How to Prove You're Building the Right Community Using the Customer Development Model

Danya Cheskis-Gold
May 6, 2014
February 21, 2024

We don’t always know best.

We community managers, we CEOs, we designers, we the builders.

Ever start a Facebook group where no one participated? Ever craft an ambassador program that no one applied for? Ever spend hours coordinating an event and only have a few people show up? I have.

Communities, like products, fail when we don’t develop and understand the members first. We go heads down building and when we pick our heads up for air, we realize no one needs what we’ve built.

Customer Development is about checking our theories against reality to make sure what we plan to build is actually valuable. And it matters just as much for communities as it does for products.

Customer Development is about them, not you. It’s about learning before and while you execute. Ultimately, it’s about finding what I call Community-Market-Fit.

A bit of history & attribution:

Steve Blank, serial entrepreneur, prolific writer, and academician, is credited with developing the Customer Development model. You can learn the key steps to this process in his Udacity class. It looks like this:


Eric Ries, Marc Andreesen, VentureHacks, and others have carried the torch.In this series, we’ll cover how to adapt the Customer Development model to community building. Let's dig in...

1. Get Out of the Building and Start Learning

Through quantitative & qualitative methods, you can test your hypotheses about the problems your community is facing and the community programs that you think will solve those problems.

These insights can be gathered through various channels at multiple times, from social media to forums to events to surveys.

This is what you do to “start finding out whether your dream is a vision or a delusion,” says Steve Blank. From the get-go, you can start learning who the customers of your product (or the members of your community) might be, how you’ll reach them, and what they’ll ultimately need.

How we did it at Spark Capital

When I joined Spark Capital, an early stage venture capital firm that’s invested in startups like Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare, my charge was to help our organization succeed in its mission to partner with exceptional entrepreneurs seeking to build disruptive, world-changing companies.

As our first Director of Community, I had a blank canvas with a lot of options for building our community. The challenge was figuring out where to start.

I knew that a core function of my role would be to build a supportive community for the entrepreneurs in our 65+ portfolio companies, but I had lots of questions.

  • Should I be supporting just the CEOs or other people at our startups, as well?
  • Are our entrepreneurs already talking to each other?
  • If so, where and what are they discussing?

The list of questions went on for a while…Before starting private Facebook groups, planning big budget events, or blasting our companies with newsletters, I channeled Steve, Eric, and my other Customer Development heros and got out of the building. Literally.

Meet them where they are

I personally visited as many of our companies in Boston, San Francisco, and New York as I could. I met with CEOs & founders, primarily. I asked them questions like:

  • What’s your biggest pain point as an entrepreneur right now?
  • What are you currently doing to solve that problem?
  • Then I asked them how we could help and got feedback on my assumptions.

After visiting over a third of our companies and speaking with their CEOs, I was able to uncover a couple common themes:

  1. a desire for more peer-to-peer connections and emotional support and
  2. the need for more time

I had to ask “why” about 5 times about the need for more time. I couldn’t magically add more hours to our CEOs’ days! I eventually learned that “I need more time” meant something like “I’m climbing a super steep learning curve and executing as I go. I need help accelerating the learning process and my company’s path to success.”But I still wasn’t confident enough to take action - my sample size was too small and my data was all qualitative.

Confirm your hunches with data

As Eric Ries says, “Most normal customers...don’t participate heavily in forums, and they don’t send email when they are dissatisfied. They are largely invisible in the normal channels where customer service and community management pays attention. But that doesn’t mean they are not aware of what’s going on, or that they don’t care deeply about it.”

With a survey, I was able to reach more people, like our companies in Israel, London, and LA, as well as non-CEO senior leaders at our startups. This increased sample size made me feel more confident that I was listening to the needs of our entire portfolio, not just a select few, vocal individuals.

I was also able to ask actionable questions like:

  • Other than CEO / founder events, for which job functions would you like us to prioritize events?
  • Of the following 10 event formats (i.e., breakfast, lunch, Google Hangouts), which 2 do you most prefer?
  • Here’s a list of timeless topics (i.e., driving sales, interviewing candidates, branding positioning and messaging). Which 5 are of most interest?
  • In which format would you like us to share information and resources?

The survey results revealed information like:

  • brand positioning and goal-setting are the most popular topics of interest to our companies
  • in-person evening events or all-day summits are the most preferred event formats for our entrepreneurs
  • newsletters are the preferred method of information & resource sharing among the portfolio

2. Identifying Your Market & Your "MVC"

Now that you've learned more about the problem you’re hoping to solve, who struggles with that issue, and the solutions that might work for them, you’ll get closer and closer to your MVC (Minimum Viable Community).

Your Minimum Viable Community (MVC) is the minimum feature set required to get early community members on board.

This isn’t about listening to as many potential community members as possible and implementing everything they request. Instead, take a stab at just one or two initiatives that your initial research suggests will be successful, then observe how effective they are.

Rather than spend months building out a splashy community strategy, platform, or program that might fall flat, start simple and prove to yourself that you’ve got something worth expanding upon.

How we did it at Spark Capital

Now that I had my qualitative and quantitative insights, I assembled V.1 of my community strategy for Spark Capital’s entrepreneurs. Here's what we came up with:

Google Groups

I learned that my market was, indeed, broader than just our portfolio company CEOs. It included employees at those startups, as well. So, to connect our entrepreneurs to each other, I created a Google Group for each job function that I heard needed the most support. These listservs would allow members to connect and to share tactical questions and advice.

I chose Google Groups rather than onboarding everyone onto a Yammer or Facebook group because it was easy to set up quickly and was native to their daily communication process. I knew I could always upgrade us to a more sophisticated platform later but I wanted to confirm that our entrepreneurs would join a group and converse with their peers first.

Social and Skill-Based Events

I kicked off two event series to connect our entrepreneurs to more peers and to help them speed up their learning curve:

  1. Sparkies Anonymous - quarterly breakfasts organized by our entrepreneurs for our entrepreneurs (no one from our team attends, which allows attendees to be entirely candid!)
  2. The Spark Sessions - quarterly skill-based workshops that combine expert advice and actionable workshopping

Portfolio Wiki

I built a simple Google Site that serves as an information and resource portal with lists of helpful service providers and tool recommendations, as well as templates and strategy docs.

Not everything has worked, and some of my initiatives have taken off faster than others. But, the most important part is that more than 75% of our companies have joined our Google Groups and attended our events which is strong validation that the strategy is working.

By listening to our community first, I knew what they were looking for and could kick off a program that they’d actually find valuable.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg

We've identified a problem worth solving and engaged our “early customers,” but we're still defining the right “minimum viable community” to build. It’s the iteration and testing that we continue to do that will determine the scalability and long-term success of our efforts.

Once you’ve got your early, passionate community advocates, you can start planning out a roadmap for community growth. The ultimate goal is scalability, but customer development never ends for a community professional.

You’ll always want to learn and iterate before launching a new platform or event. This requires that you have a criteria for success for your tests.

For instance, if you already have a global community and would like to create an new ongoing series of Google Hangout “lectures” with influencers, try one Google Hangout with a targeted group of attendees. How many people attend? How hard do you have to try to get them to join? How many test Hangouts do you have to try to know what the most attractive content is?

You should always know what success looks like before spending time and effort on an ongoing series.

Have any questions or an example of your own to share? Post a comment below!


Editors Note: Danya will be speaking at the upcoming CMX Summit on June 12-13 about the subject of customer development for communities. It's a talk you definitely don't want to miss.

Register now

Don't wait! Space is limited.

Photo cred: ernestopletsch

Danya Cheskis-Gold
May 6, 2014
February 21, 2024

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