The biggest lesson to learn was - Offer value first. You’ve got to give, give, give first before you can ask for something in return.
Sharath Kuruganty is the Community Programs Manager at Product Hunt and is Co-Founder of Shoutout.so. Sharath comes with 7+ years of experience in product and community. He believes in building communities before building products.
Pramod: But first of all, thanks a lot everyone for joining in, I wanted to give you a quick context on why we are here. I'm Pramod the Co-founder of Threado. So, we are a command centre for community builders, like you to help you get insights on your community and help you take actions and activate the members in your community. Threado Community Hour is an initiative to help all of us learn from the best community builders in the industry. You know, it's 2022 and SaaS companies are on the rise. The SaaS organizations have moved from sales led to product-led, and we are seeing the rise of community-led growth, and we thought it was the right time for us to bring together some of the best in the space to share the learnings, for all of us to connect with each other and share our community growth stories. I'd like to introduce Sharath, the first panelist. So, he's a community programs manager at Product Hunt and co-founder of Shoutout.so. A big advocate of community-led growth and he's also an angel investor and advisor to several early-stage startups, he comes with seven-plus years of experience in product and community. I’ll let Sharath speak a few words and we can dive right into the questions after that.
Sharath: Yeah, thanks Pramod. We here are excited about the Community building. If you have questions about a product, how to grow in SaaS and pretty accurate, I've been an advocate, like how Pramod said for these topics that I fundamentally learned, by doing things. So I'm excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Pramod: Perfect, thanks a lot Sharath and just to share across the format. So, we had all of the registrants share questions that they wanted to ask the speakers. So, we have categorized them so we'll get started with going through some of the questions and post that, everyone feel free to type in your questions on chat. We'll take some live Q&A towards the end of the session. And post that will break into networking peer groups that we have curated so that you can connect with others who are here and sort of network and learn from each other as well. Right, okay just kicking off things, one of the things I think, is just about B2B SaaS and communities, right? So, would love to get started by hearing from you on what are some of the best examples that you've come across in terms of products that have used community-led growth. Not just the famous ones, but maybe like in a startup that you are seeing, take this approach. If there's anything like, you know, that comes to mind. Would love to hear from you Sharath.
Sharath: Yeah, sure, there are like, I think in 2022, I feel community-led approach is pretty popular, it's no more like a buzzword. And I see a lot of founders are coming forward, learning about how to build a community or they're just getting started. So, I think for me, if I want to like look up for a North star, especially in a B2B space, it's drift.com. You know, check the founders, you know David is an amazing, a service-led founder. I met him so many times, he's one of the North stars I look up to, he built a community from scratch. And, he's basically fundamentally involved the community from the beginning of the product development, which is very unlikely when they started, I think it's, seven or eight years ago they started building drift, so I feel like I was one of, I wouldn't say early users, but I was one of the users who they took personal calls with. So, they had this kind of service-oriented mindset throughout the company. And that's something I highly recommend for people like who are listening, you know, community building is not just, it's not a transaction. It's more of like a one-way street, it's not like, hey, I do something you give back something. It's more of like, I give what I really learn or like what I'm good at. So, that level of service mind, and that level of actions clash. You know, everything that they do, compounds over time. It's not like you build a community, overnight, it happens over time. So, these startups, like, Drift is a billion-dollar company. They've raised tons of money, they have hired many people who are fundamentally, like I said, more of like servant leader, mindset-oriented people. So even in the recent days I started looking up there is like company called Virtually, I don't know if you've heard of them.
Pramod: Yeah, Tryvirtually, right?
Sharath: Exactly. Yeah. They're into community a lot, you guys are killing it, and it's right now, I think I tweeted this a while last decade, It's more for more of like a product-led, aggressive nature of building companies, but it's more community-led aggressiveness that comes in the next decade or so.
So, with the rise of Web3, for example, in DAOs and what not, it's more of people coming forward and founders are realizing the power of the community. It's not new anymore. So now the point is when something gets out of the buzz or the hype now, it's like, it gets noisy, a lot noisy than you think. So now I feel it's more of, people should treat their communities as, like I said, not transactional, but more value first, you know strategy. So, those are the things I look up to him.
