Communities and Economic Development

Intrinsically I think we understand the value a community can bring to its own members. Can certain communities also create value to the greater region in which they reside?

Here in Austin, Texas, the Door64 community creates value for its members. However, while growing this community, I realized it also substantially benefits our city and state from an economic development perspective. Economic development is often concerned with employment, local retention, and entrepreneurial growth; the Door64 community happens to address all three:

  • Employment: Networking is arguably one of the best methods to navigate ones career, and even gain some semblance of security in uncertain times. Communities naturally help people of like background or interest congregate, and in the case of Door64, we attract professionals of similar high-tech expertise & employment backgrounds. Providing opportunities for networking within the community allows predictably unpredictable introductions and interactions to occur, yielding new career opportunities for engaged members.

  • Local Retention: When individuals are isolated or without connections in the geographic area where they reside, they may feel unattached to it. However, as members of a community interact with other members, personal connections are developed. In the Door64 community, because we are focused on Central Texas, the vast majority of our membership is geographically concentrated. Most online connections fostered are local, and thus over time growing the network enables members to feel more tied to our area. When considering relocation, realizing there is a professional network to be left behind is a compelling reason to stay.

  • Entrepreneurial Growth: Since communities often bring together people of like backgrounds, interests, or expertise, there is potential for organic collaboration. Moreover, when a community possesses a significant local presence, there is greater likelihood that members will meet in person and talk shop about their common interests and ideas. This kind of interaction is conducive to entrepreneurship. With the Door64 community, in the past couple months I observed a group of technology professionals form spontaneously who were (a) unemployed, and (b) interested in doing something productive while not hitting the job search. Nicknamed the “Door64 Start-up Gang”, they decided to see how their various talents could be used together to create a product or service and generate some income.

As a community leader, understanding this value external to the community allows you to position it to make a greater impact where the members reside. Within geographic regions, encouraging and fostering communities that aggregate people of similar backgrounds (especially from an employment perspective) can uniquely and creatively address local economic development initiatives.

What’s so difficult about building an online community?

Imagine you are in the market for a new car.

Under normal circumstances, you arrive at the dealership, and browse a few models until you settle on the one with all the features you desire. You negotiate with the salesman, end up buying it, and drive off the lot. All the features, from the power windows, brakes, radio, etc. work as expected, and you’re happy with your investment as you cruise in your new wheels.

You have entered the Twilight Zone

Now, imagine a different set of experiences. Rewind the story back to the dealership. Once settling on the car possessing all the features you desire, you negotiate with the salesman. Before settling on a price, the salesman warns you that once purchased, all the car’s wonderful features that you fell in love with will only function if 1000 other individuals also buy this same model car. Otherwise, your new car won’t even drive off the lot.

Ready to sign on the dotted line? My guess is you’ll likely hesitate since the fulfillment of your investment relies upon many other people buying the same vehicle. That is the catch-22 of building online community: It does not work if no one else participates, and most people refuse to participate if it’s not already working.

Making things worse, there are hundreds of other car dealers in the area, and once the customer walks out the door, he’s probably not coming back, even if enough people magically purchase the threshold quantity to make the vehicle work. There’s just too much competition for the customer’s attention.

A challenge of community building is providing value and attracting the right new members while in the fledgling state. Perhaps more art than science, the initial work of the community leader is to create value in the very beginning – value that need not require a mature community to even exist yet. That value exchange is not cast in stone, and as the community grows, the methods use to create value may need change.