Series Tea

April 28, 2020

Cadran Cowansage:
Building Community

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This week we’re having tea with Cadran Cowansage. Cadran is the CEO and founder of Elpha, an online community for women in tech. Prior to founding Elpha, Cadran was an Engineering lead at Y Combinator and Senior Software Engineer at Mongo DB.

In this episode, Cadran shares:

  • 1:55

    How to know if building community makes sense for your company

  • 5:05

    What resources you need to invest in community building

  • 8:45

    Tactics to get a new community off the ground

  • 13:10

    How to building and monetize a healthy community

Highlights from Series Tea with Cadran Cowansage

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Immad Akhund: Should every startup or company be building their own community?

Cadran Cowansage: Community is very powerful. Glossier is a beauty brand that came from a community. Their founder, Emily Weiss, had a blog where she would go into a famous woman’s bathroom and look at what products she used. She had a huge following and from that community she built a D2C company which has physical products. It’s a hugely successful business; she really created a movement.

Is that more like modern media, whereas Elpha is many-to-many?

In the beauty blog that she created, people are having really intense conversations about beauty. It’s really about identity.

She used this really engaged community as the test grounds for her products, so she built products that people love. She really created this idea that community is an integral part of building a product.

Do you think people have successfully gone backwards, where they’ve got a product or startup and then built a community?

The Knot, the wedding website. Their product didn’t start as community but people have this shared purpose when they’re there. It’s a purpose that you have for a finite period of time, but people want to talk about it a lot. Another one is parenting. When you have shared purpose where people have a lot of questions and opinions, it’s a great place for it.

If people are trying to have conversations, that’s a good indicator that you might want to have a community. A lot of brands create Facebook groups or Slack channels to test it. It takes a lot of investment and energy to get a community off the ground; if you want to do it really well, you have to put resources and energy into it.

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There are so many communities already. You’re competing against lots of things.

Have a unique angle that you can rally everyone around. You can always get more granular. The more granular the shared purpose is, the better.

You talked about resources to build a community. Is it hiring people to moderate? What are the different pieces?

  1. Where does your community live: All of Elpha’s software is custom (which has trade-offs of course). You can also use other people’s software to build your community, but you don’t have much control over it
  2. Community moderation and management: You need people who are going to enforce the behavior that you want, especially if you’re a brand. Bad actors in a branded community of course reflect poorly on whatever your other product is.
  3. Who thinks about the content: Content, whether it’s user-generated or generated by the brand, keeps people coming back. Figure out if you’re creating your own content or getting your users to talk and having them create the content. Somebody will need to be in charge of it. Who maintains the software complement of the community? If it’s in-person, who is hosting events?

Is it ever a bad idea to build a community?

If you’re building a consumer product, it is more obvious. You need feedback or there’s some virality component to getting people talking about your product. I think a B2B community is something you can do, but I’m not sure if it’s the right thing.

Maybe the border is how important the brand is?

That’s a good way to say it.

In the B2B space, can you think of examples of companies who’ve been successful in building a community?

Stripe has a community called Atlas, which is for founders. Another is MongoDB, which has a very strong developer community.

But MongoDB was open source right? So there’s even more of a reason because you get them to develop the software as well?

Yes though interestingly, it was more around people bringing MongoDB to their companies and learning about how to use MongoDB well. How to make their databases run efficiently, things like that.

They do local meet-ups; they bring folks to the office for dinners; they have a conference. It’s a hugely important in getting that feedback about new services and tooling.

It’s also tricky because while you want them to do the thing, people are not going to hang out in a community where they’re having a brand shoved down their throat or it feels inauthentic in some way.

I think the hardest bit of a community, especially at the start, is that there’s no one there. Reddit famously had fake people that Alexis was running. Did you have to do any of that?

What was tricky about our community is that it’s all real identities, so you couldn’t fake people. I knew the Reddit story. I thought, “That’s a good idea, but I can’t do it”.

Instead, the early users were my co-workers. They were people that I knew well and who knew each other well. Because of that there was a certain level of comfort in talking to each other. I would also periodically nudge people and say, “Hey, go ask this question on Elpha”. Or someone would ask me a question and I’d say, “Hey, go ask that on Elpha instead”. Nudging until people build habits and muscles

Was there a particular feature that really engaged people at the start?

Elpha is a private community so to see most of our content you have to be logged in and to be a member. That’s great for creating vulnerability and having honest conversations, but it’s very hard for reminding people to come back, and for SEO and all these things. An email newsletter was very important to remind people about the site; remind people about conversations.

How often? Daily?

We have a daily and a weekly version. We have the automatically-generated piece based on the most popular conversations. We also have featured content that we choose manually.

Have you had any cases of people acting badly?

We have guidelines and that really helps to create structure around the social norms of the community. If you don’t have those, and people don’t know how you want them to behave, anything goes. And we do have moderators, making sure that people are behaving according to the guidelines and supporting members; helping people feel welcome.

Before Mercury I did a company called Heyzap which was a social network for mobile gamers. The hardest thing for us was getting people to come back; to really be engaged not just for the first month but six months later.

One thing that helps is if you have a recurring event that re-engages people. Having something where every month, I’m going to meet these people or I’m going to talk about this topic

The other of course is building a habit. So if it’s the place that people go for news, or if you have a professional issue you want to talk about, or you have a question. That may not be a daily habit but it’s certainly something that happens on a recurring basis.

Back in 2009, lots of communities were getting funded in Silicon Valley. You obviously started a community much later. Did you find that investors were a little closed to investing in community?

There seems to be a second wave coming. Especially now that Facebook is so huge, investors are exploring what verticalized communities look like for very specific audiences

They’re all very early and in the process of being funded. The big one is TikTok, which isn’t necessarily verticalized, but it’s definitely the next generation of social.

So when it comes to community, there’s delayed revenue normally. How do you think about money?

We actually make money. Because it is a professional network, we’ve followed the LinkedIn model where we work with companies that want to hire our members. It’s a value-add for our members when they’re in the job-seeking part of their work. Our goal is to add some transparency around what working at those companies is like and be able to ask questions of women who work there.

Was it important for you to monetize early and not forestall it until the community was 10x bigger or anything like that?

Figuring out the business model was really important to do early. I wanted to make sure that the community felt comfortable with the one that we chose. Given the climate around data and privacy, people tend to be a little bit nervous. If you don’t have a business model, people wonder what you you going to do with their data.

You think people trust communities more that have a business model attached?

Yes. Our users wanted to know; it was a valid question and it was a good thing for us to figure out too.

If you were talking to another entrepreneur, would you say you should try to monetize from day zero?

I don’t think I would say from day zero. Making the community free to use is really important. Also, no matter what you think your community is going to be at day zero, people behave in all sorts of weird and interesting ways, which is part of the fun. You never know what the end product is going to look like. My advice would be to just launch, make it free, see what people do, and then figure it out.

What metrics do you need to hit?

At least for fundraising purposes, I think of Elpha as a B2B company because of the revenue side of the business.

You judge yourself at the same revenue levels as a B2B company?

I like that we are both B2B and B2C because typically, if you’re a community, you either don’t have a clear business model or you have to have crazy growth metrics. Often, crazy growth metrics don’t result in a healthy community.

We have company partnerships so we can really focus on quality, making sure the community is really healthy, and keeping the values and culture of the community consistent as we grow.

It’s very similar to when you’re growing a startup. How do you keep the culture of the space one that people want to participate in and feel good about?

There were all these communities built pre-2010. Since then, ignoring TikTok, almost no community has been built to scale. Do you think it’s partly because everyone tried to scale too quickly?

It’s hard to compete with communities that are already at scale because you have to persuade those users to use something different, and a startup’s tools have bugs. You’re asking people to use something new, where not all their friends are, where the user experience is probably going to be a little more rough.

You have to either be building a movement, have a special group of users that is very appealing to them, or build software that is doing something really unique and different.

Besides the newsletter, were there other product features that swung the needle quite a lot?

We have AMAs every week with a featured guest. Every Monday we announce the guest and you can ask questions throughout the week. We focus on women founders or investors or super experts in their field; people who you might not typically have access to.

What book have you read recently that changed your view on the world?

Never Split the Difference. It’s a negotiation book.

It’s a good book. I tried doing it once. I was once negotiating with someone and I just kept saying no in exactly the same way. That guy did not budge so it doesn’t always work.

What about the late-night FM DJ voice?

What’s that?

One of the other things he says is that when you’re in a negotiation, you should talk in a late-night DJ voice. Kind of low, you don’t go up at the end of your sentences, sort of soothing.

I’ve never tried it. Have you tried it?

I’ve tried to insert that into lots of conversations I have. I think it’s good.

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The Mercury Team