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How These Small Businesses Cultivate Community

Community is at the center of many impactful small businesses. But how do you cultivate a flourishing community that grows with and supports your business? In this article, small business owners share the insights and lessons they’ve learned from creating communities.

Oct 11, 2022 9 min readFlow
Photo of Tamilore Oladipo
Tamilore Oladipo

Content Writer @ Buffer

Small Business, Big Lessons is a podcast from Buffer that goes behind the scenes with inspirational small businesses to explore how they are questioning the best ways to build a business and uncover the big lessons we can learn from their journeys (so far). Check out the first episode here.

Building and managing a community has become a significant piece of the successful small business puzzle for good reason — customers want it. Sixty-four percent of online community visitors say they’re visiting those sites more often, and 46 percent say the sites have become more important to them over time. This shows that digital spaces have become just as important as physical ones as more people interact online than ever. Creating that space in a meaningful way is vital for brands that want to connect with their audience.

We’ve written about how to build a meaningful community for your business. Now, we want to share precisely how different businesses build community around their brands with the hope that it will inspire you. In this companion piece to the first episode of Small Business, Big Lessons Season 2, we break down the most significant learnings about community from small business owners who have built theirs successfully.

Extending company culture to the audience

Part of the purpose of building a community around your brand is to extend your values and culture to the people that are meant to benefit from your product — the people you want to help.

Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a consultancy that provides entrepreneurs with the tools they need to grow their businesses while staying true to their purpose. She has used a culture-first approach to consultancy and adopts the following analogy when thinking about community.

“We want to think about company culture as the soil […] It provides all of the nourishment, it provides the stability, it is the foundation,’ shares Holly.

Of course, extending company culture and values to external parties relies on knowing what those look like in the first place. Values are very important to us at Buffer, and the same rings true for the businesses we interviewed in this episode.

On identifying your company values and tying them to company culture, Holly says, “...ensure that your values are clearly defined and that nobody else defines your values for you. [Values] have to come from our own personal internal motivations. They can't be something that we [outsource to a] focus group.”

People aren’t islands and will always need a community of some sort to get by. Ari Weinzweig, co-founder and CEO at Zingerman’s understands that, saying, “We're all products of a community. And so understanding that, we can either be passive about the community, or we can embrace that that's the reality and then try to make it as healthy as possible. …the healthier the community, the healthier we are, and [vice versa].”

Involve your team in community and culture building

You can’t extend your company culture without involving your employees. If your culture internally isn’t great, if your employees don’t buy in — it’ll be hard to get that out to an audience.

“The internal company culture and the external community should mirror each other […] I like to say employees can't deliver an experience they don't receive. So if we're selling this experience to our community we want to make sure we're delivering the same experience internally,” shares Holly Howard.

The idea of creating a great internal culture that feeds into your external community is corroborated by Kelly Phillips, co-founder of restaurant collective Destination Unknown, who actively transformed the service staff culture at her restaurants.

Kelly shares that at Destination Unknown restaurants, to offer workers a stable income, the company uses a professional wage model where full-time workers are offered a salary with a bonus incentive. This differs from a traditional wage model where workers don't know what they're going to make as their pay is based on tips that leave servers at the mercy of guests. Workers are also incentivized by a bonus structure which is a monthly bonus based on good reviews.

Kelly reports that turning the traditional idea of how service jobs are paid in the US on its head has led to amazing results. “The company has noticed a better quality of life for people and better teamwork. Servers are helping each other because they want to get good reviews because that's what their bonus is based on. And because they’re not as concerned with tipping, they can focus on providing guests with outstanding service that keeps them coming back.”

Kelly has written further on the Buffer blog about putting employees first. Read it here.

Bake community into the fabric of your company identity

From fitness to web3, some spaces rely on community to succeed from the jump. If you’re in an industry where your potential customers rely on collaboration with others either for education or networking, community should be part of your company identity.

Samantha Anderl and Andrea Wildt had a vision for the target audience of Harlow, a freelance management tool, before they even began building their product. So it made perfect sense to them to cultivate that community before they even started developing their tools.

For the Harlow founders, they knew they wanted to build a product that would solve their audience’s problems. So instead of focusing on what they wanted to build, they went to their community and asked ‘what problems do you need help solving?’

“...the best way to understand [customers’ problems], for any organization, is to be deeply connected to your community. So it just made sense for us to start connecting with freelancers early on in order to get that feedback to ensure that we're building what they needed,” shared Andrea.

Huw Thomas, the co-founder of Paynter Jacket, agrees with this sentiment and tacks on extra advice for thinking about building a community-first brand. “...the best advice I have for building a community is building it before you're even ready. Before you have a product before you have launched, start building it. Start with family and friends, get them signed up, and then get their family and friends signed up and build it on Instagram, or whatever social media platform that you're comfortable with.”

