How to Assemble Your 100 Founding Community Members ~ Mark Tan
To get your first 100 members, you have to start from zero. That's why I interviewed Mark Tan to learn how to assemble your first 100 community members.
[00:00:13] Jonathan: Ahoy, captain! Welcome to this super actionable podcast made for cohort-based course creators. I'm your host, Jonathan Woodruff.
As you know, community is a critical part of being a cohort-based course creator for so many reasons. One big reason is that you can actually use feedback from your community to create and iteratively improve your course, to really make it as effective as it can be.
That's why my guest today is Captain Mark Tan. Mark has worked at some big places you'd probably be familiar with like Amazon and Twitch, and he currently works at Wise helping with their community efforts. He's so off the hook that he scaled product communities from zero to 100,000 members, not to mention that he has a cohort-based course called Build Your Squad, which is dedicated to helping folks like you to build your first 100 founding community members in 30 days.
And he's here right now to share his knowledge with us.
So what's up, Mark?
[00:01:31] Mark: Thanks for having me here, Jonathan. And that's a very nice intro, and by the way, I could have not have done that without the support of my team and the members. So, it’s a team effort.
[00:01:42] Jonathan: Well, it's really good to have you here, Mark. And, I've been really eager for this discussion. So, on your course page, you talk about how things are shifting from products being built for customers to products being built with customers. So, let's say that our product is a cohort-based course. Why would a cohort-based course creator want to build a community and create their course with their community instead of just like creating the course themselves and then just you know, letting people know when it's done type thing.
[00:02:19] Mark: There are different ways to look at it, right? One reason is at the end of the day, you're doing the course to help other people. So, sometimes you have a set of assumptions in your mind on what the problems and challenges are.
But if you're doing it for a long time, sometimes you're too close to it. Right? So, asking people what problems they have at the moment will help you be more connected with the people and help you refine the content based on what they need as opposed to based on what you think is important. So, I think that's one way to look at it.
Like you cannot just create a course and content based on what you know. You have to always check that with people, and that's why designing it with others, meaning asking them questions, asking them what they want to see that will feed back into your content is very important.
[00:03:02] Jonathan: So I do part-time work for Louis Grenier over at Everyone Hates Marketers, and I was kind of listening in on his recordings from his first cohort when he was just building his course.
And, I don't wanna put words in his mouth, but my understanding was that he didn't have in mind module seven or eight when he first went to create the course, it's just that as he was going through the weeks with his first cohort, he realized that they really needed modules seven and eight. And, you know, maybe he had an idea for them and maybe he just needed to fill in the details. I don't know the exact thing, but ultimately, like, he was building the course with them even during I think the course, so it's just really interesting to see.
Is that kind of how you've been building your cohort-based course, Build Your Squad?
[00:03:50] Mark: Yeah, exactly. So, in fact, at the beginning we even surveyed people: What are the top three challenges that they want to, that they're facing? And then, we gathered around 80 people to respond to our survey, and then that helped us create and narrow down the topic within community building and product building that we want to showcase on the landing page.
So the landing page that you see is also a result of what people are telling us as components or topics that they want to see. And then, same case, to the example that you just gave, during the first two weeks, we were very clear in what we want to cover. And then over the third and fourth week, we decided to adjust it based on what people are asking based on the current sessions.
So, for example, a lot of them are still at the very early stages of forming community. So, instead of forcing a topic around scaling, we decided to spend a little more time explaining how to really get buy-in from people because that's where most people are, and that effort takes time. So we added that in between the second and fourth week.
[00:04:53] Jonathan: Awesome. So, let's take a step back and talk about the overall vision for what we're going for here with building our community of, you know, our first 100 founding members.
So, what's the overall outcome that we're trying to get to? And also what's kind of the high-level process for how to get there?
[00:05:14] Mark: So, in our course, we have this concept called Path to 100 where you slowly scale your group of customers into a small group of community by letting them talk to each other, creating a content calendar, and all of that. So it's a journey on how to scale more thoughtfully, as opposed to just bringing in like a hundred people at once and letting it go in any direction.
And you do that because you want to really establish a strong set of evangelists at the start that can help advocate for you and bring in quality people that will also model the culture and behavior that you want to see. So you do that at the start to make sure that you're extending yourself in through these people that can support you along the way.
