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Sep 27th, 2021

The Rise of the Community Leader - Meet Steph Nakano

  • The Uncommon Team

    The Uncommon Team


Community leaders have a lot in common, like their enthusiasm for teaching and learning, and a passion for building meaningful relationships within and across communities. As community leaders, their goals are similar, but their paths to community leadership are surprisingly diverse and often surprisingly ...surprising.

Our series, "The Rise of the Community Leader," celebrates these uncommon paths, the people who took them, and what they learned along the way. Want to connect with more community leaders like them? Join Uncommon.

Meet Steph Nakano, Community Manager at Coda.

How did you get your start in community?

I was a social media marketing manager and was regularly patrolling Twitter, Facebook, and whatever was cool and hip at the time. I noticed this really cool chatter about community management. At first I assumed it was like a property manager, but as more things were developing, I realized that the description of a community manager is like an evolution of a forum manager. There's a moderator/admin element, but a community manager is really somebody who specializes in fostering the growth of a community alongside keeping it tidy. It got me really interested and I decided, after five years in online marketing, I wanted to become a community manager. So I left for San Francisco and then never looked back.

Tell us about the community you currently lead.

The Coda community is a small, tight-knit, highly technical, and super eager to learn community around doc building. It’s really interesting because even though the community is less than three years old, there's already a core group we know as advocates, or community champions, forming. So it's really amazing to see such a firm group before having a formal community management plan or community manager. I’m really excited to have joined the team this year knowing there’s such a strong foundation in place. I’m excited for what’s next.

What’s a key piece of advice you wish you would have had when starting your community career?

I think one of the things that I realized transitioning from social media to community is that in social media, your impact comes from the brand.You’re a single voice representing the brand. In community, while you can be an amplifying voice, the interesting part is that your single voice, regardless of whether it's from the brand or not, isn't always the loudest in the room. And it's a really interesting dynamic to see there's always equalizers in a community. There's always more people who may have more influence than you. And some of those influencers hold some very important values that contribute to your brand from an external standpoint. So I wish I had that advice when I first started, which is to know that it's not one directional, it's very much bi-directional.

Are there key transferable skills from social media marketing that you’d call out for others thinking of making a similar move into community management?

Yeah, absolutely. It's the ability to deal with negative or critical feedback in a very public fashion. It’s a very powerful skill when you move from a very public facing role in social to a community that is public in any sense. You realize that dealing with critical or negative feedback is a very essential skill because you know that while you are answering to maybe one or a few people, there's probably 10x more people who are also reading it, not responding, or not participating in the conversation.

What approach do you take when you do have to deal with negative/critical feedback?

Definitely a human centered approach. While there might be emotions behind what someone has written, we have to look at it from a very human and very empathetic approach and say, "Why is this person frustrated? What is causing them to feel this way?" If we can just understand from that person's perspective, we can observe things in a much more balanced way. If the people sharing negative or critical feedback are a part of your community, are trusted, and have been contributing to your brand's voice, there's likely a deeper reason than them just wanting to benefit for their own good.

Investment in community is growing. Where do you see it in 5-10 years?

Ten years ago, or even 15 years ago, people thought being a social media manager was a fun job. But it wasn’t quite essential yet. It was not core to the business. It seemed too subjective to be a priority for many businesses. If we replaced social media with community management in all of that, doesn’t it sound the same for us now?

I think 10 years from now, community will have more depth as an organization. Right now, being a generalist in the community space, being a community manager, is pretty much the choose-your-own journey/choose-your-own-path scenario. But as time goes on, companies will be saying, “Well, I definitely want to invest in community". There are thousands of registered users in the community, and we need to be a part of the conversation and build relationships with them. And so I think that will lead to a lot more subsets of community than just a community manager. There will be roles that carry out content building, engagement, programming, and such. There will be a wing of it where it's operations and decision-making. And there will be a lot more heavy leaning on the data side, maybe analytics and maybe technical tooling.

What's your favorite part about working in community?

Helping people. Helping as many people as possible. I think that's the best part of being in the community space - you get to see the impact of your work, reach people who either have never used your platform or are just getting started. You get to help them feel comfortable knowing there’s tooling and a community around it with answers they can rely upon.

I think that transparent support is going to become a much more sustainable and scalable business model. I think, if you want to be bold and say that the longer term of how support is handled is definitely going to be impacted by the way communities grow. Support is unsustainable in many, many different business models. You can't have one customer agent per every 2,000 tickets - that's not possible. But can you have a singular community where the thread is serving 2,000 users at the same time?

What are the biggest challenges of working in the community space?

Feeling like companies who say they're invested in community don't actually understand the best place for the team and as a result, don’t set them up for success. It’s something that is a big challenge in our space that we've not effectively addressed yet. I understand some companies might not want to have community as a separate org just yet, or think it fits best in marketing or support. But I think community does better in a product-focused org because we talk about the product in an open forum with our users. We need to ask ourselves - are we focused on the service or the product, or are we focused on marketing?

