What can the early days of Instagram teach us about the power of community?
“Although a community feels magical, when it shows up in your life, it doesn’t come together by magic.” So says Bailey Richardson, who has spent the second act of her career trying to repeatedly bottle up a bit of that magic so that groups of like-minded individuals can go from crowd to community. As one of the first 10 employees at Instagram, Bailey was wowed by the generosity and kindness that led early users to from Instameets around shared interests and hobbies.
Now she’s one of the principals at People & Company, a coaching organization (not a consultancy, she’s quick to point out) that helps organizations harness the power of community. She and her partners recently published Get Together, a book that distills key insights from some of their favorite projects and provides practical advice for how to jumpstart a passionate, engaged group.
She joined us on Inside Intercom for a chat that ranged from how to find meaning and fulfillment to why community is something you build with – instead of for – people. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:
- When evaluating clients, the biggest thing Bailey and her team look for is whether the organization is willing to give up control. To form a successful community, a company must be willing to collaborate, trust and empower its users and customers.
- Get to know your biggest fans. Find the people who are 10-out-of-10 passionate about your product or service, because they will evangelize your brand more powerfully than you can do alone.
- If you’re building a business that’s ultimately about you getting the biggest return and not so much about truly creating value for a customer or a user, reevaluate your priorities. Some people want a vibrant, thriving community but they haven’t done the work to truly create value in their product for real people.
- Building a community isn’t about management. It’s about finding the people who care, understanding their motivations and eventually turning them into leaders.
- If you’ve successfully found your passionate superfans, figure out how they can speak to each other directly, independent of you. This allows your community to help each other – and often to grow your product or service beyond what you might have imagined on your own.
If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
Helping communities take flight
Dee: Bailey, we’re delighted to have you as guest here on Inside Intercom this week. Can you start us off by telling us just a little bit about yourself and your background?
Bailey: Well, just to go all the way back, I think the seed of the work that I do now is really informed, as I’m sure it is for many of us, by how I grew up. I grew up in a house with a mother who was the first luggage loader at San Jose Airport in Northern California. And she worked her way up to be one of the United Airline’s first female pilots.
“She had experiences where people refused to taxi her airplane because she was a woman”
So she was a captain when there weren’t very many women flying airplanes. I grew up of being extremely proud of my mother and getting to tell people my mom had such a rad job. And also seeing on the other side what it looked like for her day in and day out. She had experiences where people refused to taxi her airplane because she was a woman. Or she would have to spend five, six, sometimes 10 hours in a small cockpit with men who really didn’t want her in there. And some passengers would tell her that they wouldn’t have boarded the plane if they knew a woman had been flying it. So I saw what it was like for someone to be in a group of people or in a dynamic with groups of people that were really unwelcoming.
Flash forward to when I’m 25, 26. I was one of the first 10 employees at Instagram, and we had this burgeoning community of people on the site. You know: people who would meet strangers online who also love to surf or take mobile photos or loved French Bulldogs. People were just connecting with each other in such a benevolent way through this platform. Sometimes it would lead to people meeting up in person and doing these things called Instameets, where people would take photos with strangers, go for walks, take pictures of beautiful places. I would attend some of those, and there’s no way I would have believed people could treat strangers so kindly if I hadn’t actually gone to those Instameets and seen how – when people connect through a passion – they can be so benevolent to one another. So I saw both the negative side of how groups of people can treat each other by just watching how my mom was treated when I was younger, and then I got to see this complete reversal.
I began to wonder: “Well, what’s the difference? How do we make our relationships and groups more welcoming, more benevolent, more positive?” So I have spent the last five years plus of my life since I left Instagram continuing to learn more about what I call communities: groups of people who keep coming together over something they care about – especially benevolent ones, where people are supportive of each other, and people are nonjudgmental. And that’s my origin story, I suppose.
Dee: That’s a pretty powerful origin story that you saw your mother being pushed out of her own professional community, and it inspired you to want to help other people build theirs or even just build other communities in their life. How did you first cross paths then with your little community of co-authors for your book?
“He was excited about how we might be able to take this word ‘community’ and really break it down into clear actions and a clear framework so that we can demystify it”
Bailey: I was on the Instagram team before we got acquired by Facebook. When we got acquired, we were 13 people, and we stepped into a company that was many years older than us, about to go public. Each of us were given a bunch of jobs to integrate into Facebook. At the age of 26, I was briefly in charge of international growth for Instagram. And I got to work with the international growth team for Facebook. At the time, it was one person working in Africa, one person working in Russia, one person working in Asia. It was this group of really smart, self-initiated people who were responsible for taking Facebook (which was made primarily by Americans in America) and bringing it to other parts of the world.