[00:06:03] Jonathan: So, first step in my mind anyway is finding these first 100 power users, just like you said, not just any users, but the users who are gonna really advocate for you and be engaged with the process of helping you build your course.
And so how do you find these people?
[00:06:25] Mark: Yeah. So you really start with your friends and family. So, in this case, you can look at the communities that you're part of or your coworkers, right? And then you look at who's most excited about what you're doing. Who's most skilled in terms of the areas that you need help with? And then you show and validate the problem that you're solving for.
So for example, putting that in the context of the course, if you're teaching something about product management or community building, then you ask these people around you, like, what are the top three problems that they have? And like, how are they currently solving for it? And then if you already have an existing product, you might want to ask them to look at it and validate if this is something that they might be interested in or something that will be useful to address those problems that they mentioned previously.
So you, you first get in touch with your peers, and that's usually first and second degree network. You get at least five of them to say yes to support you. And then over time, what you can do is start bringing them together, either through an async group discussion, or you can even put together like a 30 minute casual conversation around the problems that they're facing.
And then you discuss and debrief what's good and bad about your product, but also like just in general, what are the other problems that they have? Because once you start opening that dialogue between the members, then they can find support with each other as well. So that's the next stage, right?
Once you have that first five, then maybe you can bring them together, add some people in and then you now have like a group of five to 10 people, and then you slowly scale that by asking for more inputs, but also giving back more solutions to them. And then you slowly grow that until you get a hundred people.
So, yeah, that's the, that's how you start.
[00:08:09] Jonathan: That makes sense. So once you have your five to 10 people, do you tap into their network or ask for referrals or how do you kind of get to that, like your first 20 from your first 10?
[00:08:20] Mark: Yeah. So I think it's important to balance it. So you ask, but also you give solutions, right?
So, first you ask, like, who might be interested in the stuff that you're doing, because if they are, whether they want to be your student or they just want to work with you on the course itself, right, then you signal that so that you can be in the mind share of other peoples so that when they meet other people, they can just make introductions.
Like actually, Norman is an example, right? We met through him because he knows that I'm part of the course. And Norman knows about it because I've been telling people like him that I'm doing this. So, that's step one.
And then number two is you also just try to offer help. So, if you are an expert or you, you have experience around this area, then you can provide resources, tools, or create a workshop around this. Right?
So the second part is just saying that, hey, you will have availability once a month or once a week, to cover and chat about this topic. And then if they know anyone who is interested, then they can talk to you directly, or you can send out a link that they can sign up for.
So, for example, one of the groups that I'm part of is a community of community managers. And then I noticed that a couple of people were interested in, like building a course, so exactly what we’re discussing.
So, what I did is I brought them together in a group chat and I said, “Hey, I noticed that all of you are talking about cohort-based courses. Do you want to get together sometime this month to talk about it, and I'll help organize it?” And then I asked them afterwards to bring in other people. So, it started with us with a group of like four people. And towards the end of the month, when we scheduled it, there was actually 12 people there. So that's how you do it, right?
Just like grassroots. Ask people who will be interested, and having that intimate group conversation actually goes a long way.
[00:10:07] Jonathan: Yeah, I love that plug to Norman Tran. We were talking about him before we started recording this episode, Uh um how cool he is. And, if you're listening to this and you haven't listened to the first episode with Norman Tran, I definitely recommend it because we went into how to make your copy on your landing page highly relatable.
And it's it's really, really good… everything that he was saying was really, really good.
So. So, we're on our way to finding our first 100 power users and people who are gonna be a pivotal part of our community.
So, how do you actually make the ask?
You start with your friends and your family, and if, if it's like a close relative, you probably don't have to ask too much, but what if it's like a Twitter friend that, you know, you you've, you know, exchanged a couple of times with, you've replied on their posts a couple of times, maybe messaged, and you think they would be, you know, maybe a good fit for, being a founding member of your community.
How do you ask them to be part of this whole thing, to give you feedback on your course and, you know, be potentially, you know, one of the first people to take your course and to be an integral part of this community? How do you ask them to take the time to do that, knowing that they're busy with you know, family and work and everything else?