Pramod: Got it, and in fact, like I think one of the products that you have a hunted today, like Hera.so is also, which I've come across.That's taken community-led growth so like, which comes to the point I think would love to know, for a B2B SaaS company or for any product, when is the right time to start thinking about community? According to you.
Sharath: Yesterday, it's literally like you're already late, late to the game. See, I feel like it's an intentional choice, we should make it try to like something, ABC founded in the, who I know is like this XYZ founder who I know who's building community or, let's build a community too. I feel like that would be, it's not something you copy. It should come from within you should, you should feel like, okay, I need, I'm a bit as I'm building this company or a startup, I think as a founder, I should feel the need and I should feel I should have the urge to build a community.
So, my suggestion is to do that. My answer to that question is “Yesterday”. And like I said, you're already late. You should start doing things, you know, as we speak. So, say start like right after this call, maybe.
Pramod: Yeah. And, and like,there's always a perception on what a community is about. Like, you know, is it like people in discord server or slack or whatever, because community building is hard. So, for someone to think about just starting out, how should they approach it or break it down? What's the simplest form of a community that they can think about, would love to know what's your view on that?
Sharath: My philosophy of starting anything is basically breaking down into small little chunks and aggressively attacking them. And then on a whole, I believe it compounds over time as I do. It applies to community building as well for me, I think, if I were you and I have no audience, I'm like literally like starting fresh.
I pick friends like, who believe in me and ask them to hang out with me, once in a week. So, in a way, I would start building mastermind groups. And if you're a builder or if you have a product involve your early believers one or two, don't go. So, community building is not about the size. It's about the quality of people who are helping each other. So, it's not like you have 30,000 people and nobody's talking to each other, then it's useless. So, even if you have like three people including yourself and you're basically, consistently meeting, consistently engaging with each other, consistently providing value for each other. That's right there is a community. So, yeah, I would say just like, start a mastermind session or like a group gathering of early believers. Talk to them once in a week, or, once in two weeks, ask for feedback, engage with them, do events like this, events are one of the core parts of the community building, so start like doing events, start bringing people, experts, you know, do fireside chats. These are all part of a long-term strategy. And it's a long-term game. It's not like you do this session, for example. And Threado went ballistic capitalist after this, no it won't happen.
I would think it would go downwards if I'm not bringing value to the session, but that's the beauty of community. It's not like you go, super high and you stay there forever. It's not like that. It's like a bumpy ride, you just have to find these people who totally believe in you, your product and they genuinely want to come forward to do more stuff.
Pramod: Got it. So related to that, there's a question from the chat that I left to pick up. So how do you create differentiation and stand out amongst many communities? If you're in the same space and you see multiple communities, how do you figure out how to differentiate or add value in the noise, for example?
Sharath: You basically have to be very authentic to yourself. So, if you were asking yourself this question, like if I were, I want to be part of a community, what would I seek and do that, so find that's how you find your niche. You are not here to please everybody. You are here to find people who think you're doing something for them. It's not like everybody loves apples, right? There are some people who love different things and that's okay. So, you just have to find people who love what you do, and fundamentally that means people like yourself, like your persona and then find where they're hanging out, go there, chat with them. So, I think my suggestion is try to be very authentic and that's how you differentiate yourself from others and in terms of that valuation, I feel if you answered this question again and again, which is like if you want to be part of a community, what would you expect from it and you deliver as from the other side? I think you're good. You're definitely onto something.
Pramod: Got it. And just diving into one aspect of this, like where you mentioned that it's important to go out to where they are, like hang out there and add value. So, if you're starting out, for example, and you are in other communities. So how do you do that in a way that doesn't feel like you're stealing away members into your community, so just one perspective on, how should we think about, building a community without really stepping on toes, for example,when you don't have one to start with.
