March 4th, 2013 Founders@Fail: How to Build A Community One Customer At A Time
On Monday, March 4, 2013, OLC attended Founders@Fail's event, How To Build A Community One Customer At A Time featuring Mark Peter Davis, founder of Kohort, Amanda Hesser, founder of Food52, and Kathryn Minshew, founder of The Muse. The panel discussed how to create and maintain a community and how to grow it while not alienating power users.


Mark Peter Davis acted as standing moderator as Schuyler Brown was not available. Davis asked the two panelists: Amanda Hesser and Kathryn Minshew to introduce themselves. "The Muse is my second company," Minshew said. "The first was a spectacular failure. The Muse, as of today, has 800,000 unique visitors, amassed over the past couple of months—and we didn't spend a dime on marketing." Hesser introduced Food52 as driven by the community. "Content is created by community," she said. "The model is very scalable and now we're building our website to include everything about food. It used to be just recipes, but now we've added a ton of other things."

"So what types of marketing do you do? Is it just community or other things that balance it out?" Davis asked. "We do everything to try to live," Minshew said. "We have great editors, content creators—we help people find what they want to do in life. We did try Google Ads, but that didn't work. We have a relationship with Forbes and that led to Bloomberg and Mashable and more in our network."
Davis followed up by asking how contributors fit into the project. "Writers are volunteers," Minshew said. "We used to get one to two people asking to be part of the community, but now we get 40 to 50 people. In any deal, you have to learn what people will come out with the experience. What is everyone's motivation? We try to comfortably think about people's motivations and when writers produce content that they are proud of, they share it and it's a great content driver."
"What are the motivations?" Davis asked. "Mostly to promote themselves," Minshew said. "It can be personal brands, but some want to be considered thought leaders, or others are building up their portfolio. Some are writing for us for the readership and reach of our website," she said.
"Ours is similar to where people want to show off their stuff," Hesser said. "We understand that writing about food is intensive—it's a process. We thought it would be a way to provide a platform for people who are passionate about food. It's for people who are passionate about food and have no voice. A vital component is that we're not looking for contribution. We're trying to make Food52 the best food site and we actually make it difficult to contribute. Our curation process is difficult too. You can't copy and paste—you need to go through all of our methodical steps to even be considered on to the website. Right now we have over 20,000 recipes and 70 percent have been created by contributors."
"Can you talk about community interaction?" Davis asked. "The key to building a great community is to create multiple gateways for them to contribute," Hesser said. "We have new contests every week and people upload their recipes and the community tests it. It allows people to stay engaged."
"Raising the bar can really help the members of the community feel like they're part of something special," Minshew said. "Anyone can ask to be part of it, but it's another thing to be hired and to be part of the community. We hire a very small amount to write for us. It's not just that it's a selective process. It's that people who write for us want to be surrounded with people who are equally as passionate."
"What is something people should keep in mind when building community?" Davis asked. "It was really helpful for us to be really specific in the beginning," Minshew said. "We were first targeting professional women and people who fit that mold. They would then refer their friends and family to our community and we grew as a result. And it has been a process; starting with a core demographic and moving out. I don't think you can succeed if you have a general goal in mind," she said.
"I think the best thing we did was that you don't just open the gate and let people in— you need leadership," Hesser said. "You need to define those beliefs. Make them super clear and let people know what you're going to create. We talk about our community as an instructive community," she said. "We feel like it's important to have purpose."
"I feel like our 'Aha!' moment was realizing that the community doesn't belong to us," Davis said. "You need very strong leadership and the fact that there are nay-sayers in it is fantastic. It presents a push and shows the dynamism of the community."
From here, Davis opened the floor to questions from the audience. "How do you keep people interested in the community?" an audience member asked. "We reached out to men and older professionals to write about leadership," Minshew said. "What was interesting about that was, our investors didn't agree with and appreciate that strategy. As we grow, it's in our interest to have someone to think about how to pass their performance review and how to be a leader," she said.
"Something you need to be careful of is relying too much on power users and letting them dominate the community," Hesser said. "It might intimidate other users and limit what you can do."
"How do you balance community and monetizing your product?" an audience member asked. "We've been thinking about this in two ways: long-term, meaning, trying not to take quick and cheap wins. The biggest thing to consider is: is this going to lose consumers? We didn't place ads on the website and we wanted a win-win scenario for both the user and the job poster. The job poster paid for the listings and this is how we monetized. I think the question to think about is, is this where I want to go?" Minshew said. "For us," Hesser began, "it was resisting techniques for fast growth. The key to developing power users and not pay for traffic is to make sacrifices in terms of perceived success," she said.
"What else was valuable in driving traffic?" an audience member asked. "Social media,"Hesser said. "Especially Instagram. It's a lane to build brand and content," she said.
"Do you have any tricks or hacks for social media?" Davis asked. "You should focus on becoming an authority that people want to follow," Hesser said. Minshew echoed her statement: "Building up expertise as a destination for information is key. We sort of personified our brand and very clearly decided that our voice was going to be an expert in helping people find their calling in life. And sometimes we try to crowdsource answers," Minshew said.
Davis asked what their biggest mistake in community building was, wrapping up the conversation. "Doing major redesigning on the website when it was live," Hesser said. "I would say it was when we concentrated on growing numbers instead of focusing on people who actually cared about the product. It's useless to your business to have people who don't participate in it," Minshew said. Davis got the final word in the conversation: "Mine is not communicating with the community," he said. "You have to put context to color."