Sustaining Momentum

In my previous blog I discussed the flywheel and initiating community momentum. But what happens when the community gains some momentum? How do you sustain it?

From the very beginning of Door64, I was passionate about solving this problem: hosting a community calendar for Austin-area technology events because I was often aggravated after learning about local tech events after the fact. So when some momentum began to build in the Door64 community, I led by example and posted every local tech and networking event that I could find on the Door64 calendar. When contact information was available, I emailed the leaders of local groups to entice them to post their events. After all, with some forethought I knew that the calendar would not be sustainable if maintained by myself; it needed to be community-driven, and thus community-maintained.


Engagement takes more than saying pretty please. For anyone to be truly enticed to engage, there has to be value exchanged for their participation. In my case, why would an event organizer be enticed (motivated) to post their event on the Door64 calendar? Surely it is the desire to see more relevant and interested people attend the event, and perhaps even join their organization. So the community provides value by solving the event organizer’s problem: mass communication in exchange for their community engagement (posting the event).

Early on in the Door64 community, I began emailing a weekly newsletter that reached our entire membership – a few hundred people at the time. In part, our newsletter reminded readers about upcoming local tech-related events posted on our calendar. Because of the technology focus of our membership, our newsletter recipients were the very people the event organizer wanted to reach, and may have experienced difficulty reaching otherwise. Thus, posting their events on the Door64 calendar was valuable. Fast-forward: Today, the Door64 newsletter reaches 6000 local technologists, and the value of posting on the calendar has increased greatly through our reach, so more event organizers post on our calendar, which in turn increases its value to the community. And moreover, every newsletter results in sharing and growth in our membership. We have created a snowball effect. Sure, early on it required some special attention to foster, but now the value it provides is a huge momentum driver for the community.

A formula for momentum

As your community gains momentum, how can you realize your community goals while providing value to members? An unrealized goal is a problem waiting to be solved, so consider this generalized process:

  1. Define the problem to address through the community.
  2. Who are the constituents of the problem? (By the way, this works much better if you are one of the constituents, since your personal experience can guide you.)
  3. Can their pain be lessened/removed by leveraging the community and/or your leadership position? In other words, can you and/or other people potentially help with the solution?
  4. Are the constituents already a part of your community, or will they be sufficiently attracted because of the community-based solution? The answer determines where you have to focus your marketing effort for the solution.
  5. Implement the infrastructure to create and support the appropriate interaction that will best solve the problem, and market it to the constituents.

In my case, (1) our local area lacked a single place to learn about local tech events, (2) the constituents were the event organizers and potential attendees, (3) the pain was spreading the word, (4) the potential attendees were other community members, and (5) the online event calendar supported the interaction while the weekly newsletter created it. In addition, the community newsletter also helped market the solution because the solution was communication-based in nature – an asset communities already have going for them!

The Flywheel: A mental model for community building

Today at Product Camp Austin I presented a talk titled, “Building Community: Lessons from Door64“. One key concept that yielded excellent discussion was my mental model during the initial growth period of Door64: the flywheel.

The flywheel is an object that buffers energy through motion — in other words, it builds and retains momentum. Out of the box (literally), the first problem is that all flywheels ship from the factory motionless…

Starting from zero

When a flywheel is stationary, its large inertia resists movement, and much energy is required just to initiate any rotation. Likewise, when beginning to build a community, the leader is likely to encounter a slow start, where a great deal of effort appears to produce little overall progress.

At this initial state, the danger is focusing on the wrong metric as immediate feedback, and subsequently giving up. That metric is velocity: how much action is observed for your energy into the system. With community building as with the flywheel, the initial high resistance to movement must be expected. Getting people involved in a brand new community requires overcoming inertial resistance: attention, complacency in an existing routine, and/or inability to see the problem (the WHY) that necessitates a community in the first place. For all the convincing in the world, the call to action for any single person may still return void.

Give it time

The key to community engagement is providing value, as value can overcome inertia. If interaction in your community does not provide value, the prospective member’s inertia is not overcome, and not enticed to participate. In my case, my initial strategy with Door64 was to attract both producers and consumers. In particular, I reached out to both job seekers and job givers (recruiters), and overcame the inertial engagement resistance by providing value through simply finding each other. This effort incrementally added velocity to the community, and provided a platform for future value engagements that in turn increased the velocity of our community’s flywheel.

The beauty of the flywheel is that the incremental energy added to the system increases the velocity of the wheel, and over time it becomes easier and easier to turn that wheel just a bit faster. Similarly, as your community burgeons, the momentum carried by the community will make it easier to attract more members. You’ll get there.

Networking and Community Leadership

If you know anything about me, you know I am an engineer who evangelizes other techies about the absolute necessity and career potency of professional networking. A few months ago I was authoring a talk on that very topic, and I had a realization…but I’ll save that for the end. Read on.

In my presentation, I suggest that successful networkers exhibit certain qualities. Arguably one could list many more, but here are my top three:

  1. Be a servant (versus a self-servant)
  2. Be genuine
  3. Be approachable (versus aloof or pushy)

The first quality reflects priority. That is, successful networks first try to help the other person first. Learn about the person, their job, their ideas, their problems. Listen, ask questions, and attempt to benefit them, either by your own know-how, experiences, or by making relevant introductions to people you know. This selfless servant-first attitude will make a positive first and lasting impression, and often result in the other person wanting to learn more about you and reciprocate.

The second quality is about personal presentation. Some people I’ve met network with a seemingly disingenuous personality. Some scurry about with a spray-and-pray strategy, passing out their business cards to nearly anyone with a pulse. Or, the person speaks as if he/she is trying to (a) make a sale, or (b) talk up how great he/she (or their company) is. Successful networkers are just there to build genuine relationships. Personally, I treat networking as making new friends, and (hopefully) the people I meet will feel treated as such.

The third quality reflects attitude. Approachability brings to mind being friendly, engaging, and easy to speak with one-on-one. Contrast that with an aloof individual who looks around or at the floor while talking, and is difficult to engage in meaningful conversation. Or, contrast with a pushy individual who dominates the situation. Either way, the other person (victim) is uncomfortable and probably searching for an exit.

Remember that realization I first mentioned? It was this: These very qualities of a successful networker are also the qualities of a successful community leader. The leader serves the community first, and is committed to seeing it succeed. The leader is genuine, with each member recognizing a direct, personal connection. And lastly, the leader is friendly and approachable by anyone in the community, or outside of the community who may wish to join.

A final thought: I think that successful networkers also become de facto community leaders to the people in their network…whether they know it or not.