03.09.2016

What do a polo match in Buenos Aires, a tech conference in Zagreb, and a BBQ in San Francisco have in common? They’re all community initiatives that one company has taken on in the last year. That company is Toptal, and community is their core competitive advantage.

If you’re working on global or offline community building, you need to know the Toptal story — the story of how a company that lives and dies by its community has scaled its community initiatives (which include the above events and many more) and skyrocketed its growth over the last year.

What is Toptal? They’re “a huge network of the most driven and intelligent people in the world,” says Kenan Salihbegovic, Toptal’s Head of Community. It’s a network of top freelance software engineers and designers from MIT, CERN, Google, as well as Top 100 Rails contributors, Django committers, authors, and professors from 100+ countries who work with over 2,000 clients, including companies like J.P. Morgan, Zendesk, and Airbnb.

Toptal Head of Community Kenan Salihbegovic

Toptal Head of Community Kenan Salihbegovic

The world’s largest fully remote company, Toptal is growing fast, winning the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 award in 2015, placing it as one of the world’s fastest growing companies. And Toptal has no offices whatsoever, which makes the cultish sense of belonging that its community of “Toptalers” feel that much more impressive.

The values that started informally as the co-founders travelled the world building the company and spending time with co-workers and community members over barbecues, tech talks, and playing polo have been molded by Kenan into a community engine that powers over 250 events a year in 90+ countries, delivering tangible value to both the community and the company to sustain and fuel its massive growth.

How have they done it? We spoke with Head of Community Kenan Salihbegovic, who works out of Sarajevo, to give you the framework for Toptal’s continued success.

1. Start small and do things that don’t scale.

Toptal’s community did not launch as formalized programs at scale from the start. That came later, after they had built a very hands-on foundation.

“Community was not a formalized program. It was just a natural thing,” explains Kenan. “Our first ‘Head of Community’ was Breandan, our Co-Founder/COO, who was just traveling and meeting up with people in the evenings. Later, Roman Urbanovski [a Team Lead at Toptal] began doing the same thing. They were doing it because they were passionate about the people.” Sometimes they’d plan a meetup for drinks or they’d invite people to join them at a conference. Everywhere Roman and Breanden went, they met with other Toptalers and future Toptalers.

This foundation of personal relationships set the standard for the tight-knit community to maintain as it grew. Though it wasn’t scalable initially, it is now the heart and soul of their community.

2. Establish and align community and business goals.

Once Toptal’s Community Team was in place (all two of them), they identified the key priorities for the community:

  • Engage and retain members of the community by ensuring they had always had multiple opportunities to create significant value for themselves.
  • Empower community members to extend that value to their peers in order to grow the Toptal network.
  • Ensure a continuously growing sense of belonging to the distributed community through online and offline engagement.

And it has worked: “Great people know other great people,” says Kenan. “If we engage our community, and they feel a sense of belonging, and we’re always delivering value, they step up and share Toptal with other great people, and they stay with us longer. That helps everyone, both in the short and long term.”

Can you answer this question for your community: How are your community and business goals mutually aligned, and how does spending resources on one support the other?

A Toptal Meetup

3. Create a value proposition for members.

“We have a clear value proposition up front: We find you work with quality companies who pay well and have exciting projects. But beyond that, we’re always focused on our broader mission to support people. We’ve changed a lot of people’s lives in significant ways, and ultimately that is why people stay at Toptal and invite their friends.”

They’ve benefited by creating their value proposition for community members around their freelance work, which is typically solitary and can be lonely. Any time you find a group of people with a shared identity who are disconnected from each other, you have a ripe opportunity for community building.

“Toptalers are working alone at home or a coworking space most of the time, so when you connect people face-to-face, people feel great. Outside of the events, we’re always running Slack conversations, collaborative programs and side projects. That way, you always have somewhere to go for the ‘office interactions’ you don’t normally get as a freelancer.”

Can you identify 2 or 3 clear pain points for your community members that lead to negative outcomes for your company? How can you solve those pain points for your members and demonstrate the ROI for your company?

A Toptal Polo Match

A Toptal Polo Match

4. Make member onboarding a rigorous process.

Applying to be a Toptal developer or designer is a lengthy process. The screening process includes a series of challenging steps. Roughly 3% of all applied candidates pass the screening process.

According to Kenan, it happens in four stages:

  1. Communication and culture fit: This is vital to make sure you’ll work well with clients and to make sure you’re someone the community will want to spend time with.
  2. Computer Science fundamentals or design portfolio reviews: Toptal community members manually check the results of applicants.
  3. Live programming or designing: One-hour exercises with Toptal engineers or designers who are senior members of the community.
  4. Test project: Applicants must take the time to build or design a small app or website from scratch, followed by another interview with a community member to talk through the code or design process down to the fine details of execution.

The process revolves around community members screening potential future community members. Not only does this solution give Toptal members a high degree of ownership over who gets admitted, but it also serves to ensure that the quality bar stays high, as community members know best what it takes to thrive at the company.

How do you ensure quality in your community? How can you give shared ownership to your community members over maintaining that quality?

5. Reduce barriers to entry for leadership roles.

While onboarding is rigorous, the team wanted to ensure that once members were accepted into the community, the community could lead itself. That was the only way to scale this global growing community. Toptal’s community team is only two full-time people, so when they tripled their number of global events to 250+ over the past year, they needed the help of their community leaders to do it.

How did they get their members to come together to host over 250 gatherings in 2015? They spent their time taking away barriers and customizing each event to the community at hand.

