AMA with Ethan Brooks of The Hustle


Ethan Brooks is a Senior Analyst at The Hustle. Prior to his work at Trends, Ethan worked at a hypergrowth startup Toptal, where he helped grow community on 3 continents. He's written extensively about community-building, and teaches the subject to founders in New York and London.

How do you build communities in 2021?

Great question. At the end of the day, the difference between a community and an audience is that an audience is a one-to-many platform (you speak to your audience, and they speak to you). A community, on the other hand, is a many-to-many system. Your main job is to foster connections between people, and your goal is eventually to become so unimportant that the community can go on without you. In that sense, community building hasn't changed in ten thousand years. If you ever get lost, take it all the way back to basics, and find two people in your community that you can introduce to each other. That will put you back on the right track.

How do you scale your community?  (What are scalable community-building tactics used with large-scale communities?)

The only way to scale a community is to foster leadership inside that group. You need to identify, recruit, and train community leaders who are able to build those connections between members without your help. It's never too early to start looking for these people within your group. The first ones are often easy to spot -- they're highly active, quick to offer their advice to new members, and often self-organize events or support groups even without your go-ahead. In short, they're bought in on what you're trying to build and they're worth their weight in gold. Once you find them, your attention shifts from day-to-day interactions inside the community, to mostly focusing on the core group of leaders -- coaching them, helping them execute on their ideas, and developing programs and perks that keep them around. For more on this, check out this article I co-wrote with community genius, Eryn Peters, back when we were building the Toptal community leader program on 3 continents.

What should be the ideal community platform? Should there be a different platform when you have few members vs when you scale to 1000 members?

The ideal community platform is the one your members are most familiar with. Most often, that actually means choosing the "least bad" option. The reality is most community-building platforms do one or two things well and suck at the rest. But at the end of the day, a platform needs to be able to answer 3 questions:

  • How are you going to keep track of all your members (e.g. see who's joining, who's active, and who needs to be removed, etc...)?
  • How are you going to communicate with them (one-on-one and also to small and large groups)?
  • How are they going to communicate with each other?

What's so magical about Trends Community?

The people. The peer group is just un-matched. I can't believe they let me hang out.

Not everything that can be counted, counts. So how do you measure what a successful community looks like?

There are some traditional measures, like growth of the community, or number of active users. But you've got to balance them with your own built-in sense of how healthy the group is. We're communal creatures. We're literally hard-wired to be very attuned to the health and well-being of a community. You can't measure that. But if you're serious about building a community for your business, it needs to be okay. Accountants always get nervous about this stuff, because there's often no clear ROI that you can tie directly to a community event. But if you're the one on the ground, hosting, you know they work. I've literally seen people pass up jobs at Google for less pay and less prestige in order to stick with a company that made them feel a real sense of connection. When you look at the cost of replacing that person, it's clear that there's a very real ROI to community work, even if it's hard to measure precisely. To any community manager battling with the bean counters for budget, my recommendation is this: Invite them to an event. Make them the VIP, and show them first-hand what's going on. Once they experience it first-hand, it will be easier to make your case with them.

Advice for community builders.

Turn off slack notifications on your phone. Community managers already know this, but people outside the community-building world might be surprised by how hard it can be, emotionally, to look after hundreds or even thousands of people all day every day. Most community managers don't get a lot of downtime. They take meetings all day, work on event logistics, or community programs, then host events or do talks a few nights a week. It's a lot. So to all the community managers out there, you're awesome. Make sure you take care of yourself and take some downtime.

What's the interesting community that you've been part of and why did you decide to join?

This sounds like bullshit, but Trends is number one. I would be a member even if I didn't work here. Interestingly though, I haven't been part of many communities in my life. I grew up moving around (30+ houses, 20-ish schools). That's part of the reason this work is special to me now. I grew up without it.

Follow Ethan Brooks on Twitter.

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