When your audience knows that they can trust you for whatever reason, whether that’s authority or expertise, or even sentiment, it’s easier to convince them to buy or engage with your product.

Samantha agrees saying, “We really want to build trust early on. If you build authority with your community, the more likely that community is to want to take a leap of faith and try out what you're offering or share your story. We'd been building connections and meaningful relationships … when we finally did launch, we had a bunch of people cheering us on and being really excited about what we're building and what we're trying to help solve.”

Curate a fanbase by building in public

We’re avid advocates of building in public and have been talking about it, and doing it ourselves, for years now. This is because we understand how valuable it can be for companies and their audience. Some companies have found success sharing every aspect of how they are building with their audience – Paynter, which sells clothing in limited-release collections called Batches, is one of them.

Fun fact: Paynter spoke to us about building in public in Season 1 of the podcast and an upcoming episode in Season 2. Subscribe and stay tuned for the latter!

Becky Okell, co-founder of Paynter shares, “It's really easy to mix up having an audience with having a community, but we think that they are two really different things, you can have a community and feel so part of something. And I think it's all about how engaged you are with that brand or that business.”

And although the audience for a clothing company might not naturally blossom into a community the way a fitness brand might, Becky emphasized the value of putting in the effort anyway. “As an online clothing brand, [community] is not going to happen unless we really invest, try, and work for it. [But] building a community for us was super important [and] working in public was a huge part of doing that.”

Paynter’s strategy of attracting fans and community by building in public continues to bear fruit. Their audience is constantly engaged and sells out each collection of their jackets within minutes.

The brand also actively takes steps to engage its community with frequent in-person meetups held in different cities around the world. This allows them to be present in their community and extend it beyond clothing.

Create authentic connections by putting your personality front-and-center

Solo, small business owners have an opportunity to connect with their audience based on the strength of their personality alone. Azikiwee “Z” Anderson, head baker and owner of Rize Up bakery in San Francisco, California, is a passionate advocate for putting your whole self into your business.

Z shares, “The purpose behind my businesses the same purpose that is behind me, which is trying to make the world a better place. This is one of the first things I've ever done where I really feel seen, like my individuality resonates with people and that they're excited to follow my story – it's very freeing.”

Connecting with people by showing them the real people behind the brand and letting them know about your passion for what you do and how you operate can deepen your connection with them.

Solving problems and being creative comes as naturally to Z as making great bread. He says about creating content for Rize Up, “A majority of the stuff that I put up is not really preconceived – I'm having a good time and so I show people what I'm doing.”

Go beyond online spaces to meet your audience face-to-face

Meeting in person is an invaluable way to create deeper connections with your audience. We’ve interviewed companies that do this as part of their community building, and the podcast interviewees are no strangers to the value of face-to-face interactions.

Sheena Russell is the founder and CEO of Made with Local, a Canadian snack foods company that has social impact baked in. She credits the community found by setting up at farmers’ markets in the early years of the company with the deep understanding and connection the brand has with its customers.

Sheena looks back at their farmer’s market days fondly and shares, “the market research that we could do with all those customers that came by was invaluable. I think we [now] have a clear view of exactly who our customers are at Made with Local. I don't think we'd be where we are today without having that foundation built of deep community connection.”

And Z agrees that in-person interaction is powerful for building community. “It's the easiest way to connect directly with people and have interactions where you matter to them and they matter to you…And so I wanted to be a part of that. And I wanted it to be a major part of what we do.”

Becky and Huw have also found ways to take their online clothing brand to offline spaces. They kicked off “Paynter at the Pub” as an anti-Black Friday event. “we thought instead of having a sale or trying to sell anything, let's just bring people together. And let's do it physically this time, it'd be so nice not just for us to meet our customers but for our customers to meet each other.” They made it open to absolutely everyone in their community, not just customers.

Meeting their community in person was really powerful for the Paynter co-founders, “ It was just really special to put faces to names, to have a really good chat [and] for customers to meet each other. ”

Shine the spotlight on the community — not the business

Community should be about the people within it — make it all about profit or your business, and you risk driving them away. And the best way to understand what your community needs from you is by listening to them, insist Harlow’s founders.

“We've really learned how important it is to start by listening,” says Samantha, “and to start by advocating and by honestly just being selfless. So you have to give to get when you're first building your community. It's so important upfront to establish that trust and that authority. And you really can't do that unless you spend the time listening.”

Andrea follows up, adding, “I feel like I can't stress that enough – that you can't go into building community, just from the perspective of ‘what am I going to get out of it?’ It really does need to be more of a selfless act of ‘how can I connect? How can I listen? How can I help? What resources can I provide?’ And that's where I think you're able to build the more robust and meaningful connections with people.”

Want more on cultivating communities? Check out the full episode.

The businesses we interviewed in this episode have further insights to share about community building and its value for brands. Check out the full episode here.

And for practical steps on setting up a community for your own business, see this full-length guide to community management.

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