How can you gather a community to work with you?

Android has become 80% of the smartphone market, TED is now viewed by billions of people, and Let’s Do It is picking up tons of waste around the world thanks to the open philosophies that enable random strangers to collaborate with their projects. 

Openness coupled with a community is powerful. 

In the latest two posts here and here we saw what contents you could open. 

In short, there are 8 things:

  • Software
  • Hardware
  • Designs
  • Data or Reports
  • Processes or Manuals
  • Artistic creations
  • Space
  • Money

But surprisingly enough, opening content and making it freely available won’t automatically make people collaborate with you and spread your idea. There are tons of free content available on the internet that will compete with whatever free thing you publish. 

So what’s the secret sauce? How do you manage to organize a community of people who want to contribute so that they can give a useful contribution to the project and create something much bigger and interesting than your initial project?

In this article and in the next one we’ll cover the three things you have to do before you get others excited to collaborate with you:

  1. Find an audience of peers that will be interested in your content
  2. Define clear roles and tasks where they can collaborate
  3. Think in advance about how you’ll reward your community for collaborating with you

Still nebulous?

Let’s get down to business and see how it works in real life:

1/ Where can you find an audience who will contribute to your project?

When looking for contributors, there’s a common confusion. People share their idea with their paying clients, hoping they’ll innovate with them. But they end up seeing how these people use their idea for free and how they never contribute back. 

Bummer. You just killed all the profits of your idea. 

This happens because paying clients are paying us to make something for them, and consume the product or service we offer to get its benefits. If we share it for free, they’ll be even more eager to do it, and get even more benefit out of it since its free.

So how do you prevent this? You also go look for people who will help you improve your idea because they want it to be much more powerful.

There is a difference between a traditional business and an open one to acknowledge:

  • A Traditional Business is marketing to attract paying clients.
  • An Open Business is marketing to attract both free and paying clients, but also to attract contributors who’d be happy to contribute to their efforts.

But who are these contributors? They are your peers, also known as your competitors. 

They are people who could create what you do, but who would benefit from standing on top of the shoulders of your software, design templates, manuals, data… or whatever other content you want to open.

We’ll see how to motivate them to join in the next part, but before that, let me give you some examples of what these paying clients and peer audiences look like for successful open source projects:

As you can see from the examples above, every open project has to reach out to two completely different audiences. 

One audience that won’t contribute to the improvement of the project because it doesn’t have the time or the skill, but it will pay others to set it up and maintain it for them, and will gladly talk about it. These people are going to fund the open business. 

And an open project also has to reach to a second audience. One that won’t pay for the product or service because it has the skills to install and maintain it itself. They will use your open project because it saves them a lot of time and money in not reinventing the wheel. And in return these people are willing to improve it for their own use or the use of its community. 

This audience is the one that is going to help the business outpace any closed competition who simply can’t keep up with what a well structured community can create.

So even if your idea is freely available, your paying customers will still pay you to install and maintain your product, to teach them, to curate the products created by the community or to simply access the community you’ve built, because your product has simply been made better collectively.

Takeaways:

  • Make a list of who is your paying audience. Who is already paying for the content you want to share openly in the current market?  Nothing beats free. So whatever people have been paying for, to equal quality, they’ll be delighted to get it for free. And this should drive tons of traffic and attention to your open source project, but also to your paying products. 
  • Now make a list of the people with the skills to build on top of your idea. These could be competitors, other professionals, students, the general public, your current partners, clients, providers, bloggers, people speaking different languages or as in Unplash case, photographers…

2/ What contributions can you open for the community?

Now you got an idea of who could contribute to your project because they want to use your creation.

But how can you make it as easy as possible for them to contribute BACK to your project if they want to? 

It’s all about defining roles. 

We’ll see first which roles you can open that will benefit the project, and in the next post we’ll get a look at their motivations and how you could reward them for contributing.

Let’s check a few examples. In previous posts I’ve already talked about Open Compute, Facebook’s open hardware project where they share everything about their data center infrastructure.

As you can see in the screenshot below, they’ve created a “How to contribute” page that shows interested people which roles they can take in the project:

As you can see they’ve created eight roles to enable contributors to submit things like new specs, to sending client testimonials or white papers.

All pretty powerful tasks that help both Facebook to improve its infrastructure, and their contributors to access an infrastructure they can use and tweak without having to do all of its maintenance.

Here’s another example taken from TED’s footer. Potential contributors can easily find roles where they can collaborate: 

People can contribute to TED in many ways. They can offer themselves as speakers, as translators, as TEDx event organizers or even as Alumni, where former TED participants can support each others journey’s.

People can obviously collaborate in many more ways if they want to, but by limiting the options, TED is making it much easier for others to find an easy task to jump to and taking the step of contributing.

