Building Community from Scratch

By Chelsea Alterman on January 12, 2024

May 9, 2023. First day as Director of Community. Now what?

We hadn’t launched yet. There are no users. 

No one knows what Expert Session is, except our internal team.

I am a department of one.

I knew our goal: 🌟 Start to grow the platform, and build the community along with it.

If you're a community builder, founder, or on the founding team of a small startup, and starting-from-scratch, I'm writing this for you. I'm writing what I wish I had 6 months ago, on my first day.

I'll overview my process from the very beginning. Here we go!

First 30 days: Onboarding & research

Learning. Lots of learning. Outside of getting to know the ins-and-outs of our product and internal tech stack, I wanted to absorb as much learning around Community-Led Growth.

I read countless articles, guides, listen to podcasts, and scanned through community slack groups.

My Top 3 Learning Resources:

The biggest question was also the hardest to land a definitive answer to - What is Community?

Slide from my internal Community Department Kickoff deck. No single answer to this question.

So, while I was able to understand how other successful startups scaled through their approach to community, it was time to define it for Expert Session.

30-60 days in: Competitor analysis

Our Mission: To foster a dynamic and interconnected community that empowers and connects Experts, driving the success and growth of Expert Session.

Our strategy? Uhm. I had done the research, but all of the companies featured weren't in our unique space. I didn't have the full landscape. It was time to do some competitor research:

  • How did they promote and structure their communities? Do they even have a community?

  • What types of events or initiatives have they organized previously or are currently hosting?

  • What value were they providing to their members?

Using a SWOT analysis is a great way to boil down insights from competitor research.

This exercise provided a lot of great insight, ideas, and honestly - some examples of what not to do 😬

60-90 days in: Soft launch

Strategy planning time. How can I take 60 days worth of research + my own creative brain to figure out how we were going to encourage folks to try us out.

We have no established credibility, no awareness about who we are.

Not only did we need users, we needed those users to give us feedback about our platform.

We eased into it with a 3-Step Plan: [Who doesn't love a 3-step plan?!]

Step 1: Internal Dogfooding: We all create expert profiles and share feedback.

Step 2: Friends & Family Beta Testing: We extend invites to our inner circles to provide input.

Step 3: Cold Outreach: Identify who might get value from our platform and reach out to them.

Steps 1 & 2 were crucial for finding quick break/fix issues and filling major gaps before we rolled it out to actual users.

This also bought us some time to cultivate our list of cold outreach prospects for Step 3.

Thus began countless hours of manually searching through the internet for prospects. This exercise proved why Expert Session as a tool is so valuable - finding qualified experts is challenging!

When we found folks that looked like a good fit, we put their info into Airtable database. One-by-one.

90-120 days in: Hard launch

We had our database of prospects. We drafted and re-drafted our outreach copy.

Our initial ask? Hop on 2 calls with me, Director of Community. Try out our platform and give us feedback.

It was time to press go 🚀

We didn't have any fancy outreach software. To start, I pulled 30 prospects from our Airtable database, uploaded the list as a CSV to Google Sheets, and did a Mail Merge.

I used Boomerang to bring these emails back to my inbox so I could send our follow-ups.

Out of these 30 prospects, only 1 person responded. We were excited (our first prospective user!) but...we had 3% response rate.

Back to the drawing board. We A/B/C tested so many versions of outreach copy.

Our Findings:

  • More casual copy worked better.

  • Prospects were more likely to respond to a call to action when they thought there was an opportunity to impact the direction of Expert Session and be an early adopter for a tool they believed could be beneficial for them.

120 days+: Early signals of community

I met 1:1 with over 100+ prospective users and experts in a variety of fields.

We talked about why they chose their careers, their goals, challenges, and what they cared about.

I asked about their impressions of the platform and filed tickets to the product team.

I asked for their ideas around how we can build and support an expert community.

After all, I'm building this community for them. I need to understand what they would want to see.

I started to build real rapport. Prospective users turned into real users.

We made our initiative more efficient: shifting from requiring 2 calls with me to 1.

We hosted our first webinar and many of the experts I had met with showed up.

We updated Our Mission:

Empowering experts to enhance their visibility, grow their network, and monetize their knowledge through community collaboration, learning opportunities, and hosting personalized 1:1 sessions.

The future

Are we there yet? 'There' being having a thriving, robust community. Well no, but we're making great progress.

For now, we're choosing to build a Minimum Viable Community (MVC) through events and partnerships.

As we grow as a platform, we'll grow our community.

I have many ideas on what's possible: a shared online community space, ambassador programs, more in-person gatherings, referral networks, a self-promotion accelerator course, the list goes on...

From 0 to...infinity and beyond? You'll have to stick around to find out ;)

And if any of this has resonated with you? Book a 1:1 session with me.

Happy to drill deeper into detail on our strategy and approach, and maybe even share examples of our successful email copy. If you can believe it, this article only touches the surface.

Photo from our first in-person event. From left to right: Lauren Russo (Head of Marketing), Florentina Sergiou (Marketing Manager), and me! Chelsea Alterman (Director of Community and Partnerships)

Book Chelsea for a one-on-one video call on Expert Session.