In this episode of Building Infinite Red, we are talking about cultivating and nurturing community, specifically what goes into forming a healthy community, such as setting boundaries, avoiding neglect, and not taking your community for granted.
In this episode of Building Infinite Red, we are talking about cultivating and nurturing community, specifically what goes into forming a healthy community, such as setting boundaries, avoiding neglect, and not taking your community for granted.
JAMON HOLMGREN: I think it's important because that's sort of how we met. We were all part of a Ruby Community, we were contributing to the open source within that community, and we were collaborating on some things. So from the very beginning, it was like, the community itself was kind of the fun part. I mean the technology was fun too, you know, don't get me wrong, but community was such a great part. It allowed for some opportunities including the ability for me to meet Ken and Todd and then of course, eventually get to know them. And so, we saw the value of community right from the very beginning, even before Infinite Red came to be.
TODD WERTH: I would agree with everything that Jamon said. Obviously, it's how we met each other. Open source community, speaking at conferences, which is a community event. I met a lot of my, I would call friends through such communities. But more than that it's a way for us to be part of something that's bigger than ourselves, bigger than our little company here and associate ourselves with like-minded people. And I tend to choose communities and hopefully I'm building communities of people that I respect and feel good associating myself with.
TODD: I don't know what the definition of community is. Ken will know exactly I'm sure but to me it's just people who've decided to group up together around a particular ideal, a particular subject, a particular interest. I guess I could sum it up for myself, when I need something or want to express something, this group of people is the first people I want to express that to or ask for help from.
KEN MILLER: It's a tough thing to define right? It's one of those sort of squishy concepts, you kind of know when you see it. But trying to pin it down to what exactly is community, what isn't community is pretty hard. For us, community has largely been centered around open source. That is a very particular kind of community. But I'd say it's narrower than that too, right? It's not like we're talking to Linux developers, we're talking to people who have similar professional experiences to us. And that has always been the case.
Like you kind of flock to people who can kind of understand your pain. And so, for us, contributing back to the community in the form of sharing insight, in the form of sharing code has always been about saying, "Hey, you know what? We feel your pain, let's make it better together."
JAMON: And one of the unique things about the community that we have been a part of is, it's never been about location. There's a community here in Vancouver, Washington. There's a larger community in the Portland metro area. And we're certainly a part of that. I go to meet ups, I go to events here in Portland. And they're good. And you do get to meet people and you have a commonality of location and also to a great degree, interest or technology or whatever it is that you're centered around in a meet up. But our community hasn't been about that, with the Infinite Red origin story. Ken and Todd, did know each other because of location, but it had already become remote before that.
I remember when I first started building some open source, one of the people that kind of quickly became a part of my little community there was a guy that actually still works for us here, Mark Rickert. He started contributing and he was over on the East Coast and I believe, South Carolina at that time. And he came in and contributed and we had a lot of great conversations and bonded on some things. There are a lot of interests that were similar at that time. And it was really great because the community could be centered around something other than just location, which I think is something maybe a little bit more new in the past.
TODD: It was kind of interesting. So you asked that question, which is difficult to answer, but as we talk more, which is a great thing about conversation, new things are coming to my mind. Community can mean very different things and we all belong to many different communities. One is around physical things. Jamon meant some location, but it could be, you belong to a community of men over six foot four, and you have your own, I'm speaking about Jamon here (laughter), you have your own problems and when you discuss things, there's a camaraderie that comes from a shared experience of a real thing.
JAMON: Hash tag, tall people problems.
TODD: Yes, a lot of communities, they've grown from a seed of an idea or an ideal and that's probably more common in a lot of the communities we, well, most of the communities, from a professional standpoint, that we either contribute to or belong to or even, in some cases, create are around ideas and shared interest and that kind of stuff.
TODD: We use a product called Community Miracle Grow.
JAMON: It works great. One of the things that occurred to me, I think it was, I don't know, a year and a half ago or something like that, was that we had this community. It had already kind of come to be, but there wasn't really a standard place for them to congregate. There were people who were kind of fans of our open source work, who understood what we were doing. They were interested in our conference. We created a Slack team. Slack of course, being the chat system that we use and we created a community version of the Infinite Red Slack. So people could sign up at community.infinite.red. They could go in there. There were different channels that kind of group people based on what they were interested in. Of course, there were some that were more popular, the Chain React channel, the Ignite channel, which is our open source React Native, boilerplate CLI system and also just React Native in general.
