Thomas Knoll – Building Communities (a Houston Lean Startup Circle recap)

Last night’s Houston Lean Startup Circle meetup was a great success. The speaker was Thomas Knoll who was the co-founder of LaunchRock and a community architect for Zappos, UserVoice and Seesmic.

Thomas Knoll speaking at the Houston Lean Startup Circle

The meeting was held at the ChaiONE offices. The conference room was packed, and people were sitting in the lobby area with their heads peeking around the wall to hear the discussion.

Thomas provided many insights into building communities. One key takeaway that tied the concepts of Lean Startups back in to community development was his assertion that customer development *is* community building. Thomas suggested that you have to have the perspective that in the early stages each customer you’re interviewing is being recruiting into the community that you’re cultivating. You have to engage and empower them to have a voice in the community that surrounds your brand.

Some other insights (based purely on memory, because I was so caught up in the talk I didn’t really take notes):

Communities vs. Crowds
A crowd is what most musicians have. They are the only voice and they stand on stage and perform or tell people what to do. A community is a more interactive audience that surround your brand. Know the difference and know which one you’re trying to build.

Early on, don’t spend time on sophisticated tools
Many companies spend a lot of time and money integrating into white-label services and making their communities look like they are owned by the company. Thomas says that this is not necessary, especially early on. It’s fine to use existing off-site platforms (like Facebook groups) to host your community, but you just have to get over your concerns about maintaining absolute control over the community.

You can’t really “manage” a community
You can cultivate, develop, and architect them, but you have to structure them in a way that they manage themselves.

There is no one tool that does it all
There are many tools out there, but there is no single tool that he would recommend to use for creating the overall online/offline community platform. Some tools are good for some purposes (e.g. forums, Q&A, etc) while being terrible at other. Often times, you have to bring in multiple tools or hand-craft something that fits in with your audience and goals.

Let your community create your content
Let your customers tell their own success stories and share answers with other customers. For example, have a blog that your customers contribute to in order to tell their own success stories. This gives you operational efficiency in your support and community development costs while improving your reputation as a company.

All in all, it was a great meetup and we were thrilled to have Thomas as a speaker. If you have any suggestions for future topics or speakers for the Houston Lean Startup Circle, feel free to contact the organizing team on Twitter: @LeanStartupHOU.

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