Cindy tells the story of how she built that team, and what led Kickstarter to add community at the executive level, on this episode. Now, more than 2 years out of that job, she also talks about her efforts to find a new, challenging role that moves her career forward. Plus:
- The “a-ha” moment that happened that Cindy started participating in the executive meetings
- Why community success metrics were important to Kickstarter
- How she created a verticalized team structure based around the platform’s strongest categories
“The types of companies that I like working for are the ones that really, from the beginning, think of community as foundational to their business and to their mission. That is very different from community just being an ‘Oops,’ because lots of people are using this and, ‘Oh my gosh, now we need somebody to put out this fire.'” -@shinyee_au
“We need people in this industry who are willing to step up and, if not outright advocate and ask for a more senior role, at least be willing to take it if it crops up. No matter what role you step into, if you’re stepping into a role where you’re totally comfortable with everything, you’re in the wrong role. We need people to push community farther up the chain.” -@patrickokeefe
“[Community at Kickstarter was] dealing with a large umbrella of issues that all touched pretty much every part of the company. Increasingly, it was turning into one of those things where a lack of insight at the executive level was actually making it harder for us to do our jobs and harder for us to move at a good pace. … We realized that the missing piece at the table was no one was quite there fully advocating for the customer experience, understanding what was happening on that front and then bringing that information to the table. … It was sort of like that silence was deafening, and it really needed to be there.” -@shinyee_au
“In a weird way, [as VP of community at Kickstarter,] I feel like I was a conduit of information. That was a lot of what I did. It’s so weird to think about that as a job, but I do feel like this is one of the things where you have to be comfortable as a manager. You’re not going to do the things that are going to solve the problems. You’re actually going to get the information that will help empower your team, and the people that you work with, to solve the problems.” -@shinyee_au
“When I first left [Kickstarter], I think that immediately what happened was a lot of different companies reached out and asked if I would want to come and lead their community teams. I left Kickstarter because I was feeling a little burnt out and like I needed some time off, but also because I was trying to figure out career-wise, what should my next move be. What comes after this? I talked to a lot of different companies about what would it be like leading their community teams, and even though I liked a lot of the people that I met with, it felt like it was the same job. The exact same job. Just a different product. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for.” -@shinyee_au
“If you have a big enough community where the data is so big, then at some point, you need your own data person. Who does nothing but community. I love the idea of specialization within community.” -@patrickokeefe
“A lot of the work that I did at Kickstarter was intensely product-focused. … Sometimes when I tell people that I actually really deeply enjoy working on product, they seem surprised that, coming from community, I would necessarily have those desires. I think that may be some of the, again, differences in how people perceive the work, where ultimately, if you are part of a growing company with a growing community, then most of the challenges you’re working on are issues of scalability. Most of the time you’re not going to solve it by simply putting more people on a problem. You’re going to have to build solutions, and those solutions often are going to take the form of product.” -@shinyee_au
About Cindy Au
Cindy Au has over 9 years of experience working with online communities, building teams and advising tech companies. She was employee #9 at Kickstarter and, as their VP of community, oversaw the evolution of the community as it grew from 50,000 users to 10 million.
Her expertise lies at the intersection of community and product, where she innovates on ways to create user-informed experiences that are beautiful, scalable and capable of working equally as well for an individual as they will for millions of people. Cindy specializes in translating user insights to diverse stakeholders and working across teams to get the job done.
Cindy built and led Kickstarter’s original community organization, and since then has advised and helped other startups build their teams and businesses. In 2012, Fast Company named her one of the Most Creative People in Business. Before working in tech, Cindy received her PhD in English.
- Cindy’s website
- Kickstarter, where Cindy was employee #9 and the second community hire, before eventually rising to lead a team of 30 as VP of community
- The community/marketing hero job posting that Cindy first applied to
- Yancey Stricker, CEO and co-founder of Kickstarter
- Cassie Marketos, Kickstarter’s “first employee,” who became the company’s first community-focused hire
- Fast Company profile for Cindy, noting that she finished her PhD a month after “taking on the (staggering) work of answering all of Kickstarter’s emails”
- Carol Benovic-Bradley, who has been on the show previously
- Indiegogo, another crowdfunding platform
- Daniella Jaeger, employee #11 at Kickstarter, the company’s third community hire
- Community Signal episode with Jenn Pedde, about managing Oprah’s community
- Jared Cohen, a mentor of Cindy’s, the former VP of operations at Kickstarter
- Community Signal episode with Alexandra Dao, about the community career ceiling
- Kickstarter’s VP of Community is Responsible for Their Integrity Team by Patrick
- On Seeding Communities by Derek Powazek, where he shares his one rule for community building
- Community Signal episode with Trella Rath, about the job hunt for an experienced community pro
- Community Signal episode with Julie Hamel, about community as a product
- Cindy on Twitter
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet as you listen using #CommunitySignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:20 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for joining me for this episode of Community Signal. This week, our guest is Cindy Au, an early employee at Kickstarter who rose to lead a community team of 30. We’ll chat about how she grew that team, the success metrics that Kickstarter focused on, and the career challenges of moving on from that role. Cindy has over nine years of experience working with online communities, building teams and advising tech companies. Her expertise lies at the intersection of community and product, where she innovates on ways to create user-informed experiences that are beautiful, scalable, and capable of working equally as well for an individual as they will for millions of people.