One of my business partners, Kai, was one of the people on the international growth team for Facebook. He ran growth in Asia. Honestly, we first became friends through other interests: I loved to surf, he loved to surf. He is interested in photography. And slowly he got closer to seeing the way we approached building our community at Instagram. Frankly, I think he started out as a skeptic. He was in that growth hacking space of a very data-driven high-growth stage of a company. And I just won him over about this community thing. He saw in it what he felt like growth had been 10 years ago, which was this thing that many startups were trying to do with very little structure or framework. He had been a part of defining a framework for how startups approached growth, and he was excited about how we might be able to take this word “community” and really break it down into clear actions and a clear framework so that we can demystify it and hopefully help more people invest in communities, whether online or off.
“We see a community almost like a fire… there is a very clear order of operations of what you do first to get a fire started and how you progress from there”
So Kai and I met really originally through both working at Facebook and Instagram. And then after I left Instagram, I did a residency at a design agency here in the US called IDEO. It’s a very human-centered design agency that’s really involved in observing and researching people moving through the real world and informing designs with that reality. My second business partner, Kevin, had just finished working at CreativeMornings. If you haven’t heard of CreativeMornings, it’s like TEDx without TED. It’s a completely grassroots creative lecture series hosted in more than 200 cities around the world once a month, all on the same theme each month. It started out as a very simple idea with creative people hanging out in the morning in New York, watching a talk before starting work. They would have bagels together, have coffee together, watch a talk, and then go off into their separate lives. When Kevin started working at CreativeMornings, it was very fledgling. There were four chapters. He helped CreativeMornings grow from four to 104 cities. It’s now the largest in-person creative community in the world. When I was at IDEO, Kevin was there working from a desk, and everyone was like, “You need to know each other.”
So People & Company, in many ways, is three people who really love each other and feel like we have a very high value-overlap. We are trying, hoping, aspiring to answer a question, which is, “What does it take to build a community?” Although a community feels magical, when it shows up in your life, it doesn’t come together by magic. We see a community almost like a fire. Once you end up with a fire, it’s this metaphysical, beautiful thing. But there is a very clear order of operations of what you do first to get a fire started and how you progress from there. So we broke it up into nine steps and just published a book called Get Together with all of those nine steps broken out.
Coaches, not consultants
Dee: The ethos of People & Company sounds incredible: what an amazing mission statement for a company to have. Can you elaborate a little bit for our audience about how exactly you guys work and what exactly are the services that you offer?
Bailey: When we first formed People & Company, we approached our work with clients as a very deep embedded relationship. The hunch was that, because of all of our backgrounds, a lot of people almost wanted us to come in and do the work for them. But we realized about a year in that the best thing we could do was actually build capacity within an organization for people to do this themselves. Ultimately, community-building is about developing leaders. Whether you’re building an online community or an offline community, it’s about building relationships and developing people who are very passionate about your mission and about your purpose. And it just doesn’t make sense for us as an external third party to come in and own those relationships.
“What makes sense is for us to help people establish their strategy and then start to realize it by coaching and working with the people who do the work inside each organization”
What makes sense is for us to help people establish their strategy and then start to realize it by coaching and working with the people who do the work inside each organization. We really call ourselves coaches, almost teachers, now. We come in and spend two very deep days with any client, where we get really clear on the investment, whom they’re investing in and why they’re investing in them. We bring in community members to get their input – to interview them, to learn from them – and then we start to work on designing what exactly that company needs to invest in next given the state of their community and their goals. So we do a very deep dive, and then we’re onboard with them as partners as they begin to realize the work.
The two things I really see us doing are helping people have clarity about how to make smarter bets with community-building. A lot of people know that having a community would be great for their business, and they have millions of ideas, but they just don’t know how to prioritize them. We come in and really help people do that. And then we’re there to tweak, adjust and talk through the tactics as their teams build the capacity to do this themselves. So that clarity piece and then that capacity piece is how we really focus our services.
“It really takes a company that is willing to collaborate, trust and empower its users and customers”
Dee: What does the dream client look like to you? What’s the best time in a company’s journey to start thinking about having a formal community strategy?
