Starting a Community Business from Scratch
6 min read

Starting a Community Business from Scratch

Starting a Community Business from Scratch

Last June I announced a beta for the course I had been thinking about. I had no content built out, a very small email list (<100), no significant social media audience and no plan to run ads.

This June, exactly 12 months later, we had made just over $100K from the course and community.

I contemplated sharing a piece with such a click-baity premise, but the point of this is to give you some ideas on what to prioritize as you get started and show you an example of what’s reasonably possible.

So before diving in, I find it important to share some context:

  1. This was my 1st time doing this for my own business, but I had helped clients do it.
  2. I’m able-bodied, neurotypical, and have lots of privileges that help when building a business.
  3. I could afford to turn down consulting jobs to work on this side of the business, before it was bringing in consistent $.
  4. $100K is a gross amount. We had ~$10K in expenses (+ my salary and taxes) for the first year. Our expenses have already gone up as we staffed up for year 2.
  5. This is meant as inspiration for those getting started based on my experience. There are many other paths you can take and be just as (or more!) successful.

With all that disclaimed, here is what you can learn from what we did to grow Build a Community Business to $100K in our first year.

🤝 Start 1:1

Before building a course or community, I was working with clients 1:1. Being paid for consulting helped me deeply understand them, see patterns, and develop frameworks to help them. It also made clear to me the types of people I most wanted to help at scale.

If you’re starting a community business, how can you start helping your potential members before you have the community? Is there a mentoring, coaching or consulting service you can offer to get to know your target members?

💕 Conversations → Sales

We often think of sales as tricking someone to do something that only benefits us.

When you start talking to people early in the process, you can better understand them and actually build something they want to pay for. It becomes a more honest exchange where both parties have their expectations met and feel good about the interaction.

Starting conversations as early as possible will help build your confidence about what you’re building and makes your sales copy more genuine.

As I was researching what to build for BACB, I started conversations (DMs, quick zooms, emails) with anyone who seemed like they could one day be a member. By the time I had something to sell, I knew at least a handful of people who might be interested.

To minimize awkwardness when transitioning a conversation to sales, here’s what I recommend:

  • Mention as early as you can that you’re building a business so that they don’t later feel tricked.
  • Be totally and completely honest. You can even say “I’m going to launch a paid thing, and this is the awkward conversation where I try to see if you’d be interested.”
  • In every conversation, give them easy ways to opt out of the sales process. “I’ll follow up with you one more time next week, if this is not a good time feel free to ignore these emails and I’ll leave you alone!”
  • Ask for the sale and be okay with hearing no. Don’t assume people know that you are selling something if you haven’t asked them to pay for it.
  • Give them a way to stay connected and continue the relationship if it’s not right now.

🏁 Build a Beta

I recommend that your first “launch” be a low stakes test of what you ultimately want to build, whether that be a community, a coaching program or a course.

Starting with a rough draft of what I was building helped me practice being okay with imperfection (a key skill for community!). It also tested course content and got us our first testimonials.

I started enrolling our first members before anything was built. Here’s the Notion page I used to enroll our first members. We didn’t have a website or payment portal, I just used the systems I was already using for consulting. It took ~10 days to fill the 10 paid spots at the discounted rate.

If you’re ready to get something out there, your beta should accomplish a few things:

  • Determine whether this is actually something YOU want to work on.
  • Test the riskiest part of the thing you’re building (for a course it might be your content, for a membership maybe it’s the vibe of the members you’re looking for, etc)
  • Start seeding your community with the right people who are invested in building with you.

🔑 Key partnerships

You don't need a big audience if you know exactly who your people are and where they’re already hanging out.

Think about the transitions your potential members might be going through. What is already helping with those transitions? Can you find a partnership that aligns you with places where your members are already showing up?

In my case, Circle was a platform that people were starting to hear about and build or migrate their community. I became a Circle Expert early on and met a lot of early BACB community members through their community.

I also connected with other communities that served the members I was looking for and hosted workshops for their members.

💰 Charge early

I don't recommend starting with a free community if you want to end up with a paid one.

By starting with a paid offer, we found our people earlier. I never felt resentment towards the community and things generally felt calmer and clearer.

I’ve written more about free vs paid here and here.

🧩 Start with more than just community

What your beta becomes, can depend on the type of community business you ultimately want to build. Here are some examples:

  • Membership → A contained 3-month community experience
  • Cohort-based course → A fully live version of the course that you create in real time (this is what I did!)
  • Evergreen course + community → A weekend workshop
  • Group Coaching → A virtual retreat

Because I hadn't built a large audience, it would have been hard to start with a pure membership option. The value would have relied too much on the community showing up.

Starting with a cohort-based course made it easier to charge more, communicate the value and provide results for just a handful of members from day 1.

⚙️ Build systems

I started documenting what I was doing for launches, onboarding and operations early on. It sounds like a nice-to-have, but we would not have been able to reach 6 figures in 12 months without this step.

Having everything documented saved a ton of time and energy. I was able to focus that time and energy on growth.

The process was not perfect (and still isn’t!), yet it saved a ton of time as I hired. We were able to improve with each new batch of members without reinventing the wheel each time.

Early on your time is super valuable. You want to learn things only once and then repeat the processes that work over and over. Documenting, building systems and automations are all a gift to a future version of yourself. And it doesn’t take a lot of time if you do it often.

👯‍♀️ When you can, hire!

I got this advice early on from Marie Poulin and should've done it sooner!

Our Community Operations Manager, Rachel and our Notion consultant, Ghalizha have been game-changers. With help, we're able to manage the different priorities of the business calmly and thoughtfully.

I recommend hiring for your weak spots! For me it was the operations and automations side of the business.

Starting a business is not easy, but that doesn't mean it has to be painful. You DON'T need to work 24/7, burn out, and feel terrible.

If you're building a community, I think it's extra important that you're feeling whole as you start gathering people.

Does this approach resonate with you? If you want a clear roadmap + a supportive community for your first few years of building a community business, I hope you’ll consider applying for Build a Community Business!

BACB is a course and community experience for community founders who want to build a profitable business without sacrificing their values.

You can apply and join anytime, you’ll hear from us within 48 hours.

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