Minimum Viable Community Case Study | CMX

Danya Cheskis-Gold is the Director of Community at Spark Capital, a venture capital firm whose community includes startup founders and employees from companies like Tumblr and Twitter. Her company works with 65 startups around the world. In her discussion, she uses to her initial failures with Spark Capital to illustrate how to build you minimum viable community.

Early on at Spark Capital, she tried to incorporate an initiative that involved using Google Hangouts to connect her community members with experts. Unfortunately, that project was a bomb. Still, she kept it going. “It was like an addiction,” she said. “I kept going when I knew I should stop.” When she stopped the Hangouts, no one noticed.

She thought hard about something that wasn’t working, then remembered the customer development she’d learned at Skillshare, where she’d previously worked. She thought about the theory of customer development, which is essentially about checking out theories against reality.

In the product world, a person might think of this as “product-market fit.” In the community space, this becomes “community-market fit.” With products, they would be successful when people started paying for it. In community, success in when the community starts acting like a community.

Using this knowledge, she came up with three rules for building minimum viable community:

1. Get out of the building: Work with the users who will be consuming whatever you’re creating for them.

2. Identify your market: Take what you learn, and find your first community members to get on board.

3. Build-measure-learn: In working with community, CMs have to try new things. But, as they try, they must measure so they know what’s succeeding. The goal is to figure out the metrics, and then, when things aren’t working, it’s time to iterate. The ultimate goal is scalability. 

Get Out of the Building

When Cheskis-Gold started with her new initiative, she had tons of questions. She had no boss, so she needed to figure out who she needed to support, and how she was going to support them.

The easy approach to this was that she got out of the building. She went to where they are, literally traveling around the world to meet them where they were. She asked the people at these startups: what are your biggest challenges as a founder or startup employee? And, what are you doing to resolve these challenges.

This helped her form her own ideas for a minimum viable community. As a next step, she asked whether this community would actually help.

In doing this, she learned two things:

  1. All entrepreneurs wanted more connections with their peers
  2. They all needed more time.

For number 2, she found herself asking the same question over and over again: “Why?” In asking this question, she learned that the startup teams were also learning by doing but needed help so they could do it better and faster.

This was great, but she didn’t reach everyone. She knew there were people she wasn’t hearing from. So, she took another step and sent out a survey to the people she couldn’t get to in person. She tried to be as actionable as possible, particularly with items like prioritization, event formats, and how often these events should occur.

In doing all this, she learned that branding, all-day summits and evening events were the most important. And, perhaps surprisingly, she learned that people wanted information shared through emails.

Best practices:

1. Know your hypothesis: You should know what you think the solutions are going to be.

2. Ask lots of questions: A CM may have to dig deeper to understand challenges.

3. Make your survey responses actionable.  They’re not much help if they’re not actionable.

Identify Your Community MVPs

Cheskis-Gold chose her 3 MVPs to launch her minimum viable community. She created Google Groups and encouraged people to share and give advice. To support these initiatives, she also hosted meetups for each group.

In addition, she began to hold a skill-based event called Spark Sessions, which covered some of the skills the community said they’d needed help with in order to help them fill the gaps in their businesses.

Within the first month of trying, there was 25-30 self-introductions in those Google Groups.  The first Spark Session had an attendance of 30 people.

Best practices:

1. Keep it simple. Try to do the easiest thing possible to start testing this hypothesis.

2. Do what you can to test your ideas. In all her testing, she was able to generate important learnings.

3. Know what success looks like. In this case, success would be attendance.

Set Goals

After sending a feedback survey, she learned that her community indeed still preferred evening meetings. Her survey data also showed that this community wanted more time to network with one another, so she added breakout groups to the next session so people could network.

After the next Speak Session, she sent the same feedback survey, which confirmed that people were happy it was in the evening, but also thought it was too informal for breakouts. Through her feedback surveys, she learned that the 30-minute timeframe for each speaker was too long, so she shortened it to 15 minutes. By the third Spark Sessions, she brought in facilitators for breakouts and guaranteed shorter speaker times.

Best practices:

1. Report back on surveys: Your community deserves to know what changes she’s implementing

2. Write a playbook: You can then pass this along to people in the community. Do any activity twice, and make a checklist about what works.

Final Thoughts

When you finally hit community-market fit, you know it. Reviews are incredible, people show up and you know what’s working. People trust you. If people don’t show up to your Hangouts, you’re not there yet.

So, what’s next for Cheskis-Gold? The next step will be to focus on retention and empowerment.

In closing her advice is to remember to be as humble as we can be. We’re here to implement what our community needs. We have to ask them what they want so we can deliver it.

You can now watch the entire video from CMX Summit:

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Whitney Meers