What I learned about building a community

It all began with a pattern. Knowing my background in philosophy, several people approached me to learn more about the subject because they didn’t know where to start. To them, philosophy was daunting. Yet each conversation was rich and exciting, and they took to philosophical inquiry like fish to water. I found myself wondering,

“What would it be like if we were all able to have a conversation? What would such a community look like?”

The first community conversation I had took place on 31 July, with a small group comprising of some friends who had approached me previously. By 3 August, the first newsletter was released and our Facebook group was created. I’m happy to report that our first community meetup took place on 1 September and the next one is currently in the works!

I am unspeakably excited about project: fly-bottle and have learned so much in the 1+ month since its launch. In retrospect, much of the process has been influenced by aspects of the Lean Startup methodology and Design Thinking — two protocols that I learned while running entrepreneurship modules in my school.

Process: Building the fly-bottle community
Process: Building the fly-bottle community

Stage 1: Observe and Analyse

“Is there need or demand for a community?”

I mentioned earlier that it all began with a pattern: individuals asking about philosophy. Some of these individuals knew each other, but were not engaging in conversations about philosophy with each other because they didn’t know of mutual interest or they believed that they needed guidance from someone who knew the subject.

Over months of observation, mostly due to the ad-hoc nature of conversations with friends and acquaintances, a few questions kept recurring:

  • This is the field that I work in… are there any relevant philosophical insights/concepts that I can learn from?
  • What’s the relevance of philosophy in real life?
  • How do I use philosophy to help me think clearly?
  • Where do I begin?

Evidently, people weren’t interested in becoming experts or philosophy professors. They just wanted something that made philosophy more accessible.

But philosophy’s value doesn’t just lie in concepts you can learn. Dialogue is invaluable in philosophical investigation regardless of expertise as alternative perspectives can really be insightful. How could I share what I knew and scale up the 1:1 conversations I was having?

Moving from 1:1 to a community conversation

Stage 2: Ideation

“Who is my community?”

“What would such a community look like”

“How do I best engage my community?”

Sustainability was a big consideration for me in building the fly-bottle community because

(i) I have a full-time job, and

(ii) building communities is a commitment — you can’t just bow out when you feel like it.

Further, my personal philosophy about education is that it should be learner-centric and progressive.

This narrowed down the suitable platforms significantly. Running classes and workshops were not feasible because I needed to manage this alone (for now). Neither were webinars because the project needed to spark conversations within the community as well as with me. A combination of a blog or newsletter and a social platform seemed best. That way, community members could learn some philosophy and see how it related to real life, and have a platform to engage. I started a group chat and went to the ‘proto-community’ with some ideas:

Checking with the ‘proto-community’
Verifying feasibility! Yes!

The feedback was amazing and very encouraging. This was 31 July.

A bit more reflection lent some direction to this project:

  • The material needed to be accessible, so as little jargon as possible and large chunks of text were to be avoided.
  • Content needed to spark conversation or (at least) reflection, so the project needed to ask more questions than it answered.
  • The community did not need to be restricted to people who wanted to learn. What about the people who have done some philosophy and wanted to just talk about stuff?

Stage 3: Build & Ship

“What’s the best community engagement platform?”

I started with a newsletter because that’s the easiest way to get the information to the community. They didn’t need to change their behaviour. They’d just receive the newsletter when they checked their inbox, which they already do!

The first newsletter was a simple affair. It comprised 3 progressive sections, each increasing in difficulty, and ended with a question of the week. It didn’t need to be fancy or flashy. I just needed to ship it. It was sent out on 3 August.

Unsolicited positive feedback is great encouragement!
Unsolicited positive feedback is great encouragement!

Simultaneously, I approached some friends from my Masters course and they were really keen to revisit the good ol’ conversations. That same day, the Facebook group was set up.  

Stage 4: Engage and Iterate

“What does the community want?”

“How can I better serve them?”

Conversations happened rather organically in the Facebook group, but were dominated by those more familiar with philosophy at first. This is not to say that those who were unfamiliar weren’t engaged. Quick checks with them revealed that they were listening and learning, but uncomfortable with sharing their ideas at first. So, some conversations occurred simultaneously in smaller chats.

Along the way, I checked in with individuals for feedback and implemented suggestions by the next newsletter.

For example, one community member said she enjoyed the use of fun images, like comics, and suggested incorporating more questions instead of having just one big question. (See Issue #3 for reference)




By the next issue, more guiding questions were added and GIFs were incorporated too!

Also, while I didn’t think that the community was large enough for a meetup, some members were very keen on the idea. So, a small group of us met up on 1 September. In the spirit of a community-driven initiative, the discussion topic was also proposed by a member 🙂 We didn’t finish the conversations, by the way, and will be continuing in the next meetup.

Lessons Learned

1. Listen, listen, listen.

Find out what your community wants and needs. It’s about them, after all. Do so passively, by observing what’s happening. And do so actively, by asking for feedback and insights and listening to it.

Through this, I learned that some members were uncomfortable with the level of expertise of other members, and felt daunted. My bad! So I stepped in to form a middle ground. Listening also led to the discovery that some people weren’t receiving the newsletter. A quick check showed that the emails were being redirected to the spam folder. The matter has since been rectified, as far as I can tell, but I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t check.

2. Empathise.

Remember what it was like to be a community member. Who is your community member? What is it like to be in that position? The meetup was intentionally kept small as I wanted the opportunity to give members a chance to speak (in addition to the Facebook group). And boy, did they engage! Conversation flowed organically and one of them even messaged me after to thank me for the opportunity to share their views.

Post-meetup text from a community member
Post-meetup text from a community member. (P.S. It was related!!)

3. Iterate and do so quickly.

The product or content or strategy does not have to be perfect. I’ve learned that it’s good to have a plan and a direction, and changes to that plan are not necessarily bad. It’s not about you, so don’t feel insulted that your work has room for improvement. It is about the community, after all. And don’t you learn through the process? Do what’s best for them and do it quickly. Then try again the next time. Why spend a month thinking about a massive overhaul when you can start making changes tomorrow? The goal is still to benefit the community.

4. Work within your own means.

Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Community engagement is a marathon, not a sprint. If you burn out quickly, it’s the community that suffers, isn’t it?

5. Want to do a meetup? Do it!

If you have a passionate and engaged community, chances are, they’ll be really excited to find kindred spirits and like minded folk. Start small if you must, but do it. Conversation between community members has picked up after the meetup, and I think it’s because excitement is infectious!

Looking forward

Building the fly-bottle community has been such an enriching experience for me, that I’d love to share more lessons I’ve learned along the way. Some ideas for posts are: the twin roles of analysis and synthesis in community management, and how to select tools and platforms for community engagement and content management. All of these will be filed under ‘Community’ so do check back if you are interested!

Finally, if any of this has piqued your curiosity about the fly-bottle community and project: fly-bottle newsletter, you can check out past issues here or subscribe here 🙂

Hope you found this useful! I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments 🙂 Drop me a message at the project: fly-bottle blog or tweet at me (@stephe_lee)!

*Names of community members have been redacted in screenshots at their request 🙂