Minimum Viable Community

Minimum Viable Community

Numerous people have claimed to come up with the phrase “Minimum Viable Community,” so I will resist including myself in that group. A cursory Google search indicates that the phrase dates back to at least 2007, four years before Erik Ries’ book The Lean Startup helped push “Minimum Viable Product” into the common business lexicon.

Still, the term “Minimum Viable Community” has perhaps never been more relevant. The rise of Web3 has led to a modern incarnation of communities-as-products for a generation that is largely removed from the old world of country clubs and social clubs. Of course, this renaissance came to a head with the crypto bear market and the less-than-shocking revelation that many token-based community members were in it for speculative reasons. 

While many NFT-based communities dissipated in the summer of 2022, the bear market has also revealed the communities that have found true product-market-fit and are likely to weather the uncertain climate. Noteworthy examples include OnChainMonkey, Water & Music, and Happy Goat Org. These communities have found sustainability in spite of market conditions that diminish the financial value of their membership tokens because they were able to build a Minimum Viable Community around their core purpose, not their market cap.

Especially in an increasingly remote world, the idea of these close knit digital communities is an appealing and compelling one for those of us looking for connection outside of our geographical confines and without the distraction of traditional social media. New technologies provide the means and incentives for artists and businesses in particular to build self-sustaining communities of their own design. 

What Is a Minimum Viable Community?

A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the most rudimentary version of a product that can sufficiently attract early adopters and support a thesis regarding that product’s market potential. Companies raise and spend capital simply getting to the MVP stage to see if there is in fact a market for what they are developing. Artists record a thousand demos before releasing their first recordings. The same approach can be applied to community building.

For any business or creator, a Minimum Viable Community (MVC) is an early, small group of passionate people and the requisite infrastructure required to create a positive multiplier on the artist’s or company’s actions. 

This means that this coordinated group of users/fans/customers: 

  1. Engages with each other with minimal intervention from the host;
  2. Pushes the company/artist forward by asking for updates on new features/services/art;
  3. Organically increases in size (they’re telling their friends).

Importantly, an MVC can be created without a product. Like art, most products are derivatives and iterations on products that came before it. Barring unforeseen use cases (which do happen), every artist and business should have a sense of who their target audience is before putting their new thing out into the world and should begin organizing the most passionate and inquisitive of that target audience.

Most Passionate Percentile

That target audience can be quantified into a total addressable market, the volume of people that could potentially purchase your product or listen to your music. However, it is foolish to attempt to reach all of them. 

Instead, there is a very small percentage of that total addressable market that is passionate about the type of thing you are making and prides themselves on being early adopters. This is the Most Passionate Percentile, and these are the people that you need to reach to build your minimum viable community.

To reach them, you create content about your product or market (via social media, advertising, partnerships) and put it in front of people predisposed to care. People who make up the Most Passionate Percentile will react in measurable ways. It is up to you to then create a way for those people to engage further with you as you develop your business or art.

The Right Sized Cup

An MVC is not just the people, it is the infrastructure that organizes them. Acme Innovation CIO George Howard (who, in a just world, would share a byline in this article considering the influence he’s had on developing these concepts) likes to say “you can’t will a community into existence, but you can provide the infrastructure for it to grow.”

A common mistake when trying to attract community members is choosing the wrong size infrastructure to house the initial cohort. An ounce and a half of alcohol seems negligible in a gallon jug but completely fills a shot glass. Similarly, an initial community of ten people will feel tiny when reflected as the follower count on an Instagram account or a Discord server. However, in a Telegram group, Zoom meeting, or Turntable LIVE room, ten people will fill out the space.

Pouring your community into too large of a container will hinder its ability to flourish because users will feel the empty space. Finding the right sized cup is imperative to making a community feel fulfilling for those in it.

Desire Path

Starting small means that there is flexibility in how a community scales. The organizer can make assumptions on what a hypothetical group of users or fans will want, but without observing user behavior, those assumptions can be a shot in the dark. Instead, watch what the developing community does and listen to their feedback. They may not always know how to articulate what they want, but the way they interact with each other and how they use your product will reveal a Desire Path.

The origins of Slack are a great example of using Desire Paths to build a product. The messaging service was originally developed as an internal tool to facilitate communications across their remote team which was, at the time, developing a video game. As the team used their new chat tool, they added features to accommodate their needs (e.g. message archives, file uploads). Because Slack was developed in a low pressure environment (they weren’t thinking of it as a commercial product) with a small group of people with a shared need (most passionate percentile), they were able to build a tool that solved actual problems, rather than perceived or assumed problems.

NPS/Customer as Teacher

For a community to reach MVC status, it must begin growing organically. This requires community members telling their friends and inviting others into the group, and those new users staying engaged. 

The common metric for this is Net Promoter Score: simply put: how likely is a customer to tell someone else about your art or product? When customers begin telling their friends, they take on the burden of marketing your product. Existing users are also far more effective at onboarding their friends than you will be. 

Community members are teachers. Empowering them and providing them with tools and incentives to bring their friends is a more effective investment than trying to reach cold audiences at scale through advertising.

How Do I Know When I’ve Achieved MVC?

There is a qualitative and quantitative answer to this. The qualitative answer is that the community fulfills the properties mentioned earlier. The community:

  1. Engages with each other with minimal intervention from the host;
  2. Proactively pushes the company/artist forward by asking for updates on new features/services/art;
  3. Organically increases in size (they’re telling their friends).

The quantitative answer (how many people?) is dependent upon what your eventual product or service is. If what you are building requires network effect (e.g. social products, multiplayer video games), then you must build a community large enough to make your product feel like the “right sized cup.” If your product does not require scale to be used, then your MVC may be much smaller.

Start Organizing

My favorite piece of content about Minimum Viable Community is a talk called “How to Validate a Minimum Viable Community Using Design Thinking” by Lindsey Christensen. This talk is an excellent place to start, as Christensen provides tactical steps to identifying and building a community.

People already self-organize around their interests at tremendous scale. Who they follow on social media, what subreddits they read, what YouTube channels they watch. There is no shortage of ways to put your product or service in front of people predisposed to care. 

Now more than ever, there is opportunity and means to build online communities. The only way to start is to begin getting your message out there and organizing those who care enough to respond.

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