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.