Humans are social beings.
We do our best work when we are among like-minded people with a shared vision. We build movements and create global change. We’re at our best when we’re together.
When Thiel Fellow, Tom Currier left Stanford in 2011, he moved out on his own to a home in East Palo Alto, where he began to build his first startup alone. “After college, there was so little community out there. The contrast was so stark. Stanford creates a really strong sense of community and there was just nothing like that in the ‘real world.’”
Feeling stagnant, he joined his friends at Black Box Mansion, a community house for startup builders in Atherton, California. There, he built his last company, Qbotix, a solar robotics startup. That’s when it clicked: living in community is not only a great way to build strong bonds among people, fuel ideas, and have a good time, it’s also a great business idea.
Thus, Campus was born.
The Campus concept is simple. People can apply to become a member of a house. If approved, they get a room at the house, as well as the many luxuries of communal living like likeminded housemates, weekly potluck dinners, salon talks and even quarterly festivals with other houses in the network.
Since launching, Tom, his community leader Olivia Frazao, and the Campus team have learned a great deal about how to build offline community both within each house and across all of their houses (there are now more than 15).
In this article, Tom and Olivia share their framework for offline community building and how they plan to create an entirely new category of real estate – living in community.
6 Key Tactics Campus Uses to Build Offline Community:
- Defined mission
- Clearly defined application and membership process
- Build in value for members
- Defined leadership roles
- Guidelines and processes for dealing with conflict
- Giving back
1. Defining the Mission: Shared Experiences and Identity
While Tom and Olivia very clearly state that Campus is not aiming to build “intentional community,” they did start with a very strong mission in mind, based around the value that we can create when we live and work together.
“There are certain serendipitous experiences that can only really happen in a shared environment. There is a special level of intimacy in the community we are building that really gets to the core of the people involved. This is about creating significant value in people’s lives.”
For Campus, it was this belief that attracted many of their early applicants and created a common sense of purpose amongst housemates.
2. Creating Structure: The Application Process to Choose the Right Members
It’s incredibly important to define membership in a community like this. There are many ways that this can be done, but Campus relies on a highly structured application process that occurs in 3 distinct steps:
1. Initial application: The online written application runs through your preferences, personality type (including your Myers-Briggs type) and the activities you enjoy.
I ran through the process myself, and I found it to be incredibly thorough. The whole thing took about 20 minutes and asks for references and a lot of self-reflection.
2. In-person interview: this is where you meet with other applicants and get a feel for who you might connect with. The Campus team then does some match-making. “Right now, all of our match-making is totally manual. It’s about knowing the personality types, values, activities and interests of each applicant, and what community vibe they’re looking for. It’s labor-intensive.”
3. New house formation: Typically, Campus has far more demand than supply. There is a long waitlist of applicants. So before launching a new house, they gather a group that they know would mesh well and then handpick the house captain (more on this in a moment). The group then defines their house culture themselves over time, and presents themselves to new applicants through organized open houses where current housemates and applicants choose each other.
3. Adding Value to the Member Experience
I asked him Tom if he was planning to be the Donald Trump of community living.
“We don’t own the property. That would become prohibitively expensive. We’re much more like Airbnb, an interface and the organizing force behind the community living.”
They add value to the renter’s experience in many ways, but they also take a cut off the top for added services such as house supplies deliveries, house cleaning, organized events, and more.
Olivia breaks down the concrete value-adds of community as:
“This is what people mean when they say they ‘feel at home’ here”, Olivia says. This is essential because this literally is people’s home, their most intimate space. This is the primary function of Campus’s community team.”
“We want to learn and create together to a certain degree. This is what people mean they say that there are great ‘network effects’ at work here. This entails professional and business opportunities that arise, but also personal and day to day ways that people connect. Fixing a housemate’s bike. Learning a language from a housemate. Getting tips on where to go on a trip. Ways people learn and create together, and help each other.”