There are many more roles you could open for your community.

Here’s a list to give you some more inspiration of the possibilities ahead of you:

Contributing Code or New Features

For software or hardware projects, this is a no-brainer. The Linux, WordPress, Arduino or Adafruit communities (along with many many others) are contributing new code or features to the core project every day. 

Here’s an example from all the roles WordPress has made available over time in the Get Involved page:

They’ve grown so big that they’ve made the contributions more precise over time. Now people can contribute to different features like Plugins or Themes, as well as to Core or the translations of the blogging platform technology.

Free Code Camp is another interesting case that has powerfully empowered its community of software development students to get experience by contributing to open source projects used by nonprofits. This initiative has birthed open source alternative to mainstream projects. For example, Mail for Good is an alternative to Mailchimp that costs almost nothing to use to send millions of emails if you host it in your own server.

And to make it simpler to get new people on board, other open projects (here and here) are even flagging what tasks are for beginners so it’s more than easy to start contributing. 

Contributing to creating media content

This is a very powerful way to attract new people to your community. You create a media that covers topics that are interesting to your audience. And once you have regular readers, then you offer them the chance to write and enrich the publication. They get to share their own content to and direct traffic to their projects, and you get to create more content, to attract more people and to spread the message of the change you’re seeking much faster.

TED has done this extremely well by enabling people to organize their own TEDx events and re-using the creative commons content generated at these events. It’s good for TED because it creates more quality content to post on their platform and attract a larger audience and sponsors. And it’s good for TEDx organisers because they get a trusted brand to attract their own audience, and they can build a network of like-minded people and spread ideas they care about.

Unsplash has done it by enabling photographers to give their photos. By giving a few photos out of the thousands they’ve made, photographers can piggyback on the attention and audience Unsplash has created to direct this audience to their own freelance work. And it’s much easier than competing with the millions of people posting photos on Instagram.

And Free Code Camp has also use this idea masterfully to create a Medium Channel followed by over five hundred thousand people. 

First Quincy Larson, it’s founder, created the initial content that attracted the initial community. 

But when he got too busy writing and developing the actual Free Code Camp platform, he slowed down on his writing and moved to an editor role after opening the role of writer for others to submit their own publications, multiplying his capacity to create content by orders of magnitude. 

Once Quincy couldn’t keep up with the pace of editing the contributions, he also opened the role of editor for others to edit the submissions of the community writers. By doing this, Free Code Camp has created Medium’s largest technical publication and a great source of awareness and traffic for his non-profit project.

Contributing to the documentation and support of a project:

Documentation is a pretty thankless task. Once you’ve invented something, you generally would like to move on to the next thing and keep innovating. But it’s also a key part of the spreading of a project. It generally covers things from design, to how people can help or how they can get started.

To share some of the load, if your community believes in your project you can invite them to help create good documentation to let people help themselves when they get stuck. A docs team is responsible for creating documentation and will always be on the look-out for other writers to help them. 

First, identify areas that are becoming bottlenecks for the development of your community.  Then gather with your community and spread the documentation of these items among different members. You’ll see how this simple system can help you scale your efforts much more quickly and simply.

Here are a few examples of how Ubuntu, WordPress or Ethereum invite their community to help on documentation.

Contributing to the translation

Enabling a community of translators can be a transcendent step in the life of a project. 

Why?

Because it opens your project to audiences all around the world. Not only because you can get new customers elsewhere, but because your impact now starts spreading beyond the places that speak the languages you speak.

Cory Doctorow’s books have been translated by its community in dozens of languages, helping spread the virus faster and further than the english speaking countries covered by his book editor, reaching millions of people on its way.

TED has become a global phenomenon thanks to its community of translators. It all started when a group of passionate viewers around the world asked if they could translate talks in order to share them with friends and family. In 2009, 200 volunteer translators created 300 translations in 40 languages. In 2018, more than 30,000 volunteers have published more than 126,000 translations in 116 languages (and counting). This simple idea has helped TED reach new audiences, new TEDx organizers and reinforce its position to attract larger sponsorships.

And many software projects like Free Code Camp, Ubuntu or Blender, among thousands of other projects, have also spread worldwide thanks to making it as easy as possible for its community to contribute to its translations.

Organising events

One powerful way to get your community together to create change is to encourage its members to organize events.

Fairphone invites its community to organize workshops, classroom or work events or to organize meetups with local Fairphoners and make their movement grow. To facilitate it they give their own guidelines to help put together a workshop easily.

In 2008, Let’s Do It started an event that attracted 50,000 people in Estonia to clean up the entire country in just five hours. In 2011 the Let’s Do It Foundation was established to spread this model to clean—one country in one day. The Foundation documented how to organize these actions. And since that time, people all over the world have organized events in 169 countries that have gathered over 35 million people to clean their regions. 