00:56 Patrick O’Keefe: Cindy specializes in translating user insights to diverse stakeholders and working across teams to get the job done. Cindy built and led Kickstarter’s original community organization, and since then, has advised and helped other startups build their teams and businesses. In 2012, Fast Company named her one of the Most Creative People in Business. Before working in tech, Cindy received her PhD in English. Cindy, welcome to the program!
01:16 Cindy Au: Thanks for having me!
01:18 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure. Let’s go back. In 2010, you’re finishing grad school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and you’re looking to leave the Midwest and move to New York City. You apply for a lot of jobs. So many jobs, and no-one responds, except Kickstarter. They had a “community/marketing hero” job posting, and you managed to get that job. When you join, the company is a year old and again, you’re employee number nine. Organizationally, what is community at Kickstarter, then?
01:48 Cindy Au: At that stage, community was very much undefined, in the sense that … Very loosely speaking, it was basically everything that wasn’t specifically engineering or product. I think this is really common in the early stage, where community really just means, hey, these are going to be the people that are working with potential customers, with turning those early customers into loyal followers of your brand, and then hopefully growing that into a real community.
02:15 Patrick O’Keefe: Mostly engineering. Does that mean that you were the first community hire, or was there someone else there? “Community/marketing hero.” I’m sure they had community or marketing. Maybe not both. What was in place already?
02:26 Cindy Au: When I got there, the two people who were really working on community were Yancey Strickler, now CEO but then co-founder, and Cassie Marketos, who was the first community hire. She had joined, I think, in October the previous year and had already been doing a lot of the early community building in the first few months of Kickstarter’s launch. When I got there, it was really just her and I putting our heads together and figuring out everything from the ground up. The reason why they were looking for another person was really that Yancey, as co-founder, was just being pulled in so many different directions. Like a lot of early founders, he was doing all the CS, he was answering all those questions, and he finally hit that moment of “Oh my gosh, I can’t really do all of this myself.” He hired Cassie and then he hired myself.
03:12 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I was looking at the Fast Company profile for you and it said something like you left school to answer all of Kickstarter’s emails.
03:19 Cindy Au: They truncated a little bit of the history, there. The space between graduate school and landing at Kickstarter isn’t quite as seamless. I had actually not quite finished my PhD when I moved to New York. I was basically down to one more chapter of my dissertation, and that’s something that you can do from anywhere. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to write this from New York.” I knew that I wanted to work in the city, and I knew that I wanted to find my next thing. I figured I could do all those things at once and it would be much easier to do than from Madison, Wisconsin.
03:54 Patrick O’Keefe: You touched on the co-founder being a part of community at the start, right?
03:58 Cindy Au: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
03:58 Patrick O’Keefe: What is your take on that as a general concept? I have heard people say that founders should be, if not leading the community, obviously a part of it at the very start, I’ve heard other people say a different thing. I always tell community-focused startups that they need to make a community hire fairly early. Being the advocate I am for the space, I like to say first five or first ten. What is your take on that, as far as founders owning community as a whole, being responsible for it at the start, and if you like it, how long do you think that that should be for?
04:29 Cindy Au: Yeah, I mean, I totally get why that happens and I actually think it makes a lot of sense when you’re at very early stage and you may not even have the resources to really hire. Most of the time you’re trying to split up all of those different responsibilities between the DNA of the different founders that you have. I feel like if you have someone who’s more focused on product and technical, then it makes absolute sense to have someone who’s really smart about understanding the customer and the marketing and the messaging. That often seems to be where a founder might sit early on, as they’re building the company.
05:02 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, and it’s interesting because if you go co-found a company, obviously you have this strong community background, so in that case, it makes tons of sense, for you to take the lead on those issues. If it’s just a founder who had the business idea, and so they step into that role of thinking, “Oh, I will do community, I can do community,” sometimes I wonder about that.
05:21 Cindy Au: Yeah, I think the most self-aware founders who start diving into that stuff, I think they’ll recognize pretty quickly, “Oh my gosh, there’s a lot to learn here, and there’s a lot to understand.” Oftentimes, if you’re smart, you’ll go out and try to find people who do have more experience doing it, to help you with that piece of it. I think some people don’t necessarily take to it. There’s a lot of founders who are, “Oh my gosh, get me out of here, I can’t be on the front lines like this! I want to go back to just building the business.” I think, for that reason, you’ll often have people who early-on try to find a community person. To me, at least the types of companies that I like working for, are the ones that really, from the beginning, think of community as foundational to their business and to their mission. That is very different from community just being an “Oops,” because lots of people are using this and “Oh my gosh, now we need somebody to put out this fire.”
06:15 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, of course all businesses are different and they can wait a certain amount of time to address this or address that. Most businesses have some form of support, but not all might have some form of community, if that makes sense.
06:25 Cindy Au: Yeah.
06:25 Patrick O’Keefe: Especially if they’re facilitating any sort of space where two people who use their thing talk to one another, then that’s community. They really should be thinking about that early on. What I have put out there and like to see when I talk to people, is you don’t think of community as this thing that you add later, if it’s core to your business. If you have a technical co-founder, there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t necessarily have a community founder, or at least a very early on hire. The hire you mentioned, the first community hire at Kickstarter, do you know what employee number she was?
06:56 Cindy Au: Gosh, I feel like she might have been six or seven. I honestly don’t totally remember. She was a very early hire. She was amongst, again, in that first ten. Again, I feel like Kickstarter was a little unusual, both in … What it is that makes the business tick is clearly communities, right? Every campaign is forming a community around something. That’s literally what makes a business go.
