5 Questions with Bailey Richardson

Communities should be built with people, not for people.

Illustration by Sasha Portis/The New York Times

On November 21, Bailey Richardson, co-founder of People & Company and author of “Get Together,” stopped by The New York Times with her colleague Kevin Huynh to talk about their research on what makes communities thrive. We caught her afterwards to talk more about her career, her time as one of Instagram’s first 10 employees and what makes a long-lasting community. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

1.Where did you start your career, and how did community building and engagement become the focus of your work?

At the start of my career I had no idea what I wanted to do professionally, but I did know that I wanted to be around creative people. So, I found my way to an unpaid internship at the San Francisco Museum of Art, but I realized that working in an art world institution wasn’t right for me. I wanted to be on a smaller team where I had more freedom and agency, so I went to work at a startup that sold art, including photography, online. In 2011, I began to notice that young photographers in San Francisco were turning to a new app called Instagram to share their work. I emailed the early Instagram team and we met for coffee. Eventually, I joined the company as one of the first 10 employees on the community team.

Our community team acted as the conduit between the people using Instagram and the people making it. My favorite part of the work was foraging for exceptional Instagrammers. I’d spend hours combing the site for interesting and creative people around the world. We would spotlight these Instagrammers on the Suggested Users List, our blog and the main Instagram account to show what Instagram was all about.

Instagram gave me my first taste of intentional community building. The early days at the company felt like we were building the platform with our most passionate users, not for them. It was a deeply collaborative experience that felt radically different from what I sensed more traditional business and customer relationships were like. After leaving, I wanted to learn more about communities — how they start and grow — and I began doing research with two partners, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto. We interviewed as many people as we could about what makes a good community, and we gathered our findings into a book called “Get Together: How to build a community with your people.”

2. Community is a commonly used word that can mean different things to different people. How do you define community and the value of it?

Today, the meaning of “community” can feel ambiguous. It’s become a euphemism for groups of all kinds, including an audience or a user-base.

But authentic communities are simply groups of people who keep coming together over what they care about. The most vibrant ones offer members a chance to act on their passions with one another.

In the research we’ve done with hundreds of extraordinary clubs, networks and societies, there was one big takeaway: the secret to getting people together is that you must build a community with people, not for them. The implication of this small change of approach is simple yet significant. Alone, we are limited, but with others we extend our capacity. If you join forces — as artist and fans, organizer and advocates, company and customers — you can do more together than you ever could alone. (Plus, you’ll likely have more fun in the process!)

3. In your book, “Get Together,” you discuss building communities with people, not for people. What’s an example of a successful community that embodies that ethos for you?

One community that I fell in love with recently is GirlTrek.

GirlTrek was started by Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison to empower black women and girls to improve their overall health by walking.

In 2010, Dixon and Garrison challenged the women in their local community to commit to walk at least 30 minutes per day for 10 weeks. The challenge caught on, with hundreds of women participating across the country. Eventually, the two women created a Facebook group called “GirlTrek: Healthy Black Women and Girls” for trekkers to connect and share stories. Today, the GirlTrek community has over 200,000 members who participate in weekly neighborhood walks and longer treks. Dixon and Garrison’s team connects groups of walkers in neighborhoods across the country. One group recently completed a 100-mile walk along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway

GirlTrek is an in-person community, but they’ve used digital tools to train, connect and empower leaders around the world to extend what was once a very small, local effort. In that, they’re an example that individuals and organizers can look to for inspiration.

If you’re hungry for more business-focused examples, I suggest checking out what companies like Notion, Instant Pot and Girls’ Night In are up to.

4. You outline three key stages of building a community: getting together, sticking together and growing together. What stage can be the most difficult to navigate?

The challenges differ whether you’re an organization or an individual.

Organizations struggle with sticking together. A community, by our definition, is a group of people that keeps coming together. If companies want to build communities, they too will need to keep showing up, and they will need to be consistent if their community is going to stick together.

Some organizations are willing to make a long-term investment like that. Others are not. The ROI of community investments can’t be measured as immediately or evidently as other tactics like advertisements. Priorities, leadership and KPIs can change from quarter to quarter, which can start and stop their community investments and erode relationships with their most passionate people. This keeps communities supported by organizations from building momentum and reaching their potential.

For individuals organizing grassroots communities like basketball teams or interest-based Slack groups, the challenge is often the final stage: growing together.

Growing a community isn’t about management, it’s about developing new leaders. I’ve seen many individuals who organize grassroots groups struggle to shift their perspective from building everything for members in the early days, to building with members as the group grows. But if a group’s founder can train the most passionate, committed members to be new leaders of the group, that community will reach more people and sustain itself longer than the original founder could have managed on their own.

5. What do you think are the emerging generation’s expectations of community?

The internet has transformed our expectations for how we relate to one another. Our communication with faraway organizations used to be one-directional. Audiences were on the receiving end of marketing, advertising and product development that were controlled by organizations.

Our relationships are no longer so simple. People who grew up with the internet expect to not only voice their opinions, but to be acknowledged for doing so; These are two-way relationships. We see companies like Twitch and LEGO share the designs and thinking behind new products with passionate users before the products ever ship. And we see superfans of TED, Notion and Rapha raise their hands to host events on behalf of those organizations (as TEDx organizers, Notion Pros and Rapha Clubhouse ride leaders, respectively).

This demand for more participation will be a big shift for all types of organizations — from businesses and nonprofits, to independent and political groups. Organizations will have to change their mindset from assuming they can control all of the interactions with their brand, to empowering communities of customers and users to drive interactions themselves.

This change, while daunting at first, is also a great opportunity for those who can invest in it. Organizations that develop the capacity to build with their customers, users and advocates will be able to grow and diversify their impact in a more authentic way than they could have alone.


5 Questions with Bailey Richardson was originally published in NYT Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: New York Times

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