Upstairs Community Report #1: learning the basics

I went through various stages of thinking about how I want to pack this article. The main question I tried to cover is: what’s relevant to know? There is no right or wrong yet plenty of nuances in searching for a meaningful answer. What matters most is how it fits the bigger picture, and I think I found a solid match.

June 16, 2021
Reading time 14 – 22 minutes
Upstairs Community Report #1 - learning the basics

For those who are not familiar with the Upstairs Community project, here’s a summary—we created a community around real and authentic stories that can help us become better people. 

Kicked off while we were in a full pandemic, it was our genuine response to a need we had and saw in the people around us—to read stories that bring us hope, joy, and faith in a time when opening the TV or scrolling on social media would make you think the world was about to end.

If you want to learn more, you can read this article in which I share the drive behind it all. And in this post, I talk about a few takeaways I learned after just a few months since launching it. Of course, if you have time and energy to go in-depth, you can also skim through a few stories we published to get a feeling about what’s behind the curtain.

Now, one year later, we thought it’s time to find out things that usually don’t “meet the public eye.” On the one hand, because we’re a small team in charge of a dozen things. On the other one, it’s almost impossible to cover everything. Even though we’re part of the open-source community, thus familiar with building in public and acting transparent, time is scarce for all of us.

Read further to discover the first episode of Upstairs Community Report #1, where we’ll provide a broader perspective on the evolution of this project. Similar to what we do through the by-annual transparency reports at Pixelgrade, the main goal of what follows is the same: to open the doors and reveal how we’re running the Upstairs Community and what we’ve been learning along the way.

Let’s dive in, seeker!

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Eagle’s view over the community

When writing these lines, 307 people across the globe are part of this community—from Iași (Romania), where Pixelgrade is located, to Melbourne (Australia), from Beijing (China) to Ermenonville (France), from Bali (Indonesia) to Hildesheim (Germany), from Ramsbottom (England) to Caneggio (Switzerland), from Quebec (Canada) to Rotterdam (The Nederlands), we reached people with various backgrounds, interests, and perspectives.

We’ve already started to dig deeper to discover reliable ways of bridging the gap, but there’s a lot of unknown.

Our members are creative entrepreneurs and freelancers working in several creative industries, such as design, photo-video, publishing, communication, digital, open-source, translation, architecture, branding, marketing, NGOs, sales, community building.

Some of them are Pixelgrade customers, too. Folks who bought our WordPress products at some point and used them to create outstanding websites. From this pool of people, those who spent their money on blogging and portfolio themes are most common.

It makes perfect sense because these particular customers are also entrepreneurs who run small businesses or one-man-show ventures. Both are interested in shaping a digital presence for either their organizations, side-projects, or passions of all kinds. 

Our members are looking for sources of inspiration to become better in their field. Sometimes, such drive is conveyed by reading heartening stories, sharing ideas in specific forums or groups, watching videos to improve their skills, going to meetups, etc. Other times, they just want to connect with others to feel less alone during their creative challenges. They look for like-minded people who experience similar struggles.

We recently became aware that there’s a beautiful overlap of interests and expectations between a big chunk of our members and customers. Although we already started to dig deeper to discover powerful ways of bridging the gap, there’s still a lot of unknown. We’re excited to see that besides authentic stories that bring inspiration and hope, we have other potential liaisons, and we’re looking forward to exploring these areas. 

It feels like we came across a box of chocolate, where each piece is a universe in itself, linked together by the same amazing ingredients and taste.

Members talking with us and providing insights

More than 80 members wrote us back to share their thoughts about how they experience the Upstairs Community. Their feedback was of tremendous help since it highlighted what works, what brings them real value, and the things we overlooked. 

We’re beyond grateful for their time and energy to contribute in such a meaningful manner because we kept iterating and improving thanks to their input.

Kind workds from our Upstairs Community members

Since we added the conversation system in November 2020 that allows members to interact with the authors and each other and share their thoughts below each story, we gathered 50+ conversations. Often, their responses led to a profound dialogue and showed us, once again, that we’re more alike than different.

