Building Community: Why Trust is a Money Can’t Buy Proposition

By Nicole O’Brien, CEO Fishburners

Creating a strong community has become the holy grail of customer relationships.

It’s little wonder that companies from small to large are investing strongly in community building. The 2020 Global Community Index found that, as communities evolve and mature, they become critical to their company’s mission and have a positive impact on their business outcomes. Almost two thirds of global respondents to this study (65%) say their organization will increase their budget for community next year.

Yet even though organizations are investing in community, the study also found that the type of metrics community professionals track “are often vanity measures.” Fewer than half of those who cite customer retention as a primary goal for their communities, are even tracking this as a metric. 

Long before the rush to cool corporate co-working spaces, the startup world was a vanguard of community-based work culture. With coworking becoming more mainstream, it raises important questions about the nature of community and ‘value-add’ in shared office spaces.

Can you buy your way into ‘community’ simply by cramming random teams into a trendy fit-out? Fishburners was one of the earliest brands in the startup community space in 2011 and we continue to house the largest community of startups in Australia. What we have learned over the past is there is no short-cut to building or scaling community. 

Creating community – the playbook

Community spaces go well beyond a real-estate deal. What are the metrics we should and can measure? Here’s what we know about building community as a sustainable practice:

  1. Your ‘why’ matters: Most successful startups begin with a passionate founder genuinely trying to solve a problem in their world – one which, if scaled, can have greater customer impact. Focusing purely on the metrics of world-domination is never a very sustainable strategy.  Likewise, successful community spaces often form organically when like-minded people with shared objectives coming together to create bigger benefits for all. That is certainly how Fishburners began – with entrepreneurs Pete Davison and Mike Casey starting with that end in mind.  Nine years on, that objective has not changed, we are stronger than ever and remain the largest community of startups in Australia. 
  1. (Truly) caring creates sharing:  Authentic community spaces create a genuine sense of trust, respect and a relaxed atmosphere between colleagues. In that kind of atmosphere, people talk and share – and collaboration occurs. Collaboration can create innovation outcomes and greater commercial opportunities for everyone. That’s only possible when the people operating in that space feel, over time, that the operators and their co-habitants have their best-interests at heart.  How do you judge that? A hundred different ways over time – trust builds from many small daily acts of contribution, honesty and transparency. 
  1. People first, profit second: Clearly it’s important to have a sustainable business model, however, when profit takes precedence over people that undermines trust and community. When members of a community start feeling like a number – specifically, just a number on a balance sheet – office space becomes purely a real estate transaction. 
  1. Value-adds over vanity-adds: Vanity measures are a recurring subject of debate within startup circles – for example, how much do bean-bags, table tennis tables and beer fridges really contribute to growth outcomes for startups.  Does office design and interiors alone create community? There’s nothing wrong with any of these benefits, however I would consider these a mere baseline to an office space decision for a start-up – not the main attraction. True value-adds include more substantial things such as expert lunch-and-learns, member-run workshops, weekly pitch nights, sport groups, in-house movie nights, out-of-office weekend trips and access to an extensive network of mentors, investors, media contacts, funding sources, potential customer funnels and the best tools and knowledge 
  1. Trust is not transferable: Once trust is established, it can’t be sold. Taking over, selling or rapidly scaling out a business model requires patience and keen attention to the cultural values that people signed up for when they joined. Community spaces don’t work ‘on paper’ – they exist and work because of the people in them, and that’s something you earn, not something you can ‘sell.’

At Fishburners, community building is an ongoing craft – one we are deeply committed to. We are still learning, but these are the insights we have gathered along the way. 

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