Anthony La Roche
February 26, 2020
When your average person thinks of design, they’re envisioning the way something looks. People that have an understanding of the subject would say that design is the way something works.
Both statements are correct in their own way, but when it comes to designing consumer products. You’re entering a new space that often gets neglected. The People.
You see, a product is only as good as the community it serves, despite its beauty.
If you wanted to build ‘Uber for Snacks’ where you could set a price, push a button, and have someone deliver a bag of assorted snacks to your home. Most would say that having a sweet looking app and a flawless user experience is essential, but if your community consists of drug dealers and sex workers, it won’t work.
Video games are a real-life example of this. If you’ve ever played MW2… or Fortnite, the actual gameplay and graphics are great, but if you start playing online multiplayer, you’re guaranteed to meet the ‘tactical twelve-year-olds’ that consistently kill you and call you a fagg*t every two minutes.
Basically, when you’re building a new product, you want to focus on building a very exclusive, invite-only, curated community. It’ll allow you to maintain greater control, ensure high-quality content, and set a benchmark for future users.
This may seem very elitist at the beginning, and it is. But if you want to design a great product, you must be willing to think like this.
Mobile apps and websites aren’t the only products that should focus on designing communities. You could build an exact replica of any one of Soho Houses’ member’s clubs, but you would inevitably fail if you didn’t have their members.
If you’re not familiar with Soho House, it’s a members club/hotel/restaurant that caters to the best people working in the creative industry, and they’re known for having a stringent “no-assholes rule” in their selection criteria (even if you’re an A-lister).
What’s really impressive is what happened at the New York Soho House in 2010. The club began to grow popular amongst the suit-wearing corporate types, which lead to a rule forbidding members from wearing suits and ties at the clubs, but even still… the club didn’t feel like a real Soho House.
Soho House chose to kick out and cancel all of its New York members (around 500) in an attempt at rebuilding the club ‘back to its level of cool’. This may seem like a ridiculous move, especially given that membership at an individual club starts at $2,100 a year… but it worked.
Today, Soho House still prevails as one of the most exclusive and sought after membership clubs in the world, with increasing revenues of $371 million per year and minimal alterations to its membership criteria.
In an attempt at ‘opening up’, Soho House has allowed the public to dine and take pictures at its 14 restaurants. These restaurants usually have the same interior style as its member’s clubs, a smart move by Soho House which enables them to cater to people who don’t meet their criteria without pushing away their original community.
Eventually, your product will need to open up (often for revenue growth purposes), but I believe that in the future, we’ll see more products adopting this close-knit community strategy.
Snapchat was on to this but lost its way in pursuit of a fast-functioning business model. The early days of Snapchat felt like an authentic social network where you actually knew all of your friends, and it lacked any ‘status-obtaining’ means. The added screenshot detection feature connected users with an exceptional level of trust within the app (similar to Soho House no pictures rule).
As with several startups, Snapchat wasn’t built to make any money, so they had to raise funding from investors. Just four years after founding the company, Evan & Bobby raised $635M in funding and was now racing against time to demonstrate that the platform could turn over a profit in the future.
As a result, the Snapchat community which was ingeniously built as a close-knit social network had shifted itself into a content giant packed with branded content along with transforming its users into ‘content creators’ by encouraging them to create viral content and boost their online status.
I can’t remember the last time anyone mentioned anything about Snapchat to me, other than it’s poorly performing stock price.
When thinking about the idea for your product, also envision a functioning community along with it. Build an MVP, test it with within your community and pay close attention to what happens. If they love it, continue building the product for them. If they hate it, find out why and make changes.
As your product begins to scale, it’s vital to keep a certain level of authenticity within your community, whether you choose to remain close-knit or open up. Curating a community of 40, 100, or 500 thousand users is not a simple task, but you have to scale your traffic as a function of your initial community, or you could fall into the trap of having a “beautiful product, but a lost community.”