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How to Build a Community like Lyft, Airbnb and Github How these giants built three pillars into their businesses (and how you can too).

By Tristan Pollock

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Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Rome wasn't built in a day, and your startup won't be either. That's why it matters to invest early in your community. It's a long game, but it is one of the most powerful tools you can invest in.

For a lot of grown-up unicorn startups, including Airbnb, Lyft and Github, the community was always an important factor. The founders and early team understood the importance of having a core community message and user empathy as a part of product design and business growth.

Brian Chesky, the founder and CEO of Airbnb, said the best advice he ever got was from Y Combinator's founder Paul Graham. "Build something 100 people love, not something 1 million people kind of like," Graham said.

The core community matters. It's the foundation of what you build from that point forward.

Lyft founders John Zimmer and Logan Green knew this well. They created a core user experience around a strong and differentiated product. When you got into a Lyft in 2012 during the first months of launch, you would experience something magical. Once you got into the car, you'd be greeted with a fist bump. There was a big fluffy pink mustache on the front bumper. Sometimes, the driver's personality would even match the car and music.

Lyft continued to build on that community momentum. It built out one of the largest networks of community groups on Facebook's new business platform to support its driver community. It hosted monthly events in every city it operated in through a team of traveling community managers. It raised the profile of its most vibrant drivers (Disco Lyft, HipHop Lyft and Chalkboard car, to name a few) and would constantly tell stories of the most uplifting moments that happened in a Lyft ride to its employees. Its experienced drivers would even conduct the onboarding of new drivers. The community had a full cycle to it.

Seven years later, Lyft IPO-ed at a valuation of more than $20 billion.

GitHub did something similar in the developer world. It empowered its community with a platform that allowed public and private sharing of code. It also doubled down on it. Its forums and repositories became the go-to place for independent coders and large companies. Google, Microsoft and Facebook all used it. GitHub surged past the incumbent platform and anything built by corporates piggybacking on the open-source movement with a slickly designed interface. The result: an acquisition by Microsoft for $7.5 billion.

So what are the key pillars to building a timeless community movement?

  1. Authenticity. You must live and breathe your company's core values. A good community movement will be built around a strong business vision that walks the walk as well as talks the talk. Think about writing a manifesto or an inspiring vision statement.
  2. Empowerment. You have to be able to provide value to your community that's deeper than a transactional relationship. This could come in the form of in-person gatherings like meetups or a brand ambassador program supporting your most engaged users. Either way, it's a necessity to empower and uplift your best customers.
  3. Advancement. You need to perform on what you promise in order to build trust in your community. Not every community turns into a movement. Some are completely happy where they are and don't necessarily want to become larger than they are today. It's imperative you nurture that growth in collaboration with product, content, partnerships and other aspects of the business.

Remember, it all starts from a vision with values to back it up. Lyft guided its community with the words "Your friend with a car" and encouraged its customers to have fun and build bonds when going from point A to B.

Airbnb liked the motto "Stay like a local." They wanted to provide the opportunity for tourists to become more like visiting friends with the hosts they stayed with.

And GitHub? "Code is about the people writing it." And that's the keyword: people. Without them, you'd have no community at all.

Tristan Pollock

Entrepreneur + VC at 500 Startups

Tristan Pollock is a tech entrepreneur, startup investor who's built and sold two companies and invested over $30 million in startups as a venture capitalist for 500 Startups, and angel investor. Pollock also writes for VentureBeat, Guardian, StarTribune, The Startup, TechCrunch and Startup Grind.

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