In this podcast with Linka Lin, who works for the United Nations Development Programme in Bangkok, we discuss making life-changing decisions, keeping one’s energy high, and supporting the next generation of innovators.
Creating a new tech community from the ground up is an exciting journey. There is a lot to figure out, and your first decisions can seem difficult to take at an early stage. But with some strategical thinking, it doesn’t have to be complicated. When looking at the creation of a new community, three parts have to be considered early:
Mission & Values Activities & Density People
The mission and your community’s values are the foundations on which the group of people can agree on and scale. That can be started as an experiment but don’t change the mission or values lightly. Keeping the mission and values broad is an excellent way to welcome new individuals. Have a much clearer focus will encourage higher engagement and sense of ownership.
Activities are opportunities for community members to get together and form meaningful connections. There can be activities taking place online or in real life, but a combination of both often works best. With the right support, it makes sense to host landmark events, with broad appeal. And between two of these, have frequent and smaller gatherings or get together. Density can also be increased by actively engaging members on a digital platform. To avoid too much lurking, reach out on an individual basis after each group post.
Finally, gathering the right mix of people to support the community is critical. Beyond embracing the mission and values, supporting activities, they should be on the lookout for new members. To grow the movement further, look at mechanisms to find and “test” your next generation of community leaders. That always takes longer than hoped but creates the highest opportunities to scale.
Want to read more about creating a new tech community? Discover this white-paper written by Techstars on the 5 Ingredients for a Thriving Startup Ecosystem
Panels are high chances to engage with a broader audience and throw some new ideas to steer debates. At a recent one with Community Builders, we wanted to test an assumption. We paused our conversation and asked the audience to raise their hands if they saw themselves as an introvert.
This idea became important to me over the past few years. I have been reading these sorts of articles for some time now (here and here). But I’ve also met hundreds of Community Builders from different countries and cultures. The idea that “introversion actually helps people build strong communities” became a sort of theme in my head.
Our guess was right; most of the room raised their hands. We weren’t surprised, but they probably were — each of them assuming that they’d be singled out among others. I enjoyed seeing the organizers, my fellow panel speakers, and myself – all having our hands in the air.
We were a room of introverts, talking about building community. The one activity that forces you to speak with people and get them excited about your projects!
I have been thinking about this evening many times since and trying to understand what to make of it.
If Community Builders are introvert like me, how do I make their journey less painful than mine was?
Felix is an Entrepreneur and Community Builder in Asia and beyond. Love startups, coffee, reading, and Marvel. He reads a lot and has plenty to share.
You can find these books and more on an Airtable that Felix created here. I read a lot too, feel free to follow me on GoodReads.
Felix, how do you select a book that you want to read?
[Felix] I usually get recommendations from friends and colleagues. And I get some inspirations from online bookstores (such as Amazon or Book Depository) and clickbait blog articles like “Seven books you need to read to become an entrepreneur.”
What format of books do you read on?
[Felix] I am not an avid user of digital copies or ebooks. I prefer hardcover books – that prevents me from being distracted and keep my eyes in good condition by not always looking at a screen. Plus, I don’t feel like it’s the same to read a book on a smart device. People would usually be more eager to skip content rather than go from beginning till the end. I can better concentrate, have a coffee, and have fun with the book.
[Matthieu] Interesting! On my side, often traveling + regularly changing apartments made carrying books a significant challenge. That got me to read a lot more on my Kindle. But I do have physical books as well. The experience between those and digital copies isn’t the same, but it’s a lot lighter.
Now back at you, when do you find time to read? When do you find time to sit down and open a book?
[Felix] I usually read during three distinct periods: 1/ In the morning, on my way to work in the commute. I live far from downtown HK and typically seat in the subway. That’s 45 to 60 minutes of travel time, the equivalent of a chapter or two. Instead of staring at my phone, I choose to read. 2/ During lunchtimes on my own. When I eat alone, I open a book 3/ Right before sleeping – it helps me to cool down from a busy day. I find this routine helpful to structure my thoughts and get ready to fall asleep.
It seems that you’re reading a lot in English – it used to get me sleepy quickly (I’m not native English), aren’t you feeling the burden?
[Felix] Most of the books I read are business, entrepreneurial, or psychology themed. Most of the Chinese translations are not a hundred percent accurate, hence picking English. I’m not a native English speaker as well but uses this to my advantage: I learn from books on how to describe new concepts, sentence structures, etc. As I’m in active learning mode, I don’t feel sleepy reading in English. I tried reading in Cantonese or Chinese, but that’s when my eyes close faster!
Have you tried listening to books on Audible or similar?
[Felix] I cannot keep my attention focused on something I listen to for so long. Music or radio will work, but it doesn’t work with somebody reading the book for me.