“We want to make communal living as easy as possible for our community members. We take care of all logisitics for them, create a month-to-month lease so they have flexibility moving between communities (though most stay for a year or more), coordinate all rent payments among housemates, and even organize cleanings.”
And it’s obviously working because they haven’t spent a dime on marketing and yet they still have more demand than they can keep up with.
4. Defining and Selecting Leadership
The “House Captains” act as culture champions in each house. Then, outside of the house, they organize cross-community events and gatherings.
The House Captains work much like mentors or power users who act as ambassadors on behalf of a brand. This is what is truly scalable about the Campus model. This House Captain model can really be applied to any such program where you need to leverage community members to take control and take on leadership positions.
The model includes:
- Pick the house leader before launching the house: this ensures you have time to train the captain and they can be involved in the entire process from start to finish.
- Training: the team provides pre-launch and ongoing training to House Captains.
- Regular meetings and check-ins: Give the leaders your ear, listen to their concerns, and iron out problems as they arise.
5. Developing Structures to Maintain and Recreate Domestic Harmony
Anyone who has lived with roommates knows that housing situations almost always involve some sticky situations and hard-to-navigate conflicts. Everything from when to use the shower to when quiet hours start and begin must be communicated. When things must be solved retroactively, Olivia has worked hard to organize structures so that conflicts are easily resolved.
For example, when a new house is formed, a Campus team member facilitates the house’s first housemate meeting. The members go through points included in the Campus Guide for Housemates, a booklet with tips and topics for housemate meetings. Olivia defines ways Campus helps with governance:
- Distributed Communications: “The House Captain is the laison between us and the home. They plan events with housemates as well as across houses. You can make an analogy that this is kind of like an ‘RA role’ in a dorm.”
- Housemate meetings: “A Campus team member helps facilitate the first meeting housemates have to discuss shared values, a vision for the culture they want to create, and logistical agreements like kitchen cleanliness and guest rules. This gets people talking before problems arise.”
- Reactive conflict resolution: “Trust and safety are our first priorities, so we go above and beyond when navigating these issues. We need to make sure that the entire house is okay as a group – that there is harmony amongst all members. We are closely present with all people in times of trouble.”
6. Giving Back to the Community at Large
To any of our readers living in San Francisco, there exists the pressing question of the larger friction between “techies” and non-”techies”, renters and landlords, those gentrifying neighborhoods like the Mission, evictions, and giving back to the community at large.
“There’s absolutely no Ellis Act stuff going on here.” The Ellis Act is a provision in California law that allows landlords to go “out of business” and sell their property, evict all tenants, and out-price all existing renters so that they can charge more for the space.
“We are only moving into large, single-family homes, never evicting anyone. It’s in our best interest as well that we keep housing affordable for everyone in the city.” Tom says.
Campus is also planning to roll out community service-focused programs in the future. This is not only vital to alleviating larger cultural issues, but also creating a shared purpose and community-building opportunity for all those involved in these initiatives.
“There is so much opportunity for us to give back working together as well as in the houses themselves. We try to source local materials for furnishings and house design. We also have people donate any used furniture and clothing when they move out or give it away to current housemates,” says Tom.
What does success look like in a physical housing community?
“We plan to expand to 8 cities in the next year and a half,” says Tom. “First, we have to validate the demand in each market. Right now we’re working on launching in New York.”
“One day, we’ll look at the number of best friends, marriages, co-founders, and businesses built out of our communities after X number of years. For now, we gather a lot of ad hoc feedback and know each community member personally. They’ve already planned hackathons, found co-founders, and we know of three couples who have gotten together after living in a Campus house,” shares Tom. “We will find a way to monitor and quantify lifelong relationships.”
“We’ll know we’ve really built something though when we create a new product category in real estate. We want to encourage developers to actually build properties that allow us to live in communities.”
For those of us who dream of building communities of creative, driven, giving people, this is certainly an idea we can all get behind.
You can now get updates on Campus happenings and open houses via their Facebook page.