10 lessons I learned building & growing the WebCamp KK community

On the first Tuesday of every month, for more than 3 years now, I have had the privilege of meeting some of the most talented and inspiring people in our city — Kota Kinabalu. All thanks to WebCamp KK.

WebCamp KK is a community of people from different backgrounds and industries who are passionate about what they do. These are the ones that inspire others into action. The ones who believe in sharing and helping each other improve our city.

What started as a simple gathering of like-minded people, has now turned into a movement that sparks connections, spawns communities and continues to be a source of inspiration for many.

I may be biased but I personally believe that we should have more communities like WebCamp KK. I have learned a few things over the years, here are some lessons for those of you who plans to start and build a community.

1. Take action and start now

The hardest step in building a community, and probably the most obvious one is to take the plunge and start it. If you think there should be a community around an interest and there isn’t one, then the only logical thing to do is to start one yourself.

You could enlist help from others who share the same aspiration as you to be the founding members. For WebCamp KK, I enlisted John Wong and Daniel Doughty to host the first gathering in Daniel’s office.

It’s ok that you don’t have everything figured out at the very beginning. You can learn along the way plus you wouldn’t know if it will work out until you start it.

2. Start small

Once you have decided to start a community, the next thing is to make sure you don’t take on more than you can handle. Build the community slowly and keep the numbers small.

When the community is small, it is easier for you to set and tweak the vision. Get the members involved when setting the goals, vision and culture of the community.

3. Guard the vision

The vision of the community is not something that is set in stone. It is more like a guideline rather than a commandment. As the community grows, the vision will change, adapt and evolve.

You as the founder, will have to guard the general direction of where the community is heading. This is extremely hard as you have to balance between keeping things aligned with the original vision while giving it room to adapt and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of the community.

WebCamp KK started as a community for techies and geeks to share as well as inspire each other with their passion in computing and technology. Over time, we have evolved to include people from all kinds of backgrounds but kept our focus on passion and inspiration.

4. It’s all about the stories

I think humans are generally hard-wired to relate to stories better. We like to tell stories and be part of it. Knowing this, encourage members of your community to share stories and testimonials about what you guys are doing and why others should join.

This is a promotional video we made for WebCamp KK. It wasn’t scripted. All we did was to ask members to describe WebCamp KK in their own words and tell us their experience in being part of the community.

It doesn’t have to be a video. The idea is to talk about the community in terms of stories. Stories about how it has changed their lives. Stories on their experience being part of the community. 

Focus on the why. Why does this community exist? Why do random strangers decide to gather and hangout together? Why did you start the community? Ask why to get the best stories.

5. Make it a habit

I mentioned above that the hardest part of community building is starting one. Well, I lied. It’s a necessary lie because if you don’t start it, then you’ll never get this far.

Once you have a community, the toughest challenge then is keeping it alive and growing. The trick here that works for me over the years is to harness the power of habits. Meet up on a regular basis and make it easy for others to get into the habit.

For us, we decided to meet up on the first Tuesday of every month. Unless something really important gets in the way, this schedule never changes. We also kept the meet up in the same venue whenever possible. This effectively trains the community to automatically show up every month.

You could also piggyback on existing habits. For example, since we meet up on the first Tuesday of every month for WebCamp KK, FilmCamp KK chose to meet up on the second Tuesday and CodeCamp KK on the third. 

6. Get help and build a team

Organizing meet-ups on a regular basis can be draining. No matter how fun the community is, there will come a day where everything feels like a chore. To make sure you don’t burn out from all the work of managing and running the community, setup a team of volunteers to share the load.

Personally, it was a hard decision to let others in and help out. It took a while for me to be able to delegate the load to others. As a founder, you may have this fear that you will lose control and things will change.

Well, you just have to accept that things will change and can change for the better. You have to trust that others are able to take your vision and build on it. To get to greater heights, you have to build the community as a team.

Start by giving small task to test their ability and judge who can do what. Over time, you’ll assemble a team of volunteers that can basically run the entire thing without you. That should be something you want to work towards. If you want some tips on how to delegate tasks, check out this post.

7. Remove money from the equation

When building your team, you have to make sure they are volunteering for the effort and not being paid for it. I’m strongly against using any monetary or financial means to manage the community.

I don’t mean to say that we don’t need money. In fact, we are very grateful for the support from Sabah’s Ministry of Resource Development & IT. Over the years, they’ve allowed us to use their venue for free and provided us funding to pay for rentals of equipments and catering.

Other than that, no one in the team, not even you as the founder should be paid for anything. Also, avoid any sort of membership fees. People should not have to pay to be part of the community. Donations are fine but make sure it is used to fund the community responsibly.

8. Spark connections

One of the greatest things you gain when being part of a community is the connection you build with other members. The engagement and support received from others are what keeps you connected. Building a strong community is not about having more members but forging stronger connections between them.

When a community matures, you will discover that there is a certain culture that emerges between the members. This is good because it means they are bonding and connecting with one another but also bad because it makes it hard for an outsider to join in.

I prefer to nurture a culture of openness and encourage the community to be more accepting and welcoming. We have ice-breakers every time we meet-up and provide ample time for networking to happen during and after the event.

Get everyone to mingle around and you’ll never what happens. Personally I have seen birth of new projects, businesses and new hires from these sessions. Oh, did I also mentioned this is a great opportunity to meet and hire talents?

9. Harness the energy

If you are lucky enough to have a growing community where connections are being formed, you’ll notice that at every meet-up, there is this lingering energy in the air. It’s this energy that keeps them coming back for more. 

You’ll actually find it hard to end a session. I know this because even after switching off the lights and getting everyone out of the venue, they would shift to the corridors and continue chattering in the dark. This is great because you can harness this energy and channel it towards growing the community.

Since they love to hang-out and talk to each other, why not make them work together on some projects. FilmCamp KK have done this very well with their monthly 30-second projects. Members are given a month to produce a short film based on a chosen theme. During the showcase, they are able to share and inspire each other to do better. Here are a few examples of short films made by their community.

There are virtually no limits on what you can do together as a community. Be creative and get the members themselves to suggest what to do. Once you get the ball rolling, you’ll notice that it’s a cycle. They will be inspired and then inspire others with their action which will in turn inspire more people.

10. Work with other communities

If you manage to get this far and built a vibrant community, it is time to start working with other communities. In fact, start while you are growing your community. Cross-pollination between communities will create more fresh ideas and interactions.

Don’t be too protective of your members, instead encourage them to join different communities. Even you yourself should be part of other communities so you can bring back new ideas and projects to try. 

WebCamp KK has been and always will be a platform for other groups, organizations and communities to advocate their cause. I think this is vital for a small city like ours where we gain more when everyone works together.

I hope you are able to learn a thing or two from my experience and if you have always wondered if you should start a community, stop reading and start now. For those who are already running communities, keep it up and don’t give up. It may seem like a lot of work but it will pale in comparison to the experience and connections you gain from it.

WebCamp KK celebrating 3rd Anniversary on Aug 2014

WebCamp KK celebrating 3rd Anniversary on Aug 2014

P. S. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the WebCamp KK team - Dino, John, Bryan, Duane, Moses, Chun Hou, Danielle, Edham, Disney, Isaac and many others who have contributed to the community. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you guys - Thank you and stay awesome!