What I’ve Learned as a Serial (Community) Founder: The Community Life Cycle

During my presentation this past weekend in Paris, I focused on the various stages of community and how the leadership roles and individual member roles change and shift over time. If you haven’t been following me long, you might think I’ve been involved mainly in the WordPress community. I’ve never founded a company but I’ve been a founder of several communities. I’ve enabled and participated in the entire community life cycle again and again.

As you’ll see in the three examples I mention below, I have founded communities which still live today. They live without me, a founder, and they are successful and thriving, even. One of the most important lessons as a founder is preparing for and learning to let go as a natural part of your community’s success.

Why me? And why community?


During my MBA program, there actually weren’t any existing student organizations for networking or any other reason, due in part to the fact the program was almost entirely full-time workers doing their MBA over several years without a lot of spare time. But there was a need for networking and I was a founding officer of the first organization, the Women in Business, and I went on to be the President the year after. I founded and led a team for the first student-run conference through the group and the 13th conference is being planned for 2015.


After years of working in technology and living in Italy, I was surprised at the lack of networking for networking’s sake and found it difficult to meet other women in technology in Milan. Luckily, I wasn’t alone as I went on to found the Girl Geek Dinners Milan with five other amazing women. I organized more than a dozen networking events for hundreds of attendees at a time, over the course of three years. The group is still going strong and just organized their 32nd event.


And eight years ago, I had a crazy idea that there should be a world holiday celebrating Nutella. The idea took off, and years later thousands and thousands of people are part of the community, and many thousands more are celebrating it on their own, never knowing that one person one day had a nutty idea over email before it became a reality. I actually recently just transferred the custodian of the community to Ferrero because, as I’ll talk about later, the community will have a much longer life this way, and it wasn’t really about me, in any case. Without going into great detail (I’ll save that for another post), the community has grown so much larger than me and my idea, and that’s amazing!

So that’s why me. And why community.

There are several important stages in communities, with notable shifts in how founding leadership and individual members’ contributions change over time.


Stage 1: Inception

The idea for the community is driven by a need: a need for information, support, recreation, or relationships. In the above examples, each need is different (though probably more similar than some communities since I’m the common factor) — Networking…exchanging of information and ideas…job search…just a love of a chocolaty spread. The needs are endless.


Stage 1 Leadership: The role of leadership by the founders is very strong, and the majority of time is spent validating the idea (Is this a good idea? Is the need valid? Are there enough people out there who might feel the same?), and forming the nucleus of the idea’s center in terms of vision and how it will be supported by the people involved. A lot of time is spent on consensus because if the initial leadership can’t agree on something, it’s off to a rocky start. A founder may decide not to continue. There’s a slight division of roles and that may boil down to expertise (one person can create the website, one can make the logo) or just for speed/interest in launching the community.


Stage 1 Community: The community is tightly integrated and aligned, and may even only consist of a single person or few people, namely the founders. The community isn’t participatory at this point, and mostly concentrated on foundation / leadership work.

Inception is a time when you really want to focus on the “why” – why are we doing this? What’s the need? How will we know if we’re successful? Where will we start? Who will be our immediate allies & next members? What problems can we anticipate and circumvent?


Stage 2: Growth: Creation and Launch

This idea/community is now ready to grow and is soft-launched or officially launched in order to gain membership.


Stage 2 Leadership: The leadership is very present at this stage, and introduces and reinforces the vision of the community. They will reach out personally to those closest to the community’s mission to become members, and they are actively participating in the community through creating and sharing content and information. The role of leadership at this stage is also to encourage as much participation, empowerment, and ownership at the individual level as possible, in line with the community’s mission and culture, of course. New leadership roles and ownership will emerge or be solicited, and officially recognized. The creation and consumption of information is transitioning from a broadcast model (leaders -> community members) to more peer-to-peer.

