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  • April 7, 2011

Building Community

I have the very great fortune to review and discuss some amazing client projects in my role with Happy Cog. In my short time here, I’ve seen some truly ambitious community-based initiatives proposed. Decorative Illustration Across the board, they each seem to identify an interesting need in the market; but the projects that stand out are those that have thought through cultivating the community they hope to build. A community without members is sad.

In the last year, it has been my privilege to help organize and launch a start up design community called PhilaMade. PhilaMade facilitates dialogues dedicated to “celebrating, inspiring, and cultivating creative brilliance in the Philadelphia community.” Without a blueprint, we’ve managed to grow a network of active participants, strong brand recognition, and a ton of momentum. The lessons we’ve learned in our first year lay out a simple road map to getting any community, online or offline, off the ground.

If we build it, will anyone come?

Does anyone seek the community you have in mind? Without a mandate for the community you plan, you are painting with the lights off. PhilaMade launched from a series of email and phone interviews. We identified and spoke with creative leaders in the Philadelphia community we hoped to engage. The interviews yielded our most valuable catalysts: perspectives from our target audience, and a group of contributors invested in our community prior to launch. Not only did we emerge from these interviews with our outline, we came out with an active leadership team dedicated to shaping and growing the project. We essentially performed stakeholder interviews like we do for a web project at Happy Cog.

Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd

This is where you ultimately succeed or fail. Without a network of truly interested participants, your effort yields a lot of “talking at”, which is the death knell for any community. The balance is driving interest while curating membership. To succeed, we needed creative leaders to engage. We also needed to insulate them from:

  1. Serial Attenders – You know these folks, they’re at EVERY tweetup, meetup, barcamp and bandcamp. Lovely folks, but often not content drivers.
  2. Bear Traps – Vendors looking to mine your email list, job seekers looking to spring their portfolios on the unsuspecting, or anyone really lying in wait with ulterior motives.
  3. Mean People – Mean people suck.

This is where the heavy lifting happens, but it gets easier over time. By recruiting our board and building rapport and interest via our interviews, we stacked the deck. We were able to leverage the reputations of our participants when recruiting additional members. The “If “so-and-so” is involved, I’m intrigued” effect. Every time we added to our roster, it became easier to recruit.

Don’t be afraid to learn from others

When we launched, we had a clean slate, which was actually very intimidating. The first meeting existed in a vacuum, without context. While this was the first PhilaMade meeting in recorded history, it wasn’t the first meeting in recorded history. Local groups like PhillyCHI and Build Guild have been holding great gatherings for a long time, and there was a ton of good stuff to learn from them. We were original enough to be memorable, but derivative enough to be successful.

Build a Brand

Over time, the organization as a whole developed and shaped our mission. An attitude evolved, a point of view was refined, and a voice was identified. Our own Chris Cashdollar then stepped in to build all of this into an identity. The positive response to Chris’s work on Dribbble facilitated its warm reception within the group. We accommodated this interest by producing PhilaMade buttons and stickers for members, and their passion for this mark has generated better guerrilla advertising than we could have anticipated.


Your community will erode without nourishment. We needed to deliver an experience that our members could not find elsewhere. To that end, we hosted our first Show & Tell. Two design teams presented projects to the PhilaMade membership outlining process artifacts, insights into technology, team collaboration, and measured ROI. The presentations were recorded and are destined for the PhilaMade website. We produced something and committed to deliver more. In the end, we rewarded our constituency for remaining interested through our first year. Today, they are part of a community they know is dedicated to delivering valuable content, a brand they are happy to associate with, and excitement about our plans for the future.

We’d love to learn more about how you or someone you know has been able to grow a community from an idea. Tweet your response, or better yet, write a post of your own and link to it here.

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