079: How to build a membership community program – with Najva Sol

Najva Sol is the Head of Product & Marketing at Earnest Capital, where she runs an invite-only community called Founder Summit. In this episode, she joins Ward to discuss how to build an iterative community program and launch it successfully.

✍️ Show Notes

📄 Show Transcript

This transcript is computer generated, please excuse any errors 🙂

Ward Sandler: Welcome, everybody! Today I’m talking with Najva Sol; she has over 12 years of experience and community building, brand storytelling and digital strategy. She’s currently a mentor for Built by Girls and Head of Product and Marketing at Earnest capital, where she runs an invite-only remote community of founders building calm, profitable, sustainable companies.

Najva, thank you for joining us on the podcast. We’re thrilled to have you here to talk about all things community,

Najva Sol: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure and I’m excited to chat a bit today.

Ward Sandler: Okay. Awesome. You have plenty of experience building community programs. Can you describe what it was like to build the iterative community program for Founder Summit, and what advice would you give our audience about how to launch their own program

Najva Sol: So, a really great example of building a program for a community, which isn’t the same as building the entire infrastructure for a community, but building a program for a community is kind of the same as building a product for a community in terms of process, you realize that there’s like some other thing you’d like to offer, think of it as a feature. And you’re like, okay, why do I have this? Like often when you’re working closely with any group of people, and you sense a need before you can articulate exactly what it is. And so, I will talk a little bit more at some other time about a totally different story of how I ended up at Founder Summit, but when I ended up there, I was in the process of talking to a lot of people because I was new and I started to get the sense that there was something that we could offer that didn’t exist, within our community. And for that, for us, that happened to be this desire to have these like small groups that worked together, but also have mentors and not just like, ‘Oh, these cool entrepreneurial mentors’, but very specifically mentors who had done the kind of bootstrapped or profit first, who had built profit first or profitable companies from the get-go, a company like founders who had raised a lot of money just had a slightly different trajectory, and weren’t as useful when it came to the nitty gritty of decisions that people had to make. So sort of being around people who are building the same way was particularly helpful in small groups. That was something that was deeply missed. And that was incredibly impactful. And I was like, well, ‘how the heck am I supposed to do that?’ So, once I got that, like an inkling of, ‘Oh, there’s a desire here’. Then I dug into it a bit more, and essentially we made what’s called a really small bet. So this is how we do something iterative: first, we go, okay, I have an inkling. It’s not worth building something entirely out. I think there’s someone that says like, don’t write a line of code until you know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. And so for us, it was like, I didn’t want to build an entire formal program as someone who was only working on this community part-time, right? I didn’t have all the time in the world to waste. We made like a six-week beta where I literally put some groups together, got some volunteers. It was super janky on Slack and Zoom and just like the most manual of manual processes. And then, at the end of that, I was like, ‘Well, how many people fell off? What went well? What did people like? What did people like?’ And that feedback told me we were onto something, and so then the second iteration was like, okay, let’s do something slightly bigger. Let’s automate a few processes. Let’s build some structures. Let’s actually have a landing page, so describe what it does. My goal for that second iteration, we actually named it instead of just, we’re going to do a test together, I was like, we’re going to call it the Mastermind Sprint. So the second iteration was what we called the Mastermind Sprint and that one I had essentially, six full days of work, spread over multiple weeks to build out the infrastructure for it. And, I had a goal going in like I would consider the six success, on sort of both impact and output, right? Or actually desire and impact. I had a goal for both desire and impact going into it. And so the first one was like, is this desired? And so, as soon as we sort of launched it, we got double the amount of people signing up that we’d originally anticipated in the best case, so the desire is there!