Let’s talk about your first book, one that you’ve mentioned many times during your workshops at Techstars Startup Weekend, especially the ones around customer discovery and prototyping. It’s the Airbnb Story by Leigh Gallagher. What can you share about it?
[Felix] I picked this book about Airbnb’s early stages as a good reference for entrepreneurs. That’s the kind of books that you can refer to multiple times on your journey. The author was authorized to follow the Airbnb’s founders and get close to the action. That helped him capture the day to day life and how they eventually managed the team’s success. I learned from this book the idea of the Lean Startup concepts, sometimes better than with the actual Lean Startup book from Eric Ries.
It illustrates many strong concepts such as why entrepreneurs should start working on something small while keeping a strong vision and a bold dream. The book also emphasizes how you should focus on the problem of your customers first. And eventually the way you may build your company step by step to become a large venture. One more thing had a substantial impact on me: the culture created at Airbnb. There is a chapter where you learn that the founders interviewed and hired each of the first three hundred employees. On the one hand, it means that there was no hiring department until a large scale. It also assumes that founders could encourage a culture where people share the same signs, codes, and agile thinking.
Founders spent the time to pick the right people, to foster a specific culture, and build a big company. Finally, I learned that you don’t need tech co-founders to start a tech startup. Two design graduates started Airbnb; they didn’t have any technical background. It all began with a WordPress built from scratch, without complicated technology involved. They spent a year and a half before committing to make Nathan Blecharczyk their CTO after working together for a while.
[M] The book gave me a clear and precise perspective on what’s the link between our values and actions. That link in between is called “Principle,” and without realizing it, one already has hundreds of these principles. And as it drives the way you make decisions, you better identify them. It’s insightful to visualize the Principles that you follow and write them down somewhere. It helps make sense of the many actions that you’re taking. The book shares a framework on finding yours after justifying why it’s essential. To help, the author provides hundreds of their Principles at his firm.
By doing this work on myself, I was able to identify specific patterns that I turned into Principles. Knowing them helped to understand why I make individual decisions. There is one that I can share as an example: the relationship that I have towards trust with others. I tend to trust people at the first encounter. You have it until you break it. But once it’s broken, it’ll be super hard to get it back. I made this idea one of my Principle. It’s neither good or bad, and it doesn’t have to be. But knowing it helps me understand some of my relationships with people.
I am now digging into my Principles for leadership, public speaking, selling, my own goals, and more.
[F] Speaking of Principles, how can entrepreneurs make decisions using Principles?
[M] As a founder, you get pushed towards your limits as stakes are getting higher. And you’re often in survival mode. That might lead you to more stress and sometimes auto-pilot mode. Knowing your Principles empower you to understand when it’s time to have a break because the decisions you make aren’t matching who you indeed are. You may want to stand back and take a break.
At the same time, when you’re struggling in making decisions, you can take a look at your principles and figure out what might be the right way to go. They act as a reminder of what I typically stand for and use this energy to make the tough calls.
[F] Amazing book! The founder of the company wrote the book of the same name. Fun story, I connected with him on LinkedIn after reading his book! We’ve been sharing messages and insights on entrepreneurship ever since.
He first created “Promise of a Pencil” (he stepped down and hired a CEO) as a meaningful startup. He is now working on “MissionU,” a non-traditional university for minorities to learn and get knowledge. Last year, that company got acquired by WeWork and is now called WeGrow of which Adam Brown is still CEO.
My three key learnings are: Number one, Adam Brown used to be an ordinary person with a successful education. Followed by a consulting job at Bain & Company. One might say that it’s a straightforward career, successful path by society standards. Ultimately, he realized that his career and work environment weren’t the right fit for him. He started backpacking across the world, looking for his passion. Adam would ask kids he meets along the way some big questions around “what you want to achieve, learn, etc.”
When he met a local child in rural India who replied “I want a pencil,” Adam realized that he found a problem worth solving. Hence his first NGO – a structure that would aim at filling gaps that some developing countries have when it comes to education.
The second thing that I learned is the difference between startups, social enterprises, and non-profit organization. Having that clear distinction in mind can help social entrepreneurs realize their true calling. In the author’s mind, he doesn’t belong to any of these categories. Instead, he makes a stance for a fourth: “for-purpose organizations.” The company does things for the general good while making profits. It seems similar to B Corporation, but it inspired me a lot to look beyond labels and categories.
The third element is how Adam involved Justin Bieber as his ambassador. I like Justin Bieber’s talent, and the way they work together is inspiring. That’s the only organization for which Bieber spent a lot of time and resources.
It has been one of the books I recommended the most to founders I’ve been mentoring. The underlying goal is for them to understand that finding customers has techniques and frameworks. It doesn’t have to be magical and intuitive. The author provides a framework to help entrepreneurs find what works best for them.
