How to start an online community.
Last updated: Sep 10, 2021
So, you want to start an online community. Maybe it’s a community formed around an interest, a coding language, a business, or a civic pursuit. Growing an online community is a large undertaking and, unfortunately, the internet offers relatively little guidance on the subject and there is a lot of room for error.
On this page, we’ll explain how Mintbean was grown from scratch to a community of 5000+ software developers in 18 months.
This was the first online community I (Monarch) created, and it probably won’t be the last. After many mistakes, this community has taught me a few assorted useful things about the process of community building, and I’d like to share some of those insights with you.
I want to point out that it’s a sample of 1. I don’t -really- know what I did right, because I’ve only done it this one time. So take this as a complete picture of one example from start to finish, but not as a battle-tested process of building a community over many iterations.
Mintbean grew into community of 5000+ sofware developers in 18 months. Roughly 3700 of those developers live on Discord, while the rest are scattered across other platforms and newsletters. Mintbean members tell me that Mintbean is one of the best communities they’ve ever been a part of. In a recent survey of 250+ members, 99%+ of them said they would recommend Mintbean to a friend, and Mintbean currently rates at a solid 5.0/5.0 on Google from 23 reviews.
I’m going to use gardening as a metaphor. If I make any obvious gardening-related mistakes, I apologize.
What kind of community do you want?
The first step in having a beautiful garden is to decide what kind of garden you want. Will it be full of flowers? Or is it a Zen garden, full of beautiful pebbles and a few well-selected plants?
Similarly, you need to know what kind of community you want. Is this a place for people to hang out and chat on a daily basis about a particular topic, a loose network of like-minded individuals that congregate only rarely? Or, is it a place where people go to get help on your particular platform or business?
We were very intentional about Mintbean. We very consciously started it as a hackathon-centered community. We wanted to help junior developers find jobs. It was designed from the beginning to be centered around our hackathons. Devs would come to Mintbean for the like-minded community, as well as the twin interest in software development and first careers.
What kinds of people do you want?
The second step in having a beautiful garden is to plan the kinds of plants and fixtures you will have in the garden. Will you have fruit-bearing trees? Or is it a cactus garden, full of exotic plants?
Similarly, in a community, you need to clearly define what kind of people you’ll have in the community. Are they new professionals, like in Mintbean? Are they experienced veterans of a particular profession? Are they enthusiasts of a particular hobby? Are they people looking to learn your technology? By the way, it’s totally fine (and perhaps inevitable) for this to change over time. You only have to decide where you’ll start.
Where will you host your community?
The third step in having a beautiful garden is to source your materials and prepare the ground. Where will you buy your tools and soil? Will you be hiring help? You will draw out plans for what your garden will look like, and then get to work shaping the ground to suit your vision – and maybe also to suit the unique needs of the plants you’ve chosen.
Similarly, in a community, you need to know what platform you’ll host on. Will it be Slack, Discord, Twitter, LinkedIn? Will you have a website, or are you happy without one? Will you hire someone to help you with aspects of your community? Will your chosen audience be excited about the platforms you’ve chosen, or will they be intimidated or bored by it? Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” Choosing the right platform is the digital equivalent of choosing the right type of soil, so put thought into it and choose well.
We wanted a chatroom and not a forum, because we wanted to feel like a close-knit community where people made real friends, rather than an asynchronous place to correspond. We started Mintbean on Slack – but quickly realize that Slack wasn’t the right platform for us. We wanted infinite message history, which Slack didn’t provide. We also didn’t like Slack’s vibes – we knew we wanted to be a professional community, but Slack was too professional. We eventually migrated to Discord, which was a great move given the informal nature of the community.
Where will you find your audience?
The fourth step in having a beautiful garden is to buy and sow your seeds. Will you buy premium quality seeds? Will you forage them rather than buy them (and run the risk of low quality seeds)? Do you have a friend who can lend you some (and run the risk of depending on the friend forever)? Similarly, in a community, you will have to find your audience somewhere.