We pushed the community just to see if there's interest. And there was a lot of interest and we are able to also do some things like, people had some questions about Ignite. In this Ignite CLI, it actually directs you to our Slack channel and we have gotten to know some of those people and also have been able to lean on some of our community members to answer questions and diagnose issues. And things like that.
TODD: It's totally off topic. But I love how effortlessly Jamon inserts plugs first off into the podcast. It's inspiring. (laughter)
JAMON: My Twitter handle is @jamonholmgren. (laughter)
TODD: Well done.
KEN: That was not quite as smooth, but I still like it.
JAMON: Once you edit it, it will be smooth.
KEN: Double-edged sword. Well, actually like the handle is a double-edged sword to a double-edged sword.
JAMON: Twitter is an interesting one.
KEN: Yeah. Twitter is an interesting place.
TODD: I, personally, don't have an answer to that. Back when I used to promote my own personal brand, I used Twitter a lot and that seemed straightforward to me. But I got to a point, this being my third and final company, hopefully, for my life, where I'm much more interested in promoting Infinite Red than myself, and I have not figure out how to do that. I think Jamon does it much better so he probably has lots more interesting to say.
KEN: Jamon does it by being genuine, is the thing, right, he's just there, he's being genuine. He's not shy about promoting stuff that we're doing, but he's also not a spam feed.
JAMON: Yeah. If I am spamming something like I have been this podcast, to be honest, I will kind of acknowledge that upfront. Like, "Hey, I was spamming this. It was just released. Give me a break." I'll back off after a bit.
I enjoy Twitter. It's opened up a lot of opportunities for us. Twitter's been a platform for us and it's been good. I love showing off my team's work and I had a one of my team message me the other day and said, "I love how you're always promoting your team. Telling other people about what your team's doing." That was someone on our team. I feel like there's a lot of really great work being done and nobody wants to talk about it at Infinite Red. So I guess have to because I want people to know what we're doing. It's very cool.
You know, this podcast in a way sort of came out of Twitter in some ways. It initially started with my friend, Kyle Shevlin. He and I were chatting a little bit and I was kind of lamenting that, "I don't do much code anymore, so I don't have a lot to talk about when it comes to answering questions on Twitter or kind of talking about various things." He was like, "Well, what about the business stuff that you're doing? That's interesting to people." He was just like, "You have a lot talk about."
And so, I put out a tweet saying, "Hey, if you have a business question, if you have anything. You know, I've learned a lot in the amount of time that I've spent doing this." And I got a really good response. A lot of people asking questions. It was really cool. And then the best part about it was that I could bring it back to Todd and Ken and show them the tweet and they would monologue for a bit or dialogue for a bit. And we would go back and forth and at the end of that, we would have something really interesting to say. And I could put that out there. It had my name on it, but I try to be careful about always tagging Ken and Todd in the tweets and saying, "this is kind of a amalgam of all of our responses."
And it worked really well and then once we kind of you had that experience then we said, "Well. you know what? We do have a lot to say. And so, since we have a lot to say, why don't we actually say it in a little different medium." I mean that's this podcast.
So Twitter has been very influential in a lot of ways and some ways, responsible for this podcast. But definitely a shout out to my friend, Kyle Shevlin for sparking that idea.
KEN: Jamon is like my Twitter agent. (laughter) Like I have more followers because Jamon has like quoted me than from anything I've ever actually tweeted myself.
JAMON: Ken's a pretty private person and he has a lot of incredibly insightful things to say that will forever die in a Slack channel somewhere, if I don't go out there and say it. (laughter)
So. Yeah. I can't help myself.
KEN: Honestly, I feel very lucky to be co-founders with Jamon.
TODD: Yeah. I agree with that.
JAMON: Awww, thank you.
KEN: Because you'll go out and do that kind of thing and it's just totally natural for him. It's not like we're pulling teeth to make him do it but it means that it gives us the kick in the behind that we need in order to get out there and talk to people.
