full time to the Bay Area – given that’s where a lot of starting up journeys lead. 

On the one-hand, GBx is a professional network. We do fundraising panels and roundtables. We have a private Slack where you can meet people in your industry, we’ll even offer support with more practical aspects.

GBx event in San Francisco
GBx event in San Francisco

But there’s also a very real life aspect to it. We host annual black tie galas featuring British comedians, we meet up at pubs, we organise group trips and cycling tours. Most importantly, we’re a home away from home. We’ll even tell you where you can buy Marmite or Cadbury’s in Palo Alto.

This to me is so vital. Just like at EF, you’re building out the bonds of friendship and knowledge sharing with people who ‘get’ you. It’s not just being a founder – it’s being a founder with this interest and this background at this moment in time. I think when we are at our busiest or most intense times, having those relationships that feel like home are critical.

For more information on GBx, and how you can join if you’re also a British founder in the Bay Area, visit https://gbxglobal.org/

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