[00:11:20] Mark: Yeah. That's a very good question. And it's a, it's also a hard one, uh, because you firstly need to find the right set of people, right? Because if you're really solving a problem that is important and something that is needed that can help make their lives easier or save them time and energy, then they will do it.
If not, then maybe your communication is not clear, or your value proposition is not strong enough.
But what you can do is also do part of the work for them. So, for example, if you notice that the person is posting a lot of stuff on Twitter related to, like manually matching people. Right? And you are offering a course on how to easily do that because you know a couple of tools that can solve that easily, then what you can do is say that, “okay, actually part of my course is discussing this tool, and I suggest you use this tool.” Record a loom video around it to explain how the tool works so that the person looking at it doesn't have to do everything, right? He or she can just go into the tool, look at your recording, play the video, and then see if that is something that he's interested in.
So, that's one way of doing it. Basically show as much value as you can to the other person so that they can see and experience what you're offering even before they sign up. And that's a, that's one way of doing it.
Another way of doing it is maybe you're creating a course around building a profile, and one of the projects is actually doing it hands-on. What you can do is create profiles for other people and say, “Hey, actually, I already did some content from out of your bio that I see publicly. If you want to adjust it, go ahead, but this is, this is already a draft for you.”
So like, if you do most of the work and the people can see what's in it for them, then there's a higher chance that they will participate. So that's another way of doing it.
[00:13:05] Jonathan: That makes complete sense because you want people who are going to be really excited about your course and what you're offering.
So, that makes sense. That'd be a good way to kind of filter them through kind of that first phase to see if they would be a match, if they would be interested in what you have to offer and whatever pain it is that you're solving for them.
So, is there anything else that we need to do to get to our first 100 power users, or is it just a matter of putting in the time and the effort at that point?
[00:13:34] Mark: Yeah. So, once you have a small group of people and you establish what the goals and visions are or the intent of gathering and they see that, the next thing that you can do is like, look for people who are willing to step up, right?
Because a community is a group of people who are willing to support each other. So, it doesn't have to be always you. And I think this is one of the biggest mistakes that I see. When I talked to many early founders, they feel that they have to carry all the load and they have to do everything themselves, but that's not true.
You can start delegating a task or encouraging people to step up, to share the load with you. And then, look for more volunteers when you reach around a dozen or like 20 to 40 people. Because like, at that point in time, there will be certain experts in different areas that you might not be an expert on.
So, like inviting them to, this is the part where you invite them to co-design what's going to happen next. If you do that, then you can scale yourself more easily and you'll have a stronger sense of community, during the early stages of what your, whatever you're building.
[00:14:43] Jonathan: Okay, cool. And what's the timeline here? And this could be I think for someone who's iterating their course as well for their next cohort, but let's, let's first for a second just take the example of someone who's building their course for the first time and they haven't even run their first cohort yet.
So, what's the timeline look for them in terms of like… Like, should they go all the way to a hundred power users first and then run their first cohort? Or does it not necessarily need to be 100? Like how do you know that you have a strong enough community to get started with your course?
[00:15:16] Mark: I suggest reflecting on what you're optimizing for, because courses can be anywhere to as small as like five people or all the way to hundreds. If you're optimizing for, like validating the content, then you can start really small. If you're optimizing for revenue, then you have to go big. Right? And that will be the main driver of how much time you need.
I don't think you need a hundred power users to start. Like, I didn't have a hundred power users when I started. I just created the course based on what I think is the problem. After having several conversations. In between, I did a workshop that was attended by 120 people. So I know at that time that okay, this is a problem space that people are interested in. But that's already after I made a decision that I want to build a course, so actually that, that happened later because I have a strong conviction that there's a gap in the market around this topic.
So my advice is, like ask yourself, like what components are important to you. And then if you're optimizing for like learning and validation, you don't have to wait that long, like within like… give, give yourself a month. And again, this depends on whether you're doing this full-time or not, but a month should be enough for you to start thinking about, okay, I can launch a course this quarter to validate it.
So, I think three months is actually a good time because you don't want it to drag so long because that means that you're overthinking things.
[00:16:38] Jonathan: That makes sense. So, actually let's take a little bit of a step back and talk about the validation a little bit more. So, how do you actually get the feedback that you need as a cohort-based course creator?
