Community is not an accessory, but a KEY that drives success

Community building is gaining popularity and breaking ground as a career for a good reason; it drives business success. This emerging career field, its expanding universe of skills, competencies, and knowledge has led to various community-related roles. In this piece, Laís De Oliveira shares her journey into community and how the On Deck Community Builders fellowship aims to equip its fellows with approaches to community building that will unlock success.

 min read
November 30, 2021
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Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring On Deck alums Ming Lu and Vik Duggal. If you’re an early-stage founder, angel investor, or exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs - you’ll be in great company.

Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders.

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring Josefin Graebe. If you’re an early-stage founder, scaling founder, or senior exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs.

This article is the first in our annual series Year in Preview.  In the 4 years since we launched the On Deck Founders program, we’ve seen +1000 companies get started and raise over $2B in funding.

Navigating the community universe

Community building doesn't yet fit into a 'degree' or career path as understood by the traditional education system. This has allowed for the field to be an open universe for people of different paths and stages in their careers.

The community profession is about enhancing empathy through tech. It’s about how you listen and continuously create cozy spaces for people, and how you make them feel these spaces were designed for them as you scale. 

Having a team responsible for community in a company means that you care to build authentic relationships over transactional ones — the sine qua non to business success in an era when technology enables people with the freedom to choose.

Our Goal: to Carve the "Community Builders" Career Path

While its growing importance is evident, the path to community as a profession remains rather ill-defined. Most community professionals found their way into this career serendipitously. This is true in my personal experience, as well as in most stories I’ve heard.

Building communities has been part of my life for over a decade, but I only became aware that it was a career and its relevance in early 2014, after moving to Malaysia and — within 6 months — becoming a community consultant for the Malaysian government (I was the only foreigner in the room). In 2016, I sold my first company (a community-driven marketplace for commercial real estate) and joined the acquirer. I was astonished when they gave me the Chief Community Officer title as this was unprecedented to me. At the time, community roles weren't yet broadly part of org charts, and to most, a Community Manager was still perceived as a low-key role for people managing social media. 

Over time, the term community came to represent initiatives related to business strategy, marketing, and operations (including brand building, product development, and interaction design). I’ve found they all converge at "leveraging tech to scale empathy". Ultimately, the role of a community professional is to make sure a company delivers solutions that are more accurate to their customer needs while also creating interactions amongst their users, adding value beyond a product or service: from people to people. 

Companies must go beyond creating solutions to become platforms where users come to stay and meet others who add value as much as the solution you're offering. By providing such a space, brands become a place where customers feel like they belong — a feeling that endures through tough times and makes people stick around beyond price, placement, or promotion.

Along the way, Community became a recurring title for me and led to me writing Hacking Communities, a compilation of learnings of my early days dabbling and diving into community building. This then led me to join On Deck as Program Director for the Community Builders Fellowship, where I can work with top community builders to create a future where people actively choose to follow this career path. 

At On Deck, we are in a key position to accomplish this because it is the perfect ecosystem that can create opportunities for community builders and consolidate community building as a profession. Within our ecosystem, we are able to develop community talent, create demand, and understand the importance community has on business success. 

Program Design: Our Journey to Place Community at the Core of Business Success

Creating the On Deck Community Builders Fellowship felt like cooking for chefs (while showing them my kitchen). The process to design our fellowship itself was community-driven, taking in ongoing insights and feedback from applicants, our own fellows, and industry experts.

The first step was to meet people where they were and define a clear direction, a goal that made sense to what our customers needed.

Building a Fellowship for Community Builders

When screening and speaking with over a thousand candidates who applied to the On Deck Community Builders Fellowship, and consistently interacting with 218 seasoned professionals who took part in it, I learned there is no one way to be a community professional. Most importantly, I validated that this role is imperative to build and consolidate businesses that are sustained through time.

In doing that, we defined that our mission is to co-create knowledge that contributes to establishing community as a solid professional field, allowing more people to follow this career path by consolidating information. Every single fellow who partakes in this fellowship is not only willing to learn, but also to create knowledge that will contribute to each other's growth.

Our learning and knowledge-creation framework includes:

  • Community-Driven Learning
  • Learning from Key Experts and Industry Leaders
  • Self-Driven Learning

And by understanding the multiple ways of how community can impact business, we divided our curriculum into three major tracks:

  1. Strategy
  2. Growth (Marketing)
  3. Operations

We will dive deeper into what each of these means in the next section.

Our ultimate belief is that the best way to learn about an emerging field is by learning from people who are actively working in it on a daily basis. We designed intentional interactions for fellows to build trust and learn from each other in real-time through project-based methodologies, and from top industry leaders who lead workshops and talks.

