buildings

Today I was listening to an episode of the Reboot Podcast (highly recommended for founders/CEO’s). This one was with my friend Tracy Lawrence, CEO of Chewse. Tracy was also my mentor during the 500 Startups program when I participated a couple years ago so I was particularly excited to listen to this episode.

There was one part of the podcast that really resonated with me. Tracy was talking about the kind of company that she’s trying to build and told the story of one investor email she received while raising their A round. The investor had cut off conversations quickly before even meeting the team and sent her an email saying “I just don’t think that you’re out for blood”.

Tracy shared how this email tormented her. “It tore me up”, she said. “I took it personally”. Of all the rejection she’s received while fundraising, this one stuck with her.

This is a really important subject that probably isn’t talked about nearly enough in the startup world.

Out for Blood vs Out for Love

There are two narratives that you often hear, sometime simultaneously, that seem to be at odds with each other.

The first narrative, which especially comes into play when fundraising, is the one that Tracy describes in her story. It’s this idea that you will stop at nothing. You have to want to *crush it* every day. It’s the hustle, the grind, the “get shit done”. It’s being out for blood. And it’s the idea that if you don’t have this take no prisoners approach, you just won’t make it in the business world.

The second narrative, one that I think is becoming more popular, is that of an impact-driven company. It’s a focus on building a company that has a vision for how to improve the world and a mission to create that change. It’s a company built on love. A company that investors, employees, customers and everyone it touches loves.

This is a topic I think about often and struggle with as a founder.

The reality is, I’m not that first narrative. I’m not out for blood. I don’t think I ever can be. Am I hungry? Yes. Am I ambitious? You bet ya. Will I work my ass off to make my company successful and create the change I want to see int he world? Yes and yes.

But I am not out for blood? No. I am not interested in leaving people in my wake.

Will I stop at nothing? No. If at any point I felt like I was doing real harm to myself, to the world or the people that my company touched, I would stop. If we couldn’t be mission driven anymore and come from a place of love, I would stop.

Not being out for blood doesn’t mean that you’re not a hard worker or that you won’t give your company everything you’ve got in the tank and then some.

Sometimes I catch myself wishing differently. I wish I could be one of those founders who will destroy competitors and not give a shit about anyone or anything who gets in the way of my company’s success. It’s tempting. It feels like a position of power. It feels like those are the people who win.

But when I can step back and see the bigger picture I realize a few things:

  1. That’s not me. It’s not in my bones. I think about who I want to be and the best version of myself, and these characteristics are nowhere to be seen.
  2. I’m only seeing the surface of those peoples’ success. I’m not seeing the physical, emotional or mental pain they’re putting themselves through in order to take that path.
  3. Everything is a learning process and things aren’t always black and white. There are stories of Mark Zuckerberg fucking over his cofounders in the early days and now there are stories of him donating 99% of his income. Would he have done it the same way given the opportunity? I imagine he would have altered some things.

There are certainly things I would have done differently in my career as an entrepreneur and there are decisions I’ve made that negatively impacted people. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions that hurt someone. You have to fire people, you have to end partnerships, you have to choose who to give your time to and who not to. This is the reality of building a business.

I think as long as you can always come from a place of love and try to do what’s right by people, you’re on the right track. At least if you’re like me. Being “out for blood” may be more your style. That’s fine. I’m just not going to be interested in doing business with you.

Tracy responded to the investor’s email and she said, “You know what, I’m not out for blood. I want to build a company that people love.”

I think I might just have to print that out so I can remind myself every day that that’s okay.

group on mountain

This is post #7 in my 365 Day Writing Challenge. Want to follow along? Subscribe here.


 

Did you know that the usage of Facebook Groups has increased by 50% in the last two years?

More than 925 million people now use the product each month — a number previously unreleased — up from 850 million just three months ago. And about 60% of Facebook’s monthly active users are also Groups monthly active users, up from around 40% two years ago. –, BuzzFeed

It makes sense. Social media is reaching a critical point of connectedness. Remember the days when it meant something to be someone’s facebook friend? It used to be exciting to be connected, but now being connected is the norm. Our social streams are overflowing with content from every person that we have even the smallest personal connection with.

Being connected is no longer compelling to people. It’s expected. And a stream of updates from the people you’re connected to is not longer valuable. We have too many connections, with too many people, from too many different parts of our life. Your coworkers, family, friends, people you knew from college, that guy you met at the wedding, the group of girls you hung out with for three days on your trip to Italy…they’re all in the same stream. It’s just not relevant anymore.

As a result, people are now looking to more focused, more intimate community experiences.

