3 minute read

Stack Overflow started when two bloggers, Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky, noticed there was no good way to get answers to questions about programming. They put together a prototype, invited their readers to try it out and even before the public beta the site had already accumulated many high-quality answers to difficult questions. And then a miracle occurred.

There were other companies working on Q&A sites around the same time. Let’s put a sample in this handy table:

Company Distinctive Outcome
Experts Exchange Answer paywall Bankruptcy
Mahalo.com Paid answers Out of business
Yahoo! Answers Babby Shut down
Quora Facebook integration Still in business
Stack Overflow Community Sold for $1.8 billion

“Community” has become something of a buzzword in the startup world. When people think they need “community” it can become a shifty and gelatinous term. So let me be specific: Stack Overflow was largely built by and for the people who use it. Community doesn’t just mean (in this case) a bunch of people with a common interest. Instead it’s a group of people who have a sense of ownership over a common resource. Not only do they provide nearly all of the content, community input has guided the functional development of the site from the beginning.

Sorin and I named our new company Civitas, which Google Translate says is Latin for “community”. As I did some research on the name (to make sure it didn’t have a rude connotation), I realized civitas represents the type of community not dissimilar to Stack Overflow. To the ancient Romans, civitas meant citizenship and especially Roman citizenship.

There’s a story from early Christianity that illustrates the importance of civitas. Paul was about to be flogged when he asked if it was lawful to flog a Roman citizen without trial:

So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.”—Acts 22:27-28 (ESV)

With Stack Overflow, you can’t buy your way in. Nor can you receive reputation at birth. Instead members earn their place by contributing to the growing collection of knowledge. People value their membership in Stack Overflow because it requires sacrifice. That, in turn, it creates loyalty you can’t buy.

Building this sort of community comes with a cost but, done well, can produce quite satisfactory returns. While other Q&A companies struggled to source quality answers, Stack Overflow could rely on their unique community dedicated to answering coding questions to build a content library. With the effort (and money) saved, the company was able to spend a decade working on its revenue model.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Stack Overflow. Fortunately every organization can take immediate actions to cultivate exceptional communities. Every community is different, but next steps could be:

  • Giving clients a space to talk to each other.
  • Interviewing members to hear how they are doing and what you can do better.
  • Sending out a survey to your mailing list to gather broad feedback.
  • Revamping rules, terms of service and community norms.
  • Analyzing data to find barriers to entry.

So here’s the sales pitch: for a moderate one-time fee, we will create a report for your community with concrete next steps. There’s no obligation, but we can also help you execute on those steps. Or even better, we can train your community team to do the work themselves. We charge an hourly rate for additional consulting, but we believe clients will consider it a bargain when they see our results.

Sorin and I have years of experience with all sorts of communities. I’ve worked with Stack Overflow since the private beta. I also guided many Stack Exchange sites, including Puzzling, Space Exploration, Emacs and many others, to successful launches. Sorin was instrumental in growing the the Beat The GMAT Forums and managed College Confidential’s forums. We’ve been in the trenches and seen what works (and what, unfortunately) doesn’t.

If you have a community, we’re here to help. What to learn more? Email us: hello@buildcivitas.com.

Updated: