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A startup’s practical guide to building a SaaS community and fueling product-led growth

March 11, 2024
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Lily Bradic

The top product-led growth (PLG) companies are out there building communities 3.5x more often than their peers across the SaaS space. It makes sense: community can fuel the PLG flywheel and unlock organic growth, and it's easy for early-stage companies to get started.

And yet, founders often delay. Building Outverse, we speak with startups all the time, and a hugely common motivator for delaying community is the fear that nobody will show up. If you're in this boat – of wanting to get started but not knowing precisely how, and fearing failure as a result — this guide is for you.

In writing this, I sat with Outverse cofounder Kyran Schmidt to get his insight on what really makes SaaS communities successful, and how founders and early employees can unblock themselves and set their community up for success.

Before founding Outverse, Kyran was an investor at Seedcamp, one of Europe's top seed funds. Here, he saw that the most successful early-stage startups often had something in common: they built community, and they built it early. This realization was one of his core motivations for starting Outverse and building a community platform that meets the unique needs of the SaaS communities that were underserved by the likes of Slack or Discord.

In this guide, you'll learn:

  • Why you should care about community throughout the product-market fit (PMF) journey
  • The different forms SaaS communities can take (product vs shared interest) and which is right for you
  • The business benefits of starting a support community
  • The 5 questions you should be able to answer before getting started
  • How to choose a SaaS community platform
  • Where to get support: the top 7 SaaS communities for founders to join

Screenshot of a SaaS community hosted on Outverse.
A screenshot of the Outverse community.

Community as a route to market

“Community can be a really interesting driver to ensure you are building the right thing,” says Kyran. He's referring to the signals and feedback that community can bring to both product development and positioning: from creating a deeper understanding of your buyers' Jobs to be Done (JTBD), to very granular feedback on specific features in your product.

On the road to product-market fit, building a community can help you understand the market, define your ICP, and figure out the needs and pain points of your buyer personas.

“A great example of how vertical-specific products can benefit from community would be a company like Lattice, the HR software,” says Kyran. “As they built out the product, before obtaining product-market-fit, they were simultaneously building out a shared-interest community of HR professionals. This allowed them to stay close to their segment and buyer personas.” Lattice have written in detail about how they built their community — from vetting potential members to ensure they were HR professionals, to building out an ambassador program to help run the community.

Kyran also gives revenue data platform Pocus as an example: they've built an active Slack community of almost 3,000 practitioners in the product-led sales space, and run a regular cadence of webinars and events for members.

A shared interest or practitioner community isn't the only option for startups — and, in many cases, it won't be the best use of resource that could be better spent acquiring customers and building the product.

For many, a product-focused community will make more business sense. Product-focused communities — where your customers can ask questions, give feedback, report bugs and get support for your product — can help you find design partners and create faster feedback loops with your customers.

“This type of product community has existed for a long time in the Dev Tools space,” says Kyran. Developer tools can be complex in nature, so often have a more diverse support need, which community can be great for meeting. “But it's becoming much more mainstream, and lots more SaaS companies are now building community in this way.”

How a SaaS community can benefit your business — from brand to product development

How exactly you'll benefit from building community will depend on the type of community you build and the function it serves for your customers. But, broadly speaking, when community building is approached as a company-wide endeavor — with participation from across the business — all teams can benefit.

SaaS products aren't stagnant, but continuously evolving based on users' needs. When you build a community, you invite your customers to participate in the development of the product they use.

Build brand and establish customer-centric culture

“It says something about your culture and brand as a company to build with your community,” says Kyran. “If you're inviting people to post ideas or bug reports or issues they've had with the product, and you're having those conversations out in the open, you're saying something quite powerful about your culture.”

"Community narrows the gap between your business and its users, and that benefits everyone."

Plus, customers are much more likely to share their ideas when they can see them influencing the product and being taken seriously. There's a trust and transparency there that reflects back on the brand you're building.

Collect feature requests from community members

A community offers a powerful avenue for gathering and managing feature requests. Sure, you can collect feature requests via 1:1 channels too, but having these conversations in public allow your customers to build upon each other's suggestions, which gives you more context on the demand and benefit of a potential feature.

a screenshot of an Outverse forum with two feature requests, one for adding keyboard navigation and one for adding custom analytics.
Collecting feature requests in Outverse.

Manage bug reports

Users often encounter issues before product teams, and an active community can facilitate the swift identification and remediation of these snags. A dedicated bug reporting space in the community encourages users to contribute issues they encounter, which streamlines the troubleshooting process and making it easy to close the loop when you've implemented a fix. It's one of the main use cases for the thread resolution feature in Outverse.

Get quick feedback on the features you're building

An engaged community is a prime environment for eliciting rapid feedback on prototypes, beta versions, or forthcoming features. Product teams can share updates or new products for members to test, and receive user feedback directly. Such feedback—be it praise, suggestions, or constructive criticism—can accelerate the iterative process of product development.

