A strong community begins with genuine connections. These authentic links are crucial to building an engaged community, online or offline. Paras Pundir, CMX's 2020 Community Professional of the Year, is an expert in building genuine, connected communities. We spoke with him about his community-building experience and his advocacy for other community professionals.
Paras is a community enthusiast currently working as a Program Manager at Microsoft Reactor Bangalore, a tech community space. He also founded a community for community builders in India called Community Folks. Paras is on a mission to create awareness about community management and bring legitimacy to community professionals in the Indian ecosystem.
What makes Paras our Community Professional of the Year? In this interview, Paras shares his advice for finding what drives you, growing with your community, and building better communities by getting to know your people.
The first time I heard the words “community manager” was in 2013, from coworking spaces. Then in 2016, I joined a startup. Hackathons required a global community and I started building a community of developers and started multiple communities there. That was the first time I realized what community management was as a whole.
And then, it really happened when we started Community Folks, which is basically a group of community builders that started in 2017. Then it became my thing. That’s where I realized, “Oh wow, this is a whole new thing and why is nobody working on it at scale in India?” That’s where it all started.
It’s a Facebook group. That’s where I started. And that was the first proper platform we had in India, which was free initially. It’s a highly focused online and offline community. We had been doing once a month offline meetups before COVID, and then regularly interacting online. It’s pretty active. It’s a small but deeply connected tribe.
First thing is the trust of people. People really felt that what I was doing was very genuine. A lot of people, those not even in the community industry, not even a part of my community, they just knew. I'm the first source of information about community management as a profession. Their belief actually made me win this.
While I was actually reading this, I asked my roommate, “Why do you think I’m a good community builder?” He said, “You're a good human, I guess that's your major quality—that you are a good person. You're true to yourself. You really connect with people. You eventually help them solve their problems.”I feel that I'm very empathetic. I just connect with people without even talking to them. If I see some situation, I observe, I feel what they’re going through. So that's one thing which makes me truly connect with them.
The second thing is, I really believe in growing together. I just put my 100% in everyone. I help those people, those who don't want to help themselves. That makes me win their trust and that's why they are always around and they always believe in me. Empathy and keeping my belief of growing together, and being a pusher in people's lives. I'm not saying I'm a motivator. I'm a pusher. I just understand what they're not able to achieve and I just quickly break it down for them, “Let's just do this, so that you can go there.” I break things down in a very simple fashion.
Everyone has a word, a word that resonates with them. For me, it's "impact." Building community is like standing on the front line and being able to impact people.
I'm a computer science graduate—I am supposed to be coding. But rather than choosing that, I choose to bring coders together because I understand them. So I feel that my work creates a lot of impact in people's lives. When you impact them, the kind of energy which they reflect to you, the kind of positivity they give back to you, that acknowledgment, that's the happiness for me.
I guess ultimately it's happiness which is driving me every day, which comes through empowering and innovating people. Solving their problems by building and supporting communities is what drives me every day.
I'll just say something from the heart, which I really feel makes me do my job easily. If you are true to the cause that you're building this community for, you will eventually want to connect with members. You will want to talk to them.
I love football and my favorite club is Manchester United. I love to talk to any United fan anytime. I love to know their perspective before the game after the game, during the game. That's something that drives me. I love doing it. So I'll definitely pick up a community of football fans and United fans. I’m true to myself and I’m able to connect.
What community builders are missing is, they're not connecting with the members. My suggestion is, connect with one member a day. For the next whole year, 365 days. If you are able to connect with 250 of them, personally 1 to 1, you will know so much about your community.
Eventually, every strategy of yours will be affected by the learning you will have by knowing them. You will know who the right person is to connect with for what, who’s actually using the community, who’s contributing—you'll know everything. Whatever decision you make for the community will be perfect. People keep asking, “How do I engage my community?” You’re not able to do it because you’re not connecting for real. My suggestion is connect with one member a day for the next whole year and earn their trust, know them completely. You just have to know your people.
Eventually you will realize, “Am I doing the right thing?” If you feel that, “No these are not the right people, I’m not able to connect,” please leave the job and go to the next one where you really feel connected with the cause. Don't just pick up a job for the sake of a job. Community management is not like that. You need to be a doctor from the heart, not a doctor with the practice.
Community management has grown more than a hundred percent overall in the last year, because people realized the power of online communities. Every brand started talking about it. And when the top-notch thought leaders start talking about it, the knowledge comes down to everyone, all the founders, all the leaders.
So, eventually there was a buzz of community everywhere and everybody wanted to know and get involved. That has impacted the Indian ecosystem. There were a lot of new jobs coming up which started attracting a lot of youngsters. A lot of tech companies started hiring developer relations guys. A lot of other companies that are B2C started hiring community builders.
Those jobs which were created by these startups actually have grown the ecosystem. It has pulled in a lot of people. They’ve started calling themselves community managers. Their interests have grown from other sectors because they came to know, “Okay, there is a full-fledged sector as community manager.” People are doing it everywhere.
Which is a very happy thing for me, I'll say, because that's the purpose. I could have chosen to work for one company, but I was more inclined toward community management as a profession rather than just building a community for one brand.
Absolutely. People need to know. Somebody asks you, “What do you do?” And then I say, “I'm a community builder,” and then the whole story starts.
My schoolmates came to visit me on New Years. We were roaming around and talking to people, and when people asked, “Paras, what do you do?” They were like, I cannot tell about him. So it’s still clumsy. If I was a doctor, it would be so easy for them to say I’m a psychiatrist, or something else. I want to make it so easy for everyone.
If they understand that there is a lawyer, there's a doctor, there's an engineer, there's a developer. Then there’s a community builder who is there in every company and who is the pillar of the company. That's where I'm going personally, and that's where I want to see this whole ecosystem go.
Online events became a thing for everyone, but not all the community events were full of people. The reason for that was because there was a burnout of webinars and online sessions.
Your community will only come if they are strongly connected. So, you have to be very particular. Every time we have to plan an event, we have to be very particular about the content, and design it in a really nice and engaging manner and work more on the online front so that they connect with each other.
Those strategies have actually grown in 2020—to manage online communities and online events better. There was definitely a missing piece of not being able to catch up in real time. Which affected us in a positive manner, in the end. I don’t think it’s bad for our community. It's been quite good overall.
Because we were not able to connect with them offline, we started doing more recognition, more things which motivate members. Creating more giveaways and stuff like that, to just keep them and giving them more recognition toward the work.
If you read whatever is being shared online coming from abroad, not from India, most are strategies that work everywhere. But there are a few communities which are highly matured—those have been running more than a decade now. What works for them is not relatable for a lot of community builders in India, because this is the freshman year. The whole new crop is just coming up.
The kind of fertilizers this crop needs is totally different from someone who's doing it for 10 years. [Salesforce] Trailblazers is a decade-old community, and what they require will not be the same problems which the community builders are facing in India.
Here, the problems are very fresh. Like, how to continuously engage, how to take it international, how to start chapters and run them centrally and stuff like this. Those things are still here and our Indian communities are still getting into it.
The bigger problem is stakeholders, because they provide resources. They’re not very clear, and they’ve only heard about this buzzword that community is important. Why and how, they're not reading that much. They haven't seen the impact of any community within India. When there are not many examples, eventually what happens is people tend to not believe in that and not put much risk on that. So, as a community manager in India, you need to work harder to make the stakeholder understand why they need to invest.
My message to anyone who’s in the community industry is: don't worry. This is the future. You might not know what you're doing right now. But that's something which eventually everyone will look for. So just trust in it and believe in it and keep going.