TODD: I agree.
KEN: I was seriously hoping that you're going to say, "Well, nobody really needs Todd."
CHRIS: Well, Todd has feelings. And so, we want to make sure that we acknowledge those.
KEN: It's not true. We totally need Todd. But Todd...it would have been amusing. (laughter)
JAMON: In that context. Leave the jokes to the professional.
KEN: Leave the jokes to the jokester.
JAMON: But one thing I want to say before Todd jumps in here, is Todd is the sort of you know, he keeps things light and stuff like that but he always has very strong convictions, very strong things that drive who he is and that comes out in our community very much so. That's a very core piece to our community that I appreciate about Todd.
TODD: So I want to clarify a few things. A, Todd does not have feelings. (laughter) No, I'm just kidding. You know, it's interesting because I'm a very outgoing introvert, which is funny. And I have no shame whatsoever, but for some reason, I don't promote as much as I used to in the past. I don't know why. I'm glad we have Jamon to do that. This is inside baseball so maybe not very interesting to people but ...
JAMON: Todd, you were pretty good about promoting Infinite Red before I joined.
TODD: That's true.
JAMON: Infinite Red from our perspective. Because we were kind of first to the RubyMotion scene. I think Todd and Ken came in a little later, but they quickly kind of grew like a plague all the way throughout. (laughter)
Okay, that's the wrong analogy.
KEN: No, keep that.
JAMON: They grew very quickly throughout. And it was a very intentional thing now that I know Ken and Todd, I know it was intentional. It wasn't just a happenstance.
TODD: I guess this podcast is lot about us. I always feel weird talking about just our perspectives and stuff but Jamon's comment about us, growing like a plague is true. And I think one of the things that I've learned being a ... So I started out pretty shy, introverted person, but one of the things I learned is don't wait for people to invite you to communities, invite yourself, wedge yourself in every ... And just keep on wedging and until a point where they're like, "Was Todd ever not here? I don't remember." Even though I was one of the last people to join, I feel like I was always there just because of shamelessly, endlessly, relentlessly wedging myself into every every situation.
KEN: Well, we live in a world where, for a lot of things you don't really have to ask for permission. You want to make a library, make a library, publish it. You want to make a newsletter, make the newsletter, start publishing it and invite people to join it.
I think for a large stretch of my career, I would kind of sit around thinking, "Well, I'm not sure if I'm the right one to do this." There's this sort of, I guess it's kind of an imposter syndrome. It's kind of just the shyness, just the laziness to a certain degree. And what we found was like, if you just show up, and you start you know sharing what you have, sooner or later you're going to find people who are interested and that's what's happened.
JAMON: And I think there are a lot of people on our team that are more like Ken than Todd and I. You know, Todd and I don't have imposter syndrome in that same way. (laughter) We tend to be maybe a little over confident in some ways. But our team is probably a little more, at least many on our team are more like Ken. But it's great because they add so much value and we can kind of bring them in to the community through their association with Infinite Red and the things that were doing. That is a way of building a community, is to bring people along with you and kind of promote and show them that ... Show other people that they do belong.
TODD: I agree that Ken represents a lot of people in our community, in the development community. Not necessarily the designer community. We talk a lot about developers but we also have designers and stuff.
You know, I'm 46 years old I've been doing everything in this industry for now, 20 some years and I have evolved a lot over time. The truth is I'm never going to be invited to the country club. Never gonna happen. Just reality. My attitude always been, "Fine, I'll just buy it someday." (laughter)
You know that's obviously just kind of a metaphor, but the point is: invitation is overrated. That's all I'm saying.
KEN: I was always a very shy kid. I have a six-year-old daughter and there was something that I have observed about her because she's actually kind of different from me. It's a bit of social skills that seems to come naturally to her that I am a little envious of, but it represents what we're talking about here.
So I remember there is an occasion where we are at a playground and they had one of those tires swings, where the tire is horizontal and it's got like three chains that support it so you could kind of go in every direction. And there was some kids there, who were playing on it and they were, I don't know three, four years older than her. There were calling over to their parents to come and push them, the parents were like talking and ignoring them. And so Luna just comes up and starts pushing them. Doesn't ask. She just starts pushing them and the kids are like, "Oh, okay." And they invited her to come up on the swing with her after that because she didn't ... She just did it.
