30 Steps to Build a SaaS Community from Scratch

30 Steps to Build a SaaS Community from Scratch

I spent 6+ hours researching community-building tips from experts to build a community around my SaaS. Then I sequentially arranged these tips in logical order. To help me build a thriving community from start to finish.
Now I'm sharing the step-by-step process in this blog post.
Before we begin - let me ask you a question.

How did you get to hear about these tech products for the first time?

@NotionHQ @SlackHQ @SubstackInc
Even some NoCode tools like:
@bubble @softr_io @webflow
Most like through:
  1. Friends
  1. Connections
  1. Recommendations
Aka people 'talking' about them.
Why do people 'talk' about a certain product?
Because people feel connected with the tool.
And... a strong community plays the role to build this 'connection'.
Notice how these tech products have great communities.

Building a tech product? Start Growing it with a Community

Make your users and customers feel like they're part of something larger than themselves, but small enough that they get a sense of everyone within their group!
Like Pinterest - it was nothing but a community home page when it started.
A strong community will increase:
  • retention
  • LTV
  • Sales leads
  • Organic word of mouth
  • Membership
  • Margins
  • Sticky factor
  • Difficulty in replicating the business
  • Ease to recruit talent
Understand why a community works? Good.
Now let's see how to build one:

We have divided the 30 steps into three phases

These 30 steps are divided into:
  1. Planning Phase
  1. Setup Phase
  1. Growth Phase
Let’s first look at the Planning Phase

Phase 1: The Community Planning Phase

1. Start to care about a community:

  • It's the best way to build a movement
  • It supercharges word-of-mouth
  • People want community more now than ever
  • Products built on top of communities scale fast
If you unlock the community, it's an unfair advantage

2. Build community leadership skills

Weak community leadership kills communities.
6 qualities of high-performing community leaders:
  1. Captivating
  1. Consistent
  1. Loud
  1. Obsessed with the mission/people
  1. Relentlessly helpful
  1. Sincere

3. Identify ‘Who We Are’

You will never find a community that thrived and didn’t have a compelling “who we are” story
Key points:
  • Describe the future utopia
  • Describe the cause with passion
  • Amplify the real reason they exist
Tip: tighten your who we are story and terrific things happen

4. Set up meetings with every executive leader on the team

  1. What’s a community for you?
  1. What are your top 3 goals?
  1. How do you think a community can help you achieve those goals?
  1. How would you like to be involved in the community?
If you don’t have a team yet, identify them yourself. Put your passion and vision and objectively define your goals.

5. Create a v1 of community goals

Your conversations with leadership + members and your audits will show you the current state and opportunities for improvement.
Choose specific goals (we use OKRs) that define the future state everyone wants to reach.

6. Create a first draft of your proposed goals and present it back to executive leadership

Go back to all of the leaders you originally spoke to.
Ensure that everyone is aligned on the goals that the community team (you) will work toward. Get their thumbs up to move forward.

7. Create a v1 community strategy

Only after you have clearly defined goals that align with leadership and member expectations should you put together a strategy. Your strategy should focus on three areas:
  • Business
  • Community
  • Tactics
The Business Level of your community strategy will define the revenue-based outcomes community will drive for the business.
It should also lay out the tools, systems, and reporting structure for tracking and communicating the results.
The Community Level of your strategy will define the programs and experiences that you'll create and facilitate for your members that will accomplish business and member goals.
Use the 7Ps of Community to design each program.

8. Build a tactical level of your strategy

It will define the specific things you'll do, day-to-day and week-to-week in order to make each program successful.
These should be specific tasks like:
  • Send weekly welcome thread
  • Send weekly email
  • Onboard 50 members

9. Your community strategy should be time-based

Break your goals down by:
  • Annual
  • Quarter
  • Month
Note: Community programs will generally take 6-12 months to show measurable ROI.

10. Get feedback on your strategy

Go back to leadership again and walk them through your plan. Ask them to poke holes, ask hard questions, and share their ideas for how you can improve it.
Rinse and repeat until you have a final sign-off.

Phase 2: Setting up the Community

11. Not all founding members are equal

Example: Clubhouse recruited well-known tech people in April 2020 and gave them a virtual place to hang out.
Tip: your first members set the tone. Choose wisely.

12. Set up meetings with 20 current and/or potential members

Speak to a diverse range of members with diff perspectives. Aim to understand: 1. What is their experience with the community today (pros and cons) 2. What is their hope for the community 3. How you can help them

13. Design rituals

Being in a Zoom call together isn’t community building.
The goal: Create daily/weekly rituals that make people feel alive and grateful to be apart of the community.
  1. Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong
  1. The long term win is in building a community
  1. Building a community is where art meets science. It's perfectly doable.

14. Start small. Start tiny

95% of communities can start as a simple group chat.
A community only needs a shared purpose and a place to thrive.
Don’t overthink it

15. Invite-only works

95% of communities should begin as waitlists. B2B or B2C. Doesn’t matter
Exclusivity and scarcity drives demand.
Tip: waitlist communities outperform

16. Merch supercharges communities

You’d be surprised what designing incredible merch can do to a community.
It gives them a “raison d’etre”
Example: @100Thieves

17. Get members where they want to go

The secret to community design: get members they want to go (i.e : milestones etc).
The best communities: move members

18. Audit all of your community spaces and channels

Figure out:
  1. Where are members gathering today?
  1. What channels are being used to communicate with members?
  1. What tools and technology are we using to build community?
  1. Who's responsible for managing each channel?

19. Forums are good for communities

Forums are great to:
  • formalizing ideas
  • seek help
  • collaborate note-taking
  • inspiration
  • get answers
  • giving back

20. Build your First Small Community

What is a Minimum Viable Community

An MVC is the smallest action you can take to bring people together. An MVC is not necessarily a community, yet. The intentions and vision are probably there, but the community may not be.
An MVC is not about the tech behind the community — it is more about the ability to test whether people are interested, or potentially interested in the vision of your community.
If you can't bring people together in a small-scale environment, how are you going to do it in a larger one?

Why build a Minimum Viable Community?

MVCs are a perfect way to get started with community. Not only to understand if building the community is right for you, but also to understand what it is people actually need from the community.
We must also not forget that part of the validation of building community is whether people want to join in with whoever leads it. Just because you want a community doesn't mean others will want to follow you into it.
MVCs help you avoid the lure of big community, tools and processes. To instead focus on building relationships and understanding between one another. To break down the walls. To do people research.

Starting small is perhaps the only authentic way of doing it

And authenticity matters if you want people to open up with the truth and to share what it is they are really after. Starting small means you start to build trust. A community without trust is one that will likely not survive.
Starting small means you start to really learn about what people want. This means you can build learnings into building your community. Starting small means you can be mindful of the culture you are creating, through your own behaviour and of those that you invite in.
Starting small is less risky. It gives you the freedom to experiment and trial things out and just being ok with whatever happens. Starting small means you focus on the outcomes and learnings rather than the metrics.

Minimum Viable Community is a mindset

Of course, it's not just about 'starting small'. Minimum Viable Communities is all about the mindset of being open minded and experimental.

Examples of Minimum Viable Communities

Practically, what do we mean by Minimum Viable Community? Here are some ideas to get you going:
  1. Newsletter
Newsletters are easy to start, harder to maintain consistency. However, they're also pretty easy to adapt over time. The magic with newsletters is that they can feed into invites to events.
  1. Audio
Social audio is a great way to connect and converse with people. Players at the moment include the likes of Twitter Spaces, Discord Stages, Clubhouse & Racket. The magic is that really you only need to be willing to have a conversation with one other person.
  1. Hashtags
Many platforms support the use of hashtags. These are great for tapping into an existing niche set of people. You can choose to either contribute to one that already exists, or start your own.
  1. Social Forums
These are public places like Reddit and Facebook groups. They are easy to start, but longer term it is hard to control the outcome as you don't own the data, the eyeball competition is much harder and you are at the mercy of algorithms.
  1. Take notes together
Think: Google Docs, Google Sheets, Miro, etc. I'm a big fan of note taking! Coming together to take notes is fun, productive and creates a valuable outcome. It also helps to create connections between the contributors and generate new ideas.
  1. The comments section
A forum is just a post with the ability to add comments. Of course, this is a simplified take on it, however when you do choose to look at it this way you can start to see the value of comments everywhere. Make use of and encourage comments everywhere. In your newsletter, blog, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, forums...anywhere.
  1. Small events, meetups and 1:1 chats
This was how I got started in the world of community!
Nothing ever replaces IRL stuff even when most of us have become accustomed to virtual events. Both are valid approaches and both can create connections and potential value for life!
  1. Memes
Yes memes. We can tap into our shared knowledge, spur on discussions, inspire and educate one another. Memes are a great way to practice understanding who your people are, especially when you can get people to 'feel seen.
  1. Merch and Swag
We all love a bit of swag, though these days we should become increasingly mindful of the environment. Things like stickers and t-shirts can bring real visibility and connection to people. It's so much easier to start conversations with people when you know you have something in common-swag can show that thing in common that you have.
  1. Podcasting
Often people don't see podcasting as community building, however when you look at the foundations of community as being conversations then it becomes easier to see how podcasting can help create community. Podcasts are great for amplifying voices and ideas of the people you want to connect with in a deeper way. It also has the long tail benefit of bringing people together over a long period of time.

When to use Minimum Viable Communities?

