Much has been said about the importance of community. It’s a huge buzzword these days — and, perhaps, an overused one. But you really can’t build and sustain a business without building and sustaining a strong community, willing to stand behind you.

An engaged, loyal community makes a great customer base. They talk about your product or service. They market for you. They answer questions on your behalf. They’re the backbone of any strong and growing brand.

We’re fortunate, at The Skillery, to have the support of a dedicated community, made up not just of our coworking members, but our teachers, students, mentors, and others throughout Nashville (and beyond) who care to support creative entrepreneurship. As The Skillery has grown, we’ve learned a lot — and are continuing to learn a lot — about how the community builds and why it’s so important. For this week’s Starting a Business installment, let’s talk about some of those things:

Building Community

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Put your business’ unique personality front and center

Think about every community you’re a part of, from your group of friends to professional meet-up groups. What brings you together? Common interests. Forming a community around your business happens the same way. You draw people in by liking (in this case providing) what they like. So when you’re communicating about your business — be it in person, on your website or on social media — focus on highlighting what stands apart about your business. Are you the only business in town making hand-stamped pet tags? Are your clothing designs based on skills you learned from your Parisian grandmother? Are part of your proceeds going to a cause that’s close to you? In business-ese, we might call this your “unique business proposition.” In more human terms, it’s your thing. And being clear about it grabs the kind of people who are inclined toward that thing.

Give your community a place to come together

Maybe this is a physical location. Maybe it’s a monthly bar night. Maybe it’s an online forum. Whatever the venue, give your community an easy, consistent (and, when possible, free) place to come together and share their fandom.

Fine-tune your clubhouse according to your club

Your business gets stronger when you gather metrics and pay attention to feedback. Same can be said for your community. Maybe you notice that the digital gathering place you’ve put a lot of energy toward — a Pinterest page — isn’t really getting any traction, but your weekly stops at one particular farmer’s market seem to be getting more and more popular. Refocus your energy on what’s working — spend your time sprucing up the clubhouse that your club seems to like. For The Skillery, after years of getting steady feedback about how much our community would like a physical space to gather, learn and connect, we starting working toward and opened our Germantown space. That decision and goal were a direct function of fine-tuning our clubhouse to suit what our club told us they were looking for.

Be aware of the downsides of gatekeepers

In the early days of building The Skillery’s community, we placed a huge focus on getting Facebook likes. At the time, Facebook was ubiquitous and free, and an easy venue for us to build and reach our community. Now, however, Facebook has become a sophisticated advertising platform, and it’s harder for us to reach our community without paying (so we do, as our budget allows). Facebook became the gatekeeper — the troll at the tollbooth — between The Skillery and our community. And they’re not an anomaly. When any entity holds the key to access to your community, you can expect them to leverage that. It’s how they’re strengthening their business. So it pays to be mindful of where you engage with your community, and whether you’ll one day have to ask them to meet you elsewhere. It’s why we urge entrepreneurs to put effort into building an email newsletter community; that’s one gate you can feel confident about keeping control over.

Size does matter, even if it’s a little hard to quantify

Something we get asked a lot: “How big is your community at The Skillery?” For us — and for most of you — it’s a tricky question to answer. What most people really want to know is, “How many people can you reach?” And that’s a legitimate question for us in particular, given that part of the value we offer our teachers is a promotion of their classes and workshops. We (and you) can rattle off stats about email subscribers, open rates, Facebook reach and the like, and they’re all fine indicators. But each represents a pocket of a whole community, and there’s invariably considerable overlap between them. How big does that make our community on the whole? We struggle to distil it into a concrete figure. But the more salient point — and the point we think you’ll want to be making about your community — is that it’s large and growing and increasingly active. A sizable group that’s trending upward: That’s the size we’re all looking for, and what you’ll want to be able to trumpet. Because…

A large community opens doors

There’s no question that a large community provides opportunities that a small community can’t. Marketing becomes easier because your community spreads the word for you. Sponsorships are easier to secure. Press gets easier to entice. Ultimately, you’re not collecting names to pump up numbers — you’re teaming up with advocates who are helping your business thrive.

Provide value to your community

Rather than selling to your community, put things in front of your community that provides real value, and assign those things a price tag. If your community trusts you — if the product or service provides real value, and if the price reflects that value — you won’t have to “sell” a thing.

Remember that your community members aren’t just customers

Ideally, your community is much larger than your customer base. They’re two separate groups of people, with some overlap, and they need to be treated differently. Your customers deserve your support: delivering what you promised and standing behind it. Your community, on the other hand, might be interested in your opinion, your perspective, and your expertise, without wanting to pay you for products and services. That second group isn’t less important because their feedback and support have great (if less concrete) value. So make sure you’re thinking about both groups as you move forward with sharing and growing your business.

Matt Dudley