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Using Brain Chemistry to Build 0-to-1 Developer Communities

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How Developer Communities Benefit from Brain Chemicals
Starting Out: Similarities Between PMF and Developer Marketing
Building the Bonds of Community
Case Study: GitHub’s Mona Lisa Stickers
What We Can Learn from the Sticker Campaign
Not a Bad Idea: Start Your Developer Community Locally
Case Study: AuthZero’s Ambassador Program
Long-Term Community Building ≠ One-Time Product Launch
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  • Don Goodman-Wilson
    Don Goodman-WilsonFounder
18 min

How Developer Communities Benefit from Brain Chemicals

I’ve worked as a developer advocate for many years, but in some ways, I consider my specialty and my interests to lie in the realm of human psychology, having studied cognitive science (and abandoned a graduate program to pursue something completely different). Recently, I’ve found myself talking a lot with startup founders about the role of the neurotransmitter oxytocin in community building. I’ll assume we’re all familiar with at least graduate-level neuroscience, so we would already know that oxytocin is of central importance for building human relationships. It plays a big role in the bonding between children and their birthing parents, for instance. But it can also be a central part of building communities for developer-led startups.

Starting Out: Similarities Between PMF and Developer Marketing

I think you can argue that at very early stages, startups can almost approach marketing very much in the same way they approach achieving product-market fit (PMF). These are two things that are actually super-close to each other, especially at the early stages.

Let’s look at it this way: When you're looking to achieve PMF, you want to build a product that is addressing the problem your team has identified. Presumably, there’s a large enough market with this problem, such that they’ll be interested in buying it and you can generate revenue.

But when you're thinking about developer marketing, you have another, really interesting problem. Yes, you need to be able to identify the challenge that individual developers have, and how you can deliver that solution to them. However, to build a community in a way that takes advantage of brain chemistry, you need to reach those developers in a way that makes them feel good about themselves, that lifts them up, that builds them up as a person.

You could say that the marketing side of this–the community side of this–is taking this whole concept of building a product that people are going to really like, putting it in their hands, and doing so in a way that builds a personal bond between you and this other person. Putting oxytocin to work.

That's how a community starts. Community, particularly in open source, starts from a small network of personal bonds between people who are working together to overcome a shared challenge that they can't solve by themselves. Which is something that you, as a founder, are doing. So if there are other people who are facing that same challenge, and you can get them in on the ground floor to that solution, it's going to make them feel really good about themselves.

Building the Bonds of Community

Oxytocin is, quite literally, a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for the bonds of love. We talk about “developer love” as a metaphor of developer relations, but it's not a metaphor at all! There are very specific things that you can do to build a community aside from just delivering a product, to trigger the oxytocin in the people that you want to reach. And when you do that, they love you, and when you’ve built this close relationship with your customers, they’re more likely to recommend you to people they know.

They're more likely to provide useful, actionable feedback. they're more likely to pay for the product. And when other people can see that relationship, they're more likely to respond positively when a recommendation comes in. Those other people are more likely to investigate deeper. Those other people are more likely to convert into paying customers. And again, those other people are more likely to advocate for you to their networks. Oxytocin is, in many ways, contagious. Everyone likes to feel respected, to feel lifted up by their peers, so our job is to get those brain chemicals flowing, and then spread them around.

Case Study: GitHub’s Mona Lisa Stickers

The prototypical example here is the infinite variety of GitHub’s infamous stickers of Mona Lisa the Octocat. While this is something that worked really well 10 years ago–and might not work quite so well now–it’s an interesting case study.

How did it start? GitHub just started handing out stickers as giveaways, really. Even though some might consider Mona to be this iconic character, I don’t think GitHub built that up intentionally. From what I recall, they weren't really thinking too deeply about it at all. They just thought it was cool to give out stickers to people who attended their events sometimes.

We all know what happened next. GitHub noticed how popular the stickers were becoming, and decided to make all sorts of different kinds of stickers with Mona depicted as movie characters or representing particular cultures or what have you, so that people could identify with the character personally.