Do you give your community members some of the course material, and, you know, see what they think…like, cuz I know I've heard, like someone has, you know, they run their first cohort at say like $500, and then they kind of validated that way, knowing that it's, you know, it's a lot cheaper than what they're going to price it later on. And then once they figure out it's going to be successful then they get that validation after they run through the course and it was a success, then they can price it like higher later.
So, is it kind of like that where you can price it lower at first just to get that validation and you have them actually go through the course, or is there a faster way to get the validation you need on the course material before you, you price it at the full price?
[00:17:34] Mark: Oh, that's a good question. I think there's always, flexibility in terms of what approach you're going to do.
It's more common that I see that beta or pilot cohorts will have more of like an introductory price because you're still refining it. Right? And, you want to be open to your students, and you can price it higher or lower depending on what that outcome is.
But I don't think that your decision should be based solely on the first cohort. Like, I think you should have an understanding of the value you're trying to deliver to your students because in theory, you're supposed to be the expert on the subject, right? So, you know, like, what is the ROI if you are enabling your students by giving them tools and frameworks around the topic that you're teaching, like how much time and energy will that save them? And you have a calculation in your head that, okay, had I studied this much earlier in the process, this would probably have saved me weeks in my work. And those weeks of work are equivalent to this amount of money. And of course you compare that value with what you see in the market too, and what's reasonable.
So, you can make a decision on what that price is. So I guess my point is, yes, you can look at the first cohort to refine your price later on.
But the hardest part is actually, what is that first price should be, right? Because the future cohorts you can just anchor it on whatever the first cohort outcome is, but defining the first one is harder. So, I suggest that you ask yourself, what do you think is the right value is, and if you have strong conviction about that, then you shouldn't be afraid to put it out there because it's all about ROI.
[00:19:01] Jonathan: Yeah, it makes sense. And you talk on your course page about the community feedback loop, and, collecting feedback and prioritizing the feedback, so tell me a little bit more about the community feedback loop and what that’s all about.
[00:19:13] Mark: Sure. Community feedback loop, as stated, it's trying to listen to what your community or students are saying, and then using that as an input to help assist you in your future actions. Right? So for example, in our course, week one, we asked people what is useful or not, and then we actually adjusted that moving forward.
So, one thing that we realized is that, the breakout rooms weren’t enough for them to even state their problems. So there, there wasn't enough time within the session to actually do a breakout. But we initially thought it will be helpful because it was helpful to us when we were doing other courses, but in this case, like the problem that we're tackling is much bigger.
So when they said that five to 10 minutes is not enough, later on we dropped it because people are saying that this is not working, and we want to listen to them. So that's one example of a single community feedback that we incorporated in our course.
And actually I think we overdid it a little bit because we really wanted to listen to them. So we were adjusting a lot in this course. Uh, so it's not recommended to do that every week, but, like we did a survey at the start, at the end, and midway, and adjusted a lot of things, throughout the course.
[00:20:29] Jonathan: So, where do you go from, from there to actually like leverage your community? Not just for feedback, but to continue to spread word of mouth and, you know, get some referrals and kind of keep that engine going?
[00:20:42] Mark: Yeah. So, a great question. I think, a logical thing to do next is to invite people to join you in whatever you're planning to do next. In our course, for example, what I'm planning to do is write and publish content around what we've discussed in the past. And I actually asked the team or the group like, “Hey, does anyone want to co-write what you learned in the course, and I'll be happy to type in some words on the notion doc and have you add into it and you can go ahead and publish that?”
So, like that's one way to spread the word, because again, you're inviting people to reflect on what happened, right? And then, you can ask them to support whatever you're publishing, uh, share it with people who might be interested or who might find it useful and then always leave room for them to connect with you. Right? Either through email or through DMs. And I think that that'll work. So, I guess you don't have to always oversell what you're doing. Sometimes I just hop on the call and jump straight to addressing some solution.
And then I refer back to whatever published content I have, or I just show the slide. I actually show some of the workshop slides that we've done in the past and explain that framework in the context of their problem. And then I record it sometimes, or, again, I ask people to look at it and send pieces of it so that they can get the most value out of it.