Sharath: I think, it's kind of like a zero-sum game,which is what you're talking about, I wouldn't do that. Like, I wouldn't go; it's the intention behind the communities is like, okay, how can I provide or how can I find friends
And how can I like, you know, bring them together. And I think it's okay to be part of a community and you're just announcing that, “hey, I would love to chat about Web3 and you're already in Web3 space and I would love to chat about”. Specifically, you have to be very specific about a few things. And I think you're not stealing away. You're basically like finding people and be very transparent with the messaging and how you're communicating.If you, if you do things in a shady way, of course, like, it's, it'll be like a bad reputation for you. So that's why you have to be very transparent and literally say, “hey guys, I'm here to learn, my intention is like build a community for myself, would love to have, if anybody's interested”, then the worst thing that can happen is maybe the admin will say,”hey man, you know, please stop promoting yourself”. Again, promoting yourself should be, you know, a very authentic way. So contextually start like something you should not take advantage of the channels and whatnot. So, be very transparent at the same time, open up. So, one of the things I learned from many people, many founders is that. Also I'm one of the examples as well, is that if you are like really interested in, you’re kind of like, proactively doing things as part of a community. There are chances that you will get hired for the company or whatever the community you're a part of. And when I am part of Product Hunt community, and I've been active for the last three years, and that's how I got into the company and they very much ask questions for me in terms of the interview and there's more about what you bring to the table. So, I think there are more chances that people will encourage you instead of you don't discourage you. The whole point is how you communicate, how transparent you are and put your intention. Openly in front of them. So those things are really important. And I don't think people will mind, but if they are minding, I think, you just move on. There is no right or wrong, you just like you're giving a shot and you're figuring the way as you go.
Pramod: Yeah, I think, just focusing on adding value and serendipity will sort of ensure that, things happen right along the way. Yeah, we’d love to jump into some questions around engagement. And, I've been following like Product Hunt for a while. And since you've taken on, I see how you’ve actively helped the community come together, with discussions going on. So, I think some of the questions are around, how do you drive or move towards self-sustaining engagement, right? How should they think about, getting people to join discussions and reply to posts in the community? What's worked from your experience, to get, go from zero to one and also engage communities to keep the engagement going.
Sharath: You only have to go from zero to one, in terms of engaging people because, from one to N they take it from there. You're not here you have to push, luckily Product Hunt is not from, when I joined, it's like a stage where we have to find ways to pump us from zero to one. But in my experience, I think, you have to find people who are highly engaging. These are the folks who you think are going to deliver value for the community.
So, find those pieces, and proactively when you create a discussion, ask them to share their 2 cents. So, I think even going back to before, I would say, you start creating more discussions without expecting anything in return. For example, engaging things, engaging topics, questions, and whatnot. And sometimes, people would find it fascinating. They just, engage or like they want. But the most important thing you have to do is, you have to engage in other people's discussions. So, my take is, first of all, give first and then ask. So, it's more like, give, give, give first and then ask. So, before finding these plans who are like, we're really great engaging with people, they're proactively like doing stuff, I would say to give more to them first so that you'll have like a debt they owe you. So, you have to build that debt, over time, like favoured debt, this is like me talking to some of our friends. So, we always call that how much favored debt because you're helping a lot. And you know, when you have time to ask, people will just say yes, no matter what. So, I think Michael knows this as well. So going back to the question, you have to create these engaging topics/questions/conversations, and literally ask people, “hey, what do you think about Web3?” For example, whoever is interested in that niche. I'm sure like people are going to like drop some comments and that's how you go from zero to one. And it's a tedious thing to do in the beginning, and you have to do it again and again until you reach like a tipping point where you don't have to ask people.
And when I say, ask, don't just say, ‘hey, drop your comments”. So be empathetic to them. Don't expect anything in turn and try to like, genuinely ask what you're seeking. be transparent with your ask and whatnot, but some people come to my DMs and they say, “Hey, can you hunt my product”. Dude, you know, I don't even know you, there is some structure you have to have to portray your question as well.
So, for me, I think, from going from zero to end is a really tough task and you have to find these incredible people who are like into your niche. Whatever the content you're into whatever product and do whatever audience you're into. They're genuinely like you, they're learning that they're coming forward to add value.
And, you might be surprised. Some people think that are only very less people who want to genuinely provide value to others, which is absolutely wrong. There are tons of people, just have to find. You have to be very patient with the time to find them. So, don't get disappointed if you're not getting results, it's like I said, it's like a long game to play.