Seeking community is core to the human condition. We evolved because of our ability to survive through collaboration. The Smithsonian explains the origins of social life for humans, “Some groups of early humans began collecting tools and food from a variety of places and bringing them to favored resting and eating spots. Sharing vital resources with other members of the group led to stronger social  bonds and enhanced the group’s chances of survival”.

We will always seek to participate in communities, to find a sense of belonging with a core group that will make us feel mentally, emotionally and physically safe.

This is why people flocked to social media in the first place. It’s this human need that made it possible for these platforms to grow so quickly.

Now that same need is driving what I think will be the next iteration of the digital revolution. The first iteration made information widely accessible. The next iteration made socialization widely accessible. Now, community and collaboration will be the theme of the next decade.

Facebook isn’t the only example of this happening. Look around. Slack has quickly become a huge platform not just for teams, but for external communities. The tool isn’t even built for external communities but people are forcing it to be used because of their strong need to find more intimate experiences. NextDoor, Reddit, Meetup… they’re all creating opportunities for more intimate experiences.

In 2014, Forrester predicted that as social media matures, branded communities would make a comeback in 2015. They were right.

The impact of this shift for business is immense. The relationship between companies and customers is changing as customers continue to seek out opportunities for intimate social experiences. The barriers between companies and customers will break down even farther than they already have thanks to social media. Customers no longer want to just consume, they want to feel like they’re a part of something and that they’re aligned with your mission.

Many companies have already identified the trend and embraced it. Lyft, since it’s start, has provided local online communities for their drivers (using facebook groups). Udemy also uses facebook groups as a place for their teachers to connect and support each other. Airbnb originally built their own community groups platform for all their users to connect around their common interest. Now they’ve replaced it with a more cohesive Community Center.

These are just a few of the hundreds of examples we’re starting to see of companies investing in community and seeing impact on retention, acquisition and revenue as a result.

How will your company adapt to the future of community driven business?

 

This is post #5 in my 365 Day Writing Challenge. Want to follow along? Subscribe here.


 

The word community is thrown around a lot.  If you ask 100 people what community is you’ll likely get 100 different answers.

In the context of business the term community is used a lot to describe a lot of things. I’ve talked many times about the difference between an audience and a community. I’m often the first to call someone out when I feel they’re calling something a community that isn’t.

Where the lines get blurry is when you have a group of people who are interacting on an ongoing basis, but aren’t really forming any relationships, a sense of belonging or a sense of identity.

Without these things, is a group truly a community? A lot of people try to draw a line in the sand and see it as a yes or no situation. I myself have looked at it as black and white many times.

But maybe that’s not right. Maybe it isn’t such a clear distinction.

Maybe Community Lives on a Spectrum

If that’s true, it’s less about what is or isn’t a community and more about the level of community that a group is experiencing.

Consider a few scenarios:

  • Say you have a group of people who have a common interest but aren’t interacting, forming relationships, feeling a sense of belonging and have no shared identity as part of the group, then it is a weak community.
  • Say you have a group of people who have a common interest and are interacting and helping each other, but the community feels purely transactional and there’s little sense of belonging and identity, perhaps it’s still a community, just not a very strong one. 
  • Say you have a group of people who do feel a sense of belonging and shared identity, and are clearly exhibiting all the elements of a sense of community, then you have a strong community.

Let’s Look at it in the Business Context

There are a lot of companies who use the word community in many different ways. We often tell them they’re wrong, that what they have isn’t community at all. But maybe they do have a community, it’s just a really weak one.

Let’s take a few scenarios again:

  • Say you have a blog and newsletter with a lot of followers but none of those people are interacting with each other or feeling a sense of belonging. You have a very weak community. 
  • Say you have a support form where members are actively helping each other and answering questions, but they don’t really feel a strong sense of belonging or identity, then the community is mainly transactional. It’s a weak community. Still a community, just not a super strong one.
  • Say you have a group of customers who regularly meet up with each other for events, who identity as a member of the group or as a lover of the brand and who feel a strong sense of belonging amongst the group. You have a strong community.

Inactive vs Transactional vs Emotional 

If I could simplify the spectrum into three distinct, this would be it.

1. Inactive: No interaction, only consuming (aka an audience)

2. Transactional: Interaction for extrinsic value

3. Emotional: Interaction for intrinsic value

If you have a lot of people listening to you but they aren’t interacting with each other at all, what you have is an inactive community. The good news is, communities are built on trust and influence, and if they’re listening to you that means they have some level of trust. So this can be the start of a community.

