Chris Pedregal has been founding companies since he was 19 years old. He got his first company, ScramblerMail, off the ground and then went on to build a company called Apture, which was acquired by Google. While he learned a ton from forming those companies, community products were a whole new ballgame.
In 2013, after meeting his co-founder Shreyans Bhansali, Chris decided he wanted to change the face of learning. And the only way to do it, he realized, was through community. With that in mind, they founded Socratic, a community that connects learners all over the world to grasp concepts at every educational level.
Along the way, they have realized that building a community-first company is an entirely different – and more powerful – animal.
“We wanted to make a difference. We wanted to empower someone to learn something that they were unable to learn before— it has an enormous trickle-down effect,” Chris says.
Through his work and experiments on the Socratic platform, Chris has learned a great deal about how to build a community-centric product. At CMX Summit East on May 19th, he’ll share those lessons with you.
Today, he gives us a glimpse into a handful of his learnings from the past two years building a community and a product from scratch.
10 Indispensable Community Lessons from a Founder at the Intersection of Community & Product
1. It takes time.
Perhaps the most surprising thing for Chris has been the amount of time it takes to build community. In the past, building software products that did not rely on communities to form around them, he was used to seeing immediate returns on the work he did.
“You build community in human time,” Chris says. “You can build a website that grows in Internet time, but if it’s a community, it’s going to grow as relationships grow. Each of those relationships takes time to build in the offline world just as much as they take to build online. You have to give them room and space. You can’t rush it.”
It’s a test in patience because the rewards take time to manifest, but the small rewards you get from connecting people to a higher mission make it possible to take those baby steps along the way.
2. It is a worthy time investment because communities are the best way to scale most learning products.
One of Chris’s key takeaways from building an education community is that relationships allow us to effectively scale a learning product. You can’t automate everything, especially in education.
“Community is the only way you can scale the impact we want to have and the number of answers that we need on Socratic. We want Wikipedia-type scale. Programmatic approaches and algorithms are not advanced enough yet to do what we want to do in education.”
3. You have to start somewhere. You have to start now.
The chicken and the egg dilemma is real. So you just have to start somewhere and change constantly, Chris says.
“It’s really hard when you’re starting from scratch,” Chris explains about creating a mission-driven community. “You need to stand for something in order for people to rally around what you’re building, but how do you know what to stand for before you have those people?”
“It took us a while to understand what we believe and who should be in our community. You can’t rush that. You’ll get good signals early on. You’ll watch what your community is doing, and that will help you figure it out.”
4. You’re the leader, so you have to set the vision.
As with all community building, leading is a delicate balance. It’s a skill honed over time, and it involves a lot of listening and sometimes even ignoring what you’ve heard to pave the way for your larger vision.
“You’re building something for a community. They have agency and power, but they don’t have complete power. You have to do what you do best.”
So how do you build for a community if you’re a product builder in addition to a community builder?
“You take their input, but then you go back to your craft, which is building product.”
5. It’s never too late to change course, since you’re the one setting it.
Sometimes, in setting this vision, you may find that you lose members who no longer identify with what you’re building. That’s okay, Chris reassures us.
“When you’re super early, you’ll have members who are not right for you because you’re not well-defined. It’s tricky.”
“It’s important that your mission be very clear, and that you tell your community that the way you try to achieve that mission is going to change over time. If you do that, your community will stick with you as you change the product and direction as long as they were truly bought into the mission. This will make your life a lot easier as you tweak your product and approach.”
“Our product changed significantly in the first year, but our community stayed with us because they liked the mission and the community they were forming together.”
6. It will get easier as you grow.
Again, Chris drives home the point that building relationships takes enormous patience. But that patience pays off with scale.
“You start building a community little by little. Every next person gets easier. It’s not just okay to spend a lot of time on those early members. It’s absolutely necessary to get those people.”
“It gets easier as you grow. That’s something that is hard to wrap your head around. You’re thinking ‘Wow, we’re doing all this manual work. This is never going to scale. We spent 20 hours getting this one person in the community. How the heck are we ever going to build a community with a million contributors?’”
“But that’s a fallacy. That’s not how it works. You bring on some people, they get excited, eventually they will evangelize, train, and grow that community by themselves,” Chris says.
7. Intrinsic motivations win out over the extrinsic any day.
Chris found that getting the key motivators for their community right from the start was the key to building those first relationships. They could have taken shortcuts and paid contributors, but they knew this would lead them down the wrong road.
“We did tests early on. We asked, ‘What if we paid people to write answers to get stuff going?’ But the quality that we got by paying people was incomparable to those who were motivated by making an impact.”
“Money is a strong motivator, but sometimes more intrinsic and intangible things can be even stronger motivators, like feeling like you’re a part of a community or that you’re having an impact.”
8. Don’t try to answer all your questions all at once.
While it’s important that you know your value proposition and know the key motivators for your members early on, getting all the answers at once is simply impossible, Chris says.
“It isn’t something you can come up with in a vacuum. When Socratic first started, we had so many questions: What are we building? Who is it for? How is it different? How do people use it? What do we believe in? What do the people who believe in us believe in?”
“It’s something that needs to evolve. If you try to answer all those questions all at once, it’s incredibly overwhelming.”
9. Use your community to build more community.
When it came to building a supply- and demand-side marketplace, Chris assumed that the two groups in his community would be vastly different from one another.
But it turned out that when the community did a good job of welcoming and teaching new learners, they in turn became teachers. Think through how this may apply for you: how do you turn your new members into veteran members who give back? How do you move someone from the demand side to the supply side of your marketplace?
“We thought when we started out that the community would be imbalanced. It turns out, students can be really great teachers and we started getting really great answers from them. Because students needed help and received it, they were able to help others. And they were even better at it than anyone else because they understood it at the level of someone who had just grasped a new concept. They are so accessible to other students.”
10. Look to others for inspiration
As you move forward, look to other communities for inspiration and help. They may be completely different from you, but they have something to teach you. This is why CMX and CMX Summit started in the first place: to give community builders access to one another so they can build better communities.
Chris looks to a few in particular: “We look to DIY and Stack Exchange all the time, and we look to Duolingo too. Wikipedia is really interesting from a mission perspective and how they talk about themselves to the outside world.”
No matter how successful your community is, there is always more to learn, more relationships to deepen, and more ways to make the world a better place.
For more insights on building community products and molding community leadership, don’t miss Chris’s talk at CMX Summit East on May 19! Get your tickets today before the price goes up!