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Staying up, not starting up: How Matt Studdert built Frontend Mentor

June 17, 2021
Rosie Sherry
Community Lead
Staying up, not starting up: How Matt Studdert built Frontend Mentor
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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As part of Community Built, Patrick and I had the opportunity to dive into a live discussion on how Matt Studdert built Frontend Mentor — a community to help level up front-end coding skills.

What is Frontend Mentor?

Frontend Mentor is a community that provides design challenges with a goal to help designers and developers level up their front-end coding skills.

Learning communities come in many forms. Some provide content, tutorials or perhaps courses. Frontend Mentor takes a different approach by helping their community learn through practical, hands-on front-end coding challenges that result in real projects.

It launched in 2018 and now boasts over 50k members in their Slack community, nearly 100 different design-led challenges, with over 150K members over their lifetime. 

What were the keys to getting Frontend Mentor off the ground?

In the indie world, the go-to advice is that it’s never too early to launch something. Frontend Mentor is living proof of that. 

Matt was frustrated with a fitness app that he had built that had not gained any traction. He decided to shift his focus and spend a couple days putting a front-end resource together. The positive feedback he got from the launch gave him an instant boost of confidence. 

On the back of this positivity and alongside his background with teaching design he ran with an idea he had to create professionally created frontend design challenges. This was not an idea created out of thin air. His students at General Assembly had repeatedly asked him where they could go to practice their skills in the real world. Little did he likely realize it at the time — but Matt was listening intently and leveraging his early community as part of a larger feedback loop.

The initial challenges created were free and Matt took note on how people were downloading, sharing and even collaborating on front-end coding  challenges.  This in itself did not prove it was viable as a community or a business, but it did at least provide some positive validation that he was on the right track.

Leaning into this early validation — Matt applied these lessons into the product itself, learning and iterating as he went.

Community building tactics that worked

  • It started as a resource list for front-end developers: there was a two month lag until Matt launched his first design challenge.
  • A Slack was launched: it had a very specific purpose of being there to get together to get help and feedback on the design challenges. This was when he started seeing new faces come on board.
  • Tapping into his network: to help validate his idea, Matt tapped into his own network. Mostly it was his students and his LinkedIn connections.
  • The trickle effect: people started to trickle in at a rate of 2-5 people per day.
  • Creating the community Matt wanted to see: natural instincts kicked in and the focus was on being helpful, sharing all that he knew, and was always the most active person.
  • Helping people get comfortable: members would help out once they got comfortable, this became a focus for Matt.
  • Onboarding: not just using greetbot, but also being proactive in greeting people
  • Keeping the channels as lean as possible: not too little, not too much. Create on demand according to requests from members.
  • Deep insights: the great thing about community is that it can inform the future needs of the business without needing to do intentional research. Pay attention to what your community is talking about.

What's the tech community stack for Frontend Mentor?

The tech stack that Matt and his business partner use has grown into:

  • Slack, to host their 50k+ members 💥
  • Greetbot for onboarding messages
  • Simplepoll to survey members
  • Intercom - to help people with live chat (this will be phased out in favor of a FAQ and email support)
  • Mailchimp for email newsletter
  • YouTube - for hangouts, livestreams and updates on the community.
  • Loom for screen recording, however he will be moving to Veed
  • Fathom Analytics for web analytics

How has Frontend managed to grow?

Matt underestimated how much of a focus community would be at the heart of business growth. His actions have mostly been reacting directly to how members were behaving and doing his best to serve day by day.

In hindsight, he could’ve done more, like seed the community before people joined. He hadn’t really thought too much about things like that, instead focused on improving things day by day. It seems to be a strategy that, whilst not perfect front he outside, has worked for him.

In reality, can anyone ever really plan precisely for what the community wants? (And I’m honestly not sure that we’d ever really want to).

It took 6 months of doing the legwork to reach a tipping point. One day Matt woke up to lots of notifications, his fear was that there was a big problem.To his very pleasant surprise he saw people supporting each other.

Whilst 50k members in Slack feels massive, it has actually been quite manageable. There is a team of volunteer moderators who support the community. The overall vibe is a positive one too, meaning little effort is required from moderation front.

There had been discussions to move over to Discord at one point, it was very much rejected by the community — Slack as a community tool is one that works for them as it fits within their own work culture.

Other growth factors that have come into play:

  • The presented design challenges were very shareable
  • There were approximately 4k people sharing their projects every month
  • YouTubers and Twitch streamers used the design challenges publicly to their own communities (helloooooo flywheel!)
  • Creating a culture that folks genuinely wanted to be a part of — radiating positivity and support.

In search of advice, Matt had the opportunity to meet Ben Halpern. His advice was to “stick it out. Frontend Mentor is a stay up, not a start up. took 5 years before it started to have exponential growth.”

Frontend Mentor is a stay up. Their Slack is growing rapidly with 5k new members per month, and their custom community currently growing at 10-15k per month.

Our parting thoughts

Community-driven collaborative education models are quite the trend at the moment, but the latest course, cohort or tutorial isn’t always the best solution. Matt tapped into what I believe is one of the most valuable things to staying motivated in your career or to any skill you’re learning really — feedback and early believers. Community education doesn’t have to look a specific way or format to be successful.

“Teach everything you know” is a popular indie term popularized by Nathan Barry of ConvertKit. There is so much you can learn by teaching other people. Frontend Mentor’s approach embraces this. Through the challenges everyone has the opportunity to not only learn as they go, but to also share, collaborate, and build on what they do already know.

Matt is now privileged to have enough income to work on the Frontend Mentor community full time, continuing to lift others through learning

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