I was invited to do a Slack AMA with Community Chat. It was great to participate and a fun challenge to answer the rapid-fire questions as quickly and thoughtfully as possible. You can check out the transcript below.
You can also see this transcript and transcripts for Community Chat’s AMAs with other community professionals here.
Hi everyone, I’m Holly Firestone, Head of Community at Venafi. A little about my community background. I started in the Community Management profession 10 years ago at a nonprofit. I’ve built and run some of the largest B2B communities and community programs in the world. At Atlassian, I started as a team of one, spending two years building the foundation of their powerhouse of a User Group program. I spent five years at Salesforce leading and shaping the User Group Program, evolving the MVP Program, and for the final two years, running the whole community and community management team. That included the online Trailblazer Community and the aforementioned programs. I built my team from one and a half to seven, and was one of the top-rated managers at Salesforce multiple years running. Now, I’m head of community at Venafi where I’m building our community and community programs from scratch.
Most importantly, I love building community. I have always been so insanely passionate about this field. I’ve committed this year to do as much as I can to share my knowledge and experience widely so others can learn from my wins AND my many mistakes along the way. I’m excited to join this AMA, and I’m pretty much an open book, so please don’t hesitate to ask me ANYTHING! 🙂
Mac — Appreciate you joining us for the AMA Holly! Will kick us off with a question I always love to get everyones input on — what sort of changes do you think the community industry will see in the next 3–5 years? Positive and/or negative
I think we have a lot of positive changes to look forward to. Overall, more businesses are seeing the value of community, and from what I’m hearing, know that they are BEHIND if they don’t have one yet. I think we’ve seen this shift over the past 5 years already, but it will get stronger. The other thing I’m hoping to see is that now that we have an understanding of the value of community (or at least more businesses do) that we can start to see the same trend in the value of the community professional. We as individuals play a huge role in the success of a community– you can’t just throw someone in there with no experience and expect the same results. We’ll have a lot more data to back that up soon enough. With that, I think we’ll see a higher value put on community professionals with experience.
Jocelyn — Hi Holly! What’s one thing you wish you knew when you first started your career in community or that you’d like other folks starting in community to know?
Oh jeez. SO many things. I think the biggest one is knowing that I was right about community. 10 years ago, it was a completely different landscape and trying to get resources and support to build community was extremely difficult. It’s still difficult to some extent today, but there’s a much wider agreement about the value community brings to a business. I knew community was important ten years ago, but I was so young in my career I couldn’t explain it/show value in the ways I can now. So to answer your question, I wish I knew how to more confidently show the value of community to the leaders that doubted it.
Jacob — Hey Holly 🙂 Can you tell us more about the transition going from Salesforce and having a tremendous amount of community resources to building community from scratch at Venafi? What are the different playbooks for community 0–1 and community 1-N?
That’s a GREAT question, and I’ll actually throw one back at you– what leads you to the assumption that I had more resources at Salesforce than I do at Venafi (besides a larger team)?
Jacob — Fair point! Made the assumption that bigger company = more potential resources for community. Is there a community myth to dispel here?
Absolutely. So I did have “more” resources at Salesforce, but proportionately, not so sure. Salesforce has a multi-million person community. It was a multi-million person community even when I started in 2015 and we had 2 people. My team grew to 7, but we were managing tons of programs AND the online community. At Venafi, I’m one person, but the community is teeny tiny, so it’s manageable at the right pace. I also have the financial resources I need. They are extremely supportive of community and have provided me with everything I need to be successful. And I will eventually be able to hire. I think at Salesforce our team was too small for the amount we were managing.
Mac- I gotta ask a follow up based on your answer to my first question — What are your thoughts on education for community professionals? CMX and other communities are great resources, but there’s not really any sort of official training, no college degrees in community, etc.
I keep joking that I went to the Community School of Hard Knocks haha
I mean I would obviously like to see more education around it, but even if there’s no formal college degree focused on community right now, there’s a lot of courses that I think can help someone be a well-rounded community manager. Conflict resolution, communication & culture, creative writing, journalism, mediation, psychology, group communication, etc etc
Mac- Whats the number one book you’d recommend to someone interested in getting started in community?
I wouldn’t actually — I can’t fairly answer that because I didn’t read any books when I started. What was most valuable to me in those first few years was seeking out other community professionals and trying to meet with at least 1 a month, every month to just chat about what we were working on.
Jocelyn — In your opinion, what’s the one skill all community professionals must have? And do you think that changes based on where someone is in their career?
Well to start, I think every community professional has to be empathetic. That’s a personality trait over a skill, but it’s important. As for a skill, hmmm
What is nice for me is that I started at the bottom. I have done pretty much every role on a community team. That gives me credibility with the teams I manage. When I hired a new community coordinator, I could say “I did this, too” so it’s not like I’m just burdening them with a ton of busy work, but it’s actually helping them lay a foundation to grow in their career.
So I would say yes, it’s different at different levels, but you grow along the way. It’s not a separate set of skills the higher you go– just a more well-rounded set. The most important thing is that your leaders prioritize helping you continue to grow your skillset.
Jacob — Holly in your opinion, what community management skills translate across industries? Is becoming too specialized in non-profit community management vs. b2b community management vs. b2c community management etc. a risk or an advantage?
There’s definitely commonalities between all of these different types of communities. I could apply a lot of what I learned at the nonprofit to the work I was doing at Atlassian or Salesforce. I think pretty much all skills translate. I think a lot of the principles of community building do as well. There are just different approaches you apply when the goals are so vastly different.
Alex — Hey Holly! Can you speak to the importance of content strategy in building an online community? How have you gone about this in your work?
Content can’t be an afterthought. It’s such a big value in the community. I don’t think all of the content should be coming from a business though. Then you’ve just turned your community into a channel– so coming up with a specific strategy for community content is important. What content comes from your business and how is it formatted differently for the community? Can you create a way for your community to engage around that content? How can you encourage community-created content? How do you highlight community-created content? Then you also have to think about content across programs, ya know? So online content strategy is going to differ a ton from a user group program content strategy
Shalvi — Thank you for AMA , Holly . Que : What are the 2 critical mistakes that we should avoid in the early stage of community building ?
I’ve made at least 100 so let me think for a second so I can narrow it down
Ok, so the first– without a question in my mind– is forgetting about internal communication. There’s a couple parts to this. One is that you absolutely have to set the right expectations with your leadership immediately. They need to understand how building community works and what they can expect to see at the beginning. You’re not going to have immediate growth. You’re not going to have people immediately talking to each other. It takes time and setting their expectations from the beginning is going to be the only way to survive
The second– don’t forget to get feedback from your customers. You already have a few fans in mind. BRING THEM IN. Share ideas, hear their feedback, and then USE their feedback. Close the loop with them. Beta test with them. Thank them. They will be your biggest fans and supporters when you kick off your community, too. They’ll feel pride and ownership off the bat because they got to play a role in building it. It is for them, after all.
Jocelyn — What’s something that you (or your team) achieved that you’re super proud of?
Hmm. Well, lots of things. I was super proud of my team at Salesforce. They were all magnificent, and I prioritized training and being the best people manager that I could be. There was nothing more rewarding than watching them grow. There were a few that didn’t come from a community management background, but I knew they would be amazing. Watching them fall in love with the field has also been so rewarding. Connected to that, our team had a reorg a few years ago, and I took a step back to really think about how our team was structured and how to make it better with the new team members. I was really happy with where we landed because the new roles helped everyone have a better and more focused career path.
Ben — Hi Holly 👋 qq: what book as impacted your thought process around community building the most? What insights has that led to?
I was saying this a little before. I’ve read a few community management books, and they’re all great, but I didn’t dig into those until later in my community career. The experience I gained throughout my work, and the connections I made with other community managers really impacted me the most.