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Cindy Au

Director, Community & Engagement at Brainly
October 29, 2020

Alex - How did you go about building and scaling community at an early stage startup? What were some unique struggles you faced?

Hi Alex, I love this question! Outside of my current role, I've pretty much only built communities at early stage startups. It's a different ride each time, but I'll share a story from Kickstarter for this question :)

When I joined Kickstarter in 2010, we were a company of 9 people. There were at most a few hundred projects on the site, and maybe a thousand people had ever given money to a campaign. Kickstarter's founders had an early community of artists and musicians that they brought with them to the site, but beyond that there was no clear sense of who our community was, nor what it would really mean to build a community.

One very early community mistake I like to share is our first attempt at a Kickstarter meetup. We sent an email to everyone who had ever created a project, gave them the address to a bar, and said come and join us for some drinks! Well, about 10 people showed up, none of them had anything in common, and most actually came to let us know in person that they were frustrated with our product, our policies, etc. Total disaster.

It seems so obvious now how we did everything wrong, but it's the classic mistake of thinking that because people have used your product, they are somehow a community. They are not - at least not until you invest in understanding their motivations and what it is that actually connects your users.

So we learned and evolved, and frankly, our users were the ones who led the way. They came to us with their needs as different types of creators, and it became super clear that we actually had many distinct communities on Kickstarter - filmmakers, musicians, game developers, startup founders, writers, dancers, comic book creators, etc - and each of the communities needed different things from us.

We started focusing on building communities around these different creative verticals, and it allowed each to thrive independently of the other, while still benefiting the ecosystem as a whole and creating a scalable growth model that was entirely community-driven. More people creating great projects = more visibility for Kickstarter as a whole = more audience for future creators = more people creating great projects.

Segmenting our community enabled us to scale - we hired a CM for each vertical, and for the most part, that structure still exists today despite the fact that the site has grown to tens of millions of users.

What I loved about this approach is that it enabled different communities to have their own unique identities within Kickstarter. Startups saw us as a place to raise millions, while musicians saw us as a place to promote their new album, and artists saw us a place to create their own residencies. It didn't matter if you came to raise $500 for a side project or $1 million to start a company. We could be all these things - exactly what each community needed - simultaneously.

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