Get Together

“When you growth hack with incentives, you erode authenticity” 🗯 Laura Nestler, Duolingo & Yelp

Episode Summary

An interview hosted by Bailey and Kevin with Laura Nestler, builder of the early Yelp community and current VP of Community at Duolingo. We talked with Laura about why she’s stuck with community work for 15 years, the community playbook she developed and implemented around the world while at Yelp, and ruthlessly testing shared activities on all variables--location, timing, size, and qualifications for the leader.

Episode Notes

“Community is not transactional by nature. Humans seek to connect on a deeper level. They're looking for validation or for support or for something bigger than themselves.

Now that community is such a buzzword. Everyone wants it and they want it quickly. We have more levers than ever, and they work. But when you growth hack with incentives, what you gain in volume, you erode in authenticity.” - Laura Nestler

In 2007, Laura Nestler responded to a Craigslist ad that “was either as sketchy as it sounded or her dream job.” Fortunately, it was her dream job with a little startup called Yelp. 

She started as the community manager in Portland, Oregon, and would go on to spend a decade with the company refining their community playbook and living in cities all around the world, launching Yelp communities in new markets. 

Now Laura is the Global Head of Community at Duolingo, a platform that hundreds of millions of people around the world turn to to learn a language. Before COVID, Duolingo users were hosting thousands of in-person language circles around the world each month. Laura shared how she did over forty iterative tests before Duolingo landing on this shared activity.

Highlights, inspiration, & key learnings:

👋🏻Say hi to Laura on twitter @LauraNestler.

📄See the full transcript.

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Episode Transcription

Note: This transcript is automatically generated, and there may be some errors.


Speaker 1: Community is not transactional by nature. Humans seek to connect on a deeper level. They're looking for validation or for support or for something bigger than themselves. And now that community is such a buzzword. Everyone wants it and they want it quickly. And we have more leverage than ever, and they work. They do work. But when you growth hack with incentives, what you gain in volume, you erode in authenticity.


Speaker 2: Welcome to the get together. It's our show about ordinary people.


Speaker 1: Well building extraordinary communities. I'm your host, Bailey Richardson. What's up Bailey. I'm a partner at people and company and co author of get together. How to build a community with your people. What's up.


Speaker 3: I'm Kevin Quinn. I'm Bailey's cohost for today. And also her partner at people in company, our strategy company, where we help organizations start and sustain meaningful communities.


Speaker 1: That's right, baby. And each episode of this podcast, we interview everyday people who have built extraordinary communities about just how they did it. How did they get the first people to show up? How did they grow to hundreds, thousands, more members. And today we are talking to Laura Nestler, the person who is working in community and tech land that I respect the most on planet earth. Yes. I said it. I know. I mean it wholeheartedly. Laura has had community in her title since 2007 that's before the iPhone came out. She was one of the very early employees at gelt where she was hired as Portland Oregon's first community manager. The focus at Yelp in those early days was on meeting and serving Yelp's most passionate, intrinsically motivated, local users, Laura refined the Yelp community playbook and ended up living in cities around the world, repeating what she done in new markets.


Speaker 1: In our interview, we're going to ask Laura about those early days at Yale. And we will also dig into her work. Now as the global head of community at Duolingo, a platform that hundreds of millions of people around the world turn to, to learn a language for free the Duolingo community. Doesn't just receive an education on the platform. Many of them give back helping create language courses, and even meeting up in person to practice speaking together before COVID thousands of these language learning groups we're getting together in person each month, they're still doing it now, which we'll speak about to figure out how they navigated that time. Kevin, you and I have been big Laura Nessler fans for a long time. And I'm curious what stood out to you most about our conversation with her today?


