The Community Club

Kirsti Buick for The Community Club

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Why Book Nerds Are Great at Community (& Other Lessons) from Cindy Au

With more than 12 years of experience under her belt, Cindy Au is a community OG. She cut her teeth at Kickstarter, laying the groundwork for a powerful brand community when the concept was less than a twinkle in most businesses' eyes.

Now Senior Director of Community & Engagement at Brainly, Cindy took some time out to tell us about her community journey and lessons learned along the way. She also gives a sneak peek into what she'll be speaking about at this years' Community Club Community-Led Summit (spoiler: it's not-to-be-missed for founders and CEOs).

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Everyone tends to come to community in a pretty roundabout way. How did you find yourself here?

Cindy: "I spent all of my 20s learning to be a college professor — and then didn't! I did my undergrad in English and just loved it, I'm such a book nerd.

But think I went into academia, as many do, without a ton of understanding of what being an academic really is. Once I got into it, the cons started to outweigh the pros. For one thing, job security was very uncertain, and it was hard for me to imagine purposely going on with something where I didn't know that I'll have a real career. Another problem was, in academia, you don't really get to choose where you live, you kind of have to go where the job is. Having that freedom to decide was really important to me.

So I had decided not to pursue it while I was still doing my Ph.D. — which I finished because I'd already come too far to give up — but with no intention of staying in academia. My plan was to zip out as soon as I was done.

From there, I did a bit of meandering until I spotted a Kickstart job posting on Tumblr. I sent over my resume and a little intro email, and they totally wrote me back like a week later. Obviously, I had no idea that Kickstarter would become such a huge thing. I just knew that they were willing to hire me. So that made them the greatest company in the world at the time. I was employee number nine."

Community back then must have looked pretty different...

C: "Yeah, it was 2009/2010 and community was extremely uncharted territory. So certainly, the concept existed, but not many companies had yet realized they needed this or wanted it, and those that had had no idea what they were doing."

What drew you to community?

C: "I think it has to do with a love of stories. There are a lot of book nerds in community right now. It makes sense — if you love stories and you love learning about people. I mean, literature is the ultimate way to dive into someone's mind, isn't it?"

What was Kickstarter like in the early days?

C: "When I showed up it was just six people in a room with a single table. No onboarding, nothing! It was just sort of like, here's a laptop, here's a bunch of customer inquiries. And this person is going to show you how to respond to them. That was the only process that was in place. Because at the time, if you wanted to launch a project on Kickstarter, you just wrote to an email and told us what the project was, and then the community team read them and responded.

When you think of Kickstarter these days, you'll likely picture these huge campaigns that raised millions of dollars producing these very cool, shiny objects. But in the early days of Kickstarter, it was literally, 'I'm going to host an improv session in the park, and I need to raise money for a nice picnic blanket.' It was all about fun and creativity.

It was such a formative time for me in terms of community. Back then, I don't know that I was thinking like, 'This is how you build a community.' It was just, 'Oh, this is how you help people and connect them to other people, so that they can get better at the thing they're trying to do.' And that felt very natural to me."

And where to from there?

C: "After four and a half years at Kickstarter, I spent some time mostly just consulting and doing short-term things that didn't require high levels of commitment. But it was great because it was an opportunity to see many different types of businesses. All of them were interested in community in some way — but community isn't one-size-fits-all. So having a chance to kind of test ideas in different environments, at different stages, and at different scales was really helpful for me.

From there, I worked at a very early stage food startup, Homemade, for about two and a half years. And I loved the concept because it was helping amateur chefs sell their products and connect with each other — there's something very entrepreneurial about community-minded people. From there, I headed up community growth at Zagat, which is a restaurant guide, for a little over a year before moving on to Brainly."

What mistakes taught you the most in your career?

C: "An important one (and I think this would be probably echoed by other people who work community management) was simply: you cannot win every person over. There will always be difficult little thorns in your side, and they are going to be there. Don't let them take up all of your energy and your focus, because you owe it to everyone else in your community not to. I've definitely made that mistake more than once. At the end of the day, you have to be like, 'Hey, these are the rules, and you broke them. This is our platform, our community, and [asking you to leave] is the right decision to make'."

If you could give budding community builders one piece of advice, what would it be?

C: "So many Community Managers I know got into community because they really care a lot about other people. And the mission creep is where you care so much that it's actually at your own expense. It's probably mostly the responsibility of managers to keep an eye on that. And make sure those boundaries are protected so that your CMs have the ability to recognize when they might be hitting a wall, and to take time out if they need it. But also that CMs raise a signal when it's happening. I think building that into a team and into the culture in companies is really, really important. Just recognizing that it's really rewarding work, but it can also be very exhausting."

Tell us a bit about what to expect in your talk at the summit.

C: "I actually just drafted my outline of the talk and I'm really excited about it! So this kind of came from a question that has arisen so many times when I'm talking to people about community, and specifically, founders and CEOs. It's always along the lines of: should I have community team? Or, should I have a community person on my founding team? What is the right time to have it? Is it too late? Did I miss the boat already? Can we do it now?

Of course, it's a game-changer if you bring community, but you have to know why. That's largely what I'll be focusing on. Whatever size your company is, whether you have community or not, there are a couple of core questions that you have to be able to answer so that you know that you're making the right move at the right time, and that your team is set up for success.

So I want to give people the ability to use that to create a real plan with a real purpose that is actually community-centered. I want to help guide people to where they need to be."

Want to hear more from Cindy? Tune in on May 13, 2021 at 11 a.m. PDT. Book your spot for the summit here.

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