Did people stick around then we had like the sort of exit survey and the impact people said that it literally moved the needle on some of their projects? They credited it. Not everybody loved it. Not everyone’s ever going to love a program that you launched for your community, but if it’s deeply valuable to the people, to enough percentage of people and I think you have to decide what is it worth making a program, but only three people find valuable, but for us, like a large percentage of the people found deep value in it. There was some, you know, suggestions for how we can improve, and so we’ll continue to iterate, and actually we’re spitting out some programs that are separate because we realized there was actually an entire need that we were not accounting for. Well, like there was a pattern in the people that were unhappy and we thought we could build something for them. So now there’s a new iteration. So it’s like, you know, feedback that gets feedback. And so that’s sort of how a community program works. And this has worked in multiple communities that I’ve worked with. And like this isn’t just a digital thing. Like you can always have a meetup, and then if that meetup goes really well, then you can have a weekend. And then, if that works out, you have a conference, right?

There’s always that process just starts small move quickly, and then slowly optimize and improve the offering. And I guess my biggest advice around that would just be, always be talking to your community, like always carve out. I talked to probably one or two community members every week, just checking in, seeing how they’re doing, and always push to get data, like get people to give you feedback on the programs. Don’t just make something really complex because you think people want it just like any other product. And even though it’s not like software, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have the same mental approach.

Ward Sandler: I think everything resonates with me for sure. And I agree there’s a lot of parallels with building software products. The one thing I’d say is for a lot of people; they might hear what you’re saying of start small MVP kind of raw around the edges far from perfect. Cool. That makes sense intellectually. But then when it comes to actually do that and actually launching it, you might get cold feet and be like, ‘Eh, I’m kind of embarrassed’. Or this isn’t my best work. I don’t want to go yet. I’m going to go back polish up some more, maybe in two more weeks, and then you kind of re you kind of repeat that action, if you will. So how have you personally kind of got over that hurdle?

Najva Sol: Oh, that is a hurdle I face all the time. I am constantly being checked by my like friends and coworkers and just people all over. The biggest way that I’ve known to do that is rather than eeling. And I think like we see this with a lot of companies, and then a lot of like builders and communities: if you feel like you’re with someone it’s very different than you’re doing something for someone. So if you feel like we’re in this together, I am building this with you; we’re on this journey and adventure to finding this great community, a perfect community for us, whatever that might mean, or this perfect program together. It’s much more inviting. If people feel involved in the process, there’s so much more likely to give you feedback rather than drop you. If something’s not as polished, you build the trust by letting them know that you are working on something, inviting them in, letting them know. Okay. So, ‘Hey guys, my plan is to do a better one, but this one I just wanted to like, see, uh, I’m like here with you. Tell me what’s working to me. Invite them, People in there are so much more forgiving if you just drop something. You’re like, I made this people will judge it to the fullest of their ability, like it may be found very lacking so that I find that people are surprisingly, ultimately if they truly believe you’re building with them, we are building this community together, most people are willing to even tell you, ‘Hey, I didn’t like that, here’s how it could be improved’ and then still give you a chance the second time around, the biggest fear when you launch these kinds of things is that you’ll disappoint someone. Then you won’t get a chain around redeem yourself. Like they’ll walk away, they’ll quit. They will stop coming back. And because we have really short attention spans and so, if you can make it something that even if they don’t like it, they’ll come back to you. And that’s about trust and relationship building, and messaging, then it’s less scary. And if you need inspiration, just follow people who are building in public these people really good at saying like, ‘Oh, I dropped a book, Oh crap. It doesn’t work on Kindle. Don’t worry. I’ll fix it in two days. I’m going to keep you updated’. I know all those people who paid hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars are not mad at you because they know that you’re there with you. Whereas if you just bought a book by an anonymous person and it didn’t work on your Kindle, you’d be upset and be like, I want a refund, so.

Ward Sandler: Yeah, that makes sense. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. We really appreciate it, Najva. Would you like to share any resources or recommendations for folks that are trying to learn more about Founder Summit?

Najva Sol: Yeah, I mean, you can just go to our site. It is in the process of being updated, so FounderSummit.co

Feel free to check out our Mastermind Sprint. We’re aiming to run those a few times a year, so there’s a nice tab. That’ll give you the full rundown, but they’re sort of mentor-led peer groups for bootstrappers or sort of column companies. And you can also follow us on Twitter, @FounderSummit.

Ward Sandler: Thank you, Najva.