- Went from 10k MRR (Series A, ~$50m valuation) to 200m ARR (acquired, $6.5b valuation) in 6 years
- solid discussion on Software Defined Talk: https://www.softwaredefinedtalk.com/288
"By the way, we're really looking to ramp up our community effort right now. If you can think of anyone who can help us build a developer community, can you send them my way?"
One week, three pings. If this isn't a big trend already, it's at least worth writing about (per my Three Strikes rule). Who builds developer communities, why are companies investing in them, and why now?
Who's Job Is It Anyway?
Developers have had a long history of spontaneous community formation dating back to the IRC and BBSes of yore. (Misery loves company?) There is still a strong ethos of self organized community in modern dev culture, but the vast majority of this lies on the shoulders of a small group of under-funded volunteers.
- StackOverflow serves 11m visits a day with community contributed Q&A's and sells ads and knowledge base software on the side.
- GitHub builds developer collaboration software, but at its core is a 56m-developer social network atop Git.
- Hacker News (serving at least 4m a day) is a big part of Y Combinator's unfair advantage in getting both founder mindshare and hiring talent.
You would expect that this realization would spawn a dedicated discipline to prioritize it, in the same way that Startups = Growth justifies the need for a Growth Hacker at every company serious about growth.
Why Invest in Community?
- Marketing attribution in developer tools is kayfabe — we play at tracking Twitter clickthroughs and podcast direct response, but everyone in marketing knows you need at least 7-13 touches before someone really considers you. As a developer I often wait out an entire year after hearing about something before even trying it out, just to see if it has staying power.
- After buying into a solution, I still need help to be successful with the tool. Developer tools are ultimately creative tools, and sometimes the imagination needs a little inspiration. Setup hurdles need to be overcome. If I buy something and end up not using it, it's going into the do-not-use pile for a very, very long time before I ever give it another shot.
"Characterizing the developer journey as a linear funnel doesn’t really tell the whole story, as it’s essentially scoped to awareness and conversation — the journey is much more complex. I think onboarding to the community itself, retaining over time, and advocating for others to join, is a huge part of the journey... In this world, you want to understand how folks are engaging with the community as well as with the company/product, with product metrics (activation, adoption, etc) existing as second-order effects of the community. The Orbit Model, versus the funnel, tries to tell this nonlinear and comprehensive story."
When most developers make technical choices, you are just as likely to hear them praise the strength of the "ecosystem" (aka a community, with thriving third parties) as they do the core technical merits. In terms of the Rogers curve, this is the kind of argument made by "mainstream" developers:
- Retention: Build product and they may not come, but build community and they will stay.
- Hiring: Community can just as easily net you employees as it does users and customers.
- Marketing: Community is highest-signal social proof/word of mouth you cannot buy.
- Moat: Community is a "feature" that cannot be copied. By Hamilton Helmer's 7 Powers Framework (the strategy framework du jour), Community helps you gain Network Economies, increase Switching Costs and Corner one of the most precious resources on Earth: Developers!.
Scaling: Community is many-to-many, where Marketing/Devrel is one-to-many. The value of a community-focused user base scales by Metcalfe's law instead of Sarnoff's law. A thriving third-party ecosystem scales by Reed's law — even better!
- Risks: But you also do not "own" your community - the best you can do is lead by example, encourage helpful behavior, and enforce clear codes of conduct. Community is "user-generated content", and that bears with it great responsibility. Poor handling can backfire horrifically.
- Free Work? Community members can answer questions to each other and develop integrations to help you grow beyond your limited resources. To avoid expecting members to "do free work", this effort must be reciprocated by careful stewardship.
- Lifespan: One of the best measures of community success is when your users' relationship with you outlasts their current employment. Come for the software, stay for the community. Help your users get jobs, help your customers hire your users, and you will have fans for life.
- Open Source: Commercial Open Source companies must foster a viable community to be successful open source, rather than being de-facto "source available". In Nadia Eghbal's terms, more Federations than Stadiums, but both are definitely preferable over Clubs and Toys.