But she did it in a way that was like, "Hey, I'm gonna help them." Or she didn't ask to help them, she just helped them and maybe that doesn't work in every circumstance but it seems like it's going to work in a lot of circumstances, where if that's how you introduce yourself to people, they're going to trust you in a way that they wouldn't otherwise.
TODD: So that brings up a great point. One of the things for instance at our conference, Chain React. One of my kind of high GAFOs or one of the things I cared about a lot, was to actively try to include everyone in the conference in the conference. A lot of conferences I see is just a small group of cool kids and the rest of people sitting in the corner and inspecting potted plants, myself included. So since I was part of creating a conference how do we minimize the cool kids and maximize the majority.
And so when we're building community, the people like Ken‘s daughter, don't need our help. They'll just naturally join and be part of it and that's wonderful. But I gave a lot of thought on how to get the rest of the people because you could go to a conference and you could have the worst presentations, the worst content in the world, but if you are actually included in a way that you naturally aren't, you're going to go away loving that experience.
And so, that's actually one of my personal goals in life is how to bring that experience that the cool kids get naturally to the majority of people.
KEN: Well, and I think the most advance version of that is to enlist the cool kids as social instigators. Take their natural social skills because that's usually what that is, right? And have them come and bring everybody else along on the fun and games.
JAMON: I read an article a little while ago, where a grade school student was kind of bullied and sort of kind of ostracized at her school. And she ended up moving to a new school and someone said, "Hey, come sit with me." at the cafeteria. And it was one of the cool kids. And she ended up making an organization that promotes come sit with me and basically go out and find these kids that seem ostracized, that nobody likes, whatever and just invite them to come sit with you at the cafeteria because it can change lives. And I actually sent that over to my son just saying, "Hey, you know ... " Because kind of ... He's looked up to at his school and he's a very kindhearted person. And he really liked the article too. And I think that that was something that he can do at his school.
That's definitely something that we still, as adults, there's still that dynamic of come into the group. So we really cared about that with Chain React and that definitely came across I think.
TODD: And our Slack community and some other communities. The great thing about out community is whether it's a developer community, the designer community, we belong to the open source community. We tend to be, I think more than the average human being, we tend to be a nicer group of people. I don't know if that's true, but it just seems that way.
When recruiting a team, I invite people over to the table. That's how, this is going to sound horrible if our team's listening and they're not all that way. But I always look for people who are underappreciated in all aspects of life. And it makes for such a fantastic team because those type of people tend to be more appreciative, they think more about others. I love our band of misfits that we call Infinite Red. And we've got a variety of different misfits and I highly recommend finding people who don't naturally walk up to the tire swing.
JAMON: I think internally people didn't totally get why we were doing it because it did seem like a lot of time that we had to spend doing it. We had to be out there answering questions and fielding requests for help and things like that. And we're still kind of figuring out what our role is with that; I think we've gotten a little better at that. Also the community is starting to become more self-sustaining, where there are people who are answering questions who are not Infinite Red people. But we've also made some really good friends there. And I think that the Infinite Red team has benefited from the community in that way.
We don't get full participation from everybody. We get some people, you know, Kevin, Steve and some others who are a lot more active in the Infinite Red community Slack especially. And that's okay. We're not expecting everybody to be kind of the social butterflies, but we do get a lot of value from that. I think people see that. And they also see, I think Chain React probably had a bigger impact than the Slack community in a lot of ways. Almost everybody was there and they got a chance to see how we are regarded in the community and how they're sort of looked up to as Infinite Red employees. They're a great team so I think they should be.
JAMON: I know that one thing that definitely comes in is neglect. Communities will die if you don't continually spend time making sure that you're paying attention to them, making sure that you're keeping the core principles alive. Things like that. So neglect is a really big one and you are sort of signing up for an obligation at that point. You need to make sure that you adequately pay attention to what's going on.