07:25 Patrick O’Keefe: The reasons I back things are because of the people who are already on Kickstarter, backing things. We have a mutual friend, Carol Benovic-Bradley, who’s been on the show. I’ve backed two or three things just because she has, and I get the email that says, “Carol has backed this,” and I go, “Oh, you know, I like that thing! I’m going to back that thing!” That’s how most of my projects that I’ve backed have happened, is simply because I have a friend or I know somebody and they’re on there and they back something. That’s most of my money spent on there.
07:54 Cindy Au: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah absolutely. It is totally about your networks. The fact that you have a certain inherent trust in the people that you hang out with or that you’re friends with or that you’re co-workers with. When someone supports something and says, “Hey, you should check this out,” that means a lot more than just browsing Amazon for stuff to buy. Yeah, Kickstarter, absolutely a very community-driven product and business, and in fact reliant on that dynamic to really be a thriving ecosystem.
08:24 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I would say it’s … I don’t know, maybe this is not doing enough justice to the platform, which is a great platform. I feel like you can duplicate tools, but you can’t necessarily duplicate people. I’ve never really backed anything on any other crowdfunding service, and maybe that’s because I’m a bad person. I can’t even think of one. I know there’s … Indiegogo, I can name other platforms, I can name niche vertical platforms. I can name those, but I don’t know that I’ve ever given them any money. I don’t know if it’s because Kickstarter’s software and tools and engineering, not to say they’re not great, are so much better, but it’s just because the people that I either want to back or the people that I learn about projects from are on Kickstarter.
09:09 Cindy Au: Yeah. Certainly, I think a big part of why the company’s been so successful is that early on, we built a really foundational group of creators. People that weren’t necessarily famous but were really, really active in their communities. They helped grow those niches within all of Kickstarter’s different verticals. I feel like that sort of dynamic produces what’s almost really hard to quantify, where you’re like, “Oh, yeah, well all the people I know are on there.” Really, I think what that means is that communities of creators, whether they’re in video games or comics or art or music, they gravitated to the platform early on, because a lot of people who tended to be early adapters in their communities tried it and they succeeded.
09:55 Cindy Au: I think that’s something that really can’t be underestimated is how much people really learn by example. I mean I think about that as being a really key dynamic in the early days, certainly, where it’s just one person with a little bit of a network inside of a community who was able to find success. That person would automatically draw to them another 10 people who were emailing and tweeting at them and saying “Hey, I also want to do this. Can you tell me how you did it?” That was so much a part of, I guess, if you want to call it “Onboarding.” It was really this learning by example. People seeing their peers doing it and then feeling motivated and inspired that they could do it too.
10:36 Patrick O’Keefe: Before you led the community team, you helped build it out and helped that team grow. Where did it start? How did you determine who would be the next hire, and then how that team would fill out?
10:47 Cindy Au: I would love to say that I had a master plan.
10:50 Patrick O’Keefe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
10:51 Cindy Au: Especially in the early days. The team, especially very early on, grew exactly the way it did when Yancey first hired me … Started with me and Cassie working through all of our tickets and looking through all the campaigns and being swamped. We immediately were like, “We need another person.” We found an awesome, awesome person named Daniella, who became our third community hire. Then from there I want to say we probably did that four or five times so that the core team was about six people all together, and we were all sharing everything. We were just, “All right. Let’s answer tickets, let’s go through and review all of our incoming projects, let’s talk to our creators and help educate them through everything. Let’s do meetups together.” At a certain point, as I’ve sure you’ve heard from a lot of different people who work in community, that … Everyone sharing everything starts to break down a little bit-
11:44 Patrick O’Keefe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
11:44 Cindy Au: You really have to start to create a little bit of specialization, even if your team is still very small. I would say your early-on, the most broad way that we decided to break up the team, was people who were really working with creators and people working with backers. I think that it was the natural breakdown, because people who are creating campaigns on Kickstarter have a really specific set of needs, and then people who are supporting campaigns have a totally different bucket of specific sets of needs. That breakdown really made a lot of sense.
12:13 Patrick O’Keefe: How did you come to lead the team?
12:16 Cindy Au: That was … a conversation between myself and Yancey, back in the day. I think he realized that, just as the team was getting bigger, we needed more leadership and we needed management. He asked if I wanted to take on that responsibility. To be honest, at the time I was a little bit hesitant, because I really enjoyed just doing all the things that a community role involves. I knew that management would take me further and further out from those things.
12:48 Cindy Au: At the same time, I felt like … I was in agreement, the team does need more management and more leadership and I feel like I could do this and be really helpful to this team, and have an impact in that way. I decided to go and give it a shot. I figured, “You know what? If this doesn’t work out, I can always still just be a community person and keep doing it.” Management felt like a challenge that would both be helpful to the company and the team and also grow a lot of the things that I, at the time, wasn’t totally sure that I had in me, so I wanted to see if I could do it.
13:23 Patrick O’Keefe: There’s a great lesson in there. It reminds me of an episode that we did with Jenn Pedde, who works at Oliver Wyman in New York City. She, for a couple of years, managed Oprah’s community. When she got that gig, her reaction, she said, was, “What am I doing here? How am I going to handle this? I don’t know what I’m doing.” She had experience in community and plenty of it, just like you had experience in community at Kickstarter before leading the team. We need people in this industry who are willing to step up, and if not outright advocate and ask for a more senior role, at least be willing to take it if it crops up. No matter what role you step into, if you’re stepping into a role where you’re totally comfortable with everything, you’re in the wrong role.