And GitHub also decided, “Hey, let's make these stickers collectible. And let's make it so that in order to get one, you have to actually meet with a GitHub person.” GitHub only handed out these stickers in person. Never by mail. Our goal was always to make sure there was always a conversation with a GitHub team member.

And so, they became this token of value. They became something that we could offer developers that made them feel special, that made them feel seen and heard in exchange for...well, nothing, actually. Because we weren’t looking to set up anything transactional, we didn't demand anything in return for those items. But as a result, GitHub builds up its community–building up goodwill essentially through this mechanism of a global network of sticker distribution. (Obviously, it also helped that GitHub was a globally remote company and has been for a long time.)

What We Can Learn from the Sticker Campaign

To be completely clear: I don't actually recommend trying to replicate a sticker strategy today. It's not necessarily going to work now. But there are almost certainly other ways that are very specific to your product that you can use to reach into the community of developers you want to reach. That is, there are still going to be ways that you can demonstrate that you value the people who might potentially be using your product–beyond simply being customers.

For instance, there's something probably relatively inexpensive that you can offer to developers as a token of appreciation. If you can find something like that, then you might just have a very easy way to use a similar playbook. Arguably, the items themselves don’t really matter that much. Here’s what does:

  • Identity: GitHub stickers were valuable to individuals because there was almost certainly at least one sticker that you could identify with personally.
  • Rarity: The stickers were also made valuable through rarity. It was never guaranteed that you were going to see a particular sticker at any time. There’s now an entire website dedicated to tracking Octocat designs.
  • Face-to-Face Relationship Building: As mentioned, we paired giving out stickers with in-person meetups. So developers received something of value from a human being–a face they could place to the name.

That face-to-face meeting can form the basis of a relationship that’s much deeper than something you request from a website, or just receive in the mail in an anonymous package. When you can see the person's face, you can see their eyes, when you can shake their hand, you can share your name, maybe share a story with them. That bond is so much richer, and that attaches to more value than what is inherent in the sticker (or whatever it is).

Not a Bad Idea: Start Your Developer Community Locally

I talk to many different startups, and some of the founders aren’t based out of major global tech hubs, and so they’re concerned they can’t really build a sizable community. I’ll tell you the same thing I tell them: You can do local events. Even if you can’t do events “globally,” you can at least start with where you are. For founder teams that are distributed across multiple cities or countries across the globe–you’re still almost certainly attending meetups in your home city for your own personal, selfish reasons, right? Networking to build your personal brand, to find potential hires–whatever the case might be.

Let's leverage that. Let's make those local events you’re planning to attend anyway into a program where we encourage people to consider engaging with us, and we ship them boxes of stickers or whatever other gifts we decide to use. You have to start somewhere, and you have to engage at least one other person. It should be somebody in your neighborhood, somebody that you know.

And that person could go on to open doors for you. Because ideally, what's going to happen next? Maybe the developers you meet in your own backyard become your ambassadors, and those people are going to have connections elsewhere. Those people are going to be attending events elsewhere. And so, as you build that relationship with them and find people who are willing to be vocal advocates, you can deputize them to be ambassadors for your brand.

And ideally, you can sort of step that out and grow it. So even though you may be based in one place, your ambassadors can spread the word throughout the world via their own networks. And over time, you may want to try to scale your program with other tactics.

Case Study: AuthZero’s Ambassador Program

Here’s another great case study. I don't know if they're still doing it or not, but a few years before Okta acquired the company, about 2018-ish, Auth0 had a really great ambassador program with an interesting perk.

The company would let developers register with them to become ambassadors, surrendering the usual level of personal information you’d expect. Then, probably after those registered ambassadors jumped through some minimal number of hoops to make sure that they weren't abusing the system, if they attended an industry event and spoke about Auth0, while wearing an Auth0 T-shirt, the company would cover a portion of their expenses to attend that event and share that talk. Obviously, the program was subject to verification and lots and lots of caveats, because it was essentially handing out money and expensing trips.