Reduce inbound support requests

”When companies tap into their user base to solve each others' problems, they' can dramatically lower their support costs. They remove themselves as a bottleneck,” explains Kyran.

“There's also a great energy that comes from this model of decentralized support. Having these solutions all accessible in a public, searchable forum is infinitely better than hiding them away in a private Slack or Discord, because you're reducing the barriers your users face in finding the answers to their questions.”

A public, searchable community can significantly reduce inbound support demand and make it easier for your customers to find answers. In Outverse, your customers can search your forums, knowledge base, and simultaneously, which allows your community to serve as a vibrant, dynamic repository of product knowledge. We use AI to surface the most relevant content, which greatly speeds up issue resolution.

And, as your community grows, your customers will be able to support each other. This model works particularly well for creative tools and productivity tools where there are multiple ways of reaching an outcome. Often, users want specific advice for their personal application of the tool, and will engage the community to ask for their opinions.

Increase customer success

Communities can serve as comprehensive, interactive knowledge bases.  Similarly to how community can enable self-serve support, it can also help your customers to learn your product more deeply and achieve success. Integromat (now Make)'s community was largely focused around customer success — with experts helping newer members to configure their automations — and eventually evolved into a partner program.

You can also use community activity to identify gaps in existing onboarding or success flows. If new members often ask how to set up X or how to make Y work, it's a good indicator that you need to create more resources in that area.

The five questions to ask (and answer) as you start your SaaS community

“I would counsel against pushing back building community for too long,” says Kyran. “I think people can be precious about it, because they're scared nothing's going to happen in there. There's a lot of vulnerability in setting up a community. But people often respond to that in the wrong way, and put it off indefinitely.”

"You'll likely always think there's a better time to get started with community, in your product market fit journey. But actually, I would say: do it early, but do it intentionally."

Don't worry about platform decisions, community management, resourcing, or who will show up until you're able to answer these questions.

1. What's your “why”?

Kyran cautions against over-engineering community, but still being very deliberate about your center of gravity: is your community about the product, or about the category? And why are you bringing people together? Community-led growth is too vague: your objectives should be more granular.

Your goals don't need to be grandiose or even metrics-driven at this stage, but identifying them before you proceed will make every following decision easier, increase your chances of success, and make it clear to your team and customers why the community exists.

For early-stage startups, most SaaS communities' objectives are often a combination of the below:

  • Identifying early users, customers and design partners
  • Gathering feedback on the product in its current state
  • Understanding customer pain points in more depth
  • Identifying gaps in onboarding, documentation, and success flows
  • Enabling customers to share knowledge, helpful resources and valuable content
  • Creating meaningful engagement and customer loyalty

When you can clearly communicate internally why your community exists, it will be much easier to articulate to customers why they should join it.

2. How will your community benefit its members at launch?

Early on, you'll be providing most of the community benefit yourself — there likely won't be enough activity yet for customer-to-customer support to start happening. Out the gate, you should be able to offer your members a great reason for joining that's separate from the value they can bring each other:

  • Opportunities to shape the product into one they'll use and love
  • Personalized support and product advice from the founding team
  • Early insights into roadmap and upcoming features

Make the first move: lead through example by sharing ideas early and often. Changelogs, product announcements, feature tours, and feedback requests are often more effective than open-ended discussions at this stage. By doing most of the talking, you lower the bar to participation for everyone else.

3. Where will your first members come from?

“One of the first questions to ask is ‘who are my first community members going to be,'” says Kyran. “Because you want to build in directionally and stay close to them.”

While generally Kyran advocates for starting a community sooner rather than later, there is one scenario in which he advises to wait: if your team isn't particularly well-networked, and you're very early on in your product journey. These factors can make it more challenging to find your first members.

“But as soon as you have beta testers and users in the tens that are really excited by what you're doing, I think setting up a product community can make sense,” he says. “And those people will come from your network and your user base.”

Beta users can make great early community members as they've already demonstrated a strong interest in the development of your product. They're more likely to participate in feature discussions, share ideas and feature requests, and report bugs.

Kyran recommends having a plan for seeding your community and sequencing its growth. Start with “friendlies” before opening the gates — invite users you already have a rapport with, industry friends and partners, and followers who support you on other channels.

You can also use content as a lever to grow your community by building a following on other channels, like LinkedIn. People are more likely to join your community if you've already established trust and authority in your domain.

4. Who's going to contribute from your team?

Community is a shared responsibility, and you'll get more value from successful community if the wider team is involved in making it a success. Aim to have engineers and product folk responding to people directly, rather than using a community manager as a conduit.

And remember that as a founder, your presence has a lot of weight with customers. Build trust and relationships with early users by being present, asking questions, and contributing to discussions yourself.