14:06 Cindy Au: Right.
14:06 Patrick O’Keefe: We need people to push community farther up the chain. It’s one thing to advocate for it as many do, and then it’s another thing to actually do it. Those sorts of things are important, just across the industry, like, and we’re going to talk about this a bit more later. There are senior jobs out there, but they’re a small percentage of the overall job pool that exists. One of the key ways that we can improve that is for people to say “Yes. I think it’s time to take community more seriously,” or “Yes, I will take that role.” I’m glad you did that.
14:41 Cindy Au: Yeah, me too. I totally agree. I think that a lot of times, it’s scary to either be the one to advocate for yourself and say “I think I want to take on more responsibility. I want to build this into something bigger.” It’s also just as scary to have that opportunity land on you and then all of a sudden realize, “Oh, is this really the thing for me?” I have no regret. Obviously, management is super hard. It’s really, really challenging. It tested every part of me possible. It’s one of those experiences that I’m so glad I pushed through, because I feel so much stronger for having gone through it. The team that I was able to build and work with are just among some of my most favorite people in the world. It’s so hard to imagine having an experience that would match that, after doing it, so I’m really happy I did.
15:30 Patrick O’Keefe: Continuing along that train of thought about community and the opportunity to push up, it’s an opportunity that some have, it’s an opportunity that many don’t. Even when companies have a community professional or a team, it is unfortunately all too common for community to lack a voice or an advocate in the higher levels of the organization. I interviewed for a job at an agency a while back, and they would’ve put me at the table for the weekly executive meetings. What stood out to me when I was interviewed is, I spoke to a couple of community managers working there, who would’ve reported to me. At the interview, they told me, after having just met me two minutes ago, that no one speaks for them. No one speaks for them at this agency, and they need someone who can go into those meetings and speak for them. I was so ready to do that. At Kickstarter, you rose all the way to the executive team and you took community to the table with you. How did you make that happen?
16:26 Cindy Au: I would say it was definitely a gradual step up. After managing the team when it was smaller, the team got much bigger. A lot of new things started to fall under our umbrella, like trust and safety, which turned into its own team. Back then, we were dealing with a large umbrella of issues that all touched pretty much every part of the company. Increasingly, it was turning into one of those things where I think a lack of insight at the executive level was actually making it harder for us to do our jobs and harder for us to move at a good pace. My mentor at the time, Jared Cohen, who was the VP of operations.
17:04 Cindy Au: Him and I talked a lot about what are the ways in which we can help the team get the insight and the information that they need so that they can do their jobs better, and then also, how can we make sure that the executive team has that information so that they’re making good decisions? Really, what I think it came down to is that after talking to him over a number of lunches, we realized that the whole, the missing piece at the table, was really, no one was quite there fully advocating for the customer experience and understanding what was happening on that front and then bringing that information to the table so that when discussions about what product should be launched next, what direction do we want to go in next, it was sort of like that silence was deafening, and it really needed to be there.
17:47 Cindy Au: I started talking to Yancey and Cassie about it, and it was a very, almost informal thing, I would say. I was just like, “Hey, I feel like it would make sense for community to be a part of these meetings.” They were like, “Yeah, you’re right. You should be.” I started going to the exec meetings, and then eventually got the title to go with.
18:10 Patrick O’Keefe: Before the show, you told me about the “Aha” moment you had, after you had joined the executive team. Share that with us.
18:18 Cindy Au: Yeah. Like I said, I had been talking a lot to Jared, the VP of operations about, “Oh, what do you guys talk about at executive meetings?”
18:25 Patrick O’Keefe: All right.
18:25 Cindy Au: It’s one thing to know, “Oh, we talk about company strategy and we talk about issues of the day or of the week, and all of the team leads go through and walk through what’s going on on their teams.” Actually being there was just … It’s totally different, obviously. It was an “Aha” moment for me, just realizing, “Wow, I thought that it would be useful for me to be here,” but it was mindblowingly useful. All the sudden I was like, “Oh, of course! This makes sense, why we wouldn’t want to push in this direction, because there’s all these other things happening on the product and engineering side, they’re going to take up resources. We’re going to have to table that for three months. In the meantime, that means I can strategize with my team to work on these other things.” Those were the pieces that were totally missing. It really enabled us to be a much more scalable organization and just make smarter decisions.
19:18 Patrick O’Keefe: That’s a thing that a lot of professionals in community can grasp, is not knowing why something is happening or not knowing what’s going on. Even if you have an advocate at the table, right? Community, as much as I would like to see it be if not its own department, very high up, and have that equal voice say, with a department like marketing, rather than serving marketing, but even if you’re reporting to someone who really gets community and is a voice for it, they have other things that they have other things that they have to be a voice for too, and that voice gets lost. Even filtering through one person, things get lost in translation somehow.
19:52 Cindy Au: It’s funny, because sometimes when I think about what my job was in the last two years of my career at Kickstarter, when I try to remember the day-to-day, I feel like it was sitting in a lot of meetings, furiously taking notes, and then bringing back to my team everything that I knew that they would need to know. Just walking them through all of that, getting their feedback, taking lots and lots of notes, and then going back to a bunch of different meetings and doing it all over again.