Two folks who changed their career and started a lifestyle business have a lot in common. Two entrepreneurs sharing similar dilemmas have a fascinating topic to debate on. Two artists thinking about how to pack their work and make it more appealing can exchange helpful advice.

Conversations generated by one of the Upstairs Community story

We published 27 long-form narratives in the last 12 months and improved our editing and publishing process. If, in the beginning, we did not have a framework for working with the writers and invested a lot of time in writing long-form emails to provide all the details, we now have a more straightforward approach to collaborating.

When we noticed the overlap of interests and needs I mentioned earlier, we started to pivot the stories and search for those closest to them. This is how we got to host narratives about what it’s like to run a small business, how remote work is not only doable but can be fulfilling in many ways, or how family relationships within a business context can be tricky

In the last two months, we started running video calls with our members to find out about how they heard about us, what’s in it for them, what made them join, their expectations, and so on. We talked with 20 people so far, and I’m beyond grateful for how well aligned Andrei and I are with their take on Upstairs Community.

For instance, our gut feeling told us that we need a place for members to connect with each other, and during the conversations, members heavily endorsed this thought. Another example is the posh feeling we conveyed without even being aware, meaning that only people with a lot of experience have something meaningful to share. Instead, we believe that everyone’s story is worthy. 

The good thing is that once we reached this level of clarity, we managed to increase the speed of our work.

Mistakes we made along the way

I would be concerned if we would say that everything is running beautifully, our members are super engaged, the ideas are popping up all over the place, and we generally made it.

The best outcome I see out of these oversights is that we embrace the “I don’t know” attitude more.

As Carrie Mellissa Jones wisely says in her book — Building Brand Communities: How Organizations Succeed by Creating Belonging, even though most of the communities out there are looking flawlessly, the truth is that behind the door, things are messy and unclear

That’s okay because it takes many resources (time, energy, even money) to nurture a healthy community that passes the test of time. In the end, you can’t code and automate relationships; neither can you shortcut them.

So yes, we made our fair share of mistakes, and I bet that we will bark up the wrong tree from time to time. Despite my ten years of experience building communities of interest, it’s the first time I’m creating one online.

Here are the most obvious traps we fell into so far:

  1. We asked for various ways of contribution (writing a story, telling a friend, providing feedback, to name a few) without knowing what drives people to be part of this community in the first place; bad, I know.
  2. We were eager to celebrate the one-year mark with our community, but we did not have any other shared activities with the members besides the stories we sent them by email; yap, not okay.
  3. We created a survey and asked members to fill it without having a clear vision about what we wanted to accomplish and the actionable insights we will consider afterward.
  4. We implemented a conversation system with the wrong expectation in mind; we referred to it as a way of engagement, but it was, in the best scenario, a 1:1 relationship between the writer and the reader.
  5. We still don’t have a clear strategy in reaching out to future writers, which makes everything more draining and costly on every level. It’s not viable, too.

We’re not very harsh on ourselves for these fallacies, but we’re doing far more research and pushback before jumping to a new batch of actions. The best outcome I see out of these oversights is that we embrace the “I don’t know” attitude more, which is mandatory if we want to build a community with our members, not for them. We’re learning to ask rather than assume and imagine scenarios.

Things we’d approach differently 

I think it’s important to name things as they are and don’t hide behind the screen. If we were to start from scratch today, we would do a couple of things differently (and better).

We kicked off Upstairs Community in 2020 as a more sane alternative for the crazy clickbait out there. We were overwhelmed by the news that took us on a draining emotional roller-coaster, so we aimed for a different route. It’s important to keep the context in mind because it shaped how we hit the road.

We learned to be less afraid of finding midways and stay clear of the extremes that can do more harm than good.

We promised no marketing tricks, not paid sponsors, no tracking. While the first two are still valid, the latter got a twist. We still don’t know which members open the emails or who clicks on what, nor we sell commercial data, but in the last months, we started to look at the narratives that get the biggest overall open rate

It was clear that without any data, it would be harder and harder to make decisions that feel right for us and are aligned with the community’s expectations. Since we were in a learning and adjusting phase, knowing just a bit more about what happens within the community proved valuable. Removing all tracking was was a bit extreme, and it bit us back.