At the Growth stage, I think it’s important to make sure you’re providing a sliding scale of participation opportunities for people to get involved. Not everyone has to run a subcommittee – some will just be happy to hand out t-shirts. Make sure it’s transparent how to get involved and be ready to welcome people on a rolling basis. Getting access to information and updates should be easy for community members and you should provide several methods for people to stay updated. A tight moderation of the community, reinforcing its values and acceptable communication styles should be undertaken by leaders so that new members will be more likely to encounter a welcoming environment, and other members should be encouraged and empowered to fix ‘broken windows’ and keep the culture healthy.


Stage 2 Community: At this stage, effort is concentrated on community members interacting, and spreading the word to attract new community members. The input and information provided by the founders is key, but members may start to create and contribute. A large portion of the community will only consume information but still be considered active members.


Stage 3: Maturity / Self-Sustaining


Stage 3 Leadership: The influence and importance of the founders has waned, and it is rather the vision and mission they have embraced which sustain the community. Leadership is decentralized and many roles are empowered to contribute and enact change. Leaders will focus on more macro-level activities (do we have access to the resources / experts / information / activities to sustain the community?) rather than daily tasks. If there’s a change in the original leadership team/founders, the community is strong enough to continue.

At this point, I believe in many cases it’s a great idea for the founders/leaders to be focused on their exit strategy. I have seen communities being strangled by the reluctance or inability of the leaders to let go (see Stage 4: Death) and it’s important to remember that a community is not about you, the founder. It’s not a fan club. It’s healthy and important to think of how to bring in new leaders and to think of your own exit strategy. This is something I’m particularly focused on, as I know my own interests and passions wane over time so I want to step back from something while it’s still interesting and I can transfer my enthusiasm to the next group of leaders, ensuring a smooth transition. The community shouldn’t be affected by a change in leadership if it’s in the mature stage. Alternatively, having multiple exit routes for fellow leaders like: sabbaticals, advisory roles, honorary members, and routine leadership changes will also encourage others to step down gracefully and/or take a different kind of role which will better match their interests and time availability.


Stage 3 Community: At this point the community is reaching its full potential, and requires little intervention by leaders to sustain it on a day-to-day basis. Individuals have shaped the culture and also formed their own identities and relationships amongst each other. Subtopics and subgroups form to focus on specific topics or concerns within the original community’s charter. These groups may also have their own mini-cycle of a community, going back to stage 1 but inheriting the original community’s vision.


What’s next?

Maybe nothing! It’s not a requirement that a community move onto one of these other stages. A mature and self-sustaining community is a success, and it can remain in this stage for a long time, if you’re lucky. Special attention should be paid, however, to waning participation and engagement levels across the community, and the continued importance of cycling old and new members to keep the community’s activity healthy.


Stage 4A: Mitosis.

Though the scientific definition of mitosis is when a cell splits into two identical cells, when talking about community this can be when part of the existing community breaks off to do something else. For this life cycle, I don’t consider subgroups to be mitosis as long as they are under the original purpose of the community and/or still participating in the original community. Subgroups and niches are a natural part of a mature community, and are part of increased engagement and a larger community.

Actual mitosis may occur if there is unrest in leadership and/or purpose and a group may decide to break off and do a completely different community. This new leadership and new community will undergo then its own community life cycle from inception onward.


Stage 4B: Death.

A community dies off when engagement and membership decline significantly. The death of a community can be for several reasons, and it can happen at any time. Sometimes the cause of death of the community can be considered ‘natural,’ such as when the original need for the community has been met or satisfied.

It’s a shame when a community dies for unnatural causes, and I believe the responsibility of the founders and leadership is to reach Stage 3: Maturity and not inhibit or hinder growth by encouraging decentralized ownership and responsibility of the community members over time.

The community members will ultimately decide if the community is a vibrant one. The leadership can just hope to do all to enable the community to sustain that growth and maturity.


My full presentation:


Siobhan and I presenting – image by kinetoskop

The video of our presentation:

This presentation was part of a two-part presentation, and my part was followed up by the lovely Siobhan McKeown who went into more detail about WordPress’ specific community history. Images by Sara Rosso & Death to the Stock Photo

Categories: A Guide To, Presentations

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / WordPress.com. Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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