Speaker 3: Underscored a key lesson for me about how to test community activities. When we take on a people and company, client, and coach them through the process of starting a new community, we remind them that there's no such thing as a perfect plan, you know, to make smart bets, to build a community, requires your team to be iterative. If you want to start a series of virtual events, you probably test and learn and iterate before just jumping on and believing, you know, the format ahead of time. So Laura talks about testing Duolingo language circle, these formats, where people get together as a shared activity and practice the language she tested over 40 times before rolling it out and scaling up 40 times 40. It was four zero. It was the first to validate that there's energy for this at all, to learn a language with each other in person, and then to understand how to best tweak all the variables, right? Like location and timing and size. And we know do you want a more experienced leader or less experienced leader? And she tested ruthlessly as lean and low tech as possible to learn the most. To me, that's such a strategic and efficient way to figure out how to most effectively bring people together


Speaker 4: And admirable. She went out there and just put in the hours to answer this urgent question. Instead of sitting in a boardroom or hypothesizing, she got out there and met people and tested. So totally an inspiration to see her still doing that level of testing. So deep into her career, smart cookie. All right, let's get into it. Lauren Nestler. Welcome to our podcast. We have been big fans of yours for so long. So Kevin and I are so excited to get to pick your brain today. You've been working in community for 15 years. Plus what keeps you coming back to this kind of work? I imagine based on the early career you had, you could have gone off and done all sorts of things. So what keeps you working in community? Well, thank you guys for having me. The feelings are mutual. I am passionate about people.


Speaker 4: I always have been it's family lore now, but when I was six or seven, I asked for a globe and a subscription to national geographic magazine. And I think that the way others take pleasure in puzzles or intricate adult coloring books, both of which really drive me crazy. Sorry, guys, I just turned off all of your adult coloring fans, but I get that challenge. What I assume you get from coloring that satisfaction from meeting and learning and unlocking secrets about different people. Like what motivates these people that I really disagree with or how are we approaching the same task from really different angles? The way I think about it as even people with seemingly similar interests, like people who love to play a sport like soccer, right? Someone on that team wants to be a goalkeeper. And someone on that team wants to score the goals.


Speaker 4: And someone on that team is just like a masochist that runs up and down the field, supporting everybody else and not getting any glory that's Kevin on our team, but continue, thanks, Kevin. Like everybody's just as obsessed with soccer, right? They just have a different way of manifesting that obsession. And you could extend this, anything I E Kevin on this podcast or musicians in an orchestra or employees in a company or outdoor enthusiasts, you can unlock these unique nuanced motivations and traits that make people so complex and intricate and interesting. And this is all a long way of saying, this is what community is at its core it's people, right? And my little seven year old self that was so obsessed, just it continued. And I thought, what kind of job can I get that supports this lifestyle through my work in community, I was able to gosh, live abroad for the better part of a decade. And I traveled and built community in over 120 or so cities and everywhere I went, I was constantly meeting people. And my hack here was that after I met someone I really liked, I would ask them, can you introduce me to two or three more people that I should not leave the city without meeting. So it really just fulfilled this craving that I've always had to connect and unlock who people are at their core.


Speaker 1: So take me back to 15 years ago, ish, maybe the first experience you had working in a role that had community in the description of what you needed to do, what was that role and how did you end up there?


Speaker 4: It's probably a good case for any community professional. When you look back at your work history, you're like that it didn't have community in the title, but I was pretty much doing it. Anyway. My first role with community in the job title was Yelp back in 2007. This is a funny story. Actually, I was living in Portland at the time and a friend sent me this Craigslist post. And you have to remember, first of all, Craigslist is what it is pretty much the exact same, but no one knew what Yelp was. Smartphones didn't exist in my job. I would spend a significant amount of time picking my MySpace song, changing the skins. You have to really get into the mindset of what was happening in 2006.


Speaker 1: The, my space skins. That's the second time in two days that I have talked about my space skins, but please,


Speaker 4: We should do a side note of what song did you leave on your MySpace profile? Oh my God. Okay.


Speaker 5: I can't remember. Oh, come on.


Speaker 1: I can't remember. Oh my God. What was yours? Laura? You have a way better memory.


Speaker 4: It's only because I recently used this as a team icebreaker and then realized that I am old. They were like, what? I think it was a Regina Spektor song.


Speaker 1: Oh my God. I love Regina Spektor. Good, good drop. She's an amazing live act as a side. Incredible. One of the best I've ever seen in my life anyway. So we're there.


