If you are tuned out of startup conversations and oblivious to Twitter, chances are you haven’t noticed the chatter around community-led businesses.
Even though the buzz heightened only since the pandemic, it isn’t a radically new idea. Fuelling the growth of an idea by creating and nurturing a small, close-knit community around it is a common theme that many large organizations are built around.
Think — Rotaract, AIESEC, TedX or BrahmaKumaris and Art of Living.
But a major difference between the example communities mentioned and those communities built around a product or service is the amount and type of selling that takes place. And I think there are some interesting parallels to draw from the communities that organizations like AIESEC, Rotaract, or Art of Living built, which could be useful for businesses nurturing communities.
Let’s dig in.
When you first come across any of these communities, either in college (TedX, AIESEC) or through friends and family (Art of Living, BrahmaKumaris), a person or group of people urge you to join an introductory meeting. Sometimes, they might request personal time and tell you how they benefitted from the programme.
Now, either out of obligation or because of intrigue, you join the introductory meeting, and you’re led into a fascinating new world rich with its terms, rituals, and philosophies.
In terms of college communities, the focus is on nurturing leadership and communication skills.
In the case of spiritual communities, the discussion revolves around imbalance and stress in life (a shared experience).
Both types of communities promise a tangible turn-around in your personality or way of life. A promise of personal change. And you are not qualified based on other criteria except your intent to be there. In both communities, you’re radically accepted just as you are.
That degree of unquestioned acceptance is your first point of contact with the community.
In business terms, one would refer to this as a low barrier to entry.
Once inducted, you’re invited to multiple events or a series of rituals aimed at acclimatizing you to the mores and conventions of a community. For instance, look at the way you join BrahmaKumari’s meditation —
As you can see, there is a level of mystery surrounding what becoming a part of the community entails, but it sounds easy initially.
Other than learning more about the community, these events foster collaborative learning of a skill that is closely aligned with the mission of the organization.
As AIESEC or TedX interns, you might be tasked with making a presentation or creative for an upcoming event. In the case of spiritual communities, you might attend sessions on mindfulness and specific meditation practices.
The expectations a community has from you at the start are not demanding. You’re encouraged to start small and have fun. Your intention to be there is more than enough.
Such opportunities induct you into the community and make learning about new things entertaining. You might go to an event the first time, but over time, you go to the event because you look forward to meeting new people, challenging yourself with new tasks, and collaborating with people.
And this low-expectation around delivering and the entertaining engagement makes non-business communities most interesting to me.
Let me elaborate.
More than making space for people to learn together, such communities make you feel empowered as an individual. There are projects you can contribute to based on your capacity and intention.
And all your efforts, however big or small, are seen and appreciated. You feel like you matter. You are made part of an eventual positive-sum game.
In some communities, if you’ve been a consistent volunteer, you stand the chance to be promoted and enjoy more discretion over the kind of activities and events curated within the community. You become the curator of taste within the community.
Empowering individuals and enabling them to feel seen this way has endless upsides. But a major one is when those individuals start identifying with the values and ethos of your organization.
Check this testimonial, for example —
Making individuals in a community form a part of their identity based on the work they do within a community creates ripe ground for organic, word-of-mouth-led promotion.
People talk about you to others because they feel transformed by engaging within your community. And you don’t have to incentivize them to provide referrals or give discounts.
Successful communities, therefore, grow when they exhibit radical acceptance of the people who wish to be part of the community, create avenues for people to feel seen, value intention over compulsion, and make it easy for the individual to identify with the organization’s values.
Another upside of making individuals feel seen is that it creates a virtuous loop of an individual feeling confident. A confident individual contributes to the community, feels validated by others for their efforts, and becomes an enabler for others who join. They start deriving personal meaning from contributing to the community and keep contributing.
It sets the community flywheel in motion, where individuals thrive because of how valued they feel.
An individual thinks of themselves as an enabler of getting things done, curating resources for others who join and creating a knowledge library that further validates the positive experiences of others in a community. But to achieve all of this within a community and impact the individual in the long term takes time.
You can’t imagine such a community sustaining itself if they rush the individual to buy something from them immediately.
Sales, if you wish to build a community around your product, has to be the last consideration. It has to be a by-product of the value an individual derives from being part of your community. No hard-selling will work.
In fact, any hard-selling in a community will risk you the trust of a large group of people at once.
Another thing to take care of when you attempt to build a community is increasing commitment gradually.
Like hard-selling, making too many demands of customers who are part of your product or service community will be a turn-off. Let the customer have all the discretion they would like. It is illogical to make too many demands or hard-sell to people within a community initially when they have already jumped through a learning-cum-ritual hoop when they join your community.
If you’re a business, they might have paid you some money too. So, be patient. The customer is already invested in you. Your subtle nudges to get people from the community to buy will be looked at suspiciously. Any selling destroys the illusion of a positive-sum game that people enter a community with.
In essence, if you think building a community around your product is necessary, you’re committing to selling based on what works for people within that community. If you’re hell-bent on selling what makes better business sense for you, the community will probably not sustain.
Community-led growth, hence, for a business means playing the infinite game — a game played for the purpose of continuing the game, not for the purpose of winning. Or, as James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games describes —
“We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out — when, in fact, no one has an outcome to be imposed on the relationship, apart from the decision to continue it.”
But major businesses function on the frame of a finite game: make a sale, win, game ends.
So, if you’re building a business with a focus on community-led growth, it is crucial for you to realize the investments you will have to make to play an infinite game.
You will have to invest in one way or another to the promise of personal change for the individual who joins your community.
You will have to incentivize them by exhibiting radical acceptance of who they are and creating avenues for them to become better using the tasks and activities (products and services) you offer.
Before selling them a product, you will have to build trust by doing the hard work. And like most other investments, if done consistently well, the effects of community-led growth will compound over the long term, lending sustainability and organic word-of-mouth growth to your business.