Why Community-Led Product Development Wins

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Dear subscribers,

Here’s what I believe in:

  1. The customer is the most important person on your team.

  2. You should build a community to help you build better products.

Community-led product development is when customers become an extension of your team.

This concept is nothing new for startups. Founders talk to customers all the time and build products with their feedback.

But many builders stop talking to customers as a company scales. Instead, they only rely on stakeholders, research decks, and A/B tests for feedback.

That’s unfortunate because community is a superpower. In this post, I cover:

  1. Why builders stop talking to customers as companies scale

  2. How community-led product development works

  3. Examples of community-led companies


Why builders stop talking to customers as companies scale

As a company grows, builders start making excuses for not talking to customers:

Excuse 1: "It's not my job." 

“I already get great customer insights from other sources (e.g., research decks, surveys, and metrics). Sometimes, I even sit in on a customer call!”

The problem with this excuse is that reading a research deck or looking at metrics just doesn’t build the same empathy as a direct customer interaction.

Builders also vastly outnumber user researchers at most companies.

This leads to excuse #2. 

Excuse 2: "It's too much work."

“There’s a 5-step process to talk to customers and I have to wait for the next customer call with my researcher at the end of this month.”

Large companies have processes that builders need to follow to talk to customers. The intent is good - everyone remembers that one PM who pissed off a customer and most customers don't want to talk to 10 product teams at once.

But these processes have a cost if they’re not lightweight:

  1. It takes so much work to talk to customers that some builders won't bother at all.

  2. The feedback loop slows down. Instead of daily interactions, builders might have to wait weeks or months for a customer call.

This leads to excuse #3.

Excuse 3: "It’s not a priority right now."

At a large company, a builder is typically measured by two things:

  1. Did you move a metric?

  2. Did you work well with internal stakeholders?

In theory, talking to customers helps builders achieve both goals, but the incentives don’t always align. To move a metric, builders might view customers as just another number to optimize for instead of as people with individual needs. To get good stakeholder feedback, builders might spend all their time in internal meetings while customers are out of sight and out of mind.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with moving metrics and listening to stakeholders. But even builders at large companies should make time to talk to customers directly.

This is because… 


The customer is the most important person on the team

Think about how a product team works together.

Team members talk throughout the day about the product. They trade messages and hop on calls if needed. They don’t just talk about the product though. They share what they did on the weekend, post memes, and get to know each other.

It’s this daily back and forth dialogue that helps product teams ship better products and build empathy for each other. 

The tighter the feedback loop, the better:

So how can we replicate this process with customers? 


How community-led product development works

Here’s how you can invite customers to be an extension of your team:

  1. Create a community. Announce your product early and invite interested customers to join an online community (e.g., Slack or Discord). Ask them to introduce themselves and start building trust.

  2. Build in public. Ask customers about their pain points and share product ideas and designs early and often. Give them product demos and show them how you're making adjustments to your roadmap based on their feedback. 

  3. Don't just talk about the product. Build a casual environment where customers feel comfortable talking about anything. This is the best way to uncover new pain points and walk in your customer’s shoes.

If you do this well, you'll build a thriving customer community that you (and the rest of the team) can talk to daily. Equally important, customers will feel like they built the product with you. This sense of ownership will encourage them to adopt the product early and spread the word to others.

Let's address a few common objections with this process:

  1. "Customers don't have time to talk to us every day." From my experience, customers who care about your product (e.g., early adopters) will be more than happy to talk to you regularly.

  2. "Doesn't this lead to the loudest voices in the room problem?" Yes, but you can mitigate this by recruiting a diversity of customer segments to your community. It’s ok to be a little biased though - if you’re building a 0-1 product, the early adopters in your community will be the people who spread the word.

  3. "Are you saying we should ignore other feedback channels?" Not at all. You should still pay attention to stakeholders, research, A/B tests, and more. But I've found that having a place to talk to customers daily accelerates the feedback loop dramatically.


Examples of community-led companies

To illustrate how community-led product development works, let’s look at examples from both startups (Musical.ly and Circle) and large companies (Stripe and Twitter):

Musical.ly

Alex Zhu is the founder of Musical.ly, which became TikTok in the US. Alex’s team lived in Shanghai, but their customers were American teens. Here’s how they talked:

We have hundreds of users on WeChat, where we have daily conversations, not only about the product but also just talk. We talk and make jokes to understand how [our users] think and to be immersed in the American teen culture. We always first present the ideas, have a conversation with users, share the mock-ups and wireframes, and get the feedback before we do any coding.

Circle

Sid Yadav is the co-founder of Circle, a growing creator community startup. I asked Sid in our Build for Creators course how he convinced top creators to use his platform:

Do things that don’t scale. All the creators had our phone numbers, we would hop on a Zoom call with them at any time, and any hour of the day they were in our Slack. We were acting as consultants to them. Even if it was outside the domain of a community platform, we would help them.

When Sid and team announced Circle publicly, these early customers helped to spread the word and recruited thousands of people to Circle’s waitlist.

Stripe

I’m not sure if Stripe has a private customer community, but I do know that their PMs are incredibly responsive on Twitter. Consider Jeff Weinstein, who constantly replies to customer tweets asking for more information:

Outside of Twitter, every Stripe documentation page has a feedback box and a link to contact support. All of these feedback channels allow Stripe teams to keep a pulse on customer needs.

Twitter

Twitter announced Spaces back in December 2020, and gave it to a small customer community to try out:

Since then, the Spaces team has been actively soliciting feedback in public by sharing Figma designs and hosting weekly feedback sessions using the product:

I wrote about why Twitter will take flight in the creator economy but what makes me confident they’ll succeed is the way they’re building products.

These examples illustrate that you can build with a private community (like Musical.ly and Circle) or just build in public to make your entire customer base a community (like Stripe and Twitter).


Why community-led product development wins

To recap, here's what I believe in:

  1. The customer is the most important person on the team.

  2. You cannot build empathy for the customer by only relying on secondary sources, you have to immerse yourself in their problems by talking to them directly.

  3. Build a community to have daily interactions with customers about the product and their lives. The velocity of the feedback loop really matters.

Community-led product development wins because it gives customers a chance to be an extension of your team. Making customers co-owners of your product both makes your product better and helps it get adoption.

Build with community - it’s what all the best companies are doing.