Speaker 4: Right? Are we there? Like, do we see Tom? Are we in 2007? The scene has been set, right? So smartphones did not exist. You're talking on your razor and Yelp didn't exist really either. There were fewer than 40 employees and I do not think I'm misrepresenting. When I say this job description was super sketchy.


Speaker 1: Ooh, tell me more


Speaker 4: Like, you know, do you like to party? Oh my God, I wasn't quite this bad, but it was close. It was something like where this young, fresh startup coming to Portland from San Francisco. And we're looking for the person who always knows where to go and how to have fun. Are you the hub of your social world? Are you the person that plans the best parties for your friends? Are you the wittiest writer? Does your ambition do pushups in your sleep? Like this type of thing?


Speaker 1: Oh my God. I love that last one.


Speaker 4: I actually think I added that later to the J D because it was something around working 21 seven, that actually might've been in the original one. So my friend's email said, Hey, Laura, this is either a scam. And then in parenthesis likely, or it's the job of your dreams. And one of the application prompts, speaking of our musical segue was what was your first concert? And my cover letter back to Yelp said, you're taking a big chance on a girl whose first concert was sir mix a lot.


Speaker 1: Oh my God. Amazing. Wow.


Speaker 4: And ended up getting the role. And it was the role of my dreams. It was truly incredible. So what did community quote unquote. Yeah.


Speaker 1: I mean, back at Yelp, if they were using that term, what did it mean back then when you started, was that on your radar?


Speaker 4: It was not on my radar. I don't think it was really on anyone's radar, outside of the extreme gaming community at that point. But community was Yelp in 2007, it was Yelp secret sauce. And everyone internally knew it. It had high level buy in from the CEO. And then that obviously trickled down to all 30 people, but meaning that it was supported and it was resourced as a core business function, but of the first six employees, it was something like four engineers, a designer and a community person. But all this said the philosophy was very wholesome. It was really genuine. It was not transactional. In fact, we all read Dan Riley's predictably irrational, and we got super inspired to set these early boundaries and norms and behaviors that we strictly adhered to. So no buying users, social norms, not business norms, intrinsic motivations, not extrinsic. One of Yelp's values was actually protect the source, the source being the community. We could not do anything that would harm the community. It was considered extremely precious.


Speaker 1: This is a possibly obvious question, but I'll ask it anyway. Why protect the soar?


Speaker 4: Well, because they were providing the value, they were writing the reviews that then turned the wheel of Yelp. So when I say Yelp was the community, it was because these passionate locals in a handful of cities around the country where the early members who were going out and writing reviews. Okay,


Speaker 1: Absolutely. I bring that up because I think different companies see community very differently depending on what the business is. And I don't know that there are that many people that have worked at a company that really grew to the network and scale of Yelp or similar to my experience at Instagram, when you're in an office that's tiny and there's only so many engineers or people working on the product, you realize you're just writing code and you send that code out into space. And it becomes a skeleton of a piece of software that unless people use in interesting is meaningless. It doesn't create value and it doesn't have value. So I just asked that question because I suppose not every business has that community contribution to be such a fundamental part of why the businesses.


Speaker 4: I agree. And I think the best community executives out there inherently understand that there will be a disconnect between these programmers, for these people that are just dealing in ones and zeros and the humans that their product ultimately impacts. And in my experience, I believe the onus is on the community manager. They are the ones that are acting as the Lorax. They are the ones that are going in between and can see both sides. And so making sure that any community professional is doing their part to connect the people, creating the product with the people consuming the product is if not the most important part, it would be hard for me to think of something more efficient.


Speaker 1: Yeah, absolutely. So tell me about those early days in the early work that you did at Yelp. What are some of the key things that you worked on that helped bridge that gap or help bring on those people that wrote the early reviews that set the tone for the site?


Speaker 4: Yeah. The playbook was really simple in theory because the community, it was authentic. These were passionate locals. It's just a handful of cities that Yelp launched in. I'm not talking about thousands of people I'm talking about like tens of people, fives of people. And what was really magical is that they truly had authentic connections to one another and to the community manager who was on the ground, the playbook was simple in theory, but it was grueling to execute because of what I believe to be a correct commitment to authenticity. There were no growth.


Speaker 1: Hockey behavior is tolerated this early group,


Speaker 4: Five or six cm sprinkled around the country. We were rabidly obsessed with Yelp ourselves. And we were super obsessed with our cities. We were just out there acting as the role model. We were members of the community. Every review we wrote was like, this is what it should look like. This is what I want to see in the world. This is what a business listing should look like. This is how you should treat other people on the site. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept and culture breeds culture. Looking back, it was actually terribly unhealthy because we call it a lifestyle job, meaning it didn't have traditional hours. Your life was the job. Your job was the life, but it was one by one. So I guess more specifically, the playbook was go into a new market, hire a very magnetic dynamic community manager who had really deep local connections.


Speaker 4: Like they knew people in that city and they had really great writing chops. This person's job was just to not shut up about Yelp. They were the advantage lists. They spread the gospel and inspired other people. Then we would effectively flip a product switch. This would turn on social mechanics like forums and friending and complimenting and events. And before there was a fulltime cm, you could use Yelp, but there was actually a big landing page that just said, yo, hasn't come to Portland yet. So manage your expectations, choose your own adventure here. We have no idea what's going on. The cm then would be hired. They would do their thing. They would act as this role model. One of the things we said was just try and find one new person a day. And if they did, that was a win because of how small the numbers were.


Speaker 4: So they would nurture the early adopters when they did get people to join the site, they would just shower them with love and attention. At this point, the CMS had the luxury of building real relationships with literally every member of their community. And then the secret sauce is that they would start planning a really cool party. Ideally, these would be at lesser known, but cool painfully cool businesses. But this is where the Yelp flywheel took off unlocking. This was a big deal because having everyone meet in person, it already felt like a secret club for people who were obsessed with finding secrets. The site was designed to motivate people through praise and attention that their reviews received and these bragging rights. So it was like, who is the funniest? Or who's the most in the know, but then after meeting people in real life, the velocity of reviews that would appear the next day was incredible. Because again, I'm only talking about like 10 people, but if you had 10 people meet, you would see 50 reviews appear the next day. And then these reviews would be picked up by search engines. The search engines would disseminate the Yelp reviews out into the world. More people would find out and join the community and the cycle just accelerated from there.


Speaker 1: It's interesting. That was really similar to our experience of InstaMeets, which were these meetups for photographers on Instagram. And we would say that it affirmed the value of Instagram. Like you passively using your phone. Oh, this thing's cool. But once you step into a room and you recognize faces the value of this thing, that's just sitting on a screen, becomes so vivid and rich to you. And we would see people posting so much more and just having their cup refilled. But I had read that about Yelp. I wasn't sure if that was really true. Honestly, I think a lot of community folks are talking about in person events in some way that they try to pin down the value. And I am glad you shared that because I didn't realize it was truly codified in the playbook. Oh, it is


Speaker 4: Absolutely codified in the playbook. And we learned this really early on. We learned that we could win by just spending or putting all of our energy into attracting this very small group of frankly, fanatic reviewers. We thought about it like a bullseye. We did not focus on the bigger numbers of the outer rings in this case, or in Instagram's case, it would be people seeing the photos that come from these InstaMeets. We were laser focused on the people in the very center, the people that we're creating value, knowing that that would


Speaker 1: Spread. It's so fun. Hearing these early stories from Yelp. I feel like I could talk to you about Yelp for the next 40 minutes. What is one of the really crystallized lessons or insights or principles that stuck with you from Yelp


Speaker 4: That you have carried into your work at Duolingo and any advising or educating you do about what it means to build a community? What is transferable that you learned at Yelp? This one's easy for me, the most surprising lesson that I take with me everywhere and just preach about any chance I get is around human motivation and this fundamental difference between social norms and business norms. So to try and synthesize what multiple books have been written about. It's really tempting to want to hack community growth with incentives. You get this for doing that is very normal in a business world. For example, I give my barista $5. They make me a coffee. This is expected, but this is not expected in a social world. You would not give your mother-in-law $50 for cooking Thanksgiving dinner, or someone would not hold a door for you. And you wouldn't reach for your wallet and say, well, thank you.


