On Building Communities that Ship
Actionable insights to help communities unlock their maximum potential
During the last bull cycle, DAOs were primarily valued on the basis of “vibes”. This is an excellent bull market strategy when everyone, like Drake, is here for a good time, not a long time.
But in a bear market, where treasuries are down 80%, you want to attract/retain those Members who are here for a long time, not just a good time. And the best way to attract those people is to maintain an exclusive focus on shipping things out the door. Nothing motivates the community like seeing tangible things out on mainnet or IRL.
The rest of this essay covers how we at Superteam are trying to build a productive community.
Here’s the bad news: we have not solved the problem fully, and there are no silver bullets in this essay.
Here’s the good news: we’ve made plenty of mistakes (and have watched other communities make even more), so there should be a bunch of helpful lessons to learn from.
In particular, I’ll explain how we think about sizing our community, creating selection filters and talent magnets, impermanent loss, and the social technology of DAOs.
Optimise for depth of engagement over breadth.
Selection filters are essential, find the ones that suit your mission best.
It is important that seasoned Members help newer ones find their feet in the community.
Optimise for async work. Returning or re-activated Members should be able to hit the ground running
As the core team, build a nurturing environment that allows your Members to achieve their maximum potential.
Small DAOs are Often the Most Productive
Some DAOs are at their best when they are massive, open, and permissionless. In theory, this leads to more innovation, evangelism, and inclusivity. Ephemeral DAOs like ConstitutionDAO are a great example of this. Creator DAOs are often open by default as a financial strategy. And many mature protocol DAOs, like Aave, fit this bill as well.
But DAO builders make a critical mistake if they believe that all DAOs ought to be like this. Being fully open is a great way to get a lot of folks engaged at a surface level with your mission. But doing so suffers from one critical drawback for most DAOs - noise.
DAOs are naturally chaotic. The flexible working models, the 24/7 culture of crypto, and the sheer novelty of the space are all contributing factors. The goal of any good DAO ought to be to take that noise and turn it into music.
Unfortunately, every marginal Member added to your community adds to the amount of noise. More messages in Discord, more ideas being sent around, and more argumentation back and forth on every little thing. This noise is difficult to manage for DAO builders operationally, but the more critical issue lies in what noise does to other Members.
Noise = Member disengagement.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that every person that joins your DAO is fully aligned with the mission, comes with the best intentions, and has the capability to contribute effectively. Even in this dream scenario, having more Members can still lead to problems. More Members means more conversations in your Discord for people to follow, more documentation that needs to be created, and more friction for new joiners to understand the context of the community.
The scarce asset in DAOs is not ideas, it is production. And having too many chefs in the kitchen can reduce the amount of production.
Given that every person who joins your DAO isn’t going to be the ideal contributor, the problems gets even worse. The end result is obvious: good Members will leave, rather than dealing with the friction of trying to add value. Accordingly, “Number of Members in Discord” is a vanity metric. More accounts logging into your Discord isn’t necessarily a good thing, and oftentimes can be explicitly counter productive.
Optimise for depth of attachment, not for breadth of people engaged. This is particularly important in the early stage of the DAO’s lifespan (e.g. the first 12 months).
At Superteam, we purposefully keep our Membership limited to ~150 people at any given time. This is a reflection of Dunbar’s Number, and ensures that everyone in the community has a chance to understand and know the other Members of the community. This has been, by far, one of the best decisions we’ve made.
But this raises the obvious question: if you have only a few spots to give to Members, how do you decide who gets in? And more importantly, how do you ensure that those who do get in are the right people to have in your community?
Selection Filters are Good and Natural
One mistake we made early on at Superteam was having inconsistent Membership criteria. We didn’t know what exactly we were looking for, so we relied on the abstract concept of “proof of work”. Basically: if you made something cool that other Members liked, you’d get in.
This helped us discover tremendous talent in surprising ways. But using ad hoc admission criteria also led to high churn and bad cultural fits. We created an uneven pool of people without the right mixture of skills, interests, and aptitude to create something great as a community. Fortunately, the best quality Members from those early days are the ones who stuck around.
Things changed once we started to create “Talent Magnets” that attracted the right people into the fold. The key is to identify what “right” means for your community. For Superteam, “right” = able to contribute to Solana projects from Day 1.
