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The On Deck Community Building playbook

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July 2, 2021

TL;DR: Top 5 takeaways

  1. Start with a small cohort, prioritising quality, relevance and diversity over quantity
  2. Get these high quality members involved early in shaping the community through referrals
  3. Scale-up and customise the model by listening to the community’s needs
  4. Live by the same principles. On Deck functions as a community internally
  5. Leverage no-code to initiate communications as much as possible, but ensure personalisation and authenticity by having a real person responding to replies

Full event summary

On Friday last week, we kicked things off by taking you behind the scenes of how On Deck is building their brand and recruits top talent using community-building as a core strategy.

  • For this, we interviewed the amazing team of Laís de Oliveira and Kelly Kang:
    • Laís is a visionary and Program Lead. She is an entrepreneur with over a decade of experience in community building and the Author of Hacking Communities. She has participated in the development of entrepreneurial communities around the world
    • Kelly is a mastermind behind the operations and engagement at On Deck Community Builders Program, she has led operations at multiple startups and programs including Techstars Detroit and many others

How did On Deck start building its core community?

  • Started with small gatherings of ex-founders who were looking to build their next thing
  • Soon they evolved this into an in-person fellowship model for these ex-founders to start trying to build their next things together
    • Started with a highly curated model for the first-ever On Deck Founders Fellowship
      • Strong identity shared by members: highly talented and highly curious people looking for their next thing
      • Bring those people together for 8-10-12 weeks and curate interactions for all fellows to interact with each other in real-time
      • Create intense interactions that can be peer-to-peer: icebreakers, masterminds, expert talks, mini-projects, dinners, retreats
      • They ran four of these fellowship programs, then were forced to move from IRL encounters to online

How did On Deck grow from just 1 to over 16 Fellowships?

  • After the feedback showed that the On Deck Founders Fellowship (ODF) was valuable to its Fellows, they dug deeper, listening to the needs of this existing community to figure out what to branch out into next:
    • On Deck Writers Fellowship (ODW) and On Deck Angels Fellowship (ODA) were started as the initial spinoffs from ODF, based on Fellow demand
      • This meant that the On Deck team knew there was a need internally, gathered more interest then rolled it out when there was enough for one fellowship program to be run
      • Each new Fellowship Program then customises the ODF model instead of copy-pasting the exact playbook
    • In fact, most of the current 16+ fellowships were spun out of ODF

Laís and Kelly laying it down for Vasil and Monica
Laís and Kelly laying it down for Vasil and Monica

Key to scaling up: On Deck, the company itself, is a community (yes, truly meta!)

  • There is no need for Leadership to micromanage things because the nature of the company is that it is many-to-many and all 16+ Fellowship Program teams learning and sharing together is what enables exponential growth
    • On Deck is a business of businesses (each Fellowship Program Director is the CEO of their Fellowship)
      • Each program is run as a business: there is near full-autonomy for Program Directors to create the program, define the persona, what they are about, what they are not about, grow and then run the Program
    • Program Directors + Operators of all fellowships bring best practices and challenges to weekly team meetings and educate each other. This consistent collaboration moves things much faster as no one is reinventing the wheel; they are all sharing all the time
    • This structure enables constant interactions between employees across the company
    • Each cell represents the whole but learns and feeds the entire business with new input. So, each Fellowship Program team learns faster as they grow
    • There are also functional teams that serve all Fellowship Program teams
    • They also design intimacy into the company culture through humour, gratitude, and the small things that make it feel very human
"It's not just about building a bridge - you need to cross the bridge and bring people in" - Laís

Organic social media played a key role in On Deck’s growth, but they also leveraged partnerships to find strong fellows

  • Searching for fellows in the right places:
    • They leveraged partnerships
      • They spent $0 on ads and instead partnered with highly relevant communities to find great fellows (e.g. the Community Club to find fellows for the On Deck Community Builders Fellowship)
      • They also took part in podcasts and engaged with networks of diverse people to build diversity from the get-go
    • They used social heavily
      • Actively encouraged their employees to use social to build their personal brands and activate their personal networks (see this Platform Brands article for more info on this strategy)
      • Clubhouse rooms - they leveraged their own employees existing personal brands and audiences to run useful and well-attended events on Clubhouse
    • They encouraged referrals from OnDeck alumni
    • They did highly tailored LinkedIn outreach
      • Scraped LinkedIn for people with the community in their title (e.g. Community Associate, Community Director, Community Manager, etc) then did cold, tailored outreach to encourage them to apply
  • The result of this very targeted outreach for is an incredible set of application funnel stats (taken from the inaugural Community Builders Fellowship Cohort):
    • They interview 40% from those who apply
    • They offer to 60% of the 40%
    • 80% of that 40% given an offer accept it

How did they get the community culture right from the start?

  • They learned early on that one of the most critical things to get right was who you let into your community
  • Right from the very start they focused on choosing the right members and then stayed consistent with that strategy as they scaled
    • They obsess over quality, relevance and diversity over quantity of people
    • Their north star metric isn’t around growth, it’s about fellow satisfaction. They relentlessly focus on delivering great experience
    • Their north star metrics are NPS, LTV and Network Quality

Alex trying to gauge our own audience satisfaction, but failing (yes those are all his own emojis on the right!)
Alex trying to gauge our own audience satisfaction, but failing (yes those are all his own emojis on the right!)

Using no code to scale

  • No-code is deeply embedded into the DNA of OnDeck from onboarding to program operations
  • All teams look to automate as much as possible
  • This has been especially useful in helping them to reach many people, however the caveat is that all communications have to have as much personalisation and authenticity as possible weaved in
  • Some great use cases for no-code as suggested by Kelly herself:
    • Automating applications for your programs/Fellowships/communities. You can create a Typeform, then use a Zapier ‘Zap’ to pipe it into Airtable, and so on!
    • Also, a quick note, be careful to not over-engineer process/documentation when you’re in hypergrowth. A “process” can be one step long! As long as it visible/accessible to those who need it.
    • Good copy for these automations is super key! But constant communication is key to maintain engagement throughout the outreach and onboarding process

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