The annual program we designed is the result of a long learning process, collecting inputs from:

  • Design-Thinking Exercises: we ran a series of various focus groups, interviews, and private feedback sessions with selected industry leaders and experts, in which we collected free-form input, triple-tested, and validated hypotheses developed in those groups to create a new version of our Curriculum (as described below). 
  • On Deck Ecosystem: thanks to a horizontal infrastructure and carefully designed interactions that allow ongoing knowledge exchange within our team, at On Deck we learn from dozens of people who are working to design a better Fellowship learning experience across multiple sectors, careers, and functional areas.
  • Experience: we learned by running our first cohort, experimenting, iterating, and actively listening to our customers including thousands of positive and constructive lines of feedback from 130+ seasoned community professionals who took part in our first cohort). 

Our program aims to align community with business success to make sure that those are not "good to have", but understood and perceived as fundamental to deliver value to customers.

Program Design: Learning and Knowledge Creation Framework

As mentioned above, our ultimate goal is not only to share but to co-create knowledge by bringing together active community builders to ask each other the right questions and come up with better answers through consistent interaction. There are three main pathways that define our Learning and Knowledge-Creation Framework:

Community-Driven Learning

Learning in real-time from people who are actively working in your field of knowledge. We start the program with an intentional onboarding month, which goal is that fellows get to know each other. At the end of these 4 weeks, they will know who is the go-to person for different topics within the cohort. As one of our fellows said: "learning is better with friends".

Learning From Seasoned Experts and Community Leaders

Solid learning experience on community building that is aligned with the market needs.

We host weekly learning sessions where people can share their knowledge via masterclasses, fireside chats, and workshops. Our fellows and speakers include active community builders and seasoned professionals (from Community Managers to VPs and Heads of Community) at several progressive companies including (but not exclusive to) Reddit, Orbit, Endeavor, Canva, Bevy, Visa, Singularity Group, Facebook, Pipedrive, Techstars, Startup Grind, Twilio, First Round Capital, Plume, and more.

Self-Driven Experience

A self-paced, choose-your-own-adventure experience that provides fellows with autonomy. Fellows will be able to make ODCB what they want and need it to be. While this freedom might be intimidating at first, this allows fellows to create the journey that's most relevant to their goals.

ODCB Learning Tracks: Strategy, Growth, Operations

We must continue to learn the foundations of community and the ways in which community provides value to businesses. From the process described above, we learned

Either it is from a strategy level, from a marketing or operational perspective, the community professional's responsibility is to guarantee that companies legitimately care for their customers, creating solutions that make them feel heard and spaces that make them feel at home.

Our learnings from our intentional process of Program Design described above (mostly the Design-Thinking Exercises and Feedback from Fellows) indicated there are main three ways how community can add tangible value to business:  

Strategy (Business)

Fellows will go from having a narrow understanding of how community impacts business goals to demonstrating how community initiatives drive business success. At the end of this track, Fellows will be able to communicate how community adds value to business, what metrics or success are, and how to align business and community goals to each other.

Engagement (Operations)

Fellows will go from having a basic understanding of how to engage their audience to understand how to build lifelong relationships between them. At the end of this track, Fellows will understand that community operations are a way for businesses to achieve success with people at the core of value delivery. Fellows will be able to implement a full-fledged engagement plan, understanding how to build a consistent and reliable cadence of interactions, learning how to leverage on members to build up engagement, how to set up solid infrastructure (platform) for connections, and how to scale intimacy as you grow.

Growth (Marketing)

Fellows will go from having a basic understanding of community as a drive for growth to understanding how to leverage their community for network effects that spark organic, exponential growth that contributes to higher LTV and NPS while reducing CAC. At the end of this track, Fellows will understand how community can be a marketing strategy that is used as part of branding, storytelling, narrative development, growth hacking, influencer strategy, and strategic partnerships.

Bonus Tracks

Fellows will go from having a basic understanding of how community impacts business to exploring interesting applications of community building such as the ways in which the private sector can learn from the public sector, what ecosystem building looks like, diversity and inclusion, IRL communities, DAOs and Crypto.

Building Lifelong Communities

At the end of this journey, we believe our fellows will be better equipped to build lifelong, sustaining communities that actively contribute to business success. Also, we believe they will consolidate themselves as knowledge creators and thought leaders who help carve the road ahead for younger professionals who desire to follow the community builder's career path. Our ultimate goal is to co-create knowledge that advances and solidifies community as a career.

Building a community-driven business is about adding value beyond a product or service, by connecting people with each other and creating spaces that feel like home to your customers and stakeholders. Having a community strategy means adding value beyond a mere solution, through belonging. Ultimately, as we shared right at the top, "it's how you listen and continuously create cozy spaces that make people feel it was designed for them, as you scale. It's what we've been creating at On Deck."

Note: If you’re an experienced professional looking to gain clarity on your next move, check out Execs On Deck

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