We started with a simple “Ideas for Lurkers” page on our Notion with suggestions for people who wanted to join. The completed tasks would evidence the ability of the Lurker to contribute to other Solana projects. While this was an improvement over not having any process, it still wasn’t ideal. Since the “Ideas for Lurkers” were quite simple, we would get barraged by applications with low-quality effort. This led to additional operational overhead for the core team.
We then decided to focus on bringing on non-technical talent into the Solana ecosystem in a structured manner. To do so, we created new Talent Magnets around open competitions. Our Bounty program - now one of the largest in the Solana ecosystem - required talented individuals to complete a task (e.g. write an essay, design an NFT, etc) on a deadline against other talented people. Using an internal committee called the Brain Trust, our community Members would evaluate the best bounty submissions and reward winners with Member status in our DAO.
However, this was only half the solution. We weren’t able to secure many developer bounties, and we knew we needed devs to complete our mission. We expanded admission to those who won an Instagrant, either through our friends at Solrazr or through the Solana Foundation. Those who had a compelling idea, presented it persuasively, and showed the potential to execute it, were allowed in.
We’re still evolving our Talent Magnets. More recently, we’ve identified that we need more devs with deep Solana expertise. As a consequence, we’ve launched two new Magnets. First, anyone with a consistent track record of open-source contributions in the Solana ecosystem can gain Membership. This filters for devs who believe in the overall mission of Solana. Second, we are piloting a program to reward the most active devs on Solana’s Stack Exchange with contributor status. This filters for devs who are not just talented, but also have evidenced willingness to help the community of Solana devs.
Critically, at no point did we use “token holdings” as a Talent Magnet. Anyone can buy tokens - if that’s the only hurdle required to join your community, you are likely to face a flood of poorly aligned but moderately wealthy community Members. This is not ideal for long term success, as many DAOs are now finding.
Figure out what kind of people you want in the DAO early on, then create Talent Magnets that attract and filter out those who best fit your community’s mission.
Contributing to a DAO Isn’t for Everyone
Unfortunately, even with the right Talent Magnets in place, you will still find it difficult to get the community to ship things of value.
Early on as we were building Superteam, I would have some version of this conversation with a DAO Member nearly every week:
DAO Member: “Hey Kash, I have a great idea on how we can improve the community!”
Kash: “Awesome, if you think it should exist then you should go build it! You don’t need my or anyone else’s permission to get started”
DAO Member: “Oh well, I don’t really know if I can do it myself.”
Kash: “Luckily, we have an entire community of people who are ready to help and follow your lead. Let me make some intros.”
DAO Member: *smiles stiffly* “OK, yeah, I’ll think about it and get back to you”
And then 90% of the time, nothing happened.
Initially, I was worried that this was a Superteam specific problem, but after talking with other DAO folks I’ve come to realise that this is just the reality for many communities out there.
Contributing to DAOs is difficult, and not everyone is meant to be a contributor. This is fine, and we as an ecosystem have to make this more apparent to newbies. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this problem and help those with more energy than understanding become productive.
As a DAO builder, your job is to help educate those that have the interest in contributing on how to best do so. The most effective way is the most time-intensive: get on synchronous calls with people and walk them through it. This has the added bonus of strengthening the social bonds that form the basis of a productive DAO. Over time, you can create templates, guides, and even course content that trains people on how to work most effectively within your DAO. Cabin, for example, does a great job of this.
As a DAO Member, you can help by facilitating the connections newbies need to contribute effectively.
Your goal is to route traffic effectively. You need to become deeply ingrained in the community to know who is good at what, who is available, and who might be able to work well together. You’ll never be able to get 100% of your Members to be active contributors. But the closer you can get to 100%, the more productive your DAO will be.
DAOs Suffer from Impermanent Loss
The beauty of DAOs: flexible work arrangements.
The difficult reality of DAOs: people use their flexibility. Some Members are here today, gone tomorrow, then back next month.
This is to be expected - Members have their own personal lives, day jobs, and daily responsibilities to attend to. In a traditional company structure, you can be fairly sure your coworker will return on Monday. In a DAO, you have no corresponding guarantees. Not surprisingly, this can wreak havoc on your DAO’s ability to produce.
Sometimes Members churn permanently. But more often, DAOs suffer “impermanent loss”. Members have a busy month at work, or find a new project that excites them more, or otherwise have to temporarily disengage due to personal circumstances. They’re gone, but only for a brief and undefined period of time.