Speaker 4: Here's $5. It feels icky. But why like, why does that feel? Icky? I think that this gets blurred, but community is not transactional by nature. Humans seek to connect on a deeper level. They're looking for validation or for support or for something bigger than themselves. And now that community is such a buzzword. Everyone wants it and they want it quickly. And we have more leverage than ever. And they work. They do work. But when you growth hack with incentives, what you gain in volume, you erode in authenticity. These transactional elements just blur the motivation that someone has to participate. I have a very clear example that stands out. I wasn't going to mention the company, but they've been competing with Yelp for a while. And they're in the review space. They would set up booths where people could write reviews on the spot. So you'd walk up to their booth.


Speaker 4: And they'd say, if you write five reviews, we'll give you this water bottle. If you write 20 reviews, you can get these headphones and on and on. And on people writing reviews, weren't motivated to help. They weren't motivated to support business. They were just there to get that thing. We could have a separate podcast about how that cheapened the review and trustworthiness and all these things that are true, but what it did wrong, that also frankly, a lot of community professionals do wrong is they put a price on it rather than build a sustainable community of people doing it for fun or for intrinsic motivation. This business then had to keep up the incentives because they had established that as a business norm, this is a 25 cent review. This is a 50 cent review. Oh, you want me to write more reviews? That's great. Pay me more so, not scalable, not scalable social norms. And when money gets involved, it gets messy.


Speaker 3: This conversation just shifting my perspective and making me think about community building as this investment and longterm challenge, to understand what drives people both at more macro level. And then also at that micro level of, Oh, this person wants to fit into this role. This person is really driven around this type of responsibility. Community ability is also belief, the power of intrinsic motivation. How if you invest in supercharging these nodes and providing the right sandbox, the right pathways for them to do more of what they really would like to so much as possible, but that requires an investment and high standards around authenticity.


Speaker 4: This is absolutely true. These are the values that are so easy to break because they are not quick. They are establishing from a high level, these guardrails and allowing people to have autonomy and mastery and purpose. These pillars of intrinsic motivation. If you're talking to Dan pink, they are not how the business world operates. We operate in a world of carrots and sticks. And this is a big challenge in the space and industry of how to balance what the business world does and what we as community professionals know actually motivates action. One of the reasons I like hearing you speak Laura, is that you haven't had your belief rocked. Kevin and I both have had enough foundational experiences or exposure to communities to have confidence in that. But it strikes me that none of us live in the Bay area. And I just feel like there's a lot of skepticism of this point of view.


Speaker 4: Have you ever doubted your belief in this? Because I feel like business everywhere. It comes with pressures to not keep such a strong belief or to doubt these internal incentives. Sure. It's like this idea that any strength at an accelerated pace can become a weakness. And I think that this can become a crutch for community managers who are not seeing the results that they would want to see, or they're not solving a real problem. And so rather than have my faith rocked in the business world, because frankly it's rocked all the time, I meet a lot of people that think they have a solution to community or whatever the hot new thing is or whatever the new game of vacation thing is. And you guys talk about this so well in your book, not everything needs a community just because your board says you need a community.


Speaker 4: That's not a great reason to start one. So I've been able to push that aside. What I have a harder time understanding is when a community manager will allow this to languish, they allow this to become the reason for not trying to articulate value of their community or not trying to find a place that their community is able to make a big impact on a core business objective. And that's where I find the most frustration in the industry. I feel like there's sometimes a gap between senior level positions and folks that are brought on at levels where they're further away from those foundational considerations of business objectives. And I just see how KPIs go down waterfalls. And if you only have someone working on community and the capacity of receiving metrics, they're going to look like a lot of other business metrics, and they're not brought to the table at that foundational business strategy level of seeing the very clear value


