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This article is a summary of Episode 22 of the Masters of Community podcast. For more in-depth interviews with great community builders, check out all episodes here

Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia is the founder and CEO of Product School, the largest community of product managers in the world.

In the past 6 years, Product School has grown its community from one to one million product managers around the world. While its main focus is education and certification for product managers, Product School also hosts 1,000 events and five conferences every year.  Amazingly, 90% of its resource are free.

Product School came from two key inspirations: Carlos’s frustration with the resources currently available to product managers, and the lack of a dedicated community for the profession.

“I felt trapped in this education system where I had to spend four years full-time to maybe get to what I wanted,” said Carlos. “I’ve always been very curious about how I can learn what I want from who I want. Being part of a startup accelerator helped me really understand how you can get access to incredible people.”

How did Carlos scale Product School without sacrificing quality or connection? To find out, Carlos joined the Masters of Community podcast for a conversation about education, communities of practice, and the importance of taking risks. Below are Carlos’s top takeaways for growth.

1. Find your niche — and stay focused

When Carlos first started Product School, there was already content for product managers. But there was no dedicated community for the industry. “I think we tapped into something that people really crave,” says Carlos.

“There are so many events out there for founders and CEOs. But that next line, the product leaders, they didn’t get enough credit. They didn’t have a platform where they could shine. And this really resonated with a lot of them because we don’t ask them to quit their jobs or put their lives on hold. We just ask them to give back to the community as much as they want.”

Carlos attributes Product School’s success to its hyper-focus on product managers. “It’s so easy to get distracted, as I did in my previous business, and try to teach anything to anyone,” he says.

Carlos also identified a niche he could fill in education. At the time, aspiring product managers could take classes focused on business or learn hands-on coding, but rarely could they learn both at the same time.  This led to Product School’s unique cross between a business program and a coding bootcamp.

“I realized that in engineering school, nobody was really thinking about business or teaching anything other than coding,” says Carlos. “In business school, there were a lot of people who wanted to get their hands dirty, but there wasn’t a single class on product, digital marketing, or community. These are skills that some of us apply everyday.”

2. Start with value, not scale

It may sound counterintuitive, but one of Carlos’s top takeaways for scaling community is to start small.

“I didn’t have the ambition to build something huge or create a unicorn,” says Carlos of his early days. “I just wanted to be happy and to make sure that whoever joined that community gets value.”

Product School began as a one-person operation on Quora. In addition to building his reputation through answering questions, Carlos worked to build relationships with Quora users — who eventually became LinkedIn connections, attendees, and word-of-mouth marketers for Product School. “I knew that in order for me to be profitable or break even, I just needed to help four or five people. So that was my obsession.”

Starting small also allowed Carlos to keep a close eye on the quality of his resources. For the first two years of Product School, Carlos spoke at every workshop and went out of his way to connect with all the students. “I like to think of my company as a product. How can we scale certain parts of it?” he said. “We started as a service, so it was really hard to scale my time. I intentionally didn’t want to scale myself because I really wanted to make sure the quality was there.”

Today, Product School’s guest lecturers include top product managers from companies like Facebook, Netflix, and Uber. Product School also scaled its community through volunteer-led events around the world. However, cohorts are still small — they cap out at 20 people. “It was a gradual process where we had to learn how to let go while still keeping certain elements of our brand,” says Carlos.

3. If people like it, do more of it!

In the early days of Product School, consistency was key to the community’s growth. In 2014, Carlos hosted two-hour sessions on Meetup once a week. In the early days, his driver of growth was simply: If people like something, do more of it.

“Still to this day, I’m thinking about where the next million users are. The key to that for me was if this works, if the content that we’re putting out works and people like it, then we should do more of it. If it doesn’t, we should change it. So every single Wednesday I’m going to show up and I’m going to do something.”

4. Get creative with no-code tools

The Product School community was initially built by leveraging existing platforms including Quora and Meetup. Today, Carlos notes, this “scrappy” approach to community building using external tools can be both powerful and scalable thanks to tools like Zapier that automate processes.

“I think there’s no excuse these days to start something,” says Carlos. “There are so many low-code or no-code tools. You can start a blog, or you can go to Quora and start answering questions…Once you’re able to prove that something works, engineers will be more inclined to see how we can collaborate.”

His advice for community managers looking to make the case for a custom solution? Leverage existing spaces to demonstrate or build demand, score some quick wins, and use that data to report back to product teams.

5. Understand your community’s circles

While Product School counts more than 1 million product managers and program alumni in its community, not everyone engages equally. The community can be thought of in overlapping circles, with members at the center who engage frequently and occasional readers on the outer rings. Carlos breaks the Product School community down into three distinct circles.

  • Outer circles: Anyone who ever signed up for something at Product School
  • Middle circles: Alumni who have graduated from a Product School cohort
  • Inner circles: Product leaders who participate as speakers and instructors

There are distinct offerings for each circle, reflecting the needs and interests of each community layer. For example, instructors have access to Product School Pro, a dedicated resource for conversation and networking built on Mighty Networks. This “inner circle” even has its own community manager.

“It took me time to really understand their needs,” says Carlos. “It’s not just about aspiring PMs trying to get jobs. These product leaders also want to get promotions. They also want to get connected to others.”

For more on building thriving communities with different levels of engagement, check out the CMX Community Engagement Cycle.

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