Michael: I just wanted to share one thing. When I launched Product hunt and Sharath was there at the beginning. One of the key things was I had, I remember it was my most engaged tweet ever on Twitter, you can be used as a community and there's 26 people that liked it. And this was back when I had zero followers and I followed up with every single person that liked it. And I said, “Hey, what did you like about it? You know, is there, is there anything I can help you with?” And it was about no code how to build a no-code and I went and not just ask them to promote it, but see, how could I further help them with it. And then those, core people were like, “oh hey”, and then I help them. And then when I launched product hunt, that's how I was able to get my first number one product number on product hunt launch that day. But like just engaging in that one way, you know, I don't think I've seen many people talk about engaging with people, who’ve liked a tweet, but then engage and then, following up with to see how you could further help them, I think it’s just to pay you back off of what you're saying, Sharath something I've learned from you. It's just that, you got to build, you just got to put in the groundwork to build up those relationships with people and help them. And that's actually how Sharath and I became friends on Twitter is, just helping each other in the beginning, building up a community around no code.
Pramod: Awesome, thanks a lot, Michael, and valid points. Sharath just, adding onto that, I think of a couple of points. So how, when you're going from zero to N right, how important is it in terms of, one who we your earliest members are in the community. Second is the,what does it take to, for people to feel comfortable, to be vulnerable in the community, to open up and engage.What are some ways that people can think about? How to make them go from zero to one, or what makes it easier to go from zero to one?
Sharath: Yeah, I think you have to lead by an example, meaning you have to show up, in order to show someone how you can be vulnerable. So become vulnerable in front of them. That's how you lead them. And you set an example, that's why, you have to do this thing very authentically, or else you can't fake this for a long time and always you will be caught. So, I think the short answer is if you want someone to make them vulnerable, be vulnerable. If you, seek something from others, be yourself and put them in your shoes and then act so that they know an example and they can they see some relevancy to it. So, that's how you do it. And you might find it difficult, like nobody will say, “hey, this is not good for me”. Then try again. So, I feel it's more of you giving multiple tries and at some point, someday you just find these incredible people who just say, “Hey, I believe in you, let's do this”
Pramod: And, related to that , I think like there are a couple of questions that came in around, how should they think about, platforms in terms of, what is the ease of the community to engage with each other. There's a ton of options,like it could be, let's say a slack, discord, or like a forum and so on. Is there like right platform for it, or how should people think about where to have the community? And along the journey as well, you know, when they're starting out scaling up how should you?
Sharath: There is no right tool. You just have to pick one and just do things. I feel don't waste time in dwelling where you can optimize before even starting. I would say learn on the way, start a slack group if it's easy. And if you think people can easily join slack, then there you go that’s your answer. If you think that, maybe discord is really simple for people in Web3 space and people are already into Discords. They don't, have to do a bunch of things to join you. That's your answer. So, it depends on your audience and your niche. And at the same time, more than tools speed matters. How fast you execute things and how approachable you are. Like, more than anything. If you're on slack, you build this 10-member slack group, and you're not replying to them. That’s a bad sign. So, I wouldn't worry more about what tool I'm using there are like ton of tools like circle is one of them.
There’re so many other tools like member stack, If I'm not wrong, it's like you build a lot of community-oriented things there. Also you guys are doing something, so it's not about the tools. It is about you who bring things to life and then, iterate and, kind of improve over time.
Pramod: Got it. I think like linked to the tools also, we have a question from the audience, which is like, what are the jobs to be done for a community builder and what is the perfect community building team? Is there a way to define that?
Sharath: I'm a non-believer in perfection. I used to believe in perfection and I did nothing, when I started believing in non-perfection meaning like I don’t believe, then I did so many things. So, I think there is no perfect team and so community building doesn't come from like,” Hey, you have a degree of four years or you have experience in XYZ. It's not something like that. I did completely irrelevant things, as part of my education, but I'm doing things which I never imagined. So, it's more of like, a character-oriented thing. The most important quality is you have to look for the community builder is that people are in kind, are they empathetic are they service-minded. Are they willing to fail? Are they having the least expectations, if not like zero expectations and are they willing to do one extra mile for people without any desires? So, these are some qualities you look for and don't go for credentials, It's irrelevant when it comes to like building a community.