- Product Insights: Speaking to users helps you build things people want, but often these conversations are done by outreach (user survey or feedback session) rather than observation (in situ, natural environment). Community is where your deepest and most authentic user insights will originate.
There are multiple ways to do this well, but I am particularly fond of community that "serves a bigger purpose". A community that is strictly centered around a company (eg Dreamforce → Salesforce) is less appealing than one with room for multiple players (eg No Code → Webflow, Jamstack → Netlify), at least while you aren't yet a decacorn. Every great community is a great marketplace (tbc in a future post...), and every marketplace is a kind of platform, and every platform must respect the Bill Gates Line with its participants.
Dev Community has felt fringe for as long as I've been involved. I always felt like a bit of a middle schooler talking about my /r/reactjs work to companies, like "that's nice dear, but let's talk about more serious work now". I have friends running other popular Discords and forums that feel the same way.
- People were displaced from their existing IRL communities and needed a replacement
- Geography doesn't matter for online community (modulo timezones)
- Online communities are far more discoverable (searchable, join with a URL) and scalable (no room limits on community!)
Community-building software has also gotten a lot better:
- Realtime: Twitch and Discord and Clubhouse
- Conferences: Hopin and Bevy
- Async: Circle (where I am an investor), Forem (the creators of Dev.to), and Hashnode
- Metrics: Orbit.love (Martin Casado writeup here) helps quantify developer engagement (Commsor is less dev centric but noteworthy)
I also think the developer relations field has reached a level of maturity where companies are feeling the limits of one-to-many content creation and hiring developer influencers, so they are exploring other ways to scale their community engagement as an enablement role.
Become a Technical Community Builder
One of the telltale signs that this field is rife with opportunity is how much cruft it lacks. There's no book or course or conference teaching you how to do this job. There's no set career path, and "Chief Community Officer" isn't really a thing. We don't even have a commonly-accepted name for this role! And we certainly lack role models and thought leaders and the rest of the paraphernalia that comes with a mature industry.
- If that excites you, rather than intimidates you, get in touch with me and I'll send you to the exciting startups hiring for this role: WorkOS, Render, Begin, and Temporal.
- If you're starting a company to help Technical Community Builders (or whatever we end up calling this), you can browse my angel network here for investment and advice.
- If you just want to keep up on this space, you can follow the DX Circle blog where we will discuss Developer Communities, Developer Tools, Documentation, and everything else Developer Experience!
A lot of projects (like this one) end up as a Toy or Stadium. Jani Evakallio ran directly into this with the Foam project and writes about it here:
Having such loose leadership was unsustainable. His solutions are:
- make the project leaner - move out some unsupported features or kill them
- kill the RFC process
- clarify what contributions are welcome
- bring core features in-house
- open the Foam API for third party extensions
2. Take the boring common answers to an overdiscussed topic, and identify what else is NOT being said:
Listened to many "how to build an audience" convos on Clubhouse.— Bilal Zaidi (@bzaidi) February 27, 2021
Many folks who did this 5yrs+ ago shared the same GENERIC advice:
"Stay consistent. Put in the reps. Create great content".
IMO: that's a pre-requisite, but not very helpful.
Less-obvious points I've learned
"I struggle to write and publish consistently."— Dickie Bush 🚢 (@dickiebush) March 2, 2021
We asked over 500 beginner writers a simple question: what do you struggle with most?
"Consistency" showed up 10x more than anything else.
And this Atomic Essay explores four steps anyone can take to build it: pic.twitter.com/FRwkbbyq5g
From our community:
Featured guest is Thomas Gorissen who organizes JSConf Asia and does some cool crypto stuff.
Thanks for coming!It was a blast meeting up with everyone and sorry
- Sentiment echoed in "Speed Matters": The general rule seems to be: systems which eat items quickly are fed more items. Slow systems starve.
- Speed is the Killer Feature: a passionate if unpersuasive argument and list of ways to manage perceived speed