MVCs are more about the mindset of constantly experimenting. You should be doing this all the time, no matter the size of your community.
Rosie Sherry recommends it when starting out, however before actually going ahead she recommends people to do their research. Creating an MVC shouldn't be the first step in building a community, these days but Community Discovery or the art of studying your people should be preferred.

Phase 3: Community Growth

21. Feedback is everywhere

No response is feedback.
Energy is feedback.
Participation is feedback.
Look for it, improve your flywheels, and co-create.

22. Audit analytics and reporting systems

Figure out:
  1. What community data exists today?
  1. Where does the data live?
  1. How are we reporting on community health and business impact?
  1. What tools are we using to organize, analyze, and report community data?

To build community, do things that don't scale, for quite a long time. ~ Rosie Sherry

23. Report on your progress

Create a report that you'll send out every: - Month - Quarter - Year The report should focus on:
→Business impact: revenue
→Community health: engagement data + survey/interview results
→Tactical learnings: what worked? what didn't work?

24. Find Community/market fit

Founders obsess about product/market fit. But don’t obsess enough about community/market fit.
How to build a startup community:
  1. Community/market fit
  1. Product/market fit
  1. Scale

Community-building can be done in different ways: - Content creation - Sharing your journey in forums - Participating in Slacks/Discords The common denominator; helpful contribution ~ Ben Tossell

25. Revisit your community strategy every quarter and set new Community and Tactical level goals.

Try not to change it up too much within the quarter. At the least, your top-level Business goals should remain the same unless there's big a big shift for the business.

26. Build Word of Mouth (WOM)

When you are ready to start building a community, start with word of mouth. Draft an email pitching the concept. Send it out to everyone you know asking them to share it with anyone who would be interested. This will get you maybe a few dozen signups.

27. Fake it till you make it

With only a handful of members, you need to make the community feel more active. So you can fake it till you make it. ;) Create multiple accounts and post using different fake names. This will create a sense of activity and encourage new members to pitch in.
The founders of Reddit did the same thing early on. Sometimes the solution to the "chicken and the egg" problem of building community is to create the illusion of more chickens (or eggs.)

28. Grow your Community with Craigslist

After tapping out your network and WOM, look elsewhere for growth.
One opportunity is to leverage the most dominant community platform of the mid-2000's. Yep, Craigslist.
Posting on Craiglist is free. Your success rate will improve as you iterate on copy, cadence, and communication tactics. Craigslist can potentially net you 100's of first community users.

29. Do Blogger outreach

Taking the lessons learned from CL, you can do blogger outreach to promote your community!
Use Google to manually build a database of every relevant blog you can find.
Then email the bloggers and pitch them on joining your community. The best method is to start with individual emails until you learn what works best.
Then automate the process while still making it feel personal. Recruiting bloggers can be a hit or miss.

30. Explore Paid marketing

Know that:
  1. You are your first user
  1. Look where your users already are and Test new channels
  1. Be shameless about growth. If it works, it works. No judgement
  1. Treat your early users like celebrities. They will repay you 1,000X
  1. Now, be open to spending money on Ads

Now Grow your SaaS with the community Flywheels

Rosie Sherry is a BIG promoter of this.
Strategic community flywheels are higher level, designed as an overview. They guide us and help us make decisions. They help us stick to our community principles. Like anything in life, they should evolve over time.

Tactical community flywheels

These dive into the daily operations. We have the opportunity to be experimental and reactionary. They drill down deep, often to deep many levels, with guidance from the strategic community flywheels.

Say no to the Community Funnel of Hope

Flywheels work better as each piece of the flywheel is connected. If one fails, the whole thing falls apart. It forces you to build upon things that work, rather than throwing things into the community funnel of hope.

Your community idea is great, it's probably not much without a flywheel

Interconnected processes are what helps grows communities. Without this, you probably don't have a community. Refined community flywheels are arguably more important than your community vision. People like to think that communities just magically grow. The reality is that they don't. There are many 'boring processes' happening behind the scenes that most people don't see.

Create flywheels for visualization and reference

But break each part down into lists and sub-lists of what works and what doesn't work. Of what you do and don't do. Don't randomly build upon new ideas. Build upon what you know works.

Strategic community flywheels are great

But they start from tactical ones. In the early days be tactical. Try things and see what works. Do what works. Do what feels good. Ditch everything else.

Tactical Community Flywheels are more powerful with meaning

Tactics are meaningless without a vision. Make sure everything you do inches you towards the goals you are trying to achieve.
Understand that community journeys are at the heart of everything. It's not about engagement, it's about the community journey. It becomes meaningless if you can't help people get to where they want to be.
Engagement is nothing, or even worse, it can be negative if it doesn't help your community achieve what they need to achieve.

Community activities > Engagement

What can you do, create, or co-create that will help people get to where they need to be? This is community design — create experiences that help people get to where they want to be. Experiences = many different community activities.

If you start a community, be prepared to amplify other people’s voices over yours. ~ Rosie Sherry