People I know who’ve built communities, they have very irrelevant degree/experience before, but when they started doing these things, take me as an example. I was forced to join an engineering background,as a software engineer and I always hated it. Every single day, I hated going to classes, doing assignments, and all that. I chose building a community because I love it. I find it fun.
So, you have to find people who do things for fun, any hiring advice from me is to basically find people who truly enjoy what they do, nothing to do with the degrees, nothing to do with past experience. So, I'm a product builder. I worked at corporate companies as a product manager. I have literally zero experience in community building, if you asked me in 2018. I did as I learn because I’m putting in action, like, did tweets, write threads, literally be part of many communities, join sessions like these. I was on the other side, I listened to many experts asking questions, becoming very curious. So, find those people. I think those people are there. Believe in me, I'm one of them. So, you just have to like, find those people, you assign them things that they do really well so that, you don't have to worry about it.
Pramod: Got it. Awesome. It’s cognizant of time. I think there are some relevant questions from the audience, so we'll just spotlight a few of them, and then we can do the rapid-fire after that. I think, Mrinal if you're here, so, you had a question about, how scaled communities should think about social currency.
Mrinal: Hey, thank you so much for hosting this, and Sharath I had been a great fan of yours. I have been following your content on Twitter, it's just aspiring.
My question to you is, so I manage Quora as a community, and I just wanted to understand, platforms like Quora, how at a scale like this, they should adopt, strategy around social currency, which essentially give them some sort of a badge or just having a monetization program I know that all the platforms are having monetization program right now. How a new community builder or say a mature community builder decide at what life stage of a community should social currency should be introduced or a monetization program should be introduced?
Sharath: That's a really good question. And I feel a lot of people, including myself, we struggle to put a price when we do things, and most of the times we undervalue ourselves. I would say there are different approach. They're different schools of thought here. I know people who built a tight-knit invite-only kind of communities for free, no charge. They only care about the quality of people, who they are there hanging out with. And on the other side, I've known people who built community with putting gated content, that's one strategy. You just subscribe to certain things which are free. And if you're a content creator, for example, and if you want to monetize it, put it, try to create content and you'll be part of it. I think there is again, no right or wrong answer. It's more of like a gut feeling from your end. And whenever you do, don't undervalue yourself. So, put like X price, you think you would pay. Most of the community building dilemmas like these introspective questions can be solved when you put yourself in their shoes. So, I don't know how you measure it, maybe let's say 20,000 rupees, for example, for the sake of the conversation, if you are willing to pay 20,000, do it and more than monetizing, think about the quality of people you are letting in. So, pick and choose and do interviews. There should be some filter on top of monetizing. So that you have both a, you're building this small business at the same time and you're making quality, and mostly it's like you've a gut feeling from your end and go with your gut. The worst that can happen is nobody will pay. So, you're not losing anything. I would say, just try and then fail instead of assuming, what is the best way. So, most of my answers for what is the best way questions is, there is none. You just have to try it and learn from it. Give it a shot, If something works for you, pass it along with other people so that they learn from you.
Mrinal: Thank you so much Sharath. This is really helpful. Thank you
Pramod: Thanks Mrinal. So, the next one we have from Katie. Katie, I think you had posted a question. So, Katie, if you're here if you could just unmute and then, just ask the question. I'm unable to spotlight you for some reason.
Katie: Yeah, so our question is regarding the beginning stages. Our organization’s very small. So, we don't have someone to full-time dedicate themselves to this community, but we really want it to grow and not end up dying because of that. How do we pool our resources in a way that keeps it alive while only being able to dedicate small amounts of time to it?
