How to start a community

Taking the initiative is the key. Rest falls in place

In the recent past I have been actively involved in several communities. A few to mention are:

  1. D.E.B.A.T.E. Club: To develop soft skills and articulate thinking ability.
  2. School of AI Kochi: A learning community for AI in my city.
  3. FOSSMEC: The Free and Open Source Community of my college.
  4. Open Project Labs: A national level community to explore tech.

Also, my recent project in the Mozilla Open Leaders program involved finding ways to enhance existing learning communities to function better helped me observe and find patterns of distinction. I plan to collect all these findings together into this write up to explain how one can start a community and keep it going forward.

So if you are looking to start a community in your locality and need the tips and tools to get it done, this article is for you. Will keep updating over time.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert community manager nor do I have years of experience sustaining communities. This is merely the lessons I have learned so far and thus I am open to feedback in comments on how communities can truly grow in the 21st century.

Photo by tribesh kayastha on Unsplash

Why a community?

There is no point explaining the process of making a cake if you do not know why you might want a bite of it. There are several advantages to having a community in the vicinity, a few of which are:

  1. Helps connect with like minded people
  2. Discover and learn new points
  3. Get support when needed
  4. Make friends and memories
  5. Refine and grow oneself together

Now let us take a look into the principles involved in starting a community.

The compass of initiation

So every community needs the three P’s:

1> Purpose

There is a reason why your community needs to exist. It may mostly be to bridge an existing gap or to bring together like minded people. The opportunity to network and learn from others while building on your skill set lays the foundation of every community.

2> Place

Having a place to meet this vision is the next order of business. It may be an online chat forum initially, or a offline meet up. It is at this stage that we jump from ideation to logistics as we find the right venue for the community to meet together.

3> People

Last but not the least, the people are what make the community. No matter where you may be on the ladder of success, everyone is welcomed and made to feel at home amidst like minded folks. Each individual is unique and has a differentiating perspective that brings forth new ideas and knowledge in the shared pool at the gathering.

So together, these three points form the edges of the triangle at the tip of your compass as you navigate through time to form the community.

Well, all mentioned above sounds good on paper but the reality is the three points have a difficult in ascending order. How do we find the right people? How to find a place every week?

How to stay true to the vision? Let us take a closer look.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Why should I be the one?

Even I have had this thought in the mind. Does such a community need to exist? What if I am reinventing the wheel? Why not wait for someone more experienced to come forward and take the lead?

The answer is simple: It is because the future is uncertain. You can keep waiting and maybe regret a few years later. Everyone is unique and the fact that the thought struck your mind means you have the connect to begin. Chances are someone is waiting for such a community to come in to existence and your similar interest might spark the collective support to progress forward.

Another common point raised often is why not start a chapter like Google Developers Group in your city and leave it up to the professionals to get it done? While on one hand it makes the task of getting the exposure to people right, it may not align with your personal vision for the community. Best would be start your community and later merge or change the brand for more sustainable means.

Yes, it can be daunting to start a community but hopefully you will find the help and support you need from here. You may not be an expert at what you want to start but even getting the right people will be doable if you put in the effort.

The team behind the community

You alone may not be able to lift this community. You will need to find your team to help alongside. From personal experience, the following roles have played pivotal role in keep the community active:

  1. Designer (For posters and other art works)
  2. Social Media Managers (To sustain online image and interactions)
  3. Content Writers (To aptly put the words and design schedule)
  4. Topic knowledgeable members (To clear domain specific doubts)
  5. Creative and Innovative beings: Yes, the passion to keep thinking and sugggesting new ideas to engage the community is essential

This is not an exhaustive list but pretty much covers most of the points.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Finding your people

It is important to get the word out there for people to hear about your initiative. The best way would be is to speak about it to those around you — there might be someone silent who might just be interested enough to help you get this moving. Social media and people with large networks also play a key role in spreading the word loud and clear. There are technical channels online (for me, Telegram has been a useful platform to discover such communities) and you can leverage LinkedIn to fine tune your search.

Open or Closed?

This is a question worth thinking about because it shapes the atmosphere of your meet up. One point to remember is no option is superior than the other. Open communities will mostly entertain beginners and faces will keep changing each meet up while closed communities will have more progress and output at the cost of closing the door to others. It really depends on what you prioritize. The good news is there is always an alternative for participants so your decision may most probably not be that serious.

Photo by Phil Coffman on Unsplash

Retaining your audience

The first meet up will be the busiest one. Everyone will be there with varied expectations and hopes and as an organizer, it will be impractical for you to make everyone happy initially. So who do you serve? The choice may vary depending on the vision of the club. If it is a complex domain, maybe the beginners need to get the prerequisites done right. Else if it is for beginners, maybe the experts can join in which the rest catch up. (More about sustaining communities in the next write up).

As a result, there will be a fall in the number of participants for the meet up next time which might make you feel disappointed but is actually a blessing in disguise — cause now you have the subset that fits the vision of the community and smaller circles make for more effective learning. Over time the community will grow strong and be capable to do more.

At this stage, you should be focusing on providing the participants with the resources they need. Try to understand their problems and connect them with the desirable solution. Of course, you alone may not be able to provide everything but when we work as a community, many minds collaborate to bring forward the required support.

Engaging sessions

There needs to be sufficient prior planning and a thorough agenda of the activities you plan to carry out. You can invite speakers to the meet up to share their knowledge or have participants share their learnings with the rest. Ice breakers are highly recommended to get participants in the groove and make the transition easier. There needs to be a final learning for everyone as they are investing their time to be part of the discussion. Workshops, Open Discussions play a vital role in providing these experiences.

In the School of AI, we keep quiz at the end of the day to test knowledge of the participants and they have fun recollecting the specifics so it helps. You can think of similar fun activities to keep it going.

The bonds to be shared

Follow Up for the future

A success of a community is measured by the progression made over time and the output seen at the end of one such cycle (year). To do so, each session must be inter-related and provide a complete experience for the members. We will learn more about sustaining communities in a future write up. For now, this is all there is to get started.

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Uncovering value in testing times | joelvzach.co | Reach me at howdy@joelvzach.co

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Joel V Zachariah

Joel V Zachariah

Uncovering value in testing times | joelvzach.co | Reach me at howdy@joelvzach.co

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