The Biggest Loser

During my first eight years living in Austin, Texas, I managed an informal volleyball league that played one evening a week. Each Monday I emailed my volleyball contact list asking who wanted to play the following Tuesday evening. Over time, as first-time visitors turned into regulars, more people invited their friends, and steadily the email list grew. At the same time, those who became uninterested were pruned.

Some evenings we were starved for players, while others we had enough for three teams. Although the attendance varied week to week, there was one characteristic common to all attendees: Everyone came to play.

It’s all about the players

Now imagine if my volleyball email list grew such that people who were genuinely uninterested in playing volleyball were also on my list. What are some possible consequences?

  1. It would be difficult to tell by looking at the email list who genuinely valued playing in our volleyball league.
  2. The email list might grow to an unmanageable size, requiring extra cost/resources to maintain it.
  3. Uninterested people do not value or prioritize playing volleyball, so for a given week some will respond with “maybe”, when in fact they will be no-shows. This makes it very difficult to anticipate attendance week to week.
  4. If uninterested people happen to show up (e.g. to sit on the sidelines and just talk), they could be distracting to the people who are really there to play.

The problems, summarized: Difficulty gauging dedication, unmanageable growth, increase in unpredictable behavior, and more distractions to the dedicated.

However, is there an upside? SURE! Depending on the size of my league, I may be able to claim I run the largest volleyball league in Austin!

Is the distinction worth it?

When building a community, quality trumps quantity. Lauding that someone runs the biggest community of whatever doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy or successful community. Growing slowly and steadily with the right members engaged is the name of the game.

Community Building: What didn’t work, part 2

In my previous installment, I described some points of failure for Door64 version 1, including lack of focus on the problem(s) to be solved. Solving problems for potential members creates value in exchange for their engagement.

Another cause of failure was a lack of vision for the desired outcomes of my endeavor. People do not engage meaningfully without a sense of purpose, and engagement within a community is what solves the problem(s) for participants.

Vision

As I had described, I observed a problem: Austin-area engineers were not networked with each other. Given that, the question is: if they did network, what are the desired outcomes? What changes in Austin’s technology community should I expect? By not having a long-term vision of success, I could not hope to convey the “WHY” to potential members. WHY should someone get involved with my initiative? Without the vision…the WHY, it’s impossible to sell engagement. If a tour guide can’t say where he’s headed, why would anyone join him on the expedition?

A community vision is the anticipated impact of your community when it grows to be successful at addressing the individual members’ problems. Again, at the individual member level, the desired outcome is solving his/her problem through engagement. Now follow the dominoes: How is the problem solved? What other problems may be impacted by your community? What are all the possible benefits of participating to individual members, the community as a whole, and to those external to the community? If you cannot define the impact…if you lack vision, you — the community builder — will lack the passion to follow through with growing the community.

Passion

As a community builder, passion is your drive to realize your community vision. First, you have to know where you’re driving towards; that’s the community vision. Now, if you are genuinely sold-out to see the vision realized and problem(s) solved, your passion will come naturally. In my endeavor, I initially believed that local engineers should be connected. However, it wasn’t until I really grasped a vision for the future of the Austin technology community at large that I became truly passionate about my initiative.

How can you tell that I am passionate about my vision? Well for one thing, I can easily talk your ear off about it! No one has to force me to share my vision for Austin’s technology community, nor persuade me to spend time working towards that vision. I am Door64’s biggest cheerleader, and I work to make an impact. That passion attracts like-minded people — people who have caught that same vision. You won’t have to beg people to join, but rather filter who gets to be on board. And with proper care and cultivation, you can experience a growing community of people who share your vision and passion.

Community Building: What didn’t work, part 1

Some of you may know that I started a community of technology professionals in Austin called Door64 in 2007. However, few know that I began my efforts a full year prior in 2006. What I affectionally dub Version 1 was my first attempt at building this community, and it failed. Failed miserably.

Version 1

As an engineer working in the semiconductor industry, my initial concept was to build an online hangout for local engineers like me to meet and communicate. It was conceived from my experience in grad school at the University of Texas where I met and became good friends with other engineers from the Austin area. As I neared graduation, it occurred to me that in all likelihood I would never have connected with any of these engineers except for our chance meeting in grad school. Realizing the benefits of networking with my local industry colleagues, I envisioned helping all local techies by creating a place for Austin-area engineers to network online. Surely this was a noble cause that everyone could grasp and get on board with.

As in most endeavors, nobility itself isn’t quite enough to guarantee ultimate success. As it turns out, I made several mistakes.

Assumption instead of research

This endeavor was targeted for engineers, just like me. Since I personally understood value in networking with fellow engineers, I assumed others would value it too…enough to participate without any prodding. However, instead of meeting with other engineers to validate my assumption, I spent my time meeting only to evangelize the website I was building. I was not there to listen.

“If you build it, they will come.” Kevin Costner may have heard it audibly, but it doesn’t translate off the big screen. Ironically, I built a website only for people who I assumed existed, and in the end those I invited bounced off as quickly as they arrived. They had no reason to stay because they didn’t know why they were there. By not listening, I failed to realize that they didn’t immediately value what I personally valued.

Too much, too soon

Upon conception of this website, I brainstormed many possible ways that these engineers could interact online…stuff they could do. In and of themselves, these features were valuable and could conceivably work. However, just because features may be valuable doesn’t necessarily mean they should all be implemented immediately. In my case, building too much functionality too soon wasted up-front time prior to launch, and ended up becoming graveyards of non-engagement that poisoned the website.

No problem

As you can see, I began with a notion, and then pretty much started building and evangelizing. Ready, fire, aim. Although I had a vision of WHO would participate, I had not honed in on the WHY. Why should/would anyone engage?

An inordinate amount of self-reflection after the first failure of Door64 led to the answer: Success follows when a problem is being solved for each participant. For example, I browse Amazon.com, but I’m not going to purchase anything (engage) until I find something that solves my problem (i.e., acquiring something I want). Donating to the Save the Spotted Owl foundation works in part because people believe a problem is being solved external to themselves…BUT people donate because it solves a problem for the individual: he/she feels personal satisfaction about making a difference. Solving the individual’s problem yields value. In my instance, visitors would not participate in Door64 until I solved a problem for them. Until that occurred, there was no reason for them to spend any of their precious time poking around a site that provided no value, no solutions for them.

It’s a community, stupid

By starting with a website, I focused all my attention on building a website. I spent nights getting every pixel just right, every area named properly, every color choice meticulously selected. And for all that preparation, I built an abandoned amusement park of rides that only worked when all the cars were full. It was destined to fail.

It took me quite some time to realize what I should have focused upon was building a community, not a website. Sure, a website was required to support the community, but it should not be the primary focus of my efforts. Only upon that realization a year later did my refined, focused efforts finally began to pay off with community engagement and growth.