Now, I have other communities that I've started and still maintain outside of Infinite Red for personal interests and things like that. One has 4,000 members. It's kind of an interesting one. And that community, we started it, grew very quickly and then it sort of became more self-sustaining in a way, which lends itself to maybe taking it for granted that it will continue to just kind of keep rolling right along. But luckily I was able to get together a really great group of core moderators that all have very similar goals, although very very different backgrounds. And that was really great way to handle that because they all, at different times, have time to make sure that the community is going strong. So neglect is very much a big one. Make sure that you don't neglect the community.
TODD: I haven't done as much as Jamon, for sure, but it seems a very challenging endeavor. So if I'm a listener and I want to create a community. I'm going to run into lots of problems, I imagine. What are similar kinds of problems you've run into Jamon? Were you able to solve them? Are they still problems? That sort of thing.
JAMON: In some communities, and actually in many communities, there's like dynamic that happens where people will try to find the edges. They will try to find what the moderators will allow and what they won't. Often what they do is not explicitly against the rules. Like if it is, it's easy. You just delete the comment, you let him know, whatever. Often what they're doing can be kind of sort of defended as being within the rules, but is still a toxic behavior, when it comes down to it. It will turn into something that's much worse. And usually moderators are under moderating. That's usually the way that people deal with it. They under moderate. You know you don't want to stifle people, you don't want to get calls of censorship and things like that, but really you should probably moderate more than you are and it's a really key aspect of maintaining a community.
I've found that that's definitely the case. Early on in this other community, there was someone who was sort of misbehaving and I posted a very strong response to them and told them if they did it again that they were going to be banned. And it was helpful because it kind of set the boundary. This is what we're not going to, we're not going to allow this. It has been good because from that point on the group sort of started self-policing in a way. They kind of understood where the boundaries were.
KEN: This topic of boundaries is super important. Another place that shows up particularly with anything open source or any other kind of content that you're maintaining, is an incredible sense of entitlement that you'll run into. And the burnout that can create in your team or the people who are working on that software with you. People will be like, you know, "This sucks." Like, "Why haven't you fixed my bug?" Like, "I submitted it months ago. You people are amateurs." Kind of like, "This is free. You paid us nothing for this."
Keeping a healthy boundary about that and figuring out how to be responsive to the community without being a pushover is really important, if you're going to have a long-term software project or any other kind of thing that falls in that category of kind of collaborative content.
JAMON: Yes. I agree with that a hundred percent.
KEN: One thing that isn't probably obvious if you've never done it, is how much promotion it actually requires. And you want to do it in a way that's consistent with the rest of your values but you have to put the word out and it's not going to happen on its own. That was definitely a sort of a stumbling block I had around open source, in particular or blogs or any of these things. Like, you have to tell people. It can feel really uncomfortable to a lot of kind of maker types. It feels weird that you have to convince people to let you give them stuff for free. But you totally do. You absolutely do. It's really important and finding the right, "Here it comes. Here comes." You got to find the right balance. (laughter) Finding the right balance is really hard. I think we're getting pretty good at it, but it's a non-optional part of this kind of work.
JAMON: Well, because it's not really free, right? Because you only have so much room in your Slack sidebar for another Slack team. You only have so much mind share available for various things. And also people have been bitten in the past, where they've join communities that have either died, have been toxic or are just so noisy that you can't keep up. It just sucks all your time.
KEN: Yeah, well, any of these things. Whether it's you're trying a new library. It requires some time and effort on your part. And you have to know that you're not going to get sucked into it. I mean there's probably this question in the back of a lot of people's minds kind of like, "Why on Earth do you do all of this? If it has all of these challenges and nobody pays you for it, like, why is it worthwhile?" Todd, you want to answer that?
TODD: No, I want to say a bad joke.
KEN: Okay. Go ahead and say a bad joke.
TODD: I don't know if you're aware of this, but the Hoover Corporation is actually working on a vacuum cleaner that sucked time, never mind, I did that wrong. (laughter)
KEN: You're right. That is a bad joke.
TODD: I gave the punchline in the joke.
KEN: You're right. That's a terrible joke.
TODD: The project team was ... Eventually, they gave up on the project because it was too much of a time suck. I just messed that up. (laughter)
KEN: I think we have to keep that in.