Then, he describes different options and concretely, how to test them:
– Pick three channels to experiment, the ones that you hope would get the highest results.
– Spend your attention on these three and measure outcomes.
– The most successful one will become your benchmark against which you test upcoming channels. You keep running these experiments, always switching for the channel that gets you the highest results.
A few things to have in mind: channels will change over time as you grow your business or have access to more resources. You should keep testing and iterating, even as you become bigger or expand geographically.
[F] Can you elaborate on traction and who are the stakeholders responsible for the metrics?
[M] Once you’ve found your product/market fit and reached a particular stage, you want to focus on growing your business. At that stage, you may want to have your Growth Hacking Team.
Until then, you have to understand how to get customers and work on it almost daily. Investors would most likely want to ask some questions on your acquisition numbers.
[F] I just finished this thick book of 450+ pages!
Most people would recommend the Lean Startup or Zero to One book as the founder’s bible. I would say that Monkey Chaos is the one to go through carefully. It answers many questions that arise on the journey as an entrepreneur. It covers topics from early stage struggles to closing your fundraising, plus joining an accelerator, and getting acquired. It’s from the first-person perspective, somebody who stayed in Silicon Valley. The author was often described as a 200% asshole – playing with people, enjoying life too much.
This guy started as a regular joe, joined a startup after a career at a bank. Then, things changed and he uses the book to describes his new obstacles: getting sued, forming a co-founding team, visa issues, getting into Y Combinator, and so much more. I enjoyed reading cool terms about social media and digital marketing, definitely a book of choice!
[M] Do you think it would be possible to have such a lifestyle in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore?
[F] The lifestyle presented in the book is intense! There is so much happening in each chapter; more than one would normally be comfortable facing. And then you realize that the time between two chapters might only be a couple of days.
I couldn’t handle having so many balls in the air or incidents happening at the same time. If you dare to become a badass entrepreneur, better get ready and learn how to handle this roller coaster.
[M] The third book that I have been recommending a lot but wouldn’t consider as a bedside read is titled “Venture Deals” and is written by Brad Feld. I know you’ve been hearing about him a lot when it comes to startup communities, but his insights on raising money are precious!
Don’t expect a storyline: there are many legal and accounting terms to understand. It will help founders raising money. Their angel investors or investors would most likely bring up some of the notions, and it’s excellent for founders to educated themselves on these early. Don’t make terrible decisions because you haven’t done your homework!
[F] The video course by the Kaufman Academy on Venture Deals is solid, a must watch! Venture Deals is a book for angel investors as well. You get a lot of definitions of important terms: cap table, founders agreement, etc.
[F] This book is written by the former Head of Design at Coca Cola. A product that we consume almost every day (not me!). It’s probably one of the truly global product, everybody with a chance to taste it.
The book talks about is scaling a company or brand more systematically. It comes down to standardization of the entire chain of production and making sure everybody involved is aware and adequately trained. Considering the product, Coca Cola is a soft drink. But looking at that product in Hong Kong or Japan, differences have visibly been made while ensuring to keep a similar look and feel.
It might be the packaging, the advertisement, distribution channels, etc. But when it comes down to the fundamentals: the color schemes, the tones of ad videos, you do see many similarities. That’s what the author wants to convey, how did the standardization happen. So from an entrepreneurs’ perspective, once you’re ready to grow into different markets, make sure that you have a clear policy to standardizing your products or services.
[M] How would an entrepreneur balance this need for standardization with iterations?
[F] Iterations come from data collection. When there is something that isn’t right or too slow, you may need to look into a new strategy or a new form of business operations. It comes down to the process, making a Scrum Board or else and look at smaller elements that you can iterate around for different cities or business units. And they mentioned Startup Weekend five times in the book! The author joined as a mentor and had a great time.
[M] The book that I’ll talk about next is called “Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies”, by Reid Hoffman
The book is hugely pragmatic, almost brutal. At the same time, it has a form of elegance. It’s the idea that certain startups create a mission to grow as fast as they can. And as a result, things are meant to be broken in the path of that startup scaling super fast. Blitzscaling comes from the idea of Blitz, which is like super fast in German, and scaling which is growing. So you try to grow as rapidly as you can. In the book, Reid explains why it might be happening, how it can happen, and what should founders do about it.
It’s super hands-on, with concrete examples on hiring, firing, finding your top executives and more. He’s explaining the pros and cons of being a founder of a blitzscaling startup or even being an employee. From my perspective, I took this as a lesson into things that we could do better with entrepreneurs in Mainland China and Hong Kong. For example, as soon as entrepreneurs have found product/market fit, they might struggle in looking for extreme growth and making it extra big.
