Community is still a fairly new concept for organizations of all shapes and sizes, one that not every company is fully equipped to implement. It can be especially difficult to pitch the idea of expanding your organization to include community for the first time. What makes it even more difficult is if you aren’t clear on what business value your community will drive, if you’re unsure which company leaders you need in your corner, and you don’t know what resources you’ll need.
Many community builders fight tirelessly to get their organizations to invest in their community’s success, and they often struggle to define what they need and especially to explain the “and here’s why.” And oftentimes community professionals are hired to build community right after a business has decided they’d like to see one exist. How do you begin to define programming for a company at this stage?
We had the pleasure of speaking with Joel Connolly, Head of Community at Blackbird Ventures and alum of the CMX Fundamentals of Community course, about this topic. In this interview, you’ll learn about his experience joining Blackbird after his company decided to invest in community, ideating and creating community programs, and what it takes to make community work well in your organization.
Not every community manager will create a community from scratch in their career, but that doesn’t mean they won’t face their fair share of new beginnings. For Joel, Blackbird already had community in their game plan (as do many VC firms these days), so he focused on nailing the execution when he joined.
When did you join Blackbird Ventures?
“I joined February 2016, which was four months after Blackbird raised its second fund. I was the fifth employee. I don’t think they planned on hiring me. I met them through a friend and things went from there. If I look at all the programs they were running when I came on board, I think they would have had to hire someone eventually. I just don’t think they planned on doing it when they did.”
How did you get the attention of executives then, establish stakeholders, and sell community internally?
“Well, there are only six people in the company now. I sit opposite and next to my bosses! And the work I do is very visible, so I’m lucky in that respect. But I try hard to make sure that with everything we do, be it investing, or speaking at events, or meeting with LPs [Limited Partners], that Community has a voice in all of that, that everyone sees just how broad the impact of our work on community is.”
“I try to reinforce that all the time without shoving it down anyone’s throat. Everyone is bought in already. I just need to be constantly connecting everything we do back to community.”
What lead to the decision to invest in community before you joined?
“Venture capital is all about community, even if some funds haven’t fully recognized that yet. Your portfolio: that’s a community. Your LPs: that’s another community. The broader startup ecosystem from which your draw all of your talent and future investments: one big ol’ community. And if you want to zoom out a little bit from that, you’ll see that all of these communities are connected and members move from group to group and can even occupy more than one of these smaller communities at a time.”
“But I’ve been very lucky. The folks who founded Blackbird have a strong sense of this and right from the start they were investing in community – even before they had the resources to do so.”
Built For Success
Whether you are rolling out your blueprints for your new community or implementing new aspects of your strategy, it’s important to keep the business value your community is serving at the forefront.
How have you gone about building the community?
“It’s still early days, but there are a few things I’ve been working on. For our portfolio companies, I run lunches for founders but also for their heads of departments, for example Engineering or Product of Sales. The plan is to turn these into symposiums eventually. We have a Slack channel for the portfolio, which helps with online communications. In the coming year, I’ll be running more events and doing smaller scale meetups to help our founders and their employees get to know each other. I also help our with recruitment and I have been working with universities to tell the startup story to graduates.”
“For the broader ecosystem, we run AMAs each week with high-profile members of the startup community. Last year, we did 47 and received more than 2,000 questions. We also run a Medium publication, which we use to tell stories about our investments and what direction we’re taking the fund. The biggest project though is called The Sunrise Conference. It’s a one day startup conference that’s all about celebrating the Founder. In Australia, we don’t do this nearly as well as our counterparts in the U.S. We have this thing called Tall Poppy Syndrome, which is a negative force on innovation in Australia. So The Sunrise Conference is all about changing the way we celebrate success, and inspiring a whole new generation of founders. Last year we had 1,200 people come along to that. We also run a website called The Sunrise, which has a bunch of video content and is also aimed at celebrating our Founders.”
“My goal is to move community members up the commitment curve and into different sub-communities, from would-be founders to founders, to our portfolio, and eventually to investors.”
“There is lots more work to do and these are just some of the programs I run.”
Measuring Your Success
What’s more rewarding than feeling like you’ve done good work and your community is healthy? Knowing so.
What business goal does your community fuel?
“We want to become a magnetic force for the best Australian founders. We believe that by building community within our portfolio and being as helpful as possible to our founders, we’ll achieve this objective. By producing content and events that help the broader startup ecosystem, adhering strongly to give-first principles, we’ll achieve that objective. And if we’re a magnetic force for the best founders, we’ll also attract the highest calibre of investors for the fund. Every program I run, every bit of content I produce, every event, is all about achieving this objective.”
How have you gone about showing that what you’re building actually is having an impact?
“That’s a hard question and honestly I’ve been wrestling with this idea for a long time. While I can show success in the individual programs I run (for example: tickets sold, engagement on a content piece), it’s very difficult to draw a direct line between these figures, and our overall objective, which is to be a magnetic force for the best founders. I can look at our deal flow and measure increases in it, but how do you tie a neat line between that measurement and the success I have in my community programs? I had a revelation at the CMX Summit conference last year, which was this: Correlation is awesome. Causation is overrated. So I stopped spending so much time on it, and I now just focus on building awesome community programs that work.”
Overall, what’s the most obvious sign to your team that community is providing business value?
“When our portfolio founders recommend us to other founders. When we meet with founders for the first time and they tell us that Blackbird is the only VC they want to take money from.”
Joel Connolly is the Head of Community at Blackbird Ventures, an Aussie VC with a portfolio that includes Canva, Culture Amp, Autopilot and Zoox. Prior to Blackbird Joel founded an Artist Management company and built the businesses of Platinum-selling Australian artists. He’s also the Festival Director of Sydney Craft Beer Week, one Australia’s largest beer festivals. He likes to cook, swim, read and play dress up with his daughters. Follow him on Twitter for more insights.