From a community member perspective, if I'm joining a community and it seems like it's way too strong in marketing, I'm going to feel very put off. But, if I joined a community where discussion is very focused on the product, the product team is listening, and I know they're going to address problems or present solutions that I want and need, I'm more likely to come back. For a lot of people, while that's already off putting as a new or free user, how does it feel to become a paying client and then still feel like you're being marketed towards? It's not a good feeling.

What's the coolest thing you've seen community achieve?

Definitely stories like Erica Kuhl's, former VP of Salesforce for Community. In one of her conferences, she said, "I built a community out of duct tape and paper." And at that time, Salesforce was wondering things like: "Why are we throwing money at this? What does this even mean? Why do we care about this?" There were a lot of things she was working uphill against and she had very little to no resources. Now, the entire Trailblazer community is synonymous with being an expert in using Salesforce, promoting Salesforce, and/or being a developer in that space. And I think Salesforce is saving millions in support costs now as a result. Those are the types of stories that you want to hear. While community efforts can be difficult to measure, especially in the beginning, that doesn’t mean it can’t become a differentiator for the business over time or provide long-term impact on business metrics.

We’re all about celebrating our community members and their accomplishments. Is there anyone in the community you’d like to appreciate?

Tiffany Oda. She is Director of Community Operations at Venafi. She’s a thought leader and has been a really big supporter of community and the role community operations plays in it. I think there is a lot of space for up and coming stars like her to really pave the way for community operations, which is something that I actually started doing about five years ago but didn't know what it was called. I’ve become really close to her, and as we started talking about it more and more, I was like, “Is this community ops?”, and she said yes. She’s helping put a name to a lot of the things we’re already doing, but don’t always get credit for.

It’s been so nice to see that my gamble to go to San Francisco paid off. It’s exciting to work in this up and coming space that is really thriving, growing, and coming into its own. And people like TIffany are helping make that happen. I think community operations is going to be the next big area of community management that will grow in the next 5-10 years.

What's different in community today from just a year or two ago?

I think the importance of seeing the impact of community and how to measure it. Community has become very essential to a lot of functional teams in certain companies. I do feel like we still need tools that help us measure the work that we do and provide data we want to show off to the stakeholders who while really invested in the idea of community, still want to see results. It’s been a pain point over the last three to five years. But I've seen the most amount of change in the last one to two years.

How do you see your role as a community leader evolving?

I'm definitely heading towards an approach of streamlining. I really want to scale down, refocus, and push a much more community-centric approach for go-to-market. Let’s refocus and reinvest in the community. Let’s be leaders in the organization and allow other teams to see that success and be interested in working with us more closely. I want to grow community to be an indispensable piece of the company, and the first responders. We’re creating a hub for all Coda users to come to and know that Coda listens to them and is building alongside them.

Given our engagement with the community, we should be seen as a very reputable source of truth and a source the rest of the company relies on. Once product starts listening to you, once sales starts listening to you, there's much more importance placed on community growth, head count, investment of resources, time, etc. If I’m successful, stakeholder buy-in will be a lot easier. RIght now it becomes very challenging when people question whether or not community managers can have an impact. I know they can and they do. Once they begin seeing that, you can say, "Well, I would love to run that program, but I don't have enough people," and have those same stakeholders say, "Well, we should change that."

And now some fun questions we ask our Roomies when they join the team 🙂

Favorite emoji?

😂 It's like half sob and half laughter. I think it describes so many things. If there’s something super painful, you're down to just cry it out. But then it's also super funny, so you definitely have to laugh it off, too.

Favorite good TV Show?

Game of Thrones.

Favorite bad TV Show?


What's your inner animal?

I always told myself that when I was younger, I'd love to come back as a penguin. I think that penguins are so majestic and magnificent. They cliff dive, go fishing and swimming, and hang out at the beach all day. And they have cute little babies and lifelong partners. That sounds like an amazing life to me.

Favorite food truck?

Oh, super funny story. When I was six/seven months pregnant with my first son, I was actually on the Food Network for a feature on Koja Kitchen, a food truck the best man in our wedding started. And for the 10 to 15 seconds that I’m on, I had my mouth open the whole time, because all they were doing was just filming me eat!

Next travel bucket list items to check off?

I have a trip planned for Asia next year. It will be my third time in Asia, so I definitely want to explore a little bit further, maybe South Korea and my parents' home country of Vietnam.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Steph! We admire your boldness and your decision to move to San Francisco. The community of community managers is better with you in it 🙂

We're continually looking to highlight community leaders, voices, and stories—if there's someone you'd like to nominate to share theirs, let us know. See you in Uncommon!