4 Lessons from Companies that Built around Communities

Jun 25, 2021

Sometimes, products are built to serve communities. Other times, communities are built around products as a business grows.

Both cases have universal lessons we can take and apply to modern community management.

Let's look at a few examples from Airbnb, Uber, On Deck, and Craigslist.

If you only have a minute and just want the learnings:

  1. To kickstart a community, become a node
  2. Relentlessly focus on member experience
  3. Don't overpromise to your members
  4. Play the long game — let your members build a feeling of ownership

For full context, read on 👇

Companies are built on ideas — the products they build are solutions to problems they believe a lot of people have. Communities are places for people to gather because they share goals, beliefs, interests, experiences, or... problems, too.

If someone in, or managing, a community recognizes a problem faced by most if not all of its members, they'll often to try to solve it. Aside from feeling affinity for the problem themselves, the opportunity is somewhat de-risked since they'll be able to build around the needs of a defined set of initial potential users.

Here are two examples of and lessons from companies that grew organically out of communities.

Craigslist

Eventual founder Craig Newmark built a community that became the hugely successful and persistent website from an email list.

When he moved to San Francisco, Newmark wanted a way to build community around live events that didn't require individually coordinating with each person he knew. He started the email list to notify his friends about what was going on in town.

As it grew, local businesses approached him to add job listings and run ads. He and his eventual CEO, Jim Buckaster, expanded the email list into a simple website that remains largely unchanged (except for additional categories of listings) to this day.

Craigslist worked because Newmark discovered a community that already existed, but was unconnected. By providing a compelling reason for them to gather — digitally, around the email list and physically, at events — he was able to become the central node that aggregated thousands and eventually billions of pageviews each month.

Today, there are likely thousands of underserved and disconnected digital communities that just need a place and reason to gather, like the SF event community in the 90's.

On Deck

In just a few years, On Deck has gone from being an informal, in-person dinner series to a global company with many managed (digital and physical) micro-communities within it.

They've achieved this by focusing on the experience their members have above all else. Their team members are incredibly engaged, their events are exceptionally well run, and they're very receptive to feedback.

You've probably seen how people you know, and maybe admire, are constantly talking on Twitter about what a great experience On Deck was for them and how highly they'd recommend it. It's true that On Deck encourages this, but people wouldn't do it if it wasn't genuinely how they feel — they're under no obligation to On Deck.

Recently, their focus has been on expanding to new programs and verticals and there are signs that members have seen this as getting away from what they do best — member experience. It's impossible for multiple things to be a company's core focus.

There are a lot of things to learn from On Deck, but one is not to rush to build your community. Community can't be forced — it has to be authentic. Instead, focus on delivering an experience that your members will want to talk about and share with their friends.

When communities emerge around a product or company, the company has the choice to embrace and facilitate / manage it, or keep it at arm's length and allow users to organize it themselves to the best of their ability. While my personal belief is that the benefits of meaningfully engaging with user communities typically outweigh any risks, it's not always a black and white decision and successful companies have been built both ways.

Here's are examples of both approaches and lessons to take from each.

Uber

Uber's had a complicated relationship with their driver community, but it's one of the strongest and longest running user-led communities.

Uber intentionally doesn't provide a place for their drivers to interact. This is probably because they expect drivers interacting negatively impacts retention (though there may also be concerns around employment laws). Uber paid drivers extremely well in the early days through promotions and subsidies, and has had to constantly fight the perception that they've been unfairly reducing wages as the business has grown and matured.

At first, drivers talked on Reddit but eventually someone built a dedicated space for drivers to gather called UberPeople.net. Despite being almost 10 years old, UberPeople.net still had people posting responses "a moment ago" to multiple posts when I checked it out.

UberPeople.net homepage

The community has even had micro-celebrities like The Rideshare Guy emerge and generate enough clout to do interviews with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Uber does engage with the driver community through events, and involved their feedback as a major component of their driver app redesign a few years ago, but the relationship is tenuous at best.

While Uber's initial high payments may have been necessary to grow as fast as they did and outrun the taxi lobbyists, they're likely stuck with a negative relationship with their drivers for years to come.

The learning here? Don't overpromise to your community. If you start a community newsletter, for example, commit to it for the long run. It'll be hard to win member affinity and belief back with future initiatives.

Airbnb

Airbnb is a host-driven company. Guests pay the majority of the fees Airbnb collects, and Airbnb support often defaults to the host's explanation in user disputes. This is because the number of homes, and hosts, in desirable areas that are willing and able to list on Airbnb is much smaller than the number of travelers who want to go to those places.

Due to this, Airbnb has hosted (no pun intended) a longstanding online host community. Over 4 million hosts have a place to connect with other hosts, ask questions, share tips, organize meetups, and more.

It's more of a strategic move than Airbnb would like to admit, but it's good for hosts regardless and, over the years, Airbnb has been able to build up incredible brand equity with hosts.

Hosts were angry when Airbnb chose to refund over a billion dollars to guests who were suddenly unable to travel at the beginning of the pandemic rather than let hosts collect that money. The company ended up creating a fund to pay out $250M to impacted hosts.

While some hosts felt it wasn't enough, or an empty gesture, most seemed to appreciate what Airbnb was able to do and are still hosts today. They trust Airbnb after years of feeling engaged with the company through its online community.

The member affinity that Airbnb has been able to build through their host community enabled them to make it through the pandemic. For your community, identify who your most important and engaged members are. Get to know them. Help them build both a sense of ownership over the direction of your community, and relationships with each other. They'll stick with you.

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