How to Apply Product Thinking to Build Online Communities

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Dear subscribers,

Is growing an online community similar to growing a product?

To find the answer, I interviewed Jen Lee, a friend who manages Means of Creation fans, one of the fastest-growing communities about the creator economy (based on Li Jin and Nathan Baschez’s show). Jen also helped Justin Kan grow his YouTube channel to 100K subscribers in 5 months while serving full-time as a product manager.

In the interview below, I talked to Jen about how she:

  1. Grew the Means of Creation fans community and Justin Kan’s channel

  2. Applies product thinking to build online communities

  3. Expects the community space to evolve

Jen’s journey

Can you share your journey to starting the “Means of Creation fans” community?

Sure! So a long time ago, I started a food blog that features Asian-inspired desserts. When it took off, I began to look for answers to questions such as "How do I monetize?" and "How do I keep my followers engaged?”

That led me to discover Means of Creation, a creator economy show that Li Jin and Nathan Baschez host together. I was listening to the show live and thought: "Wouldn’t it be great if I could meet other listeners?” I reached out to Li and Nathan and set up the community after that.

“Means of Creation fans” quickly grew to 1,300+ members talking about the creator economy. We have a diverse member base from founders to investors to creators.

That’s amazing! You also work with Justin Kan, how did that happen?

I cold emailed Justin after hearing that he needed help with his podcast, The Quest. In my email, I highlighted my past content experiments (e.g., the food blog).

That was enough for him to set up a chat with me. We talked about his podcast but I also shared some ideas about creating a YouTube and TikTok presence. A week later, he brought me onboard to help.

We decided to focus his videos on a niche - behind-the-scenes stories that had lessons. We tested a few stories on TikTok before creating YouTube videos for three ideas - getting arrested with Reddit’s CEO, almost selling Twitch to Google, and selling Twitch to Amazon. I helped with everything from storyboarding to post-production (editing, music, and graphics). All this effort paid off because Justin reached 100K YouTube subs after only 5 months.

I like how you started working with Li, Nathan, and Justin just by reaching out and showing how you can help. How do you do all this while being a product manager?

I like to only work on things that aren't draining. I have an honest conversation with myself about how much I can take on. For example, I haven’t started a newsletter because it would take me ages to put something out that I’d be proud of.

In contrast, I enjoy building communities because I like learning in public with other people who have similar interests.

How to apply product thinking to build online communities

Do you have any advice on building a community from scratch?

Like growing a new product or company, you have to do things that don’t scale in the beginning. I think it’s important to:

  1. Give new members great onboarding

  2. Seed the community with great content

  3. Focus conversations on a few channels

Let’s start with #1. How do you onboard new members to a community?

I DM every person that joins to personally welcome them and ask them what they’re looking to get out of the community. This helps me:

  1. Better understand what each member wants. I could then tag relevant members in community conversations.

  2. Build a relationship with new members. They would often be delighted that I took the time to DM them and I would then encourage them to post.

I can see how welcoming members personally can make a big difference. How did you seed the community with great content?

In the beginning, I posted 10x a day to keep conversations going. I prioritized:

  1. Posting to a few channels that haven't had any recent activity.

  2. Tagging people who might be interested in contributing.

  3. Creating a spirit of sharing insights so people see the goodwill and give back.

Why is it important to keep these posts to a few channels?

I think having too many inactive channels will just get members confused. For a new community, I'd start with #general, #intros, #resources-and-reads, and #drop-your-social first.

Can you summarize how building a community is like building a product?

Like building a product, an online community needs to:

  1. Exceed user expectations by personally welcoming new members.

  2. Overcome the cold start problem by seeding the community with great content.

  3. Deliver great UX by focusing the conversation on a few channels.

How important is looking at metrics when building communities?

I think communities are more art than science, but Discord does provide stats such as active channels, participants, and more. That helps inform my north star metric which is stickiness aka “do members check the community every day?” 

However, what this doesn’t measure is the quality of the conversations. I learn that by talking to members to see if they genuinely like being a part of the community. 

A creator has super fans and passive fans. Is a community the same?

Yeah, I think the same rule applies to communities. Most people lurk, but the people who participate in discussions are the ones keeping the community active.

So how do you try to get passive members to become active participants?

Well, the first thing is to realize that not everyone will be active. But for me, it's all about the DMs. I DM members saying: "Hey, how is everything going? Is there anything that I can help with?" I think people really appreciate the personal attention.

How are the needs of a community manager different from a creator?

You know many people ask me this question. And my answer was, "I don't have any goals. I just wanted to meet people in the creator economy." But now that I've had more experience, I think community managers could benefit from tools that:

  1. Save time on manual tasks. For example, I would love to automate getting people to fill out a form about themselves before they join.

  2. Help with moderation. It’s important to keep the community healthy and prevent toxicity and spammers. 

  3. Encourage members to give back. Communities die when most people want to extract value from them vs. contribute.

How the community space will evolve

The community space is really hot right now with existing players (e.g., Discord, Slack, Reddit) and new entrants (e.g., Mighty, Circle, Geneva). How do you see this space evolving?

I see three trends:

  1. A move towards smaller communities. I think members who join a smaller and more niche community have a higher likelihood of finding valuable information and meeting people who share the same goals.

  2. Communities curating content. People talk about creators as curators, but communities can be more powerful because you're getting the group’s wisdom.

  3. More tools to build communities like products. I think communities need product people thinking about: What is the channel structure? How do we increase retention? What is member onboarding experience? There's a lack of tools to help people think about these product-like questions.

What about crypto? People are hyped about DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations). Will DAOs empower communities to govern themselves?

The promise of DAOs is that members can put skin in the game and see some financial upside from participating in the community.

I’m excited about trying an ephemeral DAO for a community. Imagine that you're doing a community event, and you put together a temporary governing body that decides how money will be invested in the event. This seems like a lower risk thing to try than to go permanent DAO (once you go DAO, it’s hard to go back!).

Any closing words of advice for people who want to start communities?

Just get started, invite early users, get feedback from them, and stay patient. A community is nothing without its most valuable members so try to serve them.

Keep the spirit of giving alive.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my interview with a Reddit moderator and Jen’s Twitter thread. I’ll write about how to apply community thinking to building products next, so sign up below to be the first to read it: