What a community means in the modern world of startups

“We believe that a thriving community is a company’s most valuable asset,” Community-led writes in its Declaration. “Community scales your business, resources and presence in ways that traditional marketing or advertising channels can’t. When done right, community enables and improves customer acquisition, streamlines support and success, bolsters retention, and provides crucial product insights. Community is the beating heart of the business that keeps the rest of the team running.”

It’s a matter-of-fact document, aiming to emphasize the importance of community in building a forward-looking startup, while highlighting the concept’s elasticity. But it leaves a lingering question: What, precisely, do we mean when we use the word “community” in the world of startups?

You’d think that’d be a question answered easily by a panel titled, “How to Cultivate a Community for your Company that Actually Lasts” during TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 last week. But if I’ve learned anything from moderating said Disrupt panels, it’s that there’s no easy answer to the question, due in part to the aforementioned elasticity. So, is this just one of those “we know it when see it” things, to paraphrase a famous Supreme Court ruling?

“It depends on the person, the context and the company,” says Commsor’s chief community officer, Alex Angel. “But ultimately, to me, community, at its most basic, is a group of people who’ve come together with a shared purpose. That shared purpose could be your product, it could be a company, it could be a topic, it could be whatever, but they’re all there intentionally around that thing to gather and talk and learn.”

“Community” has grown into one of those buzzy Silicon Valley terms over the past few years, but long-time advocates explain that the concept is fundamental in entrepreneurship and venture capital investments.

“Last October, when we launched Community Fund, people were asking investors and founders in the industry, ‘What is this community thing?’ It’s very fluffy,” says Lolita Taub, corporate Development VP at Catalyte, and co-founder and general partner at The Community Fund. “All of a sudden, we started seeing companies like Reddit, Peloton and Glossier become unicorns. You’re seeing the real generational wealth that exists in community-driven companies.”