There are Chinese startups that are blitzscaling obviously but how do we replicate these opportunities for Startup Weekend participants?
[F] Chris was a journalist and became an entrepreneur as he figured out he could make some money aside to cover his budgets. Eventually, that turned out into substantial revenues to the point where he wrote books about his experience and observations. His previous book is called The Happiness of Pursuit, and the most recent one is Side Hustle.
The $100 Startup is a great read for entrepreneurs, and for everybody following the emerging trend of becoming independent freelancers and digital nomads. These people may want to start a side hustle or run some freelancing consulting gig or e-commerce business.
Not a lot of rocket science but many valuable tips you can apply. How to sell your knowledge, trade something, or create a product people would want to buy. For example, after three or five years, you may accumulate some experiences or skill sets that you can sell. Get some passive incomes or become a public speaker.
It is helpful to more than just entrepreneurs. If there are people around you, you may want to take a look at it [chuckle]! I wasn’t good at receiving or giving feedback – reading the book gave me a good overview of how to improve.
Some items are hard to put in practice, but it works well. Being around entrepreneurs so much, I have observed a tendency of seeing the world a lot more positively because of what we want to build. But it’s also important to be grounded and honest with reality. It’s probably a good book to read in parallel with Radical Candor.
Thanks for the Feedback has a framework, canned sentences, and techniques to be better at giving and receiving feedback. Must read if you want to grow a team or when things are breaking around you.
They work on a one to one approach rather than broad organizational techniques. For example, it’s important to identify first if the person is ready to welcome feedback. At the scale of an organization, it’ll be a key factor of success to empower everybody (and not just managers) to better give and receive feedback. So information is no more navigating from top to bottom, but there’s an ongoing basis for sharing feedback.
What I would want to see is how applicable this American management book can be in Chinese cultures, in our part of the world. I would take a grain of salt and go slowly, but you can cherry pick what works and get on with it.
Last week, we hosted a Community Leaders Academy in Beijing with passionate individuals. Most of them had been to a Startup Weekend before and some were considering to host one soon. More importantly, they are passionate about helping the next generation of entrepreneurs. Our three hours workshop started with “The Happiness of Community Building.”
I didn’t have a firm idea when I came up with the title but enjoyed the sound of it. These two concepts aren’t often tied together. And in practice, Community Builders don’t think of their happiness as they act and help others. A perfect opportunity to bring some debates to the table. Community Builders are often super-connector, invited everywhere, and extra insightful on the situation. But my own experience interacting with so many Builders throughout Greater China is very different. Community Building is lonely and challenging. There is no immediate reward, and large companies rarely consider it a hard skill.
My goal with this talk wasn’t to share a few tips but share a broader perspective to get the conversation going. These weren’t to be done at an individual level but agreed upon among peers.
The first idea was to refuse to celebrate constant hustle and around-the-clock work. The 24/7 or 996 (standing for working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week) aren’t healthy and can’t last long – especially with a high-pressure environment. I was toying with this question: “when was the last time you got bored?”
The second wish that I had for the audience was to get connected with other Community Builders. It’s a population that has so much in common that you often feel being on the same level. There is a lot to gain by getting together and celebrating our wins and challenges.
The final message was to start acknowledging and talking about mental health issues. In many places, it is tricky to openly discuss being burned out, depressed, and/or having a mental illness. Unfortunately, Community Builders are likely to pay too little attention to their situation. But we do have the influence to take risks and start that conversation.
With enough time, I would have shared my own story. I would have highlighted how developing a discipline helped me reaching harmony. Luckily, I will have a chance to talk about this topic at an upcoming conference in Shanghai (link here).
Have you started nurturing a community? Maybe for your job, possibly for fun. If you’re communicating with the same group of people on a common topic, the chances are that you’re part of one.
Are you a leader or a feeder? The leader would typically give the general direction to the movement and be aware of the small prints that get everybody on the same page. If you are the leader of a community, you should be observing that far from being a fancy position, you are facing some hard realities.
Your reach is only as strong as the individual’s engagement
There is a scale on how much you can expect from your community. Joining an online group being one of the simplest and expecting somebody to donate cash or their productive time being the trickiest. As you are lacking for direct incentives, you need to engage with people on many other ways.
Inertia takes time, momentum is bliss, memories are short
As you set up your community, it will take a lot of time to rally up people and get them on the same page.
Once the ball is rolling, the magic happens.
If you stop working and communicating, people will go a lot faster than it took to get them onboard
There is a way against loneliness
While the community best representation is a horizontal network, I found that you’d still have somebody behind the scene pushing the movement. For that person, it will be intense yet mildly rewarding.
The solution, mingling with other community builders. For some interesting reasons, brains of two community builders often click when they meet. They have the same set of values and interests and challenges.