Building community from scratch in web3
Lessons learned from how Figma, the $10B+ design SaaS tool, built their community from the ground up and applying that for web3.
As a $10B+ company (as of this writing), Figma is a successful software company. Their impact goes beyond a number. Their brand is now synonymous to software designers. Ask any software designer, from small startup to tech giants, and most would agree it’s their go-to for collaborative design tools. How did they do this? Community-led growth.
Straight from their senior director of marketing: community is what enabled Figma to enter a crowded category and start making waves right away.
Figma is a community building success story. It’s especially impressive considering the tough and critical group they targeted—designers. This crowd doesn’t respond to traditional software marketing techniques nor incentives. You can’t buy them. You need to show up and win them over.
🧐 I want to explore how Figma did it with the hope of finding insights we can apply to sustainable community-building in web3. Not the mercenary communities that aim to just extract incentives and financial upside.
How Figma harnessed community to recruit an army of fans that sold the software to companies
Before diving in, here are highlights on Figma’s road to go-to-market success:
The product was in stealth and kept building with community for ~2 years. They were obsessed with getting feedback from the community first.
They only introduced paid plans 2 years after they launched. The priority was to build a product designers are excited to use everyday.
They only hired a sales team 4 years after their launch. But it’s important to point out that Sales wasn’t trying to sell to designers. Instead, Sales helped designers that were already bought in to unblock the product from corporate red tape—procurement processes, legal stuff, compliance stuff.
So yeah, talk about community-led and bottoms-up growth. To appreciate this process, it’s helpful to understand some realities of targeting designers. Along the way I’ll point out parallels to web3 communities, especially developers.
The reality is, you can’t buy (designer) communities!
Who better to share insights than the senior director for marketing of Figma herself, Claire Butler. Here are highlights from a podcast episode on Figma’s community-led approach as well as select insights from CCO Amanda Kleha.
Start with a database of influencers. Google-ing ‘top software designers’ won’t get you there. There wasn’t a PR agency you can hire to reach designers. Figma started with a small group and got referrals from there.
Authenticity is important… designers tend to hate traditional SaaS marketing. Figma’s developer advocate was openly critical of the software’s shortcomings which built an open and trusted space for community engagement. The role evolved to do many things: (1) curate feedback and influence Figma’s roadmap, (2) create best practice guides for community, (3) build relationships within the community, and (4) help sales on how to pitch Figma.
Designers care about the small updates. Things like reducing the number of clicks to do a task. Those were treated as feature launches!
Designers respect other designers, not brands. Figma team members (the CEO, product managers, support team, etc) individually interact with the community in Design Twitter. Community members “feel like they are talking directly to employees, not just a brand,” says CCO Amanda Kleha.
Community members advocate to other designers because Figma explains detailed design and product decisions through content. There’s a full blog on just Figma’s implementation of Dark Mode! (2,000+ likes on Twitter 🤯)
Notice that none of Figma’s recipe for community-led growth had anything to do with incentives or financial upside.
Real community starts with un-scalable acts. You need to show up.
Aiming for scale and big growth numbers is often the easy way out. Get a big following or huge signups top of funnel and we all feel good. But to solve a big problem, like convincing teams of designers to radically change their behavior and try an online design tool—the first of its kind—you need to be contrarian and do things that don’t scale.
Here are some of the Figma’s un-scalable activities that unlocked community:
Inviting designers for 🍕pizza to geek out about design and Figma
Their board pushing on getting one team to use Figma full-time — which meant a lot of 1:1 customer engagement
Content strategy with technical topics e.g. ‘Grid Systems for Screen Design.’
Full-time designer advocate roles working to convert negative detractors 1:1
Their CEO goes on world-wide roadshows to meet Figma users face-to-face organized by local advocates
When features launch, Figma closes the loop with users that first requested and gave feedback on the feature (this makes them feel heard)
“Building relationships with these evangelists will lay the groundwork for a vibrant community later on, when you can then layer in a more robust strategy. In the beginning, don’t be afraid of the things that don’t scale,” Butler says.
“You’re winning hearts, not solving for scale yet,” Kleha says.
For web3, build communities by showing up and treating people like true owners
Keeping in mind Figma’s playbook for community, it’s important to first decide if you want to be contrarian and focus on organic growth or you want to go after big numbers—100,000 Discord members or 100 true advocates? The insight below is only applicable if you choose the latter.
Start with just three key steps:
Founders and core contributors need to show up and build in the trenches. Figma’s CEO goes on roadshows to directly talk to users. Their developer advocates nurture the product’s staunchest critics one-on-one while employees talk to users directly in Design Twitter. Successful web3 founders have done the same. Here are some examples:
Kieran (Illuvium) was a mainstay in Discord, spending an hour a day chatting
SBF (FTX), the CEO, was answering support questions in Telegram
Solana’s Anatoly along with other core contributors build in public through Solana’s Discord server
Find your circle of advocates. Through events, social media interaction, and constant engagement, keep a look out for your most active supporters and critics. It starts with a few 1:1 relationships and then expand the circle from there. Some examples in crypto are:
The Chainlink God is at the extreme end of the spectrum. Known for being the figure head of the very engaged fan group, Chainlink Marines.
Swagtimus consistently creates roundups for the StarkNet community, so he’s often linked and referenced by the team. They even have a dedicated section in the StarkNet community page.
At Immutable, we’ve even hired our active contributors. We noticed them early helping out other community members in our Discord!
Give access to your active contributors and close the loop. Engaged community members want to… engage! Give them space to share valuable feedback at share access to product teams. You don’t need to agree to all their request, but they want to feel heard. For example, our Head of Tokens at Immutable along with our Tokens team consistently and patiently answered questions from the community every week directly on Discord. This gave the community, especially the most vocal group of members, a lot of confidence.
Use orbital layers as a mental model
Focus on the core—founders and core contributors as the center of gravity. Everything flows from them first. They need to show up and lead the charge. From there, start small with initial advocates and then work your way out to a broader base.
This piece was highly inspired by an article and podcast from First Round: “The 5 Phases of Figma’s Community-Led Growth: From Stealth to Enterprise”
M2W3 - Mental Models for Web3! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
+ Follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nigelwtlee/
+ Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/nigelwtlee