20:21 Cindy Au: In a weird way, I kind of feel like I was a conduit of information. That was a lot of what I did. It’s so weird to think about that as a job, but I do feel like, again, this is one of the things where you have to be comfortable as a manager. It’s like, you’re not going to do the things that are going to solve the problems. You’re actually going to get the information that will help empower your team and the people that you work with to solve the problems. That was definitely a huge part of what I ultimately ended up doing. Just moving information around.
20:51 Patrick O’Keefe: That makes a lot of sense. I think maybe on some level, just if they ever reached your level, you didn’t want them to have that same sort of realization, like, “Oh.” You know, “What have I been missing?” You’re trying to bring them those details, even though they’re not at the meetings, which, personally, I think is just a great way to lead. I think you make a great point. It goes beyond the saying about surrounding yourself with people smarter than you. It’s a nice thing to say, it’s a great sentiment, but it’s also something that’s not easy to execute because it takes a certain degree of humility to say “These people are going to get more credit than me in some ways,” or “These people are the stars,” or “These people deserve the praise and I don’t.”
21:30 Patrick O’Keefe: I think, like you said, the right way to say it, is to be comfortable with yourself as a manager and confident with yourself, is very important. Eventually the community team becomes 30 people and encompasses support, engagement and trust and safety. With support and trust and safety, these are departments that we do see under community fairly regularly, but that can also be found in other departments, depending on the organization. When do you think they should be under community?
21:56 Cindy Au: I’ll explain why they were under community, at Kickstarter, at least. Early on, a lot of it was again just because anything really dealing with users interacting with each other on site or off site fell under our umbrella. Even things like trust and safety, where you’re dealing with people who are misbehaving, that still was a community issue, because we were the ones who were talking to people who were either reporting these issues, or we were the ones who were investigating and finding these issues and reaching out to anyone who had been affected.
22:25 Cindy Au: That was the original genesis of a lot of the T&S work. I think obviously, as the organization got bigger and as those issues became much more sophisticated in terms of what people were trying, at that point, you definitely start to grow some of the responsibilities and you end up with not just community people doing a lot of the work, but also bringing in engineering. Bringing in data and analysts. I think right now, I don’t believe trust and safety is in community anymore at Kickstarter. That, to me, makes sense. It’s grown into a large enough group that it needs its own umbrella.
23:03 Cindy Au: I think that’s why you see T&S in a lot of different areas in different companies. I think it depends on your business. Obviously, if your company handles a lot of payments, usually trust and safety or integrity, whatever the name is that it goes by, usually ends up being a pretty large group of people, and often folded under finance or folded under operations because, for the most part, you’re actually primarily dealing with algorithms and triggers and software solutions for solving fraud. Early on, it was a people-driven solution that we were working on. Then toward the end, we were really moving towards, again, more scalable solutions primarily revolving around algorithms and software. Just a very different DNA as things grow and as things change.
23:47 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, we just met recently through the podcast I did with Alexandra Dao, so I didn’t know you at the time. After you left Kickstarter, I remember reading the VP of community job posting that they put out. Perhaps the single thing that most stood out to me as unique when I looked at that job description was that it had oversight over the integrity team at that time. I don’t know, I just thought that was really interesting. I also thought it made sense. I mean I wrote a quick article about it, how I think it could make sense, for the reasons you just basically stated.
24:14 Patrick O’Keefe: Community is very integrity driven, right? One of my favorite quotes about community from Derek Powazek is his number one rule for community building: “Do not lie.” It’s so simple, but it’s so true. If there are lies in your community, if you’re telling them or someone else is telling them, if a backer’s telling them or a creator’s telling them, at the end of the day it undermines the whole process. I just thought that was really interesting, to see integrity that was one of your responsibilities when you left.
24:30 Cindy Au: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
24:41 Patrick O’Keefe: Explain the verticalized, category-based team structure that you implemented.
24:45 Cindy Au: This was something that was a learning that we had from reviewing all the different campaigns that were coming into our system. As you know, Kickstarter is, on the one hand, one ginormous community of people who love supporting creativity and who are making things, but when you really drill into that, it’s people who are really working on specific types of things. Some of them are makers who are making hardware or products. Some of them are artists who are doing paintings. Some of them are composers, some of them are dancers. As you can imagine, looking at all those different types of things requires different expertise or background, in order to really assess what’s going on.
25:28 Cindy Au: This ties to how Kickstarter reviews campaigns before they go live. In the very, very early days and really up until the last few years I would say, every single campaign that came on Kickstarter was reviewed by a human being before it went live. This was for a number of reasons. One was definitely, “Let’s just make sure that no bad actors or weirdness show up,” right? This was part of that, we can manually do a lot of trust and safety work through this human review system. Another part of it was actually, we felt like it was really important that someone coming to do a campaign had the opportunity to connect with us before they actually launched. It’s a lot of work. It’s not as simple as just filling out a form and then hitting “Launch.” There’s actually a lot of pieces to it. We know that the more someone can get that support before they launch, the more likely they are to have success on the other side.
26:19 Cindy Au: This was a golden opportunity for us to also pop in at that moment and be like, “Hey, I just looked at your campaign, it’s awesome, have you thought about doing X, Y, or Z?” Our team did a lot of that, but as you can imagine, this is a very time-consuming effort. What made sense then was to start to verticalize the team so that someone who was reviewing hardware projects was really just looking at stuff that they knew a lot about. Before, where it was like we had all these generalists looking at everything and half the time what would happen is that we’d be chatting back and forth to each other, it was like “Hey, this person is making, I think, a circuit board that probably is a computer … but I’m not sure.”
27:04 Cindy Au: We’re like “You know what, let’s bring on an expert who can help us through a lot of these things.” That was the genesis of that. It really did, on the one hand, speed up our ability to review a lot of different types of campaigns, but it had the added benefit of creating community leaders for each of these verticals inside of our company. When we brought on Luke Crane, he was the first dedicated community manager for games. It was amazing having him on the team, and he’s still at Kickstarter now. He has become the games guy. Everyone in the gaming community knows Luke. He’s an expert at Kickstarter, but he’s an expert at games.
27:41 Cindy Au: He can really help with so many different things. I felt like that was just such a great strength to bring to people. I don’t think a lot of other companies really would do, necessarily. That was how we approached community. It wasn’t “Oh, can we hire someone who’s going to sell everyone on using this?” Instead, it was “Can we bring someone on who cares and is a part of this community already and wants to support people from the inside?”
28:07 Patrick O’Keefe: You touched on this a little bit there, so I want to continue it. When the success of community was being measured at Kickstarter, you focused on the metrics of success as opposed to, I guess, the metrics of I guess direct dollars. Talk about that a little bit.
28:20 Cindy Au: We, I think, are a historically not traditional metrics-driven company.
28:26 Patrick O’Keefe: Right.
28:28 Cindy Au: I think that’s one way of putting it, which is to say that at no point did leadership ever say to us: “You guys need to be making more money for us.” That was never ever a goal. It’s still not a goal. Part of that is definitely just the reality of the business, is that it grew really, really fast just as a tool that people in the creative community needed. We had, obviously, a really privileged place to be able to make the designation that dollar amount wasn’t going to be the most important metric.
28:55 Cindy Au: I think in that sort of environment, we were able to say: What does matter is that we want more projects to be successful. We want more people to try this. We want more creative people, specifically, to try something that they might not have otherwise. Those were the things that we talked a lot about when we sat around thinking about, “Hey, are we doing a good job? Did we see more campaigns coming in that represent what we know are some of the best practices of the platform? Do we see an increase in people coming because they saw another campaign in their community?”
29:30 Cindy Au: Those things were really important to us. We cared a lot about, if someone backed a campaign, did they become a creator at some point? That told us, well, they participated in the experience and they had, we hoped, a positive one to the point where they, too would consider actually trying something themselves. I would say, ideologically we really believed that … It’s not like everyone has to use Kickstarter. That’s not the goal. If at some point someone really has something they really want to do, it would suck if they didn’t try it. We would want them to try.
30:03 Cindy Au: All of our efforts are really directed towards: How can we better educate people so that they know, when they want to try, what they should do and how to do it? How can we connect people in communities so that when they start thinking about doing this, they have people that they can talk to? How do we make ourselves available so that when someone wants to try Kickstarter, they know, “Hey, someone mentioned that there’s this person Liz who works in film and I think that I could reach out to her and that she might be able to talk to me about what I’m trying to do.” Those were the things that we really spent a lot of time and commitment on.
30:36 Patrick O’Keefe: I find ROI discussions around community fairly boring. I think it’s because I just don’t see ROI as being all that difficult. For a lot of companies it’s: Compare the community to the non-community. Is the community spending more money? There’s your ROI. Blah blah blah blah blah. You can Google guides, there’s tons of things you can just check off different things, pick a few key metrics and measure. I think, if anyone, because there are some really hardcore ROI people out there. When you think about success, it’s easy to think of that as soft, but that is the money, for a company, whether it’s like, Kickstarter is a public benefit corporation, so as you hinted at, a little different in how it’s approaching these sorts of issues.
31:15 Patrick O’Keefe: You listed off some metrics before the show to me just like you talked about some of them. You said, “Campaigns approved versus rejected. How much time are community team members spending reviewing campaigns? How many support issues related to project fulfillment are coming up? How many trust and safety issues are you preventing?” If someone really wants to grind their soul out a little bit right, all of those things can be tied to money. “How many more campaigns are approved versus rejected?” Money goes in Kickstarter’s pocket when a campaign is approved, right? If it’s successful, then they get their cut. “How much time is the community team spending?” You pay those people. When they spend less time on things, that saves you money, because they can do other things, right? They can have a better use of their time. Me personally, I definitely prefer success metrics and metrics that speak to what the community’s accomplishing. If you really want to, you can tie those back in to dollars, as well.
32:04 Cindy Au: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the … Maybe more misunderstood things about community. Oftentimes it can feel like metrics are counter-intuitive to the way that you think about how to be successful with community and managing a community and getting people on board and getting people excited about your products. I also agree with you, where it’s like, when you really drill into those success metrics, you can in fact tie them back to a dollar amount. Oftentimes that’s what your accounting department needs. It can be done. In terms of what motivates people I think. To work in this arena and what gets people, your customers, really excited, is that it’s really about people connecting with each other. It’s about humans supporting humans in ways that I think a lot of non-community-driven businesses, that’s not really a priority. When you experience that, it’s a little bit of a magical moment. If you have to tie it to dollars, for board meetings, by all means we can do that, but in terms of I think what, again, what motivates people to work in the industry, it’s usually not that.
