My Community Journey: From the Island to the Mainland

And where I'm going, with your help! [6-minute read]

I’d like to tell you a bit more about my experiences that led me to where I am now.

In 2005, I was living in Detroit, having just moved from Canada, and I didn't know anyone. I was a goldsmith and I helped a guy with a goatee run his jewelry studio (a very boring job) during the day, while making my own jewelry in my garage at night (with nowhere to sell it!).

One day I found a new online marketplace for makers, Etsy. I quickly opened a shop and listed a necklace for sale. I hit publish and walked away from my computer. Just a few minutes later, I got an email notification that the necklace had sold. That very first sale felt like winning the lottery.

I spent the next few months climbing the Etsy sales charts. I was making and selling so much jewelry that quit my job, and even hired my own assistant. Meanwhile all around me, I saw my fellow Detroit artists and makers (more talented than I was!) hustling hard to make a few sales at craft shows. I knew I could help them. So I reached out and offered to teach them how to “Etsy”. Together, we build a supportive community, creating our own little handmade “island” in the middle of Detroit.

Etsy’s founder (and a few of the first team members) noticed what we were doing and invited me to come to New York to bring sellers together, lead workshops, and plant seeds for community growth. So for the next few months, I'd fly in, spend my days teaching sellers, and my nights crashing on the floor of a big, cold loft in downtown Brooklyn. After a few trips, we made it official; I moved to Brooklyn and worked at Etsy, where I built and scaled community and education programs for over 5 years.

Though I’d had to leave my “handmade island” behind when I left Detroit, at Etsy I built a new island. My island-dwellers and I had a mission to change the way the world's economy worked; we knew coming together was the only way we could do this. We worked to create programs that let us collaborate and grow together through courses, groups, forums, events, mentor programs and more.

Since leaving Etsy I helped create customer-focused teams at Barkbox, Airbnb, and Lyft. My days were filled with gatherings, forum threads, blog posts, newsletters, onboarding flows, program plans, hiring, training, coaching, goal setting, OKRs, share-outs, and more. But what was becoming apparent, was that building a new island at every new company was starting to feel limiting. On each island, not only would we have to build our own communities, and all the infrastructure to support them, but we'd also have to figure out how to get users from the mainland to our island.

I began to ask myself, "What would a community builder do if they could stay on the mainland, building the community member's experience from the ground up?"

In 2020, I decided to leave the island life behind and take a stab at building on the mainland. I wanted to focused on building community-first products, not tacked on community programs.  

I was an On Deck fellow and soaked up as much info as I could on how to build a tech company from the ground up. I taught myself Figma. I spoke to over 100 people who were interested in building communities, or community-first companies. I partnered with a few people on ideas for a community platform using all the lessons I was gathering. Building these new muscles felt great, but near the end of the year, I hit a wall.

While the mission to create gathering-first communities lit me up, I was feeling drained by the way I was attacking the ‘problem’. I was working from everyone else's frameworks and models of success. I challenged myself to explore what a community builder would do if they built on the mainland, but I found myself pulling from existing playbooks.

I put everything on hold so I could be still for a few weeks and tap into my values and inner voice. And here is what I heard: I want to stay on the mainland, but I want to build like we do on the islands.

The island work isn't always about solving the most revenue-generating problem. The island work is inspired by a mission. On the island we create rituals, we test and play, we climb, we make decisions and build with our hands together. We value the artist's mind. We’re curious to see what might be possible, not always building in search of a specific desired outcome.

While I value existing frameworks and models, I’m proposing we travel into uncharted territory; I want to embark on this journey to new lands with only the faintest of maps.

I’d like to build in community, so in addition to sharing community-focused best practices and feelings, I’ll also use this newsletter to update you on where I'm going and what I’m learning. If you are interested in this idea of gathering-first communities and want to be part of my adventure, reach out!

Thank you to Day One for challenging me to write and share this story.