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, 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.