“For the first event, we tell new leaders, just go have a drink or dinner with the community and send us the bill. It has a very low barrier to entry for them, and it’s low cost, low risk for us. We do a lot of the heavy lifting early on to help them get other community members to come out. They can slowly build up their confidence that way.”

“The flashy things are not important. You don’t need banners and swag. You need people. The swag is just extra,” says Kenan.

What is the “minimum viable community” for you? How can you reduce the barriers for other people to help get you there?

Toptal pixels pic

6. Add value with creative community engagement programs. 

Inside the Community Team, Toptal has one litmus test for moving forward on new programs: “Does this make our community members more awesome or help them to feel more awesome?”

Some of their most successful programs include:

  • A “Global Happy Hour” that happened in December with over 30 events occurring around the world in 19 countries all on the same day. A whopping 14% of their total members attended — an enormous number for a fully distributed community like Toptal’s.
  • Slack: Slack is their main hub for member communications. Their most engaged members are there. According to Kenan, “It’s an amazing tool to identify and connect with people who are very engaged and ask ‘How can we help you?’”
  • Mentorship programs to support diversity in tech. “We’ve set aside $160K for donation to fellowships and scholarships to tackle unequal opportunity in tech. On top of that, our community has committed $1M worth of their time for mentorship. We have over 250 mentors signed up to mentor programmers and UI/UX designers starting their careers. Some are teaching mentees new skills. Some are doing pair programming or sharing career advice.” It has been driven by the community member who come from very diverse backgrounds and wish to give back.
  • Open source bounty hunters: “We realized in working on the mentorship programs that a few of our mentors use Exercism.io (for pair programming), so we asked them to work on two of their biggest pending feature requests on GitHub. We’re throwing in $1,000 as a bounty for the best project.”
  • Toptal pair programming: “Our community has a great wealth of knowledge, so we’re helping our members learn from each other by using Slack and Screenhero to set up this real-time debugging and pair programming initiative. Over 80 people immediately signed up to help other community members. It makes everyone better at what they do.”

Every one of these programs lives and dies based on whether it adds value to the community. “We experiment,” says Kenan. “If it doesn’t work, we drop it. If people get value out of it, we do more of it.”

Are your programs designed to add or extract value from your community? If they are extracting value, re-evaluate them to add value first.

7. Give back even more to your most engaged 1-10%.

Toptal, like other world-class communities, has instated a leadership program for their most engaged members. Currently, just under 2% of Toptal members are Toptal leaders, and Toptal is fanatical about supporting them.

“Toptal community leaders are the people who want to step up. They’re engaging the other members. They’re running events. Toptal will fly them out to speak at conferences, cover costs for them to meet up with other Toptalers, and give them learning resources. We support them every step along the way and give them tips on how best to do it. Most of the time, people take initiative on their own and just ask us for advice.”

“I always say, ‘I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m just here to be the person who takes all the obstacles out of your way.’ These are the community members who ultimately make it possible for Toptal to do all of this with only two full-time people.”

The ROI of supporting these deep engagement programs is clear. What would it cost your company in salary and travel costs to run an event every business day of the year across 90 countries?

8. Measure the effectiveness of your work toward the business value you drive.

While Toptal does not disclose concrete numbers on the growth of their community, they’ve been able to share some serious wins with their team and correlate community value with business value. They’ve uncovered insights such as:

  • The time and costs associated with screening applicants referred by community members vs. others are much lower and passage rates are much higher.
  • People who are active in the community take on more projects with Toptal clients.
  • “We put in fewer resources to onboard new members who come in via the community. When someone joins from a city that has a community, I can just open a chat room and ask them to go have a coffee with a member from the same area.”
  • “When we launched the new designer community, over 50% of new Toptal designers that were admitted were a direct result of asking our community for referrals – it reduced our time to critical mass significantly.”

And the work just becomes more scalable as the community hubs grow in each city. “We see a spillover effect. Once you have a hub up and running, it will spill over to other communities in nearby regions. People go out and speak to other communities they’re a part of – this is where the unscalable becomes scalable.”

What quantitative or qualitative value do you keep track of? Are you moving towards more scalability in your community efforts?

Kenan on stage

9. Report back to your team regularly on your progress.

Toptal’s community team reports to the company’s COO, delivering status and project summary reports on a weekly basis.

“We also do a quarterly check-in on the important metrics across our regional communities. That lets us see where there are movements that are unusual.” For example, it lets them see trends such as areas in which passage rates on the screening process are particularly high or low, or areas in which referral numbers are especially high. “This allows us to better replicate what’s working and fix what isn’t.”

Right now, like many of other community measurement efforts, all of that reporting is manual and analyzed in Excel spreadsheets, but “we are building up tools around it,” says Kenan.

Because Kenan and Justin report regularly back to their team, community continues to “really be something the company believes in.” When that’s the case, you have no trouble getting buy-in for new pilot programs and events.

“I’ve never had an issue of getting resources. If it’s a greater spend, we run it by the co-founders. Community is on the same level as sales, marketing, etc., and it’s one of the reasons we can do what we’re doing. If we were under marketing, we’d have to serve marketing KPIs and we would never have the freedom we have, and our initiatives wouldn’t be genuinely focused on adding value to our community.” This is precisely why carving out the right business value from the start is so key.

It certainly has been key for Toptal, and with the rapid growth of their company and community over the past year, the practices shared here have empowered their talent network and set them up for continued success.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.