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For startups, investors, and politicians: Critical lessons in community building

A thriving community of passionate enthusiasts is on nearly everyone’s wishlist. It can provide feedback and show early signs of having a fit with your audience. It can generate tons of attention for your cause through word-of-mouth, and can support in building your, personal and professional, brand that’s known as an authority on your specific topic.

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Whether its startups with a service that is aimed at bringing people together, or influencers providing a platform for communities to bond over a mutual feeling of importance for specific topics, it seems as though more and more people are recognizing the importance of community building.

Where strategies and goals have become a common ground for discussion, the day-to-day tactics of creating and managing a community are less straightforward and known. The ones who support a thriving community are seen as wizards who spend a lot of time on hand-to-hand operations. And who are most often regarded as the spider in the web – which would make communities hard to scale.

“Building communities may feel as hard work, but when you’re personally attached to a cause, it’s all about getting started and finding the right people to run with you,” says Ruben Nieuwenhuis. And he’s one to tell.

As the private director of StartupAmsterdam, Nieuwenhuis was tasked with getting Amsterdam into the top 3 tech hubs in Europe, designing the plan, and setting up what would eventually become 42 different projects, businesses, and services.

After four years of working with partners ranging from Booking.com, TomTom, and Adyen to startup communities like StartupBootcamp and Rockstart, Nieuwenhuis and his partner Viktor Bos decided to focus on deeper issues the tech hub was struggling with, giving birth to TechConnect. Intrigued by its cultural diversity, they dove into how they could make tech available to everyone. Eventually leading to Amsterdam being the most inclusive and diverse tech hub in the world. With the region being an example to cities and countries world wide.

“We realized there are 3 reasons why it’s important to involve everyone. First, while a startups’ software and hardware can be great, diversity is needed to make a company more efficient. Next, there is a huge demand for technically skilled people. And last but not least, it was Van der Laan’s last request (former Amsterdam mayor, passed in 2017), for its citizens to keep Amsterdam the caring city it has always been.”

In this exclusive interview, Nieuwenhuis draws on those stories to explain step by step how startups, investors, and politicians should approach community building. Highlighting three valuable lessons on how to start, grow, and scale as more formal structures take hold. Nieuwenhuis offers up advice ranging from explaining your ambition to finding the members to take over control when you have tons of different projects. Making it an indispensable guide for startups, investors, and politicians on any level alike. As Ruben would put it, Onwards!

1. Explain your ambition, repeatedly

Nieuwenhuis finds himself repeatedly explaining his ambition. “Even though your ambition sounds straightforward to you, it needs to resonate to someone’s else’s experiences. By repeating this over and over again, others will start to recognize your message. Which will then eventually turn into a movement of people, customers, and businesses who are all aligned on the same goal.”

“We spent a year learning about the environment. Looking at the obstacles people face, what words they use, and what conditions need to be in place. We spent countless hours, weeks, months in meetings with our community. Learning people need role models, and what to do if there aren’t any. Learning to use their words, instead of ours. And taking away barriers together. And we continue on this path. This week I’ve had over 100 meetings. People who understand the ambition, who tweet about it, talk about it, and introduce us to the next, possibly game changing, individual. This leads to terrible meetings once in a while, but hey, that’s all part of the game.”

2. Lead by example

Some people may think community building doesn’t apply to what they’re creating. Or even if they do, they don’t know where to start. According to Nieuwenhuis it’s pretty straightforward. “Just start. In the early days of a project this means you are responsible for all the practical operations. From making posters to having sales meetings, to contract negotiations, dividing shares, and so on. As the project evolves, you’ll be able to delegate. What’s important to remember is that you’re giving people something to tag along to. When we started TekkieWorden, Booking.com immediately became interested. And with such partners, you can really make a difference.”

When there’s so much to do, how do you decide then, what are the right things to be working on? In Nieuwenhuis’ experience, building a community should be done the startup way. By testing and validating the value proposition. Through, again, talking with your community. “We found out teenagers who were getting trained for manual and practical activities, had no idea what they could do in tech. And when they did, what their barriers to entering that market were. We couldn’t have found out any other way.”

Eventually, true communities bring people together over what they care about. Offering members a chance to contribute to what is being made on their own terms. “Sometimes you know exactly who you need and they do amazing things. Sometimes someone can be a bad call and they turn out not capable enough, or will experience stress leading to a burnout. If you’re trying to discern whether someone’s a good fit or not, ask yourself: does this person share our passion? And if they’re not, there’s a strong chance they will not be valuable. Motivation is the most important thing to look for.”

3. Find the right people to take over

You also need to remember that you can’t do it all by yourself. “You need different people for different projects. In one situation, you’ll need a diesel, for the next someone’s who’s all out in energy and creativity. You need to find the right person for the job. And remind yourself that if it doesn’t work out, it’s only in the projects’ best interest to get rid of that person.”

“Then if you really want to make a difference, you need people to feel like it’s their thing. Others will not work on a project day and night when they feel they’re doing it for you. Without understating the importance, all you need to do is to make sure the team operates as a team and to find a suitable business model for every project.”

“To delegate and educate is my motto,” Nieuwenhuis concludes. “Sometimes you share your opinion on where something’s heading and how to reach its goals, but it’s still the team’s project.” This doesn’t mean you let go of everything. ”You delegate what’s been validated and where mistakes can be made. You don’t let others find your first customers either. You delegate what others can do in a similar sense, or even better. You’re basically building machines. Again, sometimes people are not a good fit, we operate in a fast-paced environment, and that’s ok.”

Bringing it together

For those who are still interested in building communities, or joining one of his projects, Nieuwenhuis suggests reading The hard things of hard things, by Ben Horowitz and The secrets of Sand Hill road, by Scott Kupor. So you know how investors and entrepreneurs think. “Doing your own thing is tough and requires a mentality beyond the regular 9 to 5 jobs. But when you get to work on your passion and ambition, the rewards are so much higher.”