33:11 Patrick O’Keefe: This isn’t the same as saying you can’t prove your worth, right? There’s a whole mess of community professionals and people who sell stuff based upon the fact that you have to be able to prove your worth, blah blah blah, this is why community struggles, whatever. It’s not to say that. What I think is the opposite end of the spectrum is even more harmful, is when community professionals are forced to constantly prove their worth more so than other departments are. In a more strenuous, stressful, obsessive way, where a substantial portion of their time to do their work, an unnecessarily large amount of time, is spent doing Excel spreadsheets and doing reports, updating those reports, and handling those metrics.
33:51 Patrick O’Keefe: If you’re a community professional and you’re spending … I don’t know, name a percentage, of your time, that is too much, then you’re not really doing your job. I think that can sometimes drive people out of the industry because they get frustrated with the fact that they are being held to a standard that is either different from what other people are held to, or unnatural to the task.
34:11 Cindy Au: Yeah. I think you can draw some parallels to data, right? Just … how businesses use data in general, and how it’s so much easier to make a decision when it’s attached to a number than when it’s attached to a lot of qualitative survey information, for example. You might have five case studies that are … Where you dive really, really deep into experience, that can tell you a lot about how customers feel about the product and their experience. That may not be able to be as effective, ultimately, than a really, really big data set that just tells you “All right, well 0.2% moved in this direction, so we’re just going to do that.”
34:53 Cindy Au: I feel like community is sometimes in that same conundrum, where we have a fountain of really really deep knowledge, but ultimately it’s about translating that depth into something that fits into more traditional business metrics. It’s really challenging. I think you lose a lot of the quality of that information, once you start to do that. I also understand why, especially businesses at a certain scale, ultimately require that sort of thing.
35:21 Patrick O’Keefe: Definitely. Speaking of driving people out of the industry, I want to talk about careers a little bit. We’ve been on a bit of a careers and community kick here recently on this show. As I mentioned, that’s kind of how we connected when I chatted with Alexandra Dao about the community career ceiling. After that we did a show featuring Trella Rath, a community professional who has experience and is looking for work, and we talked about the challenge of sorting through what is possibly the majority of community roles, which are, at least salary-wise, aimed at someone with little to no experience. I’m in this boat as I look to move up to your neck of the woods. Now you’re thinking about your next move, I know. While there are community roles that would represent a step up from VP of community at Kickstarter, there aren’t tons of them. You are now more than two years out of that role and have mainly operated as an independent consultant and advisor during that time. I’d love to hear a bit about your career challenges over these last two years, post Kickstarter.
36:16 Cindy Au: When I first left, I think that immediately what happened was a lot of different companies reached out and asked if I would want to come and lead their community teams. I left Kickstarter because I was feeling (a.) a little burnt out and like I needed some time off, but also because I was trying to figure out career-wise, what should my next move be, and what comes after this? I talked to a lot of different companies about what would it be like leading their community teams, and even though I liked a lot of the people that I met with, it felt like it was the same job. The exact same job. Just a different product. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. That was right after I left.
36:59 Cindy Au: After that, I started doing a little bit of consulting and advising. That’s been really helpful for me, because I just wanted an opportunity to see behind the curtain of a lot of different types of businesses and understand challenges that weren’t Kickstarter challenges. In some ways, I wanted to make sure, “Okay, I learned a lot at Kickstarter, but how applicable is what I learned there to other types of businesses?” It was really nice to work with a lot of different types of teams and different types of products and see how those things would play out. I feel like that is one of the nice things about advising especially early-stage startups, is that it’s a chance to return to that really small company, except returning with a lot more wisdom and experience. Ideally, as an advisor, I can basically help a lot of companies prevent some of the mistakes that you might make without that more senior person in the room, and also help with those questions of what should this early team look like, and how do we make our first community hire?
38:04 Cindy Au: That’s been really, really positive. I really enjoy doing that. In terms of full-time work, it’s murky. I’m not totally sure what the path is. I think, at least within startups, there’s a pretty common type of community role. You mentioned it when you asked a question. It is generally speaking a role that requires less experience and for the most part someone like me isn’t actually the right person for it. It’s been a while since I was doing a lot of the on the ground, front lines community work.
38:39 Cindy Au: For me, where I’m interested in a lot of strategy and management, I’ve been feeling like I should move outside of community perhaps, if I want to find opportunities that are going to match the skills that I ended up building and ones that I want to grow. That’s where I’ve landed, at least for now. I’m still keeping an eye out just to see what’s out there. I feel like, well I can’t possibly know what every type of job in the world is, but certainly, if you … Sure, you’ve done this … I’m sure anyone who’s … works in community has done this. You go to any job site and you type in the word “community,” and you’re going to see a lot of the same thing popping up over and over again. A lot of it is the same type that you mentioned. It is definitely challenging, once you’ve gotten a bit of experience under your belt and have moved into a more management side of things.
39:32 Patrick O’Keefe: I think in your case, when you were VP of community at Kickstarter, and Kickstarter, of course, is a successful company, a successful organization. There are bigger ones. There are bigger startups, bigger organizations, but when you’re leading a team of 30 that is multi-faceted in their approach, that handles community, that handles support, that handles trust and safety … I would say, to lead a team that large, a community team, I don’t know how many roles there are like that in the world. There are some. There are big, big companies that have community departments that are quite large. It’s a unique role. You’re not going to find 1,000 of those.
