From the classroom to a tech startup - on building thriving communities

No matter what community you are working to build, these mindsets will help you get there faster, with and alongside your members.

I was a community builder in practice long before I knew there was an entire community industry. Today, I lead our community work at female founded, community-led social media platform - but my professional community building crash course was my first job as a 7th grade teacher in a public school outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Over two years, I saw my students outperform the district and state, despite the educational inequities between lower income students and their higher income, predominantly white peers. When people asked how we did it - I attributed it to the fact that we were able to create a learning community together.

I was convinced what we had accomplished together was not magic - it was replicable. For that reason, I became dedicated to bringing talented college graduates into the teaching profession, and then helped launch a network of public charter schools, where I had the privilege of leading our people operations work. I came to learn that great team building and great community building go hand in hand.

Not a day goes by that I do not apply lessons learned working in education to my practice in building community at a tech startup. The parallels are infinite, but I wanted to share a few takeaways that have rung true in every thriving community I have led, observed, or been a part of myself, regardless of context.

Let's break it down.

📌 Invest your community in a shared story, rooted in the why.

Early on in teaching, I read this piece from social justice organizer Marshall Ganz. he articulates that people are moved to enact change through stories - a shared narrative of the problem the group exists to solve, and a shared understanding of why now is the moment we must take action.

In my classroom, this looked like being extremely honest with my scholars and their families about educational inequity, and why this mattered to me personally. It meant investing them in the idea that education is an issue of social justice. Armed with this truth, our classroom community was connected to a shared purpose. There is nothing more powerful than a tight-knit team working together to defy the odds, but it took a village of people who were all invested - kids, families, and educators, together - to get there.

Today, a huge part of our team’s work involves communicating the story of Landing to our creators and broader external audiences, and bringing them along with us in the journey of building the future of positive, creative collective media. Every day, in some format, our team shares the narrative of what we are building, why we are building it, why others should care, and why now is our moment.

📌 Learn the moves of masters - then implement, collect data, iterate, and improve.

As a new teacher, there were infinite things I had no idea how to do - but I also knew that I was not the first to figure it out. I sat in the back of expert teacher classrooms. I asked veteran teachers for support, and they were gracious in sharing their classroom management moves, curriculum, and strategies they used to build relationships with kids and families. I videotaped myself teaching (it was cringe) and asked my coach and peer teachers for feedback. I read everything that I could about evidenced-based teaching practices (like these). Most importantly - I tried it all. Every lesson was a new test, and an opportunity to assess effectiveness and make adjustments - even on that same day - based on what I observed.

In this, I learned how to try something, get quantitative feedback (e.g. give students an “exit ticket” at the end of the day to assess whether they had learned the topic or whether i needed to reteach it), or qualitative signal (e.g. students responded REALLY well to the idea of starting a peer to peer tutoring program). From there - double down on the things that are working, scrap what doesn’t, and make small, iterative changes to test and tinker until you find a system or practice that works.

As a community builder now, I follow tons of community leaders who lead communities that inspire me, I study the strategies they implement, and test tactics I like in my own community. I build relationships with people who are doing similar work in like-minded companies, and we share learnings, successes, and struggles to help each other grow. I read articles, and pull common trends and themes. The Landing team experiments every day to get qualitative and quantitative signals from our community and learn from what we hear directly and what we observe indirectly. There are SO many resources and talented community builders out there. Learn from them, adjust best practices to fit the context of your own unique community, and most importantly - obsess over the data to learn what is working and how you might tinker with things that are not working (yet!) to see different results.

📌 Open the door for feedback and listen to your members - when in doubt, ask !

As a community leader, you are in a position of power and privilege relative to your members - and thus I believe the onus is on you to create space and opportunities to hear from them. it is not always easy to share feedback - people might be intimidated, might think you do not care / are not looking for ideas, or honestly, they might not even think to share it in the first place. regardless of reason - most people will not come knocking down your door. if you want to bring people in and build with their ideas in mind, then you’ve got to open the door and invite them across the threshold.

I spent a lot of time supporting school leaders with staff culture and retention - and we wasted too much of it trying to anticipate how staff might feel about or react to different decisions or priorities. As we became better leaders ourselves, we learned that we didn’t have to guess - we could just ask. This was a critical reframe: first, it was faster. we stopped wasting time guessing. Second, we made better decisions than we otherwise would have, because staff members had the opportunity to suggest great ideas we hadn’t even thought of. Third, it led to greater investment and buy-in to the decisions we ultimately made - people were much more likely to be on board with a decision if they felt like their voice was heard in the process, even if it was not the solution they personally proposed.

Now, in my role at Landing, when we are at an impasse in making a decision that will impact the community, whenever possible, our team asks the community for feedback, we consider that feedback alongside our vision, and we make better decisions with both in mind. We do our best not to make assumptions about why a user might want (or not want) to do X or Y, instead of knowing with certainty because we heard from them directly. And, when we find ourselves wondering “what might creators think about that?”, our default next step = we ask !

📌 Keep the emotional bank account positive, and build trust through consistency.

Strong communities cannot exist without strong culture, and to build a strong culture, you must establish trust. In my first year, a veteran teacher gave me the most important advice re: how to build trust with students: show up, and be consistent. When you do the things you say you will do over and over again, people will begin to trust in you, and in your community. When you don’t - it erodes that trust.

As a teacher, it was helpful to me to think of my relationship with each student as an emotional bank account. Went to their basketball game - deposit. Called mom to share a great progress update - deposit. A positive morning greeting with an ask about their sibling - deposit. Offered lunchtime or after school tutoring - deposit. When I gave a behavioral correction - withdrawal. Had to bail on the band concert - withdrawal. Asked them to work hard day in and out to reach our goals - while a great thing, still an ask, and therefore a withdrawal ! The more I invested in my students, and the more I showed up with consistency, the more invested they became in our shared goals.

On our team at Landing, we talk constantly about how we are providing value to our creators - and how we can ensure that we provide consistent value, before ever assuming they will take any action we might want them to take. For us, “showing up” takes many forms. Spending time in our discord, platform and on socials daily to build real relationships with individual creators - deposit. Responding to every single piece of feedback we get about our product - deposit. Communicating really clearly about our priorities and how the community informed them - deposit. Asking them to share Landing with a friend - still an ask, thus a withdrawal. Day after day and in moments big and small, we work to keep that account net positive, and demonstrate through our actions that we will follow through as a team. Through that, we cultivate the trust that is foundational to building a transformational community culture.

I'll leave it here for now, but no matter what community you are working to build, I can promise you that these mindsets will help you get there faster, with and alongside your members. My DMs (the proverbial door) are always open if you want to chat community building.