Business is not just all about your product or service. Neither it is just all about profit and loss. An important element of your business is your customers as well as the communities that support the sustainability and growth of your enterprise.
Nathan Sampimon founded Inspire9 coworking network in 2009, making it the first community-driven coworking space in Melbourne. The community workspaces have doubled in size every 18 months and are amongst the largest in Australia.
For startups, engaging your prospects and customers can bring in a lot of advantages to your business. Inspire9’s Nathan Sampimon discussed How to Build Your Community Around Your Business at the Masters Series talk by WeTeachMe. “Communities do a great job of making the world seem small and accessible,” Nathan observed. “Anything is possible because of networks and connections,” he continued.
Community of people
Nowadays, when you talk about community, people relate it to the online community. While communities may cross over from offline to online and vice versa, Nathan believes that “there are things that don’t translate when you talk about in-person communities versus online communities.”
If you have a business and you have built an online community around it, make sure to provide a human factor in your engagement. Remember that community is all about people. It’s neither space nor the structure because a community is composed of human beings.
There are similarities shared between an online community and an in-person community, such as values and principles. But there are also some differences. “It is quite narrow when you talk about online community because a lot of it is publish-see results-publish-see results whereas, there are so many more dimensions to an in-person community. You can throw events, you can leave stuff on people’s desks in the morning, or you can send them off to the weekend with drinks. There is a lot more way of affecting people through an in-person community,” Nathan pointed out.
Benefits of community
Building a community can bring a lot of advantages to your business and to the environment where you are operating. Nathan stated that “So many magic happens when you get a community together. Obviously, communities aren’t the answer to everything. But they do solve a lot of problems in different ways.”
A community can do a lot of things. It can:
1. Connect people
Nathan enjoys the amazing stories that happen in communities. He narrated a particular account of a startup where the three founders only met in Inspire9, hit it off, and built a successful company. Although they experienced some setbacks in their business, they kept on until they were able to let their venture fly.
Nathan takes inspiration from encounters like this that he has witnessed within their community. Inspire9 has become a bridge that allows people to widen their circle and deepen their relationships. According to Nathan, “we take it upon ourselves to connect to as many members of our community as possible. We go to town and introduce them to everyone they need to get their life works done.”
2. Cultivate ideas
The three men in Nathan’s story became business partners because they were drawn together by their ideas. In Nathan’s words, people get to “cross-pollinate ideas” within a vibrant community. And for Inspire9, it has become a hub where ideas converge and produce creative and innovative concepts and products.
Nathan believes that every community has something innate that is unique to that community – the culture, the people, the fabric, the trust networks. Diversity is a significant ingredient in promoting growth because lack of diversity can kill a community. Otherwise, it will just become a big “echo chamber”, as he puts it. The exchange of diverse ideas can inject an energy or vibe into the group that can bear fruit to so much more.
3. Allow resilience in people
Nathan shared an instance when someone lost a phone in one of their gatherings. It was a big possibility that someone pinched the phone. As soon as members got word of what happened, they each contributed a nominal amount to replace the phone. They were able to raise the amount without putting a huge dent in individual pockets because of their numbers. They were also able to respond to the incident faster.
“The amazing thing about that was the speed of what has happened. The pace that you allow it to repair itself at such a short amount of time is incredible. It makes a difference when everyone gives a little to make a big impact. The lesson that I take from that is that community doesn’t solve all problems as there are still nasty things that happen, such as people still pinch phones. But there’s a resilience there that you wouldn’t get otherwise. A community allows people to bounce back faster and better,” Nathan remarked.
4. Provide access to things or people out of reach
Nathan found that having a community allows Inspire9 and its members to access things and even persons that seem out of reach if you are working on your own. Some of its members have produced technology like a Wi-Fi-enabled light bulb. Inspire9 also has virtual reality (VR) labs with VR headsets that entry-level developers may find too costly to acquire, which they can use in the coworking community.
5. Promote social impact
At the start, individuals would want to join a community for personal development or sense of belonging. But once they become engaged with other members of the community, they move towards thinking of the common good. Communities can create a social impact, whether to change the mindset of society or to introduce an innovation or to provide solutions to problems.
Strategies for building a community
Knowing the benefits of having a community, the next thing to know is on how to build a community, particularly one that can support your business. From Nathan’s talk, these are some strategies or actions you can consider in building your community. But don’t lose yourself in the strategy. Put genuine human connection above anything else when you are establishing a community.
