Thoughts from the CEO | The ‘How’ Not the ‘What’: People Matter Most

  • Linda Lian

    March 31st, 2021

Photograph of Common Room CEO, Linda Lian

Today, after over a year in stealth, I get to announce Common Room, the community journey platform. We’re also announcing the funding we’ve raised to date (nearly $53M) from Greylock, Index, Madrona Venture Group, Next Play Ventures, 01 Advisors and over 40 incredible and diverse angels. While this is an exciting milestone, I also see this as the beginning. So let’s begin.

One of my earliest memories is of leaving my grandparents in Chengdu, China. I was put on a plane at 5 years old with family friend chaperones, virtual strangers. It was a terrifying reunification with my parents, who had immigrated to America. I clutched outdated photographs to make sure I went home with the right people. Because of the practicalities of our circumstances as immigrants, the how of getting to the U.S. was sacrificed to the what. I got to America. That’s what mattered. Caring about the ‘how’ often felt like a big luxury.

Like immigrants, technology builders similarly need to be scrappy, triumphing over resource constraints to achieve huge goals. As a result, we’ve often seen them prioritize the ‘what’ at expense of the ‘how.’ But if there’s any super-lesson we’ve learned in the past few decades of the internet, it’s that the ‘how’ matters – it matters how we grow our companies, how we treat our employees and our customers, how we’re accountable for unintended consequences or abuse on the platforms we build. How we treat each other. Technology now has a deeper impact on everyone’s day-to-day life, and as technology builders, we have a responsibility to bring more stakeholders into the fold.

This inclusive and collaborative way of building is people-centric, and it’s a new luxury. 20 years ago, software was expensive to build, expensive to buy, expensive to implement. Digital literacy among the workforce was lower than it is today. As a result, you had a central decision-maker who needed to make a big, often multi-year investment on using a piece of software. Information wasn’t transparent and so pricing didn’t have to be either, and reputation or word of mouth happened slowly. As a result, software companies needed forces of outbound sellers whose job was to push product into accounts instead of advising. Account managers made sure the decision-maker got a steak dinner every quarter. Little attention was paid to the practitioners – the people who used the software daily. Product and marketing teams had limited access to customers. Meetings had to be mediated through the sales team because the relationship was scarce and precious. Practitioners were often unhappy. They felt disconnected from the products and the companies that built them. They didn’t have brand loyalty because they didn’t have influence on the product or a sense of community. They were often unsuccessful in their goals with the product. They churned.

Times have changed. For the new generation, digital literacy comes nearly before real literacy. We learn about software from our friends and on the internet, and from our friends on the internet. The pace of doing business has accelerated, and so the pace of software innovation must keep up. It's clear that the people-first ethos, which my co-founder Francis has always put at the forefront in his time leading design at Facebook, has come to the enterprise: the proven model of prosumer which my co-founders Viraj and Tom helped build at Dropbox, the success of open source companies which start with code that is universally accessible and community-owned then offering value on top of it, freemium and transparent pricing, and the rise of the practitioner having decision-making power at work on what they and their teams want to use every day.

The innovative software companies of today share a commonality. They are people-obsessed. They celebrate and listen to their product champions. They enable and nurture communities of knowledge share. They promote best practices and new ways of doing things, and secondarily, their software. They open source and share code and roadmaps to build against a shared vision with their practitioners. They provide a brand and a platform of opportunity for their community at all skill levels across the globe to become trained and carry their expertise from job to job. These companies have extreme velocity of innovation – and that velocity is driven as much by the communities they partner with as by the visions “inside the building” of the company.

We are privileged that many of these organizations we so admire are our early partners and beta customers – Confluent, Gremlin, Notion, Figma, Roam Research, Starburst, Coda, Contra, Imply, Pulumi, OpenAI, and Clubhouse (the project management platform for teams – not the social media app). They represent the future of valuing people over accounts, education over “marketing” and enablement of success over one-size-fits all “sales.” Isn’t it about time?

People often ask me “who is Common Room for?” We’re certainly for community teams today – the oft-unsung heroes who care as much about the ‘how’ as the ‘what,’ and are usually the first living, breathing human a practitioner engages with at the enterprise. Today, for these community teams, our beta product offers an immediate and organized window into the who, what, where, why, and how of their communities – across Slack, Discord, GitHub, events, private messaging channels, social channels and more. We illuminate what was once a blind spot and also give community leaders improved workflows to be proactive instead of reactive in nurturing their unique and special communities.

Over time, we’ll also be for the product teams, the support teams, the marketing teams, and customer teams who want to stretch their hand out across the organizational boundary of their companies to engage with the people who use their products day in and day out.

Common Room’s mission is to enable communication and collaboration between companies and their customer communities in building a shared vision together. How can we enable companies to provide a more authentic and personal customer experience? To innovate more transparently, more quickly, more collaboratively, and to enable their practitioners – their community – to feel heard, connected, and supported? How can we help companies get the ‘how’ right, as much as the ‘what’?

These are questions that we’re interested in solving at Common Room. We’re starting with listening to, learning from, and helping companies that are pioneering investment in their community, partnering closely to build an early product that provides real value. If you’re interested in trying us out, please join our waitlist and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. To share and receive best practices and get to know other leaders in the emerging and evolving community and product-led-growth space, join our community which we call Uncommon. If the questions we ask sound like the questions you want to help answer, we’re hiring and we’d love to meet you.


Linda originally published her thoughts in this post on LinkedIn.

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