Lessons from building an online community for more than 6 years

imagecredit_echodittoCite.co is a open corporate community & knowledge-base that was founded by Sidhartha Roy and has been running for more than 6 years now. They just crossed serving 100 Million unique visitors and here they share some of the lessons they’ve learnt along the way…

Business folks don’t have time to help others without a clear gain – in networking or in sales. Nothing wrong with it. But that’s just the way business works. And there is a story I would like to share about how I gained some insight about how this happens.

A few months ago, I got acquainted with a senior Government official. I asked him what he thought of the new public service officers. His reply was insightful, he said, “It may seem that I, like most of my generation, think less of the younger one but the fact is that things are going to get much worse.” His logic was simple, “The age limit for the public service exam is now 40 – so most of the new officers would be very worldly wise and with very little ideology or zeal to do good. In the old days, young blood would come in with a want to do something for the country – but now we will get people who mostly, only understand profits!”

The same applies to business professionals. When they are young, they feel they need and want to build an open culture where the good prevails. In a few years, the very same people start questioning their own ideologies – “Why should I help people who act like this just for profits? I’ll just work for my own profit! FU people!” A transformation we’ve seen with many of our members. I remember many long conversations with members who would tell me that I was a fool to be giving such support for free – that I should start charging for this service. We are still where we started – that we need more of the positive perceptions in our society to make a difference – because that is what will see them (even the “Naysayers”) through. So even if the difference is a small one – we beg people to be more open and share – just share, even if anonymously.

logoWhen we started Cite.co some 6 years ago, a forum in a space which is averse to being open about problems, we were naive. In retrospect, it seems like a serendipity of sorts that we landed up in this space. But even in the rigid business space there are millions who still believe in being collaborative. We’ve done fairly well, specially in the HR space, and amassed almost 3 Million subscribers (we don’t require a login to read or download any more). Turns out the HR space is more human than we thought they were.

Anyone who has ever tried to build a “professional” community will tell you that it’s really difficult to get business professionals to speak up about their business problems, their experiences or the knowledge gathered while solving those professional issues. Companies spend millions of dollars to get their employees to share knowledge and they find little success.

It was difficult way back in 2000 when JobsAhead started a professional youth community – called “Zipahead” – mixing career, fashoin and relationships – and its the same now with many of the professional knowledge sharing sites like our Cite.co and others like Skillshare, Brijj, Bravenewtalent, Peerpower, apnacircle(acquired by Viadeo) and countless others. When it comes to a business social space the only things that survive with abundance are vehicles of promotions – listings and profiles. Or specific services, that cater to a particular need – like Glassdoor.com, which caters to people looking for salary and company information. Like Slideshare which helps with displaying and storing presentations. Other than such use cases, its particularly difficult to get people engaged in the professional space. And specially communities where its about building an emotional bond with the people – it becomes their camp fire where they gather.

The chances of building a space where business professionals are sharing on a public platform is just a ridiculous idea but its also one of the fantasies many companies share. Retain the knowledge created, inside the company. So what’s the secret sauce that makes Cite.Co tick?

Truth of the matter is- there is no secret sauce. It’s a bit of an analogy to Kungfu panda’s dragon scroll- the secret is always the faith the people are able to muster in the platform. All one can do is attempt to inspire that with one’s product and conduct. In our case it’s also a culture that has been set in motion. It’s always cultures that gain momentum which keep communities running. Linkedin successfully introduced the culture of business networking online. That… just spreads from one person to another and today, even non-believers have learnt how to network.

A few lessons from our struggles:

1. Communities are not glamorous and take a lot of time and patience to build.

2. You have to be emotionally balanced, ethical and be willing to spend hours resolving community issues until the culture is set and old members know how to react to trolls.

3. Members show tremendous attachment – a niche community can reach millions in the space in a very short period.

4. The influence of the platform in the social space is intense but you have to promote the right causes.

5. Communities survive on word of mouth so stories are important.

About Cite.co:

Cite.co is a bootstrapped venture and is chugging along with ad revenue. Their small team of 3 consists of  community manager Nabomita Mazumdar who takes care of all community matters, Apurva Arora Roy – Sidhartha’s wife who takes care of members & legal support and the founder Sidhartha Roy who handles most of the technology issues.