Once we got that extra data, we noticed some interesting facts, among which one captured our attention. The stories with the biggest open rate were those in which the authors talked about entrepreneurship struggles, choosing a career better suited to a particular lifestyle, or finding ways to reach creative potential.

This finding matches what we hear during our video calls. Members are saying loud and clear that they’re tired of bullshit content (“10 steps to..”), forever successful stories that lack depth (“let me tell you how I made it”), or traumatic moments (losing someone dear). They do appreciate this type of content, but they feel the need to be inspired, feel less alone in their creative and business journey and learn from others how to approach a situation from a different angle.

Another thing I would change if I started today is how people access our landing page and the archive of stories. We were too precious in how we wanted to bring members on board. The stubbornness around a rigid way of entering our community made us blind to a bunch of opportunities. We’re paying today for this attitude, but it is what it is.

We learned to be less afraid of finding midways and stay clear of the extremes that can do more harm than good. Gathering the right kind of data it’s not only pragmatic, but it’s necessary if we want to make well-inform decisions and navigate in more peaceful waters.

Upstairs and Upstairs Community

If the subtitle above feels confusing, it turns out you are not the only one. 

A bit of backstory. About one year ago, we noticed that the current blog categories do not match how our content evolved. We kept having problems filing the blog posts in their proper category, which led to a wide analysis of the types of content we wrote, what we plan to publish in the future, and how we could categorize the various topics we covered.

We are in the process of rethinking the differences between our blog and our community.

Once we got the clarity, we decided to further revamp our blog from a design and structure perspective. We felt that “blog” does not fit with who we are; it was too generic and neutral. That’s why we decided to change the name of our blog to Upstairs—an analogy to the literal house we call home while at work. If you are interested, you can read the full story about the change from blog to Upstairs.

So far, so good.

Not too long after, motivated by the times we were living (the pandemic was in full swing) and our need to stay away from flashy (and worrying) news, we decided to build a dedicated community around true, authentic stories.

Although it lived on its own and attracted a different type of audience, we saw the community as a continuation of the work we do on our blog (Upstairs), so we decided to call it Upstairs Community.

Now, a year later, what was once obvious and clear became confusing and frustrating for our visitors, members, and potential customers. People have a hard time differentiating between the two, often mixed our blog posts with the stories we publish in the community, and so on.

Today, we are in the process of rethinking the differences between our blog and our community, their purpose, and the goals that we want to achieve with both. We don’t know where this will take us, but it is clear that before we can expect people to quickly understand which is which, we need to be aligned internally. 

What’s sure is that you’ll definitely hear about what conclusions we’ll come to, so stay tuned!

Going slow is good and efficient

While the two of us, Andrei and I, the people in the front row of consolidating the Upstairs Community, have a background in marketing, and we get quickly excited, we try to remind ourselves that taking it easy is the best tactic to nurture this community.

Besides that, our jobs imply we have to give attention to other areas as well: writing educational content on Pixelgrade’s blog, building relationships within the WordPress ecosystem (with both publishers and affiliates), getting in touch with our customers to find out how they work with our products, research future endeavors, and improve the documentation. Therefore, we need to keep doing the work for the Upstairs Community in a sustainable way without compromising the rest of the puzzle.

Moreover, we give our best to stick to the values that we put at the center from the start. One of them is around slowing down and doing things at our pace since it’s the only way to keep going. Regardless of the nature of the stories we’re publishing, the frequency, how we interact with our members, or how we transform ideas into reality, it’s crucial to make promises that we know we can keep.

The small steps we’re going to take are around the following areas

Continue to improve the core

We plan to iterate on the join page and bring it closer to the current reality. We learned a lot, we’re still finding out fascinating things during our calls with the members, and quite soon, these will be reflected on the page, too.

Another thing we eagerly want to do is to make the Upstairs Community more visible on Pixelgrade’s website. Now, we’re not giving it the best chances of capturing attention, so we plan to change that as soon as possible.

Talk with our members

We want to continue reaching out to members and taking interviews to learn more about how things look from their side of the world. We like being in the trenches and finding out what our members experience being part of the Upstairs Community, so hopefully, more members will accept talking with us.