40:03 Cindy Au: Right.
40:03 Patrick O’Keefe: In the world. They’re not out there, leading a team that big and calling it community and being at the top. That’s one of the things that makes it unique. It’s really interesting to think about that, because I love to see community teams and I love to see fully-fledged community teams and community teams that have … You mentioned data. If you have a big enough community, if you have a big enough community where data is so big, then at some point, you need your own data person. Who does nothing but community. I love the idea of specialization within community.
40:29 Patrick O’Keefe: The reality is that it is pretty unique, to find an established role like that. If I was looking at … From your perspective, I’d look out there, and I see a lot of roles where I would have to build up another Kickstarter department, right? Maybe that’s not something that you want to do. What you’re left with is, you could go work at an Apple, right? You could apply to jobs at some major company, if you want to work at some large, large company, or you’re going to go to a startup and lead their community. I don’t know what you found, but those are the two main things that I would think you’d be seeing the most of.
41:02 Cindy Au: Yeah, totally. I mean I think that’s pretty much the split that I’ve been seeing, where … Almost every consumer startup has a need for a community person, and how senior that need is really just depends on the size and the scale of the company. Once you get to much larger, established corporations essentially, if they do have community, there’s a very, very specific definition of it. It’s like ad agencies will hire community people and primarily they’re managing brands. Brand communications for clients.
41:33 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. A lot of the time, I wouldn’t even consider them actual community, anyway. A lot of generic social in there.
41:39 Cindy Au: Yeah, yeah. Same in big PR firms and those kinds of places. It is, there’s definitely a strange gap, and it’s funny that you said that, my role at Kickstarter was definitely unique. Really, the whole company is just very unique. I feel like that experience was very much this capsule where … A lot of things had to come together for the company to grow in that way and for my career to grow in that way. There’s absolutely no replicating that. I don’t necessarily want to replicate that again. I’m like, I don’t know if I’d have the energy to do that again. I do feel like it will be interesting to see, for some of these newer startups coming up, how they end up growing community, if they grow it, and what that’s going to look like in the next phase, I guess, of tech startups.
42:31 Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned there are skills that you’s like to grow, that you’re not seeing in community roles. What are those skills?
42:36 Cindy Au: I think some of this is on a personal level. I feel like I was working really hard at being a good manager and being a good leader. Obviously, there’s not gigantic community teams in need of a VP, for the most part, out there. I feel like that’s again somewhat unique to Kickstarter. That’s some of the stuff where I’m like … Maybe you run into this as well. I can oversee a community group of some sort but still be operating at a very high strategic and executive level. Those are things that I I really appreciated being able to be part of.
43:13 Cindy Au: A lot of the work that I did do at Kickstarter was in fact intensely product-focused. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but sometimes when I tell people that I actually really deeply enjoy working on product, they seem surprised that coming from community, that I would necessarily have those desires. I think that may be some of the, again, differences in how people perceive the work, where ultimately, if you are part of a growing company with a growing community, then most of the challenges you’re working on are issues of scalability. Most of the time you’re not going to solve it by simply putting more people on a problem. You’re going to have to build solutions, and those solutions often are going to take the form of product. That’s a lot of stuff that got me interested more in product management, but I think what I would miss in product management is having that deep connection with community. That’s another one where I’m like, I wish these things had more of a relationship to each other, that were more direct. I look at product management roles, and I’m like, “That actually isn’t exactly it, either.”
44:21 Patrick O’Keefe: It reminds me of an episode that we did that was titled: “Community as a Product.” My memory is a little hazy, it was a while ago. I think that the person that I spoke with for that episode, they had come to look at community as a product at their company, where community was something to be iterated on. Community was something to treat like you would treat any product or a software product or … Any product really, and update it. Release notes on those updates, keep people informed on the updates, and treat it like a product. All of the elements in it are the product, whether they need the software you run, the guidelines you have on the community, new features, whatever it is. Yeah, I think that’s a natural thing. I mean I totally get that, community and products, but I think, wherever you go, you take those community skills with you, and they are a big asset.
45:02 Cindy Au: Yeah. I think that I don’t necessarily need community in my title. I don’t even need a title, I was realizing. I don’t know that I even care about titles. I do care care about work being something that ultimately is supporting people in some way. That’s probably that community DNA that’s never gonna go away. Ideally, as I look at some of the things that I want to stretch and grow in, it’s definitely being able to continue growing some of those executive, strategic management skills. I have a deep curiosity about what makes businesses work and what makes them run. Sometimes I think about, should I get an MBA?
45:42 Patrick O’Keefe: You’ve already been at school for so long!
45:43 Cindy Au: Yeah, I know, exactly. Then I’m like, “Don’t be crazy.” Again, I … Not goo- I will- I cannot go back to school ever again, but I think some of those basic areas are very interesting to me, just what makes business tick? What makes people that gather around businesses tick? All of that is very interesting to me. That’s what I’m, I guess, looking for in my next thing.
46:06 Patrick O’Keefe: Well Cindy, thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing your experiences with us. I really appreciate it.
46:12 Cindy Au: Thanks for having me! This was really awesome.
46:14 Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Cindy Au, a community strategist who was formerly the VP of community at Kickstarter. Visit her website at cindyau.co, that’s C I N D Y A U dot C O, and follow Cindy on Twitter, @shinyee_au, that’s S H I N Y E E underscore A U. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and lengths that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. We’ll see you next week.
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