TODD: Let me do it again. I don't know if you guys know this, but the Hoover Corporation was working on a temporal vacuum cleaner, but they eventually gave up on the project because it was too much of a time suck.
CHRIS: I think I liked the failed joke attempt better.
KEN: I like the failed joke better. Yeah.
TODD: Well, yeah. Because that makes me the joke.
KEN: I mean okay, so let's address the elephant in the room. Is there promotional value for us in terms of the rest of our services? Absolutely. Almost any attention especially if you know, basically positive attention is going to be good for us. It's a really expensive way of getting that attention.
JAMON: It is.
KEN: Let me be clear about that. If that's the only reason you're going to do it, go buy Google ads. Seriously. Like, don't do it. If it didn't have any promotional value, I don't think as a business person, you know, me, as the person who looks at the finances that I could justify the amount that we spend on it. If that was our only goal with that.
KEN: So we have to do it partly because it's just who we are.
JAMON: Absolutely. It gives us an audience and it gives us the ability to ... Like I did when I promoted this podcast there. If you join the community, by the way, I'm going to insert one of these seamless advertisements. If you join the community at community.infinite.red, your get access to things before the public does. We actually will go in there and and announce things and say, "Hey, you know, come check this out." And we get early feedback and stuff that way.
It's really cool, but it also gives us an audience. So we had you know 2,000 people that I could "@channel." (laughter) And yes, I did it and we put enough money and time into the community that I didn't feel bad about doing it once in awhile, once in a blue moon. And I said, "@channel you know, we have a new podcast and go check it out."
So that's definitely the promotional value, the built-in audience that we have that we've already built a rapport with because we have put in the time to actually show them who we are and they buy into that already. There's a lot of value there.
KEN: It's a great source of folks that we already know or are sort of somewhat aligned with our values to go and find freelancers and that sort of thing. So we'll frequently get people just emailing us saying, "Hey, can we work with you?" And we usually don't have openings. So it was like, "Hey, you know, we don't have openings right now, but if you go hang out here that's usually where we go first."
KEN: We've gotten a lot of great contributors that way.
JAMON: We have.
KEN: Hopefully that's win-win for everybody.
KEN: Not necessarily.
JAMON: Wouldn't you say that one would kind of arise naturally though?
KEN: Maybe. There's probably something to be said that, if you don't intentionally create the community, you're going to get a community whether you like it or not and it may or may not be aligned with what you're trying to do. But there's so many different kinds of companies out there that some of them are going to make more sense that way, some of them are going to get less sense that way. For us, given how collaborative what we do is, it makes perfect sense but there is plenty of companies that are just like us that don't cultivate that. So it's kind of up to you but this how we did it. This is how it works for us. And I think there's going to be people who resonate with it.
TODD: Upwards. (laughter) Oh, you didn't say direction, you said ways. Sorry.
JAMON: I think from my standpoint, I'd like to see a little more deeper interaction beyond the more active channels. Something that's a little more beyond that. We have some ideas. We're not ready to announce anything yet but if you go to the community, you'll get first access. (laughter) I'm just relentless, aren't I? (laughter)
But the deeper interactions, the more value, the better connection between everybody. I think that there's going to be more of that coming. We are going to continue to invest in the community in a way that is very meaningful. Keep an eye out for that. It's already pretty awesome, but we have some ways to make the directions deeper. I'm not looking for numbers. Like we have 2,000, I think almost 2,100 people in there right now. I'm not necessarily just looking for 100,000 people. What I want is for those connections to be more meaningful.
TODD: It's not just our Slack community. I would consider our React Native Newsletter, which we have about 10,000 subscribers to be part of our community, the people who interact with us on open source. We have a variety of open source projects to be part of our community and of course, the listeners to this podcast is also part of our growing community. Community is a big umbrella, I think.
JAMON: There are some things that we still need to work on with the community, for sure, but I think we do this probably better than a lot of people, a lot of companies.
TODD: Ken's absolutely right. If you're doing community for promotion, good on you. Probably not the highest ROI. It's like general branding. You can't put a number on it but I think clearly from a business standpoint, it has its values and ways that we can't quantify or articulate. It's not for everyone. I think every company should find things that they can do to help the world and their business, but for us, it dovetails well with our culture.