Building a Developer Community in Five Steps

I recently had a call with a former colleague who asked a simple question:

How do we build a developer community for my company?

A few years ago, that answer would have been simple: Swarm the field with developer evangelists, sponsor open source projects, sponsor events, write blog posts & guides, measure all of it, double down on what works, reduce what doesn’t work, and hope for the best. While the specifics were a little different, that worked at the successful developer companies for roughly a decade.

Unfortunately, that ignores two factors:

  • First, money is a different beast now. Good devrel people are expensive, sponsorship prices have gone up, and our budgets are smaller than ever.
  • Second, it’s survivorship bias. There are hundreds of developer-oriented companies that followed that playbook and no longer exist.

So what should we do instead?

Run an Open Source Project

Having a successful open source project or three is the absolute gold standard for building a successful community. On a day to day basis, your team and your community can collaborate, plan, and accomplish things together. Over time, you can recruit from this community to hire, write blog posts, and highlight the great things people are doing.

Of course, to get to the point of having a popular open source project, you have to build something useful, demonstrate it’s useful, and get it front of the right people so we’re back to the original problem of “how do you build a community?” which means we haven’t really answered the question.

Start with your Customers

The primary people who care about a tool are the people buying it. They’ll start with some clear, concrete questions:

  • What is your product good at?
  • Where does it fail?
  • How does it fit into their own workflow and/or products?

Those are all easy, obvious things your community should address. Therefore, to bootstrap your community, you should use your own engineering team, marketing team, and those customers and prospects. Make your community the default place where people can find help, share lessons learned, and understand what is being built how.

With your earliest and/or biggest customers, this addresses another challenge.

These customers aren’t just making a bet on your product but on your company as a whole. They need to know: Are you good to work with? What are your product goals and roadmap? Will you be around months and years from now?

These are more abstract questions that you can answer directly but they sound like platitudes. A more compelling answer is both interacting with you and your team and watching how you interact with others. How your team talks about and addresses updates, dumb questions, and good questions with hard answers speak to your team, capabilities, and organization as a whole.

Steps to Bootstrap your Developer Community

First, get a place for them to gather. Slack is an okay choice but the free version is not discoverable by Google and your history disappears over time. The value of your community gets a half life. Discord is another option but comes with an unprofessional reputation and will be blocked by some companies. At the moment, I’m a fan of threaded forums or even just Github Discussions.

Second, get your marketing team active. Make sure that every article, guide, and cool community integration or blog post is cross posted for coverage. Amplify the good stuff as much as possible. These also give you a steady drumbeat of activity.

Next, get your engineering (and sales engineering) team active. Ensure they answer questions thoughtfully and in clear, technically accurate ways. Highlight good answers and turn those answers into guides.

Then, get your customers and prospects active. Make sure they know where to ask what questions. If you’re deep in a sales cycle, the community probably isn’t the right place but for initial discovery and even day to day work, it’s a good option. The more your prospects can have positive interactions with happy customers, the better.

Finally, close the loop. Make sure your product and engineering teams get feedback from customers. Make sure your marketing team highlights great use cases and turns useful answers into actionable articles, guides, and blog posts.

Community Builds Community

Then don’t stop. No matter what happens, keep going.

It takes time. It takes energy. It takes effort. And it never looks like it’s paying off at first. Even if you metrics are doubling, it will look like rounding error at the earliest stages. As time goes on, the trend is all the matters and the only way to drive that is ongoing, consistent effort.

If you have motivated people to create, write, develop, and amplify, you can make it work.