5. What's your plan for following through?

Community is a flywheel — kickstart it when you have the bandwidth to engage, respond, and process the feedback you receive. This means responding, considering, actioning (if necessary) and closing the loop with users; and responding in a timely manner to requests, questions and feedback. A lack of follow-through can erode trust in the brand, and can make people reluctant to engage again in future.

How to choose a SaaS community platform: public vs private

“If you broaden it out and think of the consumers of your community — that's everybody that you're serving with your community content — some of them might not even be members.”

“Think of community as a bunch of concentric layers. You have your evangelists in the middle there, your engaged users, your casual users and then your lurkers — and beyond that, you might have your non-member lurkers, who are just Googling a question and dropping by. Those people play an important role, and you lose them entirely if you have a private Slack group or Discord because you're making all your community content inaccessible to them,” says Kyran.

Platform decisions are best made once you're clear on your community type and objectives. We're big believers that product communities — specifically support communities — work best when they're public; this means that customers can Google their questions and find their way to you. If these things are important to you, we recommend using an indexable, searchable community platform like Outverse.

We also believe that communities can be fantastic repositories of product knowledge, where value can accrue over time. It's why it made sense for us to include a knowledge base within Outverse: if a customer has a problem, they don't usually care whether the answer comes from a support doc or a reply in a customer support forum, as long as it's trusted and accurate. So why make them search in multiple places?

In private online communities, like those hosted on Slack or Discord, discussions are only visible if you're already a member, and people can't find the content from search engines. For shared interest communities where exclusivity matters, this can be a good choice.

“If it's a shared interest community, you know what? Maybe Slack can make more sense because there's an inherent responsiveness there. But it's not great for product communities, as questions get asked on repeat, and the answers only benefit people who know the community exists,” says Kyran.

With Outverse, you can build both public and private communities. If you need more nuanced permissioning, you can also set certain forums and documentation to private, or choose who within your community can view it. For example, you might have a public community for all your customers to access, then a private space just for beta testers.

The key is choosing a platform that supports your objectives, and will scale along with your business needs.

“If support or customer success is important to you, there are certain features that you just don't get with chat-based tools like Slack. It's very difficult to find information, et cetera. So if you focus on what you're trying to solve — that will help you decide where to host it,” says Kyran.

7 SaaS communities to join for networking and growth

Building a successful SaaS startup is challenging, but joining a community of like-minded founders and leaders can help accelerate your growth.  SaaS communities provide a place to network, learn from experts, get feedback on your product, and connect with potential customers. Here are seven popular SaaS communities that you might consider joining if you're looking to expand your network.

1. SaaStr

SaaStr is the largest SaaS community with over 1 million members. They host an annual conference, podcast, and online community for SaaS founders, executives, and investors. As a member, you can network with industry leaders, learn the latest SaaS trends, and get advice for growing your business.

2. Mind the Product

Mind the Product is a community of over 50,000 product managers and leaders at SaaS companies globally. They host an online community, podcast, and annual conference discussing building, launching, and scaling SaaS products. As a member, you can connect with product experts, share ideas, and learn actionable strategies for developing a successful SaaS product.

3. SaaS Growth Hacks

SaaS Growth Hacks is a top Facebook group and community focused on SaaS growth and marketing strategies. With over 30,000 members, they discuss acquisition, activation, and retention tactics in their popular weekly growth hacking threads and online events. This is a must-join community if you want to learn innovative ways to market your SaaS product and fuel sustainable growth.

4. Reddit r/SaaS

The r/SaaS subreddit is a community of over 60,000 members discussing the latest SaaS news, tools, growth strategies, and trends. You can crowdsource feedback on your SaaS product or startup, engage with other founders and leaders, and stay on the cutting edge of what's happening in the SaaS space. Membership to the subreddit is free and open to anyone.

5. Product-Led Alliance

The Product-Led Alliance is a paid community for leaders of product-led SaaS companies. Membership gets you access to a wealth of resources and product-led growth strategies as well as the online community. If you have a product-led SaaS business, this is the community to join for advice on acquisition, monetization, and scaling your customer base through an amazing product experience.

6. Startup Grind

Startup Grind is a global community of over 5 million entrepreneurs and SaaS founders in 125+ countries. They host local meetups, conferences, an online community, and podcast for founders of all startup types, including SaaS businesses. As a member, you can connect with entrepreneurs in your city, learn from industry leaders, and find mentorship to help build your SaaS business. Membership is open to any startup founder looking to connect with a community of like-minded entrepreneurs facing similar challenges.

7. Indie Hackers

Indie Hackers is a community of over 40,000 SaaS founders and makers working on digital projects and products. Their weekly threads, AMAs, and online meetups cover strategies for building a profitable SaaS business. Membership is free and open to anyone, though is perhaps better suited to bootstrapped individuals than funded teams.