Bailey: One is that they are willing to give up control. I don’t know if this happens in Ireland, but when you’re a kid in the US – or when I was a kid – there were these heart locket necklaces, and you would break the locket in half and give it to your best friend.
Dee: Oh yeah, we had them as well.
Bailey: I sometimes felt like at Instagram we were breaking our little heart lockets – our brand, our platform – up into a bunch of pieces and handing them out to different people to make their own and imagine Instagram themselves and to speak about it and to speak for us. So it really takes a company that is willing to collaborate, trust and empower its users and customers. That’s the number-one thing that we vet for when we’re looking at clients.
To share an example of that, we spoke to the TEDx team recently about their decision to invest in a distributed community for TED. They didn’t have to do that. They have a great conference. They have this very well-produced experience. And when you look at many, many media companies, people really struggle to give up control to their audience and to their fans. It’s mostly an act of writing something perfect, crystallizing it and delivering it to an audience instead of building it with them. I asked the executive director of TEDx, “How did TED decide to make this bet?” And he just said that Chris Anderson, the CEO, is an incredibly trusting person. At the end of the day, he trusts people. So that’s a number-one thing we look for. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re in as a company. You have to trust people.
And then I’d say the second thing is, in terms of a dream client, we are looking for people that have super fans, super engaged users, power users, people that share the mission and the purpose of the company so much so that they have an appetite to do more. People are raising their hands to offer their time and effort to help push this mission forward.
“People who care are more powerful than people who don’t”
One unexpected example of this is Notion. Notion is this amazing modular tool that allows people to do everything from take notes to project manage to track pipelines. It’s the software that people can do tons of different things with. I almost feel like it’s quite a pragmatic software in many ways, whereas Instagram might be maybe more of an emotional one, where tons of people were taking photographs of things that really mattered to them.
I was surprised to see that Notion has tons of people raising their hands and spreading the gospel of Notion. They’ve used the tool for remarkable things – things that have really changed and affected their lives. They want to help teach other people about what they’ve developed and use the tool for. Very early on, Notion as a startup had like a 60-person meetup in South Korea. This South Korean meetup community published its own book about Notion’s best use cases. I think that appetite of people to help you to do more is a really, really great dream signal for us.
I just want to put a pin in that and say that if that doesn’t already exist, that is what you’re looking for. It doesn’t mean you can’t build a community. It just means start to get to know anyone who’s a 10-out-of-10 passionate about your product or service your business. Big things start small. We like to say, “People who care are more powerful than people who don’t.” It’s like the manna from heaven when you have people like that. It’s a great signal. Get to know them, and see if there are ways you might be able to collaborate.
Dee: It’s almost needing people to have people who’d be willing to evangelize for you.
Give up control
Dee: It strikes me that that is in the wider world, that’s possibly quite a big ask. Have you guys ever come across a potential client that you’ve decided not to work with because you didn’t actually think that they could build a meaningful community around their brand?
Bailey: Yeah. One of the biggest signals that we look for, like I said, is mostly if people are willing and able to give up control. That’s been the biggest block for us: just realizing this organization is not designed in a way that will allow them to truly collaborate with people on the outside. Over the last five years, my business partners and I have interviewed and worked with hundreds of different communities.
“If you have a passion that you care about, at the very least, there’s probably some other folks out there who care about it”
We have interviewed a squirrel census from Atlanta. There is a community of “Potheads” around this Crock-Pot that was developed in America called the Instant Pot. There are people who started the Cloud Appreciation Society. Like I said, fairly enterprise-oriented software companies like Notion have super fans. One of the beauties of the internet is that it has helped prove that if you have a passion that you care about, at the very least, there’s probably some other folks out there who care about it. Is it going to grow to be millions of people? I don’t know. But if you feel like you have a purpose that’s resonant with you, there is a good likelihood that there are other people out there who might also care.
I just think that purpose piece is important. If you’re building a business that’s ultimately about you getting the biggest return and not so much about truly creating value for a customer or a user, that will probably take precedent over the purpose or over the user experience. That can be a challenge if people just want some vibrant, thriving community, but they haven’t done the work to truly create a compelling purpose or create value in their product.
“Developing communities is something I do professionally, but I really believe in it from a personal, social and professional level”
Dee: I was very compelled by your own website to see that you do pro-bono services in addition to corporate clients. I love that, because it seems to go back to your original mission statement and where you come from personally of wanting to foster community.
Bailey: Absolutely. I really believe that the more people who get people together, our personal lives will be more meaningful and fulfilled. I also think our civic societies, especially democratic societies, will be more engaged. I also think there’s a lot of potential for businesses that have engaged people to grow faster or grow in a more ethical way or grow in a more informed way. Developing communities is something I do professionally, but I really believe in it from a personal, social and professional level. It hits on all those points for me. I know my business partners feel that way as well. Frankly, businesses have a lot to learn from people who are doing this in a very grassroots way.
“There are things that businesses can learn from these grassroots groups”
There’s playfulness, a creativity, an instinctive nature that these very grassroots organizers bring to the design of their events and to their communication. There’s a joyfulness to it that businesses sometimes default into pretty professional language or highly strategic decisions. I feel like there’s a lot of creative inspiration we can take from things like the Star Wars Fan Club or the Squirrel Census or a community for Asian-American women looking for connection. There are things that businesses can learn from these grassroots groups.
I also think there are things these grassroots groups can learn from businesses. One thing in particular is that businesses have this dreaminess to them. When we enter into a business setting, we want to grow. We want to get big and reach many people. Businesses have this natural instinct to scale and to think about how to template-ize things. There are many grassroots communities that we have interviewed – like the Squirrel Census or we have community in our book called Downtown Girls Basketball, which is a team that is specifically for women who are bad at basketball. I often feel like, “Wow, it would be great if those people expanded the model and took it to new cities to get to new places, because it’s just such a positive thing for the world.” But that that’s something that a business mindset is really great at and can inspire grassroots groups with as well.
Practical advice for building community
Dee: Let’s talk a bit more about the book, because you’ve touched on a couple of the incredibly diverse range of groups that you cover in it. It’s published by Stripe Press. How did that collaboration come about?
Bailey: The Stripe Press collaboration has been one of the most fortuitous things that has happened in my professional life. We began to write this book at first thinking it would be just a very short thing. Maybe we would design it ourselves, distribute it ourselves, just because we had so many people curious about the “how?” of community building. We wanted to give them the tools they needed to understand what to do first, what questions to ask themselves to get there, what next and so on. We wrote the book and had it ready and shared it with some friends as a manuscript, thinking we just wanted feedback from them on the content. What came back to us was actually a few offers from publishing houses to publish the book.
We opened our mind and said, “Whoa, maybe we should look into this route.” We just hadn’t really imagined ourselves as authors. We thought maybe it was an identity or a type of person that wasn’t us. We began to question that assumption and have conversations. One of those conversations was with a woman named Brianna Wolfson who just left Stripe Press, but she was really responsible for starting it, making it from nothing – from no books to creating the deal with the first author, designing the first book, distributing the first book (which was Elad Gil’s High Growth Handbook).
I met with Brianna. Brianna had actually published her own fiction book with a major publisher and then had this experience of building Stripe Press from the ground up. It was more to learn about what she already knew about the publishing industry and what she would recommend to us. By the end of our conversation, she asked me if I thought Stripe Press would want to publish the book. I gave her the manuscript to see what she thought. She then offered us a publishing deal. We went with Stripe for a number of reasons. One of which is we have a startup mindset ourselves, given our past work experience. There’s a way that they made decisions about building this press from the ground up that were just really great first-principles thinking. We really felt drawn to their way of making decisions and solving problems, so it was a cultural fit.
But there were other couple of other things, one of which is our book is beautiful: the fonts, the color photography. The cover is gorgeous. They – compared to what we knew about other publishers – give the design of the book so much attention. The physicality of a book is really what makes it a book, in my opinion. So many things are webpages that may disappear or you’ll reload, and it’ll be gone. But to have a beautiful object as a book was so exciting to us. That was something that Stripe could offer us that no one else could quite match.
Dee: Aside from the personal stories in the book, it’s probably important at this point for our audience to let them know that it is actually very much a how-to and how to build a community. So how have you gone about condensing all of these quirky personal stories into such a practically applicable resource?
“There’s just so much ambiguity in the space that we felt like with each client we needed to show them what we meant about the investments that it takes to take a community from nothing to a global chapter community”
Bailey: Well, I would say that there is no magic way to do that outside of time and drafting and redrafting and having hard conversations. Much of what our original sketch of what key points we needed to make in this book were originally formed by a framework that we developed to educate our clients on what the heck we mean when we talk about how to build a community. There’s just so much ambiguity in the space that we felt like with each client we needed to show them what we meant about the investments that it takes to take a community from nothing to a global chapter community – or something that reaches people all around the world.
So we would present this multi-step framework we had developed when we started with any client, and we would use our existing research and our personal experiences to create that framework. And then as we began to write, we made an aggressive effort to speak to tons more people. This is also part of why we do pro-bono work; it doesn’t just help the world, it also helps us get smarter. My business partner Kevin has coached more than a hundred communities this year. He went to Berkeley and got an undergrad mechanical engineering degree, graduated at the top of his class and then got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, so he brings this very structure-process-precision brain to thinking about people. He in particular has just really helped us build these step-by-step frameworks, pressure test them and make sure we have a ton of clarity and certainty in what we are recommending to people at any stage of building a community.
Build with people, not for them
Dee: Brilliant. Our audience is predominantly internet-first or tech-based companies. If you had one piece of advice from the book that you could give to companies like this, what would it be?
Bailey: Yeah, the difference about investing in a community versus other things you might do is that investing in a community is about building with people, not for them. Traditionally, people have used this term “community management,” and in our opinion, building a community is not about management. It is about developing leaders, and it’s really about finding these people who care and understanding their motivations and how you might collaborate with one another and eventually turning them into leaders. Across internet companies – in particular platforms, from online marketplaces to creative social media platforms and to offline communities – I always find myself wanting to underscore the power of role modeling behavior.
When I began to research other online communities, I spoke to the first community manager at YouTube, at SoundCloud, at Medium. I just spoke to community manager at Twitch. I’ve spoken to Notion. I’ve really tried to learn as much as I can about different online communities and how they function. Almost universally, people put exceptional contributions, exceptional users, exceptional customers up on a platform, up on a pedestal, so that other people can see what good behavior looks like or what success looks like, and that’s something that happens across all stripes of community-building. But if you don’t do that – if you don’t differentiate and create standards or aspirational use cases – people are left to guess. And I’ve just found that that piece is so, so important: finding people who are really exceptional and making them into role models, but also make sure if you’re not a communication platform yourself that you do forge open some place for people who are passionate to connect with each other, instead of having to communicate to you as a bottleneck.
“My personal biggest learning from this book is that a community is a group of people that keep showing up for each other. In startup language, they’re retained”
Dee: It sounds like it’s more about facilitating conversations as opposed to leading them. Normally at this point in the interview, we would tend to ask people who the business or leader is that they most aspire to be. But with you, I’d like to know – of all the communities that you have come across – what has been the one that’s spoken to you most or that you find the most compelling?
Bailey: One of the best parts about writing this book has been meeting so many people who are organizing people. I’ve met so many who I respect and admire, but I suppose the answer for me is: I moved to New York a year and a half ago and I really wanted to make more friends and I found this team, which I mentioned a little bit earlier called Downtown Girls Basketball. It is a team for women who are specifically bad at basketball, and I have cleared my calendar for them. No matter what, nothing takes over my Tuesday night. I always go to Downtown Girls Basketball, and there’s just something very different about playing sports with people when it’s not about winning, and it’s not about competing. It’s about having fun. Just doing this one thing once a week, no matter what, has completely altered my experience of New York City and my sense of my social foundation and my rootedness here, and so my personal biggest learning from this book is that a community is a group of people that – yes, they care about something, and they share a passion, but most importantly they keep showing up for each other.
In startup language, they’re retained. They come back over and over and over again, and that is something I worry we don’t do enough of socially with other people in this world, whether it’s in an online forum or whether it’s in your real life. If people could just join one thing regularly, it could affect many, many parts of their lives. So that’s a very personal answer, and I hope the startup founders listening to this will indulge my more personal story. But I would just encourage anyone to really think about committing to showing up regularly to a group, because only with that repetition are you able to build relationships.
Dee: That makes a lot of sense. I guess it’s almost like a muscle: if you’re flexing your commitment muscle, you’re more likely to be able to use it in other aspects of your life. Lastly, Bailey, before I let you go, where can people keep up with your work?
Bailey: The best way is our website. If you got to peopleand.company, you can sign up for email lists. You will find our book there and our podcast there. Also, if you’re interested in inquiring about services that we offer (whether it’s pro bono or bringing us on to help you with your community strategy), you can find our contact information there.
Dee: Super. It’s been a real pleasure chatting to you today and finding out all about the book. We’ll link to all of that in our blog. Thanks a million, Bailey.
Bailey: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.