Sharath: Yeah, it's a tough thing, especially when you're in a small team, you know, and especially a dedicated team who have things to do. For example, a product team, they do product things, sales team does sales things and all that. So, my suggestion is, divide and conquer, for example, you engage with the community for two hours a day or one hour a day. First of all, start really, really small. If you can spend five minutes a day over the next 365 days, I'm sure you're going to be better than today. A lot of people kind of overthink that because they want immediate results. I famously believe in this quote, “If you deploy infinite patience, you will get immediate results”
So, you basically have to be literally very patient, like do things in action. So, for you, I don't know how many people are there, but let's say if you have five people, start allocating yourself like an hour a day and look for things you will find cues. And the amazing thing for you is you have an opportunity where you can invite people, to leave the community at your startup right. Now look for signs from the community, who's really engaging, who's doing an amazing job, phenomenal job who is actually outcompeting you,who are like the founders of the company. Pick them, hire them immediately, and then you don't have to worry about the community because they are doing it by themselves. So, I've seen many people do that. Many founders do that literally like pick people from the communities and, start hiring people.
Katie: This is a sort of a follow-up question to that. So once you find those people who are really engaged already, how do you continue to incentivize them in a way that makes them want to keep going?
Sharath: Yeah. So, celebrate them. There are multiple ways you can incentivize socially. Giive them social capital, meaning, give them shoutouts, say how they're making an impact in your community, feature them in your newsletter, interview them, give them that spotlight, you know, people crave for attention. Create that attention and give it to very less people. Number two, I think the most important, and the most amazing thing that works well is you building a swag program, literally make it exclusive and we’re good at Product Hunt. We just don't give away things, for everybody.
So, we're very limited, very exclusive, and people crave for a t-shirt from product hunt. So, build that exclusively in terms of swag. Literally spend or allocate some money for that. Build like these exclusive things only you can offer to people. So, swag and even further definitely, if you think they can add more value, start like including them as part of your team, meaning they can be like advisors,or you know partly incentivize, maybe give some shares have some sort of allocations with them. So, there are so many things you can, basically incentivize, but these are some that work.
Pramod: Pedro, if you’re here, you had a question on the community advisory council. I think we didn't just ask the question.
Pedro: Sure. So, it is basically many people who started with the councils, a customer advisory council or board, whatever you want to call it. And some tips on how to get this started, like you just mentioned about how to reward the best members, but like just some general tips. I have already some ideas, but maybe have something I can add to my strategy.
Sharath: Are you talking about incentives?
Pedro: Yeah, so like, let's go was the basis. How can I select a group of people that is going to help me improve my community and also my product? Like how I select them, how I interact with them, and things like that?
Sharath: You basically have to be very active in the community to observe these folks like who they are, identify these people right? Like I said before, people who out-compete you at your own company, and they're not part of the company, those are the people you should bring in as quickly as possible. I think to identify them, first of all, based on their consistency, their quality, the value that they are adding, the content they're creating and, maybe create a closed slack group with them and invite them in if they're okay to hop on calls with you, go on calls with them as a group and discuss your intention of bringing them on board and once, everybody agrees and everybody gives a thumbs up just put that strategy into action. And you can, like I said, if you are a product company, give them lifetime deals.
Basically I would say I would just give my product for free, that way they just don't have to like pay me forever. Intrigue them with that exclusivity/respect. So, identifying is really key, bringing them together is also key. And you, have to look for signs,look for data. For example, if you have a Google analytics or any product analytics things, who is the user who’s coming daily and using your product and creating content and putting it out and putting their way. So, I think those people are the ones you should. Have a criteria, I can’t exactly say, how to pick people, because it depends on the sort of the startup. You have to build your own criteria and then, look for it.
Pramod: Perfect, thanks a lot. Pedro.
Thanks a lot, Sharath, this is really amazing, and thanks a lot for the questions, everyone. We will be jumping into breakout rooms now. I know the time is short, but we'll try and in the subsequent versions have more time for breakout rooms. But, yeah we'll keep you posted.
This is the first of the series for us, we will be doing another one, a couple of weeks down the line, so do sign up on Threado and stay tuned for the next event.
The first ever episode of Threado Community Hour featuring Sharath Kuruganty of ProductHunt and our very own Pramod Rao
Learnings from the second episode of Threado Community Hour featuring Anamaria Dorgo of Butter, and our very own Pramod Rao.