Building a Community with Dharmesh Shah and Sam Parr

Building a Community with Dharmesh Shah and Sam Parr
HubSpot Video

(watch the full session)

“Community” is one of those words that gets tossed around so often these days, it can mean everything and nothing. But leave it to HubSpot co-founder/CTO Dharmesh Shah and Host of My First Million Sam Parr to set the record straight: 

“A pet peeve of both of ours is when people use the term community, when what they really talking about is an audience,” Shah says to attendees at INBOUND 2022. “Audience is what you are right now—” he says, pointing to the crowd. “The potential value in an audience is a function of the number of people in the audience.” 

So how would someone get started launching this kind of bustling, generative community? Here are our seven takeaways from Parr and Shah’s conversation. 

1. Prioritize your people: how to build a community before a product. 

The purpose of any product or service is simple: to meet a human need. Yes, there’s innovation, yes there’s disruption—but the point of launching any new business in a marketplace is to meet people where they’re at. And that requires listening to people. Connecting with people. Learning about their needs and wants. 

All of which are crucial steps of community-building. 

Take HubSpot for example. “HubSpot, essentially, is something we started as a community,” Shah says. Marketing as a practice was in dire need of an upgrade, and the HubSpot founders began to build a community around the concept of inbound marketing. It was a community of marketers who wanted to engage and delight customers and prospects in a better way. 

“And then over time we built HubSpot the product, because now we [had] this community of folks that were getting together that wanted to learn this stuff and do it.” 

It was a home run. HubSpot didn’t need to go out into the world and find its people; its customer base was already all around them, because of this thriving community that was there all along.

To this day Shah maintains: “If there were no community, there would be no HubSpot.”

2. Define your purpose and know your boundaries. Moderate accordingly.

Communities, like art, express themselves in a variety of mediums: they happen IRL at events and conferences; they take place on social media; heck, they’re even in the comments section of places that do it right. 

But all these spaces have something in common: boundaries. Guardrails. Some sort of parameter to ensure we’re keeping the main thing the main thing. 

Shah says it candidly: “Community is really hard, especially at scale.” One challenge in particular? When a community gets “overrun by self-promotional members. . . [and] you just get flooded with that,” Shah says. Obviously something like that is fine—and even encouraged!—for a community whose purpose is to promote yourself. But if the community purpose is more akin to a book club, that might not be the place to try to spin a sale. 

So, define your boundaries, and keep them in place. Audit and revisit the needs of a community’s boundaries, but make sure there’s some kind of infrastructure that serves your community members. These boundaries protect the purpose of the community, which in turn protects the focus and the people energizing that focus. It's what prevents the community from diluting itself and dissipating into vapor. 

As gathering expert Priya Parker says: "Things still have a lot of space for spontaneity and organic elements and for decentralization—but within a core of a framework that you set that, again, serves your purpose."

3. Cultivate connection by engineering serendipity. 

Think of community like hosting a party. Ever attend one of those parties where the host shoves a bunch of random friends into an apartment and hope everyone has a magical time? Aka the whole reason why parties can get such a bad rap? 

“You have to actually do the work,” Shah says. “This is where lots of would-be community creators fail. They think it’s enough just to host the space.”

Don’t get us wrong—every now and then, a truly organically magical party just happens. Shah knows it, too. “They’re all cool people, and serendipitously they’re going to create value and things will happen. And sometimes that happens! But I believe in engineered serendipity,” he says. 

That engineered serendipity requires work, but it’s the only way to actively cultivate and maximize connection, “even if it's a five-, ten-, fifty-person community.”

Parr agrees: “Nine out of ten times, a community involves a ton of work.” It requires real grit and purpose-driven input from the host, but the output is unmatched. 

Look at the Hustle, for example. It's a daily email read by 2.5+ million people. "[The Hustle] owns this thing called Trends, which is a paid subscription service [that has] ballpark 20,000 members. And we have a Facebook community. . . [which is] now the majority of the value," Parr adds. "And I remember getting a message [saying], 'Oh my god, this community is so vibrant.'"

Like we said. The power of a real, genuine community? Unmatched. 

At INBOUND, Shah and Parr's talk made us realize that building a strong community is like cultivating a garden. It takes effort and dedication to create and maintain, but with the right care, it can flourish and grow beyond our wildest expectations. As we look ahead to 2023 and beyond, let's strive to create and nurture vibrant communities within our businesses and organizations. Together, we can make it happen.