Online Communities Gone Bad (and getting them back on track)

After my appearance on the podcast Masters of Scale, a lot of people have written to me for advice on managing their communities. Here’s one request and my response, which I posted with permission, in the interest of making the internet a more civilized place.

Things had gotten so bad in this founder’s community, that even employees were thinking of leaving. The team felt hamstrung by their users. He explains:

When we first started our community I was in there posting every day setting the tone. Over the years as the company scaled I chose to spend time on other things beside posting in the forum. Gradually over time things got bad…then really bad…now horrible. 5-10 members of the community have started berating everyone in between posting useful content. Do you have any principles or experiences I can draw upon to think about how to solve this?

Yes, I wrote back, this community has run amok. A garden needs both fertilizer and weedkiller. But most of all it needs a gardener. Go back in and participate as much as before. Community manage with a heavy hand. Promote good people, respond to them.  Make them shine. Build good admin tools to silence bad actors.

You have to take a “iron fist in velvet glove” approach; warn borderline cases, and discuss their behavior with them. Often they can be rehabilitated. But for those who will not change: ruthlessly delete the accounts of abusive people, irrespective of their contributions. Keeping 5-10 bad people have undoubtedly lost you dozens, even hundreds, that you don’t even know about. They’ve stifled other people who are still participating and darkened the atmosphere of the whole community.

Community management is art, not science. There is no black and white when dealing with people. Choose your community team carefully, and find people with good instincts. Have all members of the team participate in the community. And be present there yourself.

Announcing Yes VC

After 8 amazing years investing with my brilliant colleagues, the fun, funny and genius investors at Founder Collective, and after Jyri’s two years working with the great, brilliant, soulful and amazing team at True Ventures, we — Jyri Engeström and Caterina Fake– are busting loose, breaking out, getting down and starting up our very own fund, yes indeed, it’s Yes VC.

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We’re doing Pre-Seed, as it’s called these days, and Seed investing — investing in great, visionary, early stage companies. We’ll be raising up to $50 million. We’ve got some amazing LPs already and are seeking a few more. We’ll invest in about 20–30 companies over the next several years. We’ll roll in our investments in OrchidSpell and Gaze. And we’ll be continuing to look for world-changing companies like the ones we’ve invested in in the past, like EtsyKickstarterStack Overflow, and Cloudera. We’ve made over 40 investments as angel investors and with our respective firms, but it’s just a start. The opportunities we’ve missed because of not being able to put in bigger checks, and follow on, were giving us a feeling of No.

Years ago, I gave an interview on Inc. magazine about the struggles of getting my first company off the ground, as an unknown and fledgling entrepreneur, and the amazing breakthrough we had, getting into PC Forum, and getting Esther Dyson on board as an investor. At the end of that interview I had said something that later became one of those Pinterest graphics:

“When the world says No No No No No, and you hear a Yes, go towards that Yes as hard as you can.”

I have swum in The Sea of No, which is an inevitable part of the entrepreneurial journey. Sometimes the No means “you’re on the wrong track”. Sometimes the No means: “no one wants this product or service”. Sometimes the No means: “pick something else to work on”. And sometimes the No means, “you’re just not cut out for this”. If you’re a startup that’s only heard Yes, who’s never been rejected, who raised money with no effort, who slid easily into the warm waters of infinite funding, free lunch, foosball and no discipline, you either got it just right–which almost never happens!–or it’s a cause for concern. But when The Beach of Yes appears on the horizon of The Sea of No, where you, the spent swimmer, has been struggling to stay afloat, you might just be–finally, finally, finally–on The True Path.

So. We’re excited about this. Major changes are afoot in the workings of the internet and in society and culture at large. Suppressed voices are finally being heard. We are looking at the end of cars. And though we once believed the internet was about the equitable distribution of power, we have lived through a massive consolidation of power. If people like you don’t get involved in disrupting the new power and building the future, rapacious trolls, megacorps and mercenaries will have their way with all of us.

Is the internet once again reinventing itself as a free and open place where users own their words, and voices and identities? Will we be able to live free of businesses that lure us in to harvest and sell our data? Is it safe to wade back into the water? Is now the time to enter the fray? We think so, yes.

All the things we love–humanity, community, possibility, opportunity–are once again ascendant. Let’s make the future, let’s do great things.

Yes? Yes.

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