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Business communities will never be real communities

‘Communities’ are the go-to business perk and hottest commodity of our day — but they'll never really match the real deal.

Credit: Daisy Onubogu, Backed VC
Daisy Onubogu

By Daisy Onubogu

‘Communities’ are the go-to business perk and hottest commodity of our day. We all seem to be in about 10 of them, tied to various brands, startups and VCs — and probably building one ourselves. The actual experience of these communities can be great, terrible and everything in between, but I wager that even at their best these business communities will never match the real thing, in all its rich, multidimensional and deeply human glory. 

They may come close; but only if we make sure to have real communities in our lives so we remember what they look and feel like, and hold whatever we’re building or joining in business contexts to that impossible standard. 

When I say real communities, I mean the ones some of us are lucky enough to have in our lives. Spaces of deep belonging, groups that are part of who we are; full of people we want to take care of and we wholly trust will take care of us, people with whom we feel deeply connected and intertwined. Where the things we do, the routines and rituals, are frankly just an excuse to spend time together. Where the bonds are such that there is total psychology safety for our full selves, and room for the full spectrum of human emotion: we can screw up and be forgiven, we can be useless or otherwise less than, and still we belong.

They are the communities our desperately social brains crave and they are quite different to the transactional, functional communities that are built in the context of making money. 

‘Cherry-on-top’ communities

The problem with business communities, whether we’re talking about communities of employees, customers, scouts, portfolio founders, or whatever — is that they aren’t really about belonging. They are mostly about whatever functional outcome the company setting up the community is hoping for.

This goes for all of them: from the community I’m building for Backed, to the infamous Glossier community and every other example. It’s about marketing reach, customer acquisition, repeat purchasing or retained subscription, increased employee productivity and deal flow.

Community is a means to an end, and two things flow from that truth. We reduce community to an MVP and continuously sacrifice belonging for the sake of this other purpose. 

“The problem with business communities…is that they aren’t really about belonging.”

It’s important to realise that full on, ‘real’ community isn’t necessary for the outcomes the creators of business communities are seeking. These outcomes are usually things that are incentivised already — the quality of the product, for example, is already a solid basis on which someone would repeat custom or remain subscribing (or at least the marketing that sells this idea of quality). That means the gap to be closed by ‘community’ is a very small one. A few dinners here, a welcome gift box there, a Slack channel, will often be enough to achieve the outcome the business wants: to keep the company more top of mind than others.

None of that equals ‘real’ community as I described earlier, but because we continue to label it so, we run the serious risk of forgetting what community is actually supposed to mean, and ending up in a world where we are robbed of something deeply important — necessary even — to human survival. This feels rather imminent because we are not only seeing more and more instances of community-as-a-cherry-on-top, but increasingly also the emergence of community-as-a-commodity. 

Community as a commodity

The cycle of commoditisation should be a familiar one to us by now.

Something is shown to be wanted or needed by society. Entrepreneurs, on the lookout for something to sell, take note and attempt to play some part in providing that thing to people in exchange for value. More see the opportunity and jump in too, copying the features of the best selling competitors and incumbents. Soon there are plenty of vendors selling the market standard version of the thing (in this instance, ‘community’) and people simply buy what is sold to them. 

We end up in a world where we are paying various subscription fees for access to this Facebook group of like-minded peers or that Slack channel of thinkers and doers, spending all of our time with people, and yet lonely.

These spaces of function and performance, where we put on our best face and trade knowledge or resources but not vulnerabilities and fears, have their uses, but they will not satisfy our primordial craving for real belonging. 

“Really making a community feel like an emotional home for several different people is not only hard, it’s non-standard and not especially scaleable.”

This is not a castigation of people selling access and connection — many have the best of intentions and work incredibly hard to try and make their spaces cater to both functional purpose and deep belonging. It’s just tricky because really making a community feel like an emotional home for several different people is not only hard, it’s non-standard and not especially scaleable. But just as with our cherry-on-top community builders, these would-be sellers are equally incentivised to reduce the thing from its overwhelming size and multidimensionality to a minimum viable product.

To swap out the foundational question: ‘What would it take for this to be a real community?’ for the more capitalist appropriate question: ‘What would it take for this community experience to satisfy people enough to pay?’ The latter being far more stable ground to build something replicable, scaleable, capital efficient and so on. 

If you think I’m lying, close your eyes and picture a paid community you’re currently in and ask yourself, what would it take for the community members to make you truly happy today? To give you a moment of joy and deep sense of care and safety this week? I can think of a few that would work for me: someone to help me draft a tricky email I’ve been avoiding for the last three weeks, or someone to sit with me for a few hours and listen to me vent about something in particular, or someone to somehow bring me a dish that I’ve been craving all week (egusi soup). The list goes on and on. None of those things being anything like what I could reasonably expect any communities I’m part of to make happen. 

So what then?

So what’s the answer, for us business community builders and consumers of community-as-a-cherry-on-top and community-as-a-commodity? The answer is keep building and retaining the real communities in our lives and remember that communities for business purposes are not the same thing. 

The answer is keep building and retaining the real communities in our lives and remember that communities for business purposes are not the same thing.”

Look around your life to see if anything fits the ‘real’ community description, or could if you really leaned in. Hobby groups, neighbours, old school friends; it doesn’t really matter the foundation, just make sure to have them; remember how to build and to make the most of them.

If we have real communities in our lives, we will benefit from all that key psychological nutrition, we will rely less on business and commodity communities to fulfil something they’re not well suited for, and we’ll also ensure these not-quite-communities are at least the best they can be. Because if we know what the real deal looks and feels like, we’ll know the standard we should be holding all these approximations to.

I’m a builder of a business community lots of people swear is wonderful, and I know many others in that same category. The common thread is that we’ll never be satisfied with our commodity or business purpose communities, and it will forever pale in comparison to what we know this word can really mean.

However, in our obsessive striving to reach that standard, we find along the way all sorts of decent compromises between nurturing belonging and delivering value to our companies. We find clever little ideas for how to nudge people to develop ties that bind and bring their whole selves into the spaces we’re creating and dare to truly rely on that others in the group. This is what makes the difference. 

Daisy Onubogu is head of network and community at VC firm Backed VC.

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