The problem revolves around getting those Members back up to speed once they return. How do you quickly give the re-activated Members the context and connections they need to begin contributing again?
This is an area where Superteam has a lot of room to improve (if you’re a Member/ Contributor reading this, apply for a grant & please fix it!).
Some potential areas for exploration:
Regularly updated board of current projects and working groups with associated team-members. Note that the “regularly updated” is the hard bit to get right.
Well curated Discord digests that summarise the activity recently.
Weekly/Biweekly/Monthly newsletters for Members specifically.
Cultural norms around documentation and transparency in meeting notes, recaps, etc.
This is one of the rare areas where DAO Tooling could actually provide a lot of value. If flexible work is the future of work - and it likely is - we need to create new tools that provide the foundation for valuable flexible work to take place.
DAOs are a Social Technology
Most of the popular conception about DAOs focuses on the incorrect part of what makes DAOs interesting.
The most interesting thing about companies is not how they hold their money. Similarly, the fact that DAOs are “on the blockchain” is not really the most interesting thing about them. The literal technology of DAOs - based on smart contracts, governance, etc - is not nearly as important as the social technology that powers a good DAO.
In the same way that normal technology is a way of arranging physical atoms or bits to create something new, a social technology is a way of arranging people and how they interact to create something new.
Examples of social technologies include agile and design thinking. Both modes of working enable people to coordinate and collaborate more effectively, relying heavily on a few key principles and a menu of processes/rituals that keep people aligned.
Thinking about DAOs as a primarily social technology would benefit a lot of would-be-DAO founders, as well as DAO members. Once you do, you end up focusing on the thing that actually matters most: getting Members of your DAO to create value.
So what are the key principles and processes that define a DAO as a social technology?
Unfortunately, that playbook is still being written. Below are a few ideas to get DAO operators thinking, but this is far from a complete list:
Liquid Teams: Members should be able to come and go as they like, working with people they like, on projects that are time-bound.
Community Ownership: The people who create the value should own the upside of their labour.
Permissionless Work: Once you’re a Member of a DAO, you ought to be able to work on what you think should be done without lengthy and soul-crushing approval processes. Where possible, work ought to be atomised into its constituent parts and made accessible to other community Members in the form of bounties.
Transparency: Make decision making transparent through public communications and governance (where appropriate).
Wikis: Shared documentation that is visible to DAO Members. Provides the backbone for the async communication essential to most DAOs.
Community Calls: weekly or biweekly synchronous events for the community to update itself
Working Groups/Guilds: 2-8 person teams, working on a single project or area of responsibility with in-built accountability measures. Check out Metropolis for more great writing on the subject.
Governance: Shared decision making processes. The debate on the value of governance is beyond the scope of this essay, but anyone looking for a general framework to approach governance should read The Stupid Simple Governance Framework by Andrew Beal
Seasons: Organising strategies proposed by Core Team members with input from general community Members that give guidance to the entire community on what to focus on for a predefined amount of time.
Focusing on the “social technology” can aid your DAO’s productivity in ways that no amount of hard technology can. This is one of the fundamental reasons why “DAO Tooling” has become a meme - the tooling only works if the rest of the principles and processes are in place.
Build The Best Oyster You Can
DAOs are like oysters.
Oysters create pearls when a bit of sand gets trapped in an oyster’s mouth. Slowly, over the course of months and years, layers of the pearl are added around the initial bit of sand until something beautiful is produced.
In this metaphor, the initial bit of sand is the core team of the DAO, and the pearl is the realisation of the community’s mission. The oyster itself is the “DAO” - an external structure that creates the environment in which a pearl can be created.
I like this metaphor for the way it clarifies what DAO builders should focus on (building a better environment for value creation) and what DAO Members should focus on (creating the actual pearl). Both the builders and the Members are important, but ultimately it’s the Members that truly matter most.
Hopefully, after reading this essay, you have a sense of how you can build a better oyster. By focusing on production over vibes, by optimising for depth of engagement rather than breadth, and by creating cultural norms, your DAO might just develop the playbook for successful DAOs in the future.
Thanks to Sanah Dhanda, Neil Shroff, Aditya Shetty, and Akshay BD for providing edits and ideas for this piece.
Photo Credits: Peter Herrmann on Unsplash
PS - I’m thinking about writing more in the future. If you’re interested in any of the following topics, DM me on Twitter and let me know what you’d like to me write about next:
An update on our Reputation System
The Governance Meme in DAOs