We are big believers in community-building. We have invested heavily in it as a firm, contributing to the ecosystem in various ways that are consistent with our values (e.g., fostering diversity in tech, supporting women entrepreneurs and immigrant entrepreneurs). And we have invested heavily in it across our portfolio companies. Our insight a decade ago that developers were becoming the kings of IT led to a fruitful investment thesis, led by my partner Chip, around developer driven adoption and community building (as exemplified by our investments in MongoDB, Codecademy, Crashlytics and Firebase).
For the last few years, we have been applying this thesis to our investments in blockchain and crypto. Blockchain-based startups share many of the same characteristics as developer-driven startups. With these companies, sustainable competitive advantage is built through a loyal community of supporters who contribute to the project and feel ownership over its success. Because of token network effects, a Blockchain startup has the opportunity to create ardent supporters that literally have a stake in the project in ways that MongoDB and other open source projects could never do.
On the eve of our second portfolio company completing an Initial Coin Offering, we gathered the community managers of our five Blockchain startups and — together with our advisors, MongoDB’s Meghan Gill (first nontechnical hire and head of community and demand generation) and OpenX’s Scott Switzer (founding CTO of the largest open source advertising exchange network) — to share best practices in community-building in the context of crypto. Here’s what we learned.
Provide An Amazing First-Time Experience
MongoDB is a complex, scalable database for sophisticated customers. But their design goal was to provide an amazing out of the box experience — holding themselves to the standard of being able to download, install and make use of the product in under five minutes. Crashlytics founder, Wayne Chang, likes to refer to the initial product you release to your community as the Minimum Lovable Product (MLP): a product that is “so intuitive, so satisfying to use, that your customer base can’t help but tell someone about their experience.” Focus on triggering an emotional response, Chang advises, with a narrative and small surprises that compel the user to appreciate that you are thinking of them and their needs.
Jump On An Existing Wave
One of the most important pieces of advice we heard from our community-building experts was the value of latching on to existing communities that already have momentum behind them. NEX, a decentralized crypto exchange, has latched on to the City of Zion community (a non-profit the founders started to support the NEO ecosystem). MongoDB latched on to the NoSQL movement. OpenX latched on to the rise in programmatic advertising. If you can frame your work in the context of an existing trend or platform and then establish your presence in the communities and academic environments where that trend is flourishing, you can put yourself in a strong position to ride someone else’s wave and not be forced to generate all the kinetic energy to support your platform by yourself.
There’s No Substitution For Presence, Especially The Founder
Megan advises, “There’s no magic bullet when it comes to community building. You have to be consistent and always available on line — wherever your community wants to interact with you.” This presence has been challenging for blockchain startups as there is already tremendous fragmentation in communications channels. Discord, Telegram, Slack, Twitter, Reddit, Stack Overflow and many others are all very active forums for different segments of your community. And, if you want to jump on an existing wave, you need to be active through all those channels in the communities of others as well. The team from Enigma (a scalable privacy protocol that enables “secret contracts”) talked about their heightened sense of urgency in being organized to answer questions that come up online immediately. As OpenX’s Switzer put it, “Being available to communicate with and respond to the community is one of the biggest jobs I have as a founder”. Enigma recently created an Ambassador Program in order to help scale the presence of their small team. Ambassadors have their own channel and private calls with the founders to get briefed on the product roadmap and upcoming releases. Enigma built their own scraper / web crawler to track all the questions that come from the different forums and loads them automatically into their issue tracking platform, Jira. BloXroute (a network-based scalability solution for blockchains) is focused on attracting a deeply technical community at this stage in their roadmap and so have put out more technical content to match what their community might be looking for.
In watching our blockchain-based startups evolve, we have come to appreciate more and more the importance of a subtle skill on the part of founding teams in crypto. They not only need to have the usual compelling vision, unique market insight and execution ability. They also need to be intentional, strategic, capable community builders.
Thanks to Samir Ghosh, Meghan Gill and Scott Switzer for their contributions — as well as Tor Bair (Enigma), Kevin Flynn, Carla Paiva, Giuseppe Stuto and Nissa Szabo.