This is where a lot of budding communities fail, either from a bad supply of new members or from a supply that is too small, unreliable, or even non-existent. Don’t forget that WHERE and HOW your audience finds you is just as important as visibility. Context matters, and first impressions are often last impressions.
At Mintbean, we found our initial audience on Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups and other Slack channels. We would visit other Slack dev groups and advertise our hackathons. Eventually, we grew and started attracting people via word-of-mouth. Eventually, we found that having a shareable ticket that could be shared on social media after registration was a very big way to grow our audience, too.
How will you care for your audience?
The fifth step is to be watchful and nurturing. You must water your seeds and watch them sprout into sprouts. You must invest time and effort to care for the sprouts as they grow into blooming plants. In the beginning, it is wise to water your seeds by hand and do plenty of research on which seeds require how much water. That way, you build first-hand knowledge (some might say wisdom!) on how seeds like to be nurtured. Water is cheap, but time is not, so a mistake some people make is to choose convenience over mindfulness. Over time, you can invest in sprinklers and timed water dispensers, but you will never be an excellent and intuitive gardener if you don’t know how each seed differs in its preferences for sun, soil, water and heat.
Similarly, each member of your audience must be tended and catered to. They are each unique (they are each real people!) and so, they are real relationships that must be respected and tended to. Without tending to each individual relationship, you will not know how the broad category functions as a whole. So it is crucial that in the beginning, as you start your garden, you understand each member, have real conversations with them, and build real relationships with them. Yes, you must build real relationships. Building a community is about involving yourself in others' lives, sometimes very deeply.
In Mintbean, we really got to know people. I personally have spoken to at least 10% to 20% of our community, and have built real, lasting relationships with hundreds of community members. These relationships are mutually beneficial. They benefit from my knowledge and advice, while Mintbean benefits from having engaged and active members in the Discord. It might not be a scalable model – but it’s a model that is effective and that teaches you a lot about your community’s membership. You can use that knowledge to grow your community (and provide more value) even more.
Once it starts, just watch, tend, iterate, and be vigilant.
The sixth and last step in having a beautiful garden is to let it grow, and prune where necessary. Most of the work of gardening is done by the garden itself. The flowers bloom, the bees pollinate, the worms till the soil, the roots seek out water. But sometimes, you want to weed your garden, or keep it clean and free of things that might harm your plants. This is the long game, and can take a lifetime.
Similarly, a community will grow and tend itself for the most part. If all the conditions are right, and you’ve been mindful in other areas, your members will be happy. Eventually, they will grow relationships with each other, and your community will need you less and less in order to grow. When you get to this phase, it is easy to get complacent. You still have to tend the garden, be fully involved in people’s lives and continue tending those relationships. It isn’t a time to relax – it is a time to be vigilant. As your community grows, there will be ever more work for you to do. Stay mindful, and stay active.
As Mintbean grew, I found myself creating more and more systems for developers to stay engaged. Some things we did was start clubs, involve members of the community in those clubs, and stopped clubs which were not very popular.
It’s worth mentioning that a little bit of fertilizer goes a long way. Yes, it’s a little expensive, but it makes a big difference.
Similarly, offering things of real value for free to your community is the best way to build lasting relationships. Be the first person to offer value, and your community will bloom. What significant piece of value will you provide?
The value we provided was the fun experience of being in a hackathon, where you can meet people, get excited, and learn. Another crucial piece of value I was able to provide was real, actionable advice on resumes, LinkedIn strategy, career tips, salary negotiation tips, coding, architecture, choosing technologies – basically things I’d done for years and years as a senior developer.
Paul Wujek pointed out that one can also purchase seedlings and grow them, seeds are not the only way to start a garden. I have to add a correction: I did not speak to every single member in the community. I directly spoke to roughly 5% to 15% of them at any given time, but I create systems that appeal to many people at a time (like hackathons). Paul also suggests that there are many ways to deal with seedlings and plants in bulk, rather than with individual attention. I concur, there has to be a balance.
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