Free Code camp started as a platform to teach how to become a developer for free. But soon, its members started to organize their own Meetups or Facebook groups to meet physically and learn with people going through the same learning journey.

If you go to meetup.com and search for Free Code Camp gatherings, you can see that there are now 84 Free Code Camp events all over the world that gather tens of thousands of people.

TEDx or the Repair Café are also great examples of how a movement wouldn’t go very far if its members weren’t empowered to organize their own events. TEDx is now organized in over 2000 events per year, and the Repair café has taken place in over 1800 places.

An interesting side note is that bringing food and drinks, or even getting others to bring it potluck style, can be a great catalyst to attract people and create a feeling of belonging in your community. 

Movements like the Repair Café, Ouishare and many other gatherings attracted their first public with food and drinks and people stayed, and then people stayed because they liked what they saw. 

Opening Bug Cleaning

You and I haven’t met, but I’m sure about this. You’re making mistakes. And if you are not making mistakes you can do better. That’s true for me too. 

And that’s why opening our ideas is great to shed lights on what we can improve or correct quickly. Outside experts or users can tell what’s not working, and also point out areas of improvement.

Software projects have traditionally benefited from its community of users pointing out to bugs that needed fixing. This has become increasingly easy with bug trackers and tools like Github to help organize this community contribution.

But it’s also true outside of the software world.

When Patagonia shared its Footprint Chronicles — an online report of their supply chain practices — they did their best to show their customers how everything was made and in which conditions:

“Through the Footprint Chronicles we celebrate the practices we are proud of AND we reveal those, which we are not so happy about. Building a sustainable, environmentally conscious supply chain is an ongoing process. Some materials are really hard to source in ways that fully align with our ideals. But we see this as an ongoing process and challenge to improve. By being transparent we hold the bar up for ourselves, and we invite our customers and others to keep the light on us and to help us figure out how to improve.

It’s turned out that the more honest and open we are and more candid about what’s going on, the more our customers want to engage with us in our efforts to be a better global citizen.” reports Casey Sheahan, Patagonia’s former CEO.

Being transparent about your manufacturing processes, your code or designs can let other experts (that you haven’t hired) to peak into your work and share new and better ways of going about it.  

So in your case, would opening your manufacturing processes or designs enable other experts, professionals or even students to help you improve your project?

Promotion

Your community can also help you spread your idea so much wider because there is no paywall to share its value.

When Netscape released its browsers code in open source and turned it into Mozilla, it’s marketing director created the Spread Firefox campaign to get the word out. People who were fed up with Internet Explorer’s dominance rallied behind the project and its philosophy that paved the way for a new open and free internet. This way Mozilla has gotten hundreds of millions of users who have become the basis of their sponsored deals, now worth millions of dollars. 

Sorry I couldn’t get a better resolution image of this campaign

By sharing his e-book files for free, Cory Doctorow’s fans are also able to share generously his books with any friend who might like his ideas. Just like that Doctorow has gotten millions of fans who are now buying his books physical or electronic versions.

Whatever project you have, it will be much easier to promote if there are no barriers to share. If your idea is worth something, people will share it because it will raise their status by being generous. That said, remember to plan something to sell, otherwise you’ll evaporate all of the financial value you created. But I’ll talk more about this in a future article.

Enrich Data

Another great way to make your project the best version it can be in the market is to enable others to enrich its data.

Navitia is a transport data tool, and without much promotion, it is being used by many other huge transport organisations in France because it’s a great tool. But also because it’s open, it’s much more compelling for others to mutualize their data and re-use the data other people are inputting. This makes the tool so much more powerful to use for everyone than a proprietary product. 

The SNCF, the national french railways, is also planning to launch one of its simulation tools in open source. Its goal is to share the data on its own infrastructure, but also to let other international railway organisations to enter their own data so that they can all save hundreds of hours of tediously inputting this kind of information manually in the proprietary software they are currently using.

If you’ve created a tool that needs data to work, could you allow others to input their data to make it more useful across regions, regulations or organisations for all its users?

Takeaways:

  • Make a list of the roles you could open to your community to help you. What can your community do? Is it helping with code or new features? Is it organising events, or translation, or creating media content? Can they also help you clean your bugs, promote, or enrich the project’s data?

In this article we saw where you can find communities likely to help you multiply your projects efforts and impact, and what roles you could open for them to make so. But that’s not enough yet. 

In the next article we’ll see how you motivate and reward them so it becomes a no-brainer to collaborate with you. 

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

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Jaime Arredondo

Creator at Bold&Open and shaker of collaborative projects
Jaime Arredondo
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