Startup Louisville Forum, the community that never was

Community failure
Image courtesy of sparklig

We wanted a place of our own, longer than what twitter offers us; where we could keep the longer conversation going. A place us poor bastards could call our own. This is the story of the form at Startup Louisville; a story of software, expectations, and how the forum didn’t magically turn into a thriving community beyond my wildest dreams. Life is hard, online communities are harder.

Zach, Daniel, Greg, Charles and I talked about the need for an online community attached to Startup Louisville. A place for longer discussions among a group of people, something that twitter is not good at. We had a casual meeting and discussed our thoughts; what we thought the forum could be and loosely how we would get there.

Install the forum

Setting up the forum went through a couple of transition phases. I have experience with different forum software, but only on a superficial level. I haven’t had the deeper experience that running a forum would give me. So I originally used SMF. I chose it because it used the BSD license. The idea being that I wanted more leeway than a GPL licensed forum would allow. But it was premature optimization. There was no known need that we were going to want to redistribute the forum source code. Thinking about the license in this way was distracting from the overall goals.

SMF is patterned on email for how a forum should work. Where each post is a self contained item, even going so far to have it’s own subject line. This is understandable SMF has been around for awhile; when it was originally created it was modeled after Usenet, an email based forum like community. But we wanted something more modern, that would feel comfortable to people accustomed to social media. After looking around at a few options I found Vanilla Forum. It has a layout that is different than SMF, with a social media feel, but not so different that it is unrecognizable as a forum.

I installed Vanilla and started to customize the the default theme; removing colors and adjusting layout. Tweaking the look and feel to match the existing StartupLouisville.com style of large white space, tinged with blues and golds.

Customize the experience

The joy and problem of Open Source is that you get good software but coded and architected in the author’s personal style. Vanilla is great, but written in a way that seems a little odd to me. The organization and structure seem too interdependent on other parts. Not modular enough. I don’t think there is enough separation between the core framework and the application modules. It made customization complex unless you hack on the core.

Vanilla’s interdependent nature hindered quick customization of the layout. But it wasn’t the architecture alone. I had high expectations for a quick launch. For customizing the site, and delivering a high quality theme that worked on a variety of screen sizes, was a little unrealistic. A topic that seems to be flowing through the whole of the Forum development process.

Prepare for success

As part of my preparation for launching the forum I read a ton of stuff. I found articles, books, and–aptly enough–forum threads on how to run a forum. I studied research papers on sociology, IRL community, and internet communities. I absorbed everything and sat back and contemplated how everything fit together. One giant puzzle with a million moving parts. My goal was to prepare as much as I could. To learn from others first hand experience, what were there successes and failures. How can I replicate the one and avoid the other. To learn How people interact, and how they interact on forums. How can I foster and grow a community.

In preparation for launch I schedule two dates, soft live and hard live. Soft Live was like an out of town preview in-town. Where I invited aa select group of interested people to join and begin creating content. Starting new threads and participating in existing conversations. The goal of the soft Live is to make the forum a lively active place.

Make a noisy launch

The next step is Hard Live, a launch date where we tell the world we are open and ask them to join us, to converse with us. The hard Live was scheduled to coincide with StartupWeekend Louisville at the end of February. The idea of the launch was to make a great and loud noise to get peoples attention. But this didn’t happen. The forum was ready and live, but the loud noise was not to be had. Zach, the SWL MC, announced the forum to the assembled teams. The idea was that we would have some mentors available on the forum to help answer questions. The reality was to be had. We didn’t have a launch team in place. I was working the forums, asking and answering questions, but not from SWL participants. The teams, it turned out, were focused more on developing their businesses and winning the competition than asking questions on a forum. Also the forum didn’t act as a catalyst to question and answer with mentors. The SWL mentors were walking around amongst the teams themselves; answering questions and giving advice. The mentors were not on the forum, so there was no reason for the teams to go to the forum.

After the hard launch I kept at it. I posted new content daily; starting new threads and following up on conversations, answering questions and making people feel like the forum was active. I poked and prodded people into participating. I would send them links to threads and ask them to reply. This was the extent of my marketing strategy. I had a hope that the forum would “catch on” and slowly grow into a self-sustaining community. But it didn’t seem like it was growing. The only new users were spam bots.

The long road

My enthusiasm waned. I got distracted with work. I got dejected that the Forum wasn’t growing, not even a little bit. I slowed replying to old threads. I stopped prodding people into participate. I stopped asking questions in new threads as the soft live group stopped replying to threads.

My day to day interaction with the forum turned from one of conversation to deleting spam accounts. I became disappointed. I had wanted the forum to succeed and grow into a vibrant community of people talking about Startups and business. I felt like I had failed; the forum had failed. On a forum dedicated to forum owners; I asked for help. I said my forum had died and wanted some direction; some advice about where to go next. The response was good. In particular one reply struck a chord with me. It said that the forum didn’t die because it hadn’t even gotten started.

It got me thinking; did I give the forum enough time and energy to grow before declaring it a failure. The forum had been used; people had signed up, posted, and replied. The reality was that use was not sustainable. People were posting, but the forum had not grown into a community. They posted when I asked them, or reminded them. Very few of the early users came back on their own. The forum itself had not become a destination.

My expectations had been too high. My ideas were out of touch with reality. My “build it and they will come” mentality was misguided. Building most things is hard and time consuming, creating online communities doubly so. They take more time than I had put in, and they take more involvement that I had expected. There is no clear roadmap for online communities; no easy step-by-step instruction manual to follow. I had expected users who posted to come back on their own, from the very beginning, but they didn’t.

Lessons to learn

The first lesson to learn is to realign expectations and goals with reality. To get a better idea of how a new, from scratch, forum is built, and the process it would go through transforming into a sustainable community.

Once I have a better understanding of reality I can set betters goals and targets, with concrete action items for hitting them. How will I get the word out? Who do I need to advertise to? Identify a goal for the forum and identify people who share that goal. Talk to those people, bring them in.

The lessons to learn from this experience is that my goals were too lofty, and my process to lite on action. But I don’t think the forum is too far gone, there is still hope that a community can be fostered and grow into a sustainable group of people that help and support each other. The solution is realistic goals and a plan and process for getting there. Embrace the slow growth.

In the end I deleted the Startup Louisville Forum. It had descended into a spam filled pit of terrible. But it wasn’t a failure; it taught me valuable lessons about hard work and expectations.

Startup Louisville Forum, the community that never was by  
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