So, it's really about sharing the knowledge and content that you have that will let you spread the word.
[00:22:11] Jonathan: I was, reading someone else's post in one of the communities that I'm in the other day, and she was talking about how she's observed that all of her sales have come from friends or from you know people who have been referred to her by her friends.
And so, I thought that was interesting. Just the power of having this community now, because now you have a hundred or however many power users in your community. And that's, that's a lot of power because these aren't just you know, random people, these are people who you know who you've talked to, who you may consider a friend now, And yeah it's just about spreading the love now.
So, when you talk about, enabling people to share. How do you make it easy for people to share? How do you incentivize them to share? Have you found it hard sometimes to get people to share, or is it quite easy and you just ask them, and they do it?
[00:23:02] Mark: Oh, it depends on the person, but generally going back to your point, I don't think it's as easy as you're thinking because people are busy, and they don't have enough time.
So, it's important to like find the right topic and content that will be most helpful to the person and then ask the person to act on it or to reflect on it.
So, for example, in one of our classes, I actually asked specifically certain people, “Hey, they wanna like recap this and share it with a group or post something more publicly,” because I know that this is something that is interesting for them. It reinforces learning. It reinforces the culture of sharing with other people. And when they understand that, then they do it, right?
So people are willing to help, you just need to be clear about what kind of help you're asking from them. And then people will do it.
So, I guess that's my advice. So like we make sure that they understand that we're not just like giving them work because when they do understand that this is going to help them out, uh, help them in the end, then they'll be happy to support you.
So, yeah, I think my key proposed like suggestion, like always go back to wearing the customer hat, and then see if this is something that will be helpful to them, because sometimes I think that's one thing that I noticed people are so obsessed with their own product that they forget to consider what the other person is thinking.
And without that, your ask will not go far. So, always… we always have empathy to understand and listen to what the customers are feeling and saying.
[00:24:30] Jonathan: So, we have our members, we have some some word of mouth, people are sharing. And, how do we retain the community members that we do have, cuz we’re getting some new ones in, but once we get them in, how, how do we keep them in the community and keep them interested and continue to tailor things for them?
[00:24:51] Mark: There are different ways of doing it. One is to build a content calendar so that people understand that there's a consistent flow of information or event that will happen. before, throughout, or after the course.
And then the second one is just do check-ins in a more personal way to see how they're doing.
I haven't seen a course community actually that remained active long after the course is done, unless you're continuously doing a cohort and you're bringing in new students, because at that point you have the new and old students interacting with each other, and you always have fresh new members bringing in the energy and dialogue within your platform.
So, I guess like make sure that if you do want to keep the community active, make sure that you have that content calendar in place, so that people know that they have to go back and there's something to look forward to. If not, then make sure that you think of something differently, like bringing in the new and old members to have that engagement going. Like, forcing community members to be in a group without any value is going to be very hard because there's no reason for them to stay. So either share resources, do a workshop, like schedule a working session together. And some of those will work for a certain number of people.
But by and large, I don't think I've seen a course community that went beyond like the timeframe that it's supposed to because courses are so… it's like, it's a, well-defined set of timeframe where people are very active and then after that people will move on to something else.
But in general, that's my advice. Just have that calendar going.
[00:26:20] Jonathan: That makes sense, And just thinking, reflecting back on my own experience, I've been part of several different Facebook groups and you know, different communities, and usually I don't stay for long to be honest. Usually I'm not really that active in them, but the one I can think of that, you know, I am sort of engaged with, still over time, and, it is a course community.
And so someone will you know go through the course, there'll be part of the community, uh, like you said, fresh and very active and posting and you know turning in their assignments and talking about their assignments and things like that, asking questions.
But what they do is they, they bring back the alumni for like alumni sessions and they, you know, the alumni are still in the community, and they can still kind of help.
But yeah, I have observed that as well, that even though the alumni are still technically part of the community, definitely for a cohort-based course it's the fresh ones. It's the ones who are taking the course right now that are the most active.
So, that does lead into my last four questions for you. They're relatively quick questions.
So, first one is what is the biggest challenge that you've faced as a cohort-based course creator so far? And how did you solve that challenge?
[00:27:33] Mark: Oh God, the biggest would probably be outreach to students because I under-invested on public presence.
