In the fast-paced world of running an agency or freelance business, it's easy to have your world revolve around the next client fire or internal problem that needs solving. It's difficult to pick your head up and think beyond your inbox.
However, some of the greatest potential insights and opportunities can stem from doing just that. By finding time to step out of the weeds of your day-to-day, you can gain a new lens on your business. One of the best means of doing so is to find a way to leave the office and join a community of peers.
Communities have served as the backbone of social and economic growth throughout human history. Pioneers exploring new parts of the world depended on both forming and joining communities of like-minded folks for their very survival. Although things are no longer quite that dire, communities continue to serve as a vital component to personal growth.
Whether professional, academic, religious, athletic, or other form, communities allow us to expand our social network, create a reputation for ourselves, and engage in new activities and opportunities. These same benefits can apply for your business as well.
By viewing 'community' as part of your growth strategy, you'll find opportunities to increase referrals, establish thought leadership, and gain insights on key business challenges.
Four types of communities to grow your business
How do we define community within the context of business and what types of communities are we talking about?
The after-hours group of coworkers that grabs beers every Thursday is a community. The online forum where customers self-service their problems and share product insights is a community. The monthly breakfast gathering of local business owners is a community.
Each of these are an example of the types of communities that could exist within or around your business. More specifically, however, there are a few types of communities that are more commonly recognized and associated with business.
1. Professional development organizations
Professional development organizations are some of your more 'classic' business communities. These include groups such as Toastmasters, the famed organization for folks interested in improving their public speaking.
These types of communities tend to focus on skill development that can apply towards professional advancement. You might find that these communities are an easy way to build relationships with other folks looking to improve the same areas of their professional skills.
2. Professional networking organizations
Professional networking organizations tend to be the traditional mixer that some folks love/hate, depending on their inclination towards networking. These include organizations such as BNI, whose focus is on helping businesses develop referral relationships with other businesses in their area. These tend to be regionally oriented, and geared towards folks whose sole goal is referral marketing.
3. Industry associations
Industry associations tend to be a great source for staying abreast with the latest trends/opportunities within your industry. They often have some sort of membership qualifications and dues, but in-turn could offer discounts on commonly needed services or events.
These communities tend to be very event-oriented, either in the form of networking or professional education through panels and presentations specific to your industry. A classic example is the American Marketing Association.
Meetups tend to be a bit more of an organic community that's led by some independent organizer with a focus on a particular topic. The in-person nature of them lend to a more regional focus, but often these meetups are part of a larger organization that facilitates the logistics across various chapters. A great example is the Shopify Meetup series that has sprung up events across major cities around the world, bringing together Shopify partners, merchants, and enthusiasts.
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Digital vs physical communities
One of the greatest evolutions within the world of community is the capability of expanding beyond in-person participation. Social networks, forums, hangouts, and other digital technologies have allowed for the growth of online communities that greatly outpace that of physical communities.
Although the connections might not necessarily be as deeply felt, any one of these forms is just as viable of a source for community. In fact, you might find that online communities serve as a better means of meeting like-minded folks as your interests become more and more niche.
It might be difficult to gather a group of 50+ people with the same passion for 'anime-inspired UI design' in your local town, as you could find online. Here are a few places to start looking.
1. Stack Overflow
Although geared more towards technical conversations, Stack Overflow is a vibrant community of technology professionals and is a deep resource for questions across almost any technical challenge. They seem to dominate the search results when looking for anything platform/language-specific, and incorporate a voting system to better vet/rank suggested solutions.
Conversations that are more geared towards ecommerce, particularly those who are fans of Shopify, could turn to eCommTalk. eCommTalk is a Slack-based community of ecommerce professionals that provides an open forum to ask questions, and provide advice for those in the ecommerce space.
Long known as one of the most active social networks focused on connecting people of specific interests, Reddit has a number of channels that could serve as resources for freelancers or agency owners. It's a bit of the Wild West at times, but also serves as a place to voice thoughts on almost any topic.
4. Young Entrepreneurs Council
The YEC is an invite-only community for entrepreneurs looking to connect with other entrepreneurs across a variety of industries. In addition to a wide-range of other benefits, YEC boosts a very active private Facebook community where members actively ask/offer advice critical to growing a business.
How communities actually drive growth
So you're an active member of one or more of these communities — how are you actually going to drive growth in your business? Most commonly, there are three primary means by which you'll experience growth via community.
1. Growth via referrals
Depending on the community and your role within it, referrals are a natural extension to the relationships you establish. If you become known as a reliable and quality service provider within a specific community, you'll likely benefit from occasional referrals as other members look to help out their clients when their services lack. A simple way to get started with growing your referrals: ask. You’d be surprise how receptive people would be to offering a referral if you ask them.
2. Growth via leads
In addition to referrals, some communities could serve as a direct source of leads if you find yourself in a 'blended' membership. Industry associations tend to put you in a room with folks similar to yourself, but meetups often serve as a great means of meeting potential clients, if you connect with someone looking for your services.
Your best bet for finding potential leads in these communities is to be hyper-focused on which ones you participate in. If your target clients are interior designers, spend your time in communities focused on that industry.
3. Growth via insights
Possibly a more hidden benefit to these communities are the potential insights you could gather on problems or questions that have come up in your business. Organizations such as Entrepreneur’s Organization are a fantastic way for entrepreneurs to connect with other entrepreneurs who've experienced similar problems, and possibly have solutions to share.
Don’t be afraid to be open and honest about the challenges you're facing in your business. Chances are, someone else in that community is facing those same challenges, or has overcome them in the past.
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The hidden value of community leadership
Although simple participation in these communities can be a great way to experience the above benefits, the most effective way to utilize community to grow your business is by taking a leadership role. By founding or managing a community, you put yourself in a position to experience a few key benefits.
1. Ensure your voice is heard
Depending on the size of the community you're participating in, it's possible to find yourself without a strong voice. By taking a leadership position, you guarantee that you have both a voice to influence and inform the community.
If you have a vision for how you'd like the community to develop, or how you'd like to best utilize the community to grow your business, you'll want to ensure you're at the helm of any key decision making.
2. Position yourself as an authority
Leadership will provide the outlet for you to share your thoughts on relevant topics within your community. If there is an opportunity for referrals or inbound leads, demonstrating thought leadership is critical to growing your reputation within the community and interest from other people. Being known as the 'connector' or leader of the group is a sure-fire way of establishing that reputation.
3. Connect with other leaders
Leadership puts you in a position where you can leverage the group to connect with other leaders. Whether that includes leaders within the group itself, or outside parties such as guest speakers, sponsors, or press, leadership provides the clout necessary to open those relationships.
How to start your own community
If you feel inspired to take a leadership role and possibly start your own community, what are core ingredients you'll want to have in place? Although there are a variety of defining factors to any community, there are three core principles to consider.
1. Shared struggle
At the heart of any community is some sort of shared struggle. It's the thing that motivates you to come together initially. Perhaps it's to pioneer a new technology or to establish the rights of an underserved demographic. Regardless of the specific issue at hand, people want their problems solved, and will feel stronger about a community that could potentially help them in solving those problems.
2. Shared vision
On the flipside of the struggle/problem that you're addressing is the vision you have for the community. Perhaps it's to create an education series around your struggle, perhaps it's to raise funds for a specific cause, or maybe it's to assemble the largest group possible of likeminded folks. Giving some sort of definition to your community can help lend clarity to people considering joining.
3. Shared identity
The final, but equally important, element is that of a shared identity. At the core of any community is some shared set of values or attributes that are commonly held amongst its members.
Perhaps it's just the struggle or vision that you've identified, but often it will include something a bit more specific than that. It might be the location of members, industry, ethnicity, or any other attribute that makes your community unique from another.
Once you've identified the aspects above, the rest is really logistics. Although that aspect might seem to be the most challenging if you're not keen on planning, the good news is that the logistics can fluctuate.
Whether online or offline, the most important thing is identifying a core group of people that share the ingredients above, so you can get things started. How, where, and when you engage can all evolve, although a consistent date/time/frequency/location/format certainly helps to make things easier for your members. Early on, don't get caught up in sponsorship or membership fees. Prove that there is interest/demand in this community, and that you can stimulate some sort of growth.
How community has shaped my growth
Why do I feel so passionate about community and the role it can serve in growing your business?
I hit a wall in the first few years of running my agency, Growth Spark. We were growing, but constantly running into problems. After numerous coffee chats with other agency owners sharing the same problems, I decided we'd all benefit from coming together to discuss our respective lessons learned.
What started as a casual after-hours gathering over beers one night, turned into a quarterly event series known as Managing an Agency Business (MAB) that boasts a membership of 500+ people.
MAB has become a cornerstone to growing the relationships we have with other agencies, and a referral channel that represents 30 per cent of our entire business. I consider our commitment to establishing and growing this community a hugely influential factor to the growth we've experienced as a business, and encourage any other freelancer/agency to consider how they might be able to do the same.