1. Think big but go small
“A common thing to building communities that is not so different to building a startup is to think big, you have first to go small,” Nathan advised. “The first people that you will invite into your community is going to be the most important people in your community. To get to a hundred members you have to get first to one, and then you have to get to five, and then you have to get to ten,” he illustrated.
Based on Nathan’s experience, the reality of the way communities work is that the culture set in the initial five or ten people is the culture that will attract others or will emanate to the rest of your community. That is why it is important to be selective about who will be those first five or ten people are. Nathan suggested going through a curation period wherein you carefully think about the kind of people and the values the initial set of members of your community should have.
2. Talk to people
To start with the first five or ten members, “just go and talk to people” is what Nathan suggested. In startup parlance, it is often called customer research. But in community building, it is all about talking to people who are passionate about what you have or what you offer. Find those people and empower them. How do you find them? They could be the ones sending you email or following you on social media or visiting your store regularly or simply looking for answers that your business can provide. Know their priorities and preferences, understand their wants and needs, and listen to their inputs and ideas.
3. Identify set of values
The way a community grows is that it recruits members to its group while traditional businesses get customers to have sales. “That recruitment process has a curation aspect to it. We ensure that the kind of people that we are bringing in prevents our community from going sour. So, when people come in, we show them who we are as a community and our values. We are upfront about some of the things that are expected or commonplace inside our community. If that does not bode well, most of the time, it is self-selecting,” Nathan revealed.
4. Take them with you on the journey
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that I have learned in the last four years. There’s no point in getting somewhere where no one else can be. You have to bring everyone else along for that ride. You have to build bridges. You have to put up ladders,” Nathan shared. Having a community is about togetherness. It is all about shared interests, shared values, shared goals and shared experiences. Other businesses even provide workshops for their customers or community members because they want these people to be with them on their journey.
5. Allow natural energy to drive community
Nathan realised early on that sometimes he has to step back to allow the natural energy of the community to flow freely. He believes that a healthy community can sustain itself even when its core people leave the community.
As a business owner, you are often compelled to take control and be in the thick of things. But when you want to build a community, you have to let the people drive it and make it grow. You may be able to exert some degree of influence, but you cannot fully control it because it is composed of people and people are dynamic.
6. Organize activities and events
Although people can drive community, you can still inject activities and events that can promote camaraderie among your members or support your community’s purpose and goals. “We used to hold a lot of events in our coworking space. We used to hold tiny, tiny events. Eventually, the events got bigger and bigger.” Nathan described how they did it during their early years. They would ask their members if they wanted to hold workshops in their area of expertise. The events were member-driven as they revolved around their members.
7. Establish core metrics
Even in your community, it would be good to have some metrics in place. Members would like to know if there is any growth or development that stems out of their efforts. “We have three core metrics at Inspire9. We measure those metrics and report on them monthly,” Nathan quipped. These metrics are:
- Resident personal and professional development. Inspire9 calls its community members as residents. “We nurture and nourish them. We help them run personal development programs. We take a holistic approach to how we develop our residents. We measure how engaged are residents are with these workshops that we provide. We use that as an indicator of how engaged they are in our community and how we are going on our path of growing and developing them.”
- Community connection. “It means connecting members with other members. It is also connecting our wider network with other people either inside our network or outside. We connect them at a mentor level or with experts inside of our network or in the outskirts.”
- Community or business sustainability. “Traditional businesses might look at profit and loss as the single thing that they measure. We call ‘profit and loss’ as business sustainability because we’re not out there to develop a huge thriving company. So, business sustainability is ultimately community sustainability. We’re looking at the next 50 years, not the next 5. So that looks like having solid underpinnings of operating in an economic environment.”
The future of communities
Even though technology is moving at a very fast pace, Nathan sees that the social aspect of community is key to its future. “Some people may get carried away by this idea that technology will completely transform the way that we, as individuals, think and see the world. I think technology does a lot of things to enable us,” Nathan admitted.
Indeed, technology makes things faster, including how people connect with each other. But Nathan also saw that “technology will not stop people from wanting to connect. It will not stop people to come and have real human experiences.” There will always be an internal craving within us that will always draw humans together and have that sense of belonging and community.
Given that, you can respond to that internal craving of people to connect. Use your business to be the bridge that will bring them together and share their passion. Create shared experiences with them and take them with you on your journey.