Based on these conversations, we will know which lane to follow, which actions to prioritize, and what we expect to accomplish.

Send a gift for our anniversary

We’re working hard to finish the Upstairs Community’s first book, which includes all the narratives we’ve published in the last year. We’re doing it as a way of celebrating this adventure and manifest gratitude towards our members.

45+ people within the community send us their addresses to get the book sometime in July, depending on where they live. It was nice to hear that they thought of our gesture as a generous extra, as Jeff, one of our members, would say. Yaaay!

Test a community tool and start small

It’s clear that today we’re communicating one-to-many (from us to our members), and our ambition is to transition to many-to-many since this is the model needed to build a community.

One way of doing it is to move to a community management platform that allows us to foster engagement between members, initiate conversations, share ideas, and so on. I’ve been testing a few as part of other communities, but I did not decide which one to go. We’d love to stick to WordPress, but that’s only half of the challenge. The other one is to kick off with a small group (around 20 people), see how it goes, iterate, and take it from there.

Pause the stories during summer

Remember I told you we’re a small squad doing a lot of things at once? The only way to give the Upstairs Community project a real chance is by pausing publishing stories from the 12 of July until fall and focusing on gluing all the pieces into a coherent experience for our members.

We’ve already been working on it in the last two months, but there’s still room for improvement and exploration. That’s why we will take a summer break and do things at our pace, as I mentioned earlier.

It doesn’t mean that members will not hear from us. Quite the contrary, they will get updates on our progress, access to the platform, and whatever else is relevant. We will continue to nurture this community with them, not for them.

Pills of wisdom we gathered along the way

  • Relationships that are not reciprocal are a massive fallacy in any community out there.
  • The Earth is still spinning even though we’ve made some mistakes along the way, like sending the same email twice while testing a plugin; folks have more things on their mind.
  • Playing hide and seek with the landing page and other relevant links can only bring frustrations. Sorry about that!
  • Folks will continue to imagine things and put labels instead of asking. That’s okay; we can’t have debates with all of them. 
  • Some people will be more engaged than others, depending on too many factors that we have too little control over. It’s fine.
  • Having friends and acquaintances on board right from the start should not be a reason for sadness but pride. Their trust, like anyone’s, is priceless. Please take it as a compliment.
  • Don’t ask for too much consensus within your team because it will drain you. Find a believer or someone curious enough (as Andrei, my teammate), and take it from there.
  • It’s okay to have customers and non-customers aboard as well, as you provide value for both. We asked if they’re disturbed by the others, and the answer was always no.

🍹 This summer sounds super challenging for the Upstairs Community, and we’re eager to keep making this project better and more meaningful for everyone involved.

As with any other community out there, it takes time, energy, and involvement to grow in a meaningful and sustainable way, but we’re ready for digging and having fun along the way.

It’s something really special in transparently nurturing a community by putting values at the forefront. Seeing how it can create ripples that impact our business, but, most importantly, our well-being and feeling that we can drive a positive change, is priceless and a good motivator for keeping our wheels spinning.

We would never reach this point without the support of the Pixelgrade’s squad, so I hope you’ll give a round of applause for them. It’s well deserved. Thank you!

P.S. Huge thanks to Andrei for contributing to this report and being my comrade from the first row. The adventure is more beautiful next to him!

A question by Oana, the gal in charge of Upstairs Community:
What we missed and you wanted to know? What's relevant when building communities in public?

Conversations 2 comments

Let's start a personal, meaningful conversation.

Example: Practical philosopher, therapist and writer.

There’s no better way to celebrate than stop, looking back at what you did, noticing what went wrong and what you learned, celebrating the wins, and deciding what you’ll do from now. 

Congratulations Oana, Andrei, and everyone involved. 👏

Happy Anniversary, Upstairs Community! 🎂

I couldn’t agree more, Alin. I’m glad that you see value in the reflections we do from time to time.

Your support as someone who talks with customers day in and day out is crucial in our endeavor of building a community around shared values and authentic stories. I hope that the next year will find you in the trenches with us, helping bring value to those amazing people that trust us.

Keep it up 🤗

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