In a world obsessed with numbers and toxic mantras such as go big or go home, we need to relearn that value within a community takes many forms. The health of a community does not necessarily lie in its size, nor does the number of GIFs thrown to one another reveal the power of authentic engagement. What if we rethought community growth to focus on collaboration?

For over a decade, I have been trying to grasp this industry's intricacies to find the best tools and approaches that help me deliver stellar work as a community builder. Unfortunately, I noticed firsthand that it is easy to forget something essential as we go. By focusing on top-line growth, we forget the fundamental stepping stones that drive forward any community endeavor: trust, belonging, and reciprocity.

By keeping those core tenets in mind, we get most of the answers we need to keep fostering and growing a community sustainably. This exercise of introspection also reassures us that we understand the foundation of a community, however big or small, regardless of its profile — product, practice, or interest.

Launching Upstairs Community

Trust, belonging, and reciprocity are the secret sauce that helped us foster a sustainable and healthy community project at Pixelgrade. The platforms, the frameworks, the canvas, the methodologies, the webinars, the summits, the awards – these are all extras. Such pieces are worthy and valuable for the bigger puzzle, but they come after. They serve well-rounded communities, not those barely scratching the surface. We first need to learn how to turn trust, belonging, and reciprocity into concrete behaviors that allow us to do meaningful work.

“ Trust, belonging, and reciprocity are the secret sauce”

Despite the general understanding — we all have a pretty similar idea of what these words mean in a linguistic sense — there are nuances that we need to learn to deconstruct to put them together in a powerful manner. Language matters, but culture and identity matter even more.

On my side of the world — Europe, Romania — trust, belonging, and reciprocity come with big stakes due to our history and legacy. We have been under communism for a very long time, and even though I did not live under the regime, it does not mean that I am not a collateral victim. Communism left scars on how we understand and nurture human relationships, the DNA of any community.

  • Trust is super hard to earn and very easy to lose, and while it is true to every human being on this planet, it is a bit tougher to get it here because folks are far more skeptical.
  • Belonging means very little because the regime was harsh and turned individuals against each other. People see no value in working together for a common goal and developing stronger bonds.
  • Reciprocity used to be interpreted more like a competition and less like it takes two to tango. When there is a versus between people, it is almost impossible to help them narrow the gap for the greater good.

In 2020, I launched Upstairs Community by Pixelgrade — a place for creative professionals who read and share inspiring stories, connect with fellows with similar struggles, and learn how to take things to the next level. I knew that it would be tough to achieve our goals if I were to only bring Romanians into our online community. That is one of the reasons why I tried fostering an international audience of creative professionals around the world. I targeted people working within creative industries, including architecture, design, arts and crafts, photography, music, etc.

We stuck to this particular target because Pixelgrade has been building digital products for them for more than a decade, so it made sense to align this community of interest to the company's mission.

Organic growth through contribution

I framed Upstairs Community with a contribution mindset right from day one. It was crucial to avoid cookie-cutter strategies, gamification tricks, and other external incentives that could put us off the rails. When people look at the carrot, the game is no longer fun, nor does it serve the community's members.

On the other hand, I designed a playground where the concept of co-creation is central to our efforts. Many communities brag about doing something similar, yet they only offer general guidelines instead of serving a common goal together.

During my thirteen years of experience as a storyteller, I noticed how writing is still considered a skill for the chosen ones – those who have a native talent. That is not only completely false, but it keeps people away from telling their stories and making their voice heard. The more of us who dare to share narratives, the better the world we live in.

So how did we change the narrative and help members write for us?

“ I designed a playground where the concept of co-creation is central”

One of the best tactics that helped us shape a two-way approach was running actions with our members. In more concrete words, it meant that people were pitching an idea of a story they wanted to see published within our community, and I was going to walk them through the process of writing it from start to finish. At the same time, I was directly reaching out to folks I thought were a great fit and invited them to write for our members.

Reinforcing that we collaborate closely was a crucial switch in mindset because it implied acting like a comrade: a peer, rather than a community manager per se. I was not some random face behind a screen or just a name in an email’s signature, or on the landing page. Suddenly, they could relate to this authenticity and rawness. I was in charge of providing hands-on feedback, assuring them that being frank with their mistakes is proof of strength, not weakness. I was the shepherd who made sure that the story delivered on the community's promise — creative people willing to speak the truth about their journeys.

Co-creating the community with our members

Even though not scalable in the classic way, this 1:1 approach led us far and brought us tremendous advantages, including in-depth testimonials about our collaboration, strong recommendations among similar people (some even became ambassadors), brand awareness, and dozens of positive reactions.

By taking things personally and showing up transparently and authentically with each of our contributors, we managed to publish 36 stand-alone long-format stories. The first batch even got published into a physical book that we sent as a gift on our anniversary.

It is how we nurtured a unique and genuine feeling of companionship: we walked through the journey together, we co-created, and we all contributed. It facilitated trust, belonging, and reciprocity, bringing new members to the community that were the right fit and delivered on our promise.

We showed that every creative has a worthy story to share that can inspire others in ways that we could not even imagine. That was the glue that kept everything together and made the journey memorable for everyone.