So, I don't have content. I don't have a newsletter. I don't have any following. So, I actually spend a lot of time getting to know people and helping jump into their problems to offer a solution that will help bring in more validation and students into my course. So, marketing, in one word.
The second one is operations. So, logistically this is like very manual. Uh, there's a lot of effort needed to communicate back and forth to students and just run things everywhere. So, those are the two problems, marketing and operations.
And the way I handled it is, when marketing, I did a lot of creative things like, we looked for partners and sponsors who would be willing to bring in some funds so that we can offer scholarships to other people, uh, work with speakers to bring in more excitement around the course. So, I worked with a few, uh, community and product builders to bring in those different insights, and that really helped make the program more rich. So actually you can see that on the landing page. So that's for the marketing pieces.
For the operations piece, we decided to team up with a course manager to help us run the course that is also liaison to student communication. And then we also brought in a content designer from the ed tech sector or from the learning sector, because I, so I'm working with, uh, another person, Nathan, on this course, and we know the practices, but putting that in the context of a course actually takes a different skillset. So we've worked with someone in the learning sector and the four of us defined the program. So, it's not just me. There's four of us who ended up running the whole thing, and that turned out to be better in terms of how we run more effectively.
But it's also more fun because I'm not doing it by myself.
[00:29:20] Jonathan: Yeah. And, what you were talking about with the marketing and kind of how you're going about it. It reminded me of another episode I just did with Kevon Cheung.
Have you, have you heard of him?
[00:29:30] Mark: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:29:32] Jonathan: So, I'm actually taking this course right now, his free email course on how to make Twitter friends. And so it just reminded me of what you were saying in terms of like just building friendships and, yeah, just building everything on those friendships, and it actually reminds me of everything you've been talking about so far during this call too.
So, very cool.
So, next question. What are the top three resources you'd recommend to listeners to learn more?
[00:29:53] Mark: Oh, learn more about which subject?
[00:29:57] Jonathan: It could be about Building Your Squad. It could be about cohort-based courses. It could be about anything, yeah, just any three resources you think would be useful.
[00:30:06] Mark: There's a lot of books. I'd say one that just came out is The Business of Belonging. This was written by David Spinks. So, if you're looking for the OG community leaders, I think David has a really, has a lot of good thoughts around it. And, uh, you can also actually check just by following their profiles. Right? So, uh, look at David.
Uh, look at, content coming from Rosie, and actually the speakers that he invited, uh, Peter from the creator economy. These are, people who have spent and dedicated their time to write about stuff around creator economy, uh, communities, and product building.
And those can help you build your squad more holistically. And that's actually the reason why they're a part of our course, because I know that they can help the students as well.
[00:30:55] Jonathan: Cool man. Is there a particular person or topic that you as a listener of this podcast would like to see on the show?
[00:31:03] Mark: Oh, that's an interesting question.
I think there's still a lot of opportunity in terms of teaching people how to, how to run courses holistically. I'd say people from Maven and On Deck are really great resources. People who either are running specific programs or the program directors for certain topics, whether it's community builders, or something else I think would be a good, uh, a good guest for this, for the episodes.
And then, the Maven team is very good in terms of like really execution and getting people to go from zero to one. So either one of the core Maven team members or any of the instructors who've been running courses multiple times there, I think will be great addition to the episodes.
[00:31:49] Jonathan: Sweet. Sounds good. And finally, where can people keep in touch with you?
[00:31:55] Mark: Uh, Twitter and LinkedIn are the two main things. Next month, I will be supporting two other instructors doing crypto courses. So that's the next thing. And then as for my own course. I think that's going to come in, in a few months because it's, we're coming close to the end of the year, and people are in vacation and holiday mode.
[00:32:15] Jonathan: Well, keep in touch with Mark on Twitter and LinkedIn folks. And Mark, thank you so much. This has been fun.
[00:32:21] Mark: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Jonathan.
[00:32:28] Jonathan: Thanks for listening. If you'd like to listen to more episodes, hop aboard CohortCaptain.com. If you'd like to be my matey, I would love for you to message me on LinkedIn or Twitter. And remember, always captain your cohort, always be my matey, and never lick an iceberg while your ship is passing by.