There are a lot of business support forums, groups and events that are much more transactional than emotional. The members are there mostly to get the value they need, like an answer to a question or an introduction, and then they leave. They don’t form any bonds with other members.

That’s okay! It’s still super valuable and can create a lot of value for both members and the company.

The thing is they typically aren’t very sustainable, take a lot of facilitation and the value stops at the extrinsic level. Members haven’t adopted a social identity, so they won’t be motivated to improve or grow the community.

Then there are some businesses who have been able to built a community on the emotional level. In this case, members are getting the transactional, or extrinsic value, but they’re also getting something much more valuable, a strong sense of belonging.

It’s these communities that can last for decades. It’s these communities that make people not just like a brand, not just love a brand but actually integrate the brand into their identity.

In any strong, truly successful community, you’ll see that value exchange. There are the common examples of this like Apple and Harley Davidson whose success can largely be attributed to their ability to form a sense of identity around their brand and mission. There are also less talked about examples like Yelp, who formed the Yelp Elite to unite and reward their most loyal contributors. The core members of Reddit identify so strongly with the community that they’ve stuck around for years and there’s an extreme emotional reaction when the culture is threatened.

Here’s another mind blower…

Every Healthy Community Usually Has all Three Levels!

There’s almost always a core group of people who feel a strong sense of belonging and are highly committed to the community. Then there’s a middle layer of people who are participating and may feel like they’re a part of the group, but not as strongly. Then there’s an outside layer of people who are just consuming, not really participating and are largely inactive.

And they’re all part of the process. You need to get people to listen to you in order for them to know about the community in the first place. Then you need transactional, or extrinsic value, to convince them to join. And only after they’ve joined can they start to form a sense of shared identity and feel a sense of belonging.

To visualize it, every community looks something like this.

Should the ultimate goal for every business be to build a community that reaches the emotional level? I’m not sure. I think a lot will strop at the transactional level and be happy with that. But they’re missing out on a lot of value.

This is post #4 in my 365 Writing Challenge. Subscribe to follow along.


When someone asks for advice for how to build a community for their business I always start by asking the same two questions:

  1. Why is community valuable to your business?
  2. Why is community valuable to your potential community members?

I think those are the most important two questions that a business has to answer. And it’s scary how often they don’t even think about it before they start building their community.

Why is community valuable to your business?

At the end of the day you’re building a business and your community has to achieve your business goals. So before you start building a community you have to understand exactly what those business goals are.

Where will community fit into your business? Will it drive acquisition? Product feedback? Support? Customer success? Content?

Take it further. How will you tie community back to the bottom line? How will it drive revenue or reduce costs?

Get as specific as possible before you get started, not after.

Why is community valuable to your potential members?

A lot of companies will figure out the value that community can bring to their business, but they completely forget about whether or not a community will actually be valuable to their customers.

Communities are built for motivations, not outcomes. If your members aren’t actually motivated to interact with each other and contribute, they won’t create the value that you expect for your business.

Do you truly understand your potential members? Do you understand their sense of identity? Do they feel isolated? Where are they going to connect with people like them?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions and you have no idea if a community will actually be valuable to the potential members, your top priority should be to figure it out. Start conducting interviews, send out surveys, research existing communities… learn as much as possible. You should be able to form personas of your potential community members that will help you form a clear hypothesis for how they’ll participate in the community.

Now Align those Two Value Points

Now that you understand the value that your community will bring to your business and the value that your community will bring to your members, do those two things align?

If you want your community to create content for your website, but the way they want to communicate is in private, the values are misaligned.

If you want your community to give you product feedback but they have no interest in doing that, your value is misaligned.

Align the value to your business with the value to your community members and you’ll be on your way.

This is post #3 in my 365 Writing Challenge. Subscribe to follow along.


It was Sunday, November 17th, 2013 when Max Altschuler and I sat down at the W Hotel in SOMA to watch football and discuss an idea for a new conference. A couple hours later, we shook hands and decided that we’re going to give this CMX Summit thing a shot.

I remember being really afraid. I had never run a conference before and had no idea where to begin putting one together. There had also never been a community focused conference at the scale of what I envisioned before. I wasn’t sure if we could pull it off.

Two years later, I couldn’t have possibly imagined how far it would have come. We have now hosted 5 conferences totaling over 1500 attendees, launched our publication that has reached over 130,000 professionals and brought in over half a million dollars in revenue (and a little less than half a million in costs). We’ve done this all completely bootstrapped with a team of 2 (at a time).

Today I’m proud to say the community industry looks significantly different than when we started.

There are more companies investing in community than ever before and community professionals are starting to see their work as part of a larger discipline. The amount of confusion around what community means for business is on the decline. And businesses are generating insane amounts of value for their business and customers through community programs.

