This morning, I went down the street to a local cafe and waited outside for it to open. But I wasn’t the first to arrive. Strewn about the street, the sidewalk, and the crosswalk, 40 seagulls stood by patiently, clucking and talking to themselves. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the seagulls. From our apartment a couple of floors above, I’d spotted them from above. Nearly every morning around the same time. They gathered. They waited.
At 7-o-clock on the dot, the doors to the cafe opened. The owner emerged with a bucket of what looked to be day-old bread slices. She tossed the bucket over the side onto the sidewalk. That was the exact sign the birds had been waiting for. They descended en masse and devoured their breakfast. Then they left.
This, I thought, is just about the clearer form of community there is. Design a predictable, repeatable process so dead simple that even animals without smartphones to keep track of time can’t mess it up.
This basic example reminded me of three obvious lessons about community-building that are likely worth repeating (as even I need to remind myself about these over time).
Lesson 1: Build your audience over time.
If there’s one obvious thing I’ve learned about community-building, it’s that it takes time. Too often I’ve seen community organizers throw a ton of spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. They try a webinar one month, a roundtable the next, a group forum the third, then maybe a dinner, a fun night out, a happy hour. Don’t get me wrong, while experimenting is fun, some of the best communities I’ve been a part of are less about experiments and more about consistency. There’s a lot of dependability and trust in a group when you always know where and when to find them. Starting with that foundation is important. While I didn’t ask, my guess is that the owners didn’t get a ton of seagulls to show up the first time they threw yesterday’s bread onto the sidewalk. And it probably took weeks of repeating that behavior in order to get the birds to show up before they threw the bread. But over time, they showed up. Bird by bird.
Lesson 2: Keep it simple.
The second thing I’ve learned about community is that you don’t need to get overly creative or fancy. I’ve noticed a lot of people get hung up on the tactics — what tools do I need, what software must we build, what data must we collect? Trust me, I’ve been there. It’s easy to fall into the trap of over-complicating your offering. But one thing I noticed this morning was — the cafe sells a lot more than just bread. They carry sausage rolls and spinach-and-feta wraps and banana bread with dates. Despite these near-unlimited options, they aren’t changing up the breakfast sampler for the birds each day, which would likely only confuse their feathery friends. Instead, when they found something that worked, they stuck with it.
Lesson 3: Let the birds…er, humans…lead the way.
The third thing I’ve noticed is that the best communities let their members lead the way. At some point, the cafe owners noticed a couple of other birds pecking around the sugar packets on their tables. While they initially may have found this to be problematic (read: patrons were getting annoyed that birds were aggressively going after their coffee leftovers), they decided to lean in to this natural gathering and expand their audience. Now, in addition to the bag of bread on the sidewalk for the gulls, they set aside a small dish of sugar for the lorikeets. If HR leaders are showing up at a talk meant for CEOs, don’t immediately fight against it. Lean into the captive audience you do have, and then figure out how to serve the one you really want to support even better.
One of the things I’ve always liked about traveling is that it encourages you to look at things from a different point of view. Even if it means taking community-building tips from a flock of seagulls.
Also published on Medium.