But it was a really cool program because the company had people speaking about Auth0 all over the world. And while perhaps somewhat difficult to measure, that presence and advocacy are very valuable. Travel is always valuable, speaking opportunities are always valuable, and this is something that you could do over and over again. And of course, the best speakers were most likely the ones to get the invites to do this over and over again. Which meant that this wasn’t just a one-time transaction.

Which reminds me: Another community question that startup founders ask me about is how they can apply the triggering of oxytocin and long-term community building to a one-off product launch.

Long-Term Community Building ≠ One-Time Product Launch

I’d like to make this perfectly clear: All the stuff we’ve been discussing so far does not fit into a traditional, one-shot, “this is for all the marbles”-style of product launch. At all. Something I see frequently, which is an absolute mistake, is startups thinking, “How can I use one of these community campaigns to get my product into the hands of lots of people when I launch from Product Hunt [or another public launchpad]?”

My simple answer is: You can't. You have to launch it first. People have to have tried the product. You have to have had the opportunity to prove your product can help them. Maybe you go with a soft launch. Maybe it's not this great big party day where you're hoping all the news outlets re-post your press release. Whatever the case, don't expect that you're going to have a community to help with the launch if you keep it a secret. Communities won’t get behind what you’re doing unless they know it's there. But if they know it’s there, well...you’ve kind of already launched, then.

In terms of building a community, I actually think that it can be better to do a soft launch, rather than trying to do one huge event and reach a large audience all at once and hope that some portion of that audience will enter the funnel in some way. I believe taking a community-oriented approach will be completely different, even if you have to bring people into the funnel one by one.

However, with a community-based approach, you should also be encouraging them to help others into the funnel as well. It could be a slow roll that ideally will build exponentially until you know you're filling your funnel with people who are really interested in what you’re making. And if you do it right, it's sustainable and will stay that way. Unlike with a one-off product launch, which sometimes feels like you get 24 hours of excitement followed by dead silence.

Rather than try to keep a lid on your product before you can make the big announcement, I believe it makes much more sense to get what you have into as many people's hands as makes sense. You want to find the people you know have the problem–find those your early customers...which is how you’ll achieve product-market fit, anyway. These are the sorts of moves you would be making to validate that your product is actually solving a problem.

And in the course of that process, you should be worrying about building relationships with those people, rather than a one-off launch. By all means, do set deadlines for building out features and reaching a state where you're very comfortable declaring your product to have hit GA. Obviously, you don't skip that. But I’d advise developer-first startup founders to maybe not worry so much about the launch itself.

I believe your time is better spent worrying about satisfying the people who are using your product and ensuring that you've got PMF, then building relationships with those people, and then using those relationships as a springboard for reaching other people. Months down the road, those organic relationships are going to be way more valuable than any kind of contact that you made as a result of a one-shot press launch. In some cases, you might want to consider soft-launching before your product hits GA, even if it’s not feature-complete...as long as it’s in a state where you can begin to share with people. And maybe you set your launch window to some months after that–six months? Twelve? Or whatever makes sense for you.

While a media headline can be great, building up a community list–including users, colleagues, investors, and other friendlies over the months (or years) will be what helps amplify whatever launch you end up placing on whichever website. You’re building up this audience of people, this community that is interested in your product rather than hoping, without any basis in reality, that one day, people will happen upon your PH listing and immediately recognize it as being great.

More so than the “payoff” of being the top item on HackerNews or TechCrunch or wherever, I believe that building up that community momentum will lead you to a real payoff–where you have a solid and vibrant user base with oxytocin already dripping inside people’s brains. And even if you do go through a major media launch, and if it’s as successful as it can be getting your name out there–great, it’s a big step forward, but it’s just one step, and your startup will need to take many more. The point being, the launch itself is not “the important part.” The launch is a mechanism that encourages you to do the really important work up front and, if you do your job correctly, gives you a whole funnel of people for you to continue working with afterwards.

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