We certainly don’t claim responsibility for all of the advancements in the space as we’re just one of many key players, but I’m very confident that the hard work our team put in has had a significant impact on the direction, definition and perception of the community industry.

CMX’s existence certainly hasn’t been with extreme struggles however.

Our first NYC conference almost completely flopped, and we almost lost $50,000. We were able to get it to just over break even by making some big last minute changes and bringing on some last minute partners who went to bat for us when it mattered most. It was one of the scariest times of my entrepreneurial career. CMX being completely bootstrapped, that $50k deficit would have come out of our pockets, put us in debt and probably ended the company. Until a couple months ago, all of my credit cards have been maxed out and I wasn’t taking a salary (I got paid when the company made money).

As a founder and CEO, I’ve found myself tested over and over again in more ways than I’ve ever had before. After one year, my cofounder Max decided to switch his focus to his other company Sales Hacker because it was doing really well and that’s where his real passion is. I fully support his decision Max is still an active advisor for CMX, but I’ve definitely felt his absence. Being a solo-founder has been an incredible weight and a huge learning experience.

In this time, I’ve become acutely aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. As is often the case for early stage CEO’s, my weaknesses can become the strengths and weaknesses of our company. Luckily CMX has had the help of amazing people along the way, namely Carrie Jones who started out contracting for CMX, and has grown to become a true partner and part of the heart of this company. She’s one of the most passionate and driven people I’ve ever worked with. She compliments my weaknesses in many ways, without which CMX would look very different today. I’m incredibly grateful to have her on the CMX team.

With all this,  I wanted to take a minute to reflect on some of the hard lessons learned from challenges I and CMX have faced.

I’ll also share some of our plans for the future at the end of this post.

Let’s dig in…

Lesson 1: Leadership is a Moving Target

Yesterday I wrote about my own ambitions to become a better leader. The tough thing about leadership is the game is always changing. What makes a great leader one day may be completely different the next. Especially as your team grows and your company matures, your expectations as a leader will change.

There are some aspects of leadership that come very natural to me. I’m good at getting people really excited about the community industry and I have my moments of storytelling greatness. Where I struggle is in having a clear plan (I’m more of a freestyle type) and so without a clear plan, it’s hard to have conviction for that plan. Without conviction, you can’t earn respect and leadership is all about respect.

This year our theme will be discipline. Being disciplined in our routines, in our plans and in our conviction to those plans.

When you’re in a leadership position, just remember that the game is always changing and you don’t always have to have all the answers. What’s important is that you’re clear about your plan and your values, and that you have conviction for those values. They’re the one thing that should remain steady.

Lesson 2: Writing your Values Down isn’t Enough

We have a super clear vision and mission at CMX (see here). We reference it constantly and it serves as our north star. We also have a doc of our values, but we haven’t has as much success applying them to our work. I take a lot of inspiration from companies like Buffer and Zappos who live and breathe their values.

They each have a page laying out all of their values, and so that’s what we did too. The thing is, that’s not enough. I think we’ve failed to really integrate our values for two reasons:

  1. Our values sound nice but aren’t really unique to our culture and personality
  2. More importantly, we don’t hold ourselves accountable to applying our values

The first one is a more obvious issue, though apparently it wasn’t obvious enough for us to fix it until now. Simply put, don’t just put words down that sound nice. Choose values that really speak to who you are, what makes you unique, what makes your weird, and paints a picture of the best possible version of your organization.

The second one is where most fail with values. You write them down and they sit there in a google doc, rarely looked at again. How can you make them something that bleeds into everything you do? How do you integrate your values into every decision your team makes, every interaction they have and every product they build?

A few ways we’ll be working to improve this:

  • Actually print them out so you see them every day
  • Specify how to apply your values in your daily activities
  • Ask team members to share how they’re applying the values to their work
  • Review them with every person you interview and revisit them with every employee regularly
  • Give props to your teammates when they exhibit your values

Lesson 3: You Need Deliberate Communication Rituals

Communication is an area we will always be working on improving. I’m a firm believer that communication is the most important part of building a company.

When you fail at communication, you become less efficient, you move slower and you risk negativity going unnoticed.

I’m an extremely open person. I get a rush from being transparent. If you ask me anything I’ll give you an honest and open answer. Because of that, I figured that communication in our company would be good. I could breed a culture of transparency. Wrong…it doesn’t just happen. You need to make communication happen. You need to create a space for it.

