How to build an online community?

The importance, benefits and potential pitfalls.

Richard Awoyemi
4 min readOct 16, 2020

In the startup ecosystem, communities are a hot topic. Everyone wants to build one to improve their product’s probability of success. It’s admirable. I wish I understood this before becoming an Entrepreneur. I’ll provide a brief introduction here and produce more over time.

How it works 🤯

First, let’s clear up some confusion. Users, audiences and customers are not the same as communities. The former exclusively participate as consumers. However, community members are collaborators, contributing to the ecosystem.

It’s a distinction between active participation and passivity.

Community members must unite over something other than the community leader. Through consistent many-to-many interactions, the focus shifts from a single individual, alternate connections form and everyone feels empowered.

Benefits 🤝

Healthy communities empower members to help everyone, for example:

  • Content production — producing blog posts, videos, etc.;
  • Growth — personal referrals attract the best members, content product aids growth; and
  • Support — creating tutorials, useful tools, onboarding new members, etc.;

They need a lot of early maintenance and long term moderation. However, if done well, it improves member loyalty which functions as a moat.

Trajectory 📈

Gamification 🎮

Great communities increasingly resemble games:

  • Reward positive contributions, and penalise negative actions.
  • Point systems used to quantify contributions to the ecosystem — unlocking milestone-based rewards.
  • Recruiting new players and forming new relationships enhances the multiplayer experience.
  • Seasoned players earn status badges.
  • Extraordinary contributions function like easter eggs, unlocking special bonuses.

Participation becomes play!

Niche 🤏

“…if everyone is your customer, then no one is your customer.” — Tim Ferris

As the internet continues to grow alongside product proliferation, so bespoke products are in demand. Niche communities better cater to the members’ needs. Additionally, it makes the focal point more precise and improves alignment.

Personal Brands 🕺

Individuals can use similar community growth strategies.

  1. Use your social presence to focus on a specific topic, e.g. startups, communities, investing, finance, food, etc.
  2. Let your posts function as topic suggestions, used to facilitate discussion amongst the audience. Asking open-ended questions also works.
  3. Reward engagement with responses, more personal interactions (e.g. zoom calls), etc.

Build In Public 👨‍💻

Building products in public is a great way to start forming a community before a final product exists. It presents future members the opportunity to shape the outcome before it is ready.

For example, Arvid Kahl is also doing this with his new book Audience First, with suggestions already helping to shape the book’s outline.

You can also work with this community to deepen your understanding of the problem you aim to solve.

Examples 🗂

Great up-and-coming online communities + member involvement:

  • Indiehackers — hosting meetups, forum (hands-off moderation), community-driven newsletter and podcast, etc.
  • Roam Research — #RoamCult — member built tools, Slack communities, online tutorials, Zoom sessions, 1–1 onboarding, etc.
  • No Code — #NoCode & #100DaysOfNoCode — meetups, podcast features, support groups, joint learning, product proliferation, etc.

Quality Preservation 📌

Failing to monitor quality will ruin your community:

You can use any mix of the following to protect and improve community quality standards:

  • Moderation — Only as much as is necessary to maintain contributor quality and collective focus. Over-governance stifles members’ contributory powers.
  • Paid — Payment improves the seriousness of the members — giving them a vested interest in the quality of the discussions.
  • Invite only — curating the members helps to set quality standards before entering. Careful because performed poorly, this could seem prejudicial.

Quality begets quality:

Great members => Great Convos => Great Insights => Great Content => Great members (and the cycle continues… 🔁).

Business 💰

📚 Book — Get Together: How to build a community with your people — co-authored by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh & Kai Elmer Sotto.

Amateurs try to manage a community, but great leaders create more leaders. Nearly every challenge of building a community can be met by asking yourself, “How do I achieve this by working with my people, not doing it for them?” In other words, approach community-building as progressive acts of collaboration — doing more with others every step of the way.

Empowerment strengthens communities. By collaborating, you increase their sense of ownership and belonging.

The missing ingredient in many would-be communities is dedication. We put on one-off events or annual fundraisers, but we don’t give potential community members the chance to keep showing up or to raise their hands to take on responsibilities.

Community leaders shouldn’t remove themselves from the equation too quickly. It takes work to ensure you stop being a dependency and that this remains true. And you still to ensure the focus and quality persists.

Certainly, you can accomplish great things without a thriving community alongside you. But if you join forces — as company and customers, artists and fans, organizers and advocates — you’ll do more together than you ever could alone.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” — African Proverb.

Additional Quotes 🗣

Rosie Sherry- Everyone wants to start a community. Very few of them want to put in the work.

David Spinks- If you’d like your community members to do something, then model the behavior for them first by doing it yourself. They’ll follow your lead.

Jacob Peters — Community is the ultimate moat. Competitors can replicate products, but not relationships.

Jacob PetersBuilding a successful community requires two things:

  • A reason for people to gather
  • A reason for people to reengage

See many fail at #2. Members must know why they should keep coming back for more.

Twitter | LinkedIn | Indie Hackers | Product Hunt | Personal Site

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Thanks for reading!