I learned this lesson very clearly with the help of my team. Early last year we were all working very hard and I was pretty heads down all the time getting stuff done. The thing is, a lot of the work of the CEO isn’t seen by others. Setting up operations, managing financial docs, taking a lot of meetings with partners…these are all things that take a lot of time for me but my team had NO idea what I was actually doing on a daily basis.

We fixed this in with two processes:

  1. EVERYTHING goes in Asana and anyone on the team can see all the completed and upcoming tasks of other members of the team
  2. Daily updates in Slack where every morning, we share what we’re working on that day and how long each thing will take. We also share when we’re available to be interrupted that day and when we shouldn’t be disturbed

We’ve done other things to improve our communication. Our team does weekly 1-1’s which are focused on giving honest feedback and share our feelings openly. It’s tempting to start talking about projects instead, which happens often, but you have to try to avoid it.

We’ve also started doing team retreats twice a year. I hope that as our company grows, and we get more resources, we can invest more into these kinds of experiences as they’ve proven to be invaluable for team building and keeping the company direction on track.

This is still a work in progress for us. The daily updates are hard to stick to. I learned quickly that if I don’t do it, no one else will. So being disciplined and forming good habits is key for communication.

Creating more communication rituals is going to be a priority for us in 2016. We’re about to start trying this one for showing gratitude.

Lesson 4: Bootstrapping is a Slow Starter

I’m really proud that we’re bootstrapping CMX and that we’ve been making revenue since day one. Having been in the startup grind for 7 years, I’ve had my share of rapid growth startups, raising capital and pursuing the unicorn dream. This time, we’re doing it different.

I still have massive ambitions for CMX to be a fast growing, successful company. The reality is that bootstrapping a company makes it incredibly hard to grow quickly, simply because you can’t hire until you’re making enough money to pay them.

If you raise a million dollar seed round, you can build a core team of 4-6 people pretty quickly. The CMX team has remained at 2 people since we started. We’ve accomplished an incredible amount with such a small team. Of course we’ve had the help of some amazing advisors like Robin Spinks, Hiten Shah, George Arabian and Bastian Vidal, as well as contractors like the Reinventing Events team for conferences and devs and designers we outsource to, but the major bulk of the work done at CMX has had to be done by two people who are getting paid very little.

We’re two years in now and we’re just now getting to the point where we can comfortably hire 1-2 more people. We’re bringing on a few Global Partners next year who will help us fund our initiatives to advance the industry and that will help us give CMX the resources it really needs. Every day I still feel a temptation to go out there and raise more money from investors. Having more capital to play with would make life a lot easier. But it will also limit the kind of company we can build. Just because it’s easy doesn’t make it the right move.

Just know if you want to bootstrap your business, and you don’t have a boatload of your own cash that you can put into it, get ready for a long, slow grind.

 

Looking to the Future of CMX and the Community Industry

Heading into 2016 CMX is the strongest it’s ever been.

Financially we’re becoming more steady with the help of new products and partnerships that are bringing more predictable revenue. Moral is high and we’re planning to make some critical hires in the next couple months to grow the team. The CMX community is growing organically every day, and we’re seeing more members take on leadership positions to bring events to their own cities.

We’ve developed a lot of trust with the community industry and we still have a ways to go. We want to become indispensable to community professionals. Our focus is on creating as much value for them as possible. It drives every decision we make.

Because we’re bootstrapped and not a startup, we’re not expected to grow our profits exponentially, and can focus on growing CMX slowly and specifically. I’m incredibly proud to be building this kind of business. I expect CMX to be around for as long as the community industry exists and to be built on real value, and real revenue.

Now we’re ready to take CMX into the next phase of our long term strategy.

The last two years have been all about building the community. We put the priority on hosting events, building the online community and creating a ton of content for the community industry. We knew that the biggest thing the industry needed was a sense of unity and access to more information.

It’s put us in a good position where most in the industry know and trust us. We don’t take that trust lightly, and serving the community will always be what drives every decision we make.

Now that awareness and understanding of community strategy is increasing we can begin the next phase, establishing community as a discipline.

We already launched our first online training course, which sold out in a week and has a long waiting list. With that validation we’re going to continue to develop the industry’s most comprehensive education and certification program. This will be a huge step in legitimizing the industry and creating a set of standards for community professionals to live by.

In addition to online training, we will be building out our matchmaking program to help companies recruit world-class community talent and formalizing our consulting and workshop offerings to help companies plan and execute a complete community strategy.

Eventually our plan is to develop the technology that community professionals will use every day to be more efficient in their work. I don’t think the industry is quite there yet, but it’s getting there quickly and when it’s ready, we’ll be ready too.

Onward!