Speaker 1: That this investment bring. I think it might be an interesting time to transition to talking about Duolingo, because that might bring in some clarity for people in the specificity of where community plays a role in a business. You currently work at Duolingo now. And what drew you to the,


Speaker 4: I had been at Yelp for nearly a decade. And as you can probably tell from the way I still talk about it, but just had the time of my life working. There wasn't even necessarily looking, but I am at a human level. Very curious. I had done a lot at Yelp where I had launched the rocket and it was now going around the earth. I always in orbiting, it was an orbit. It was orbiting and it was orbiting well, but I was ready. I was ready if the right thing came along. But in my mind, I was like, well, what else could so perfectly fit me? Nothing. Okay. I'm going to stay at Yelp forever. So when I met Luis, the CEO of Duolingo, he talked about Duolingo, the way I talked about Yelp in 2007, the mission of Duolingo is to bring free education to the world. And he has a true commitment to it. He's from Guatemala. And while he did not grow up poor, he did see firsthand how limited access to education was specifically how learning English, perpetuates poverty. And there's this deep irony in the fact that to get out of poverty, you need to know English, but English cost a lot of money. So before Duolingo, he invented capture, you know, all those squiggly lines that prove that you're not a robot. I love people,


Speaker 1: Completely different things. And people don't realize that person is behind both of those things. Like the guy who invented the Aero press, I think also invented the Frisbee. I love that. So anyway, keep going, capture. We know captcha, love it, know it, heard of it.


Speaker 4: Well, here's, what's crazy. Okay. So V one was captia. He gave this away because he's a genius. I mean, like he's a literal genius. He got the MacArthur fellowship. He found out that about 200 million of these squiggly lines were typed in every day. And it took about 10 seconds and normal human, like people in our stratosphere would be like, cool. I did this thing and look at all these people. No. So his brain, he was like, Hmm. I wonder if we could use this 10, second human effort for something good for humanity. How can humans and computers work together to solve complex problems that neither one of them could solve individually. So now when you are proving, you're not a robot, you are actually digitizing books. So in V2, there's all sorts of programs right now where we're trying to digitize out of print books. I'm imagining some factory with bunch of people, scanning books on a copy machine, into computers.


Speaker 1: My girlfriend did that for Virginia Wolf at Stanford. Like literally just put them through a machine and was paid intern rates. Don't just send out a photocopy machine that was really elaborate for hours every day.


Speaker 4: This is a thing, this is a movement. We don't want to lose books, want to digitize them. So the computers can decipher most of the word, but sometimes it can't. And the words it can't decipher now are served up


Speaker 1: The ones that are bent in the middle of the bind, things like that. Slightly distorted. Yeah.


Speaker 4: Yes. Correct. And so after hundreds of people, hundreds of thousands of people type in the same word, the system can assume it's correct. And then, boom, I'm imagining a scene from dr. Seuss right now. So just go with me. But the system is like, okay, cool. This is the word that we understand. Now I'm going to serve up another one into a captcha, great hundreds of millions of people type that word in, boom. Okay. Put that into the book. So he invented this as a V2. It is called recapture, and it's a way that humans and computers can work together to solve problems. All this is going to say that when he sold recapture and started Duolingo, he put community in the form of crowdsourcing, into Duolingo his DNA simply because of who he was when I started hearing about how Duolingo is using community to solve not only very interesting tech problems, but also this extremely audacious goal of bringing free education to the world. I was in,


Speaker 1: Tell me what community meant at Duolingo when you first joined, who are those community members? What ways are they helping push the world towards free education? What contributions do people make?


Speaker 4: So like I was just saying community was at its core because of Luis. But when I tell people I work for Duolingo, most people know that it's a language app. They're like, okay, cool. Yeah. I use that to refresh my high school Spanish. I'd say three out of five people bring up our passive aggressive owl and they make some comment about how they're going to get murdered in their sleep, which is probably true. You should practice


Speaker 1: The Al logo, the Duolingo character for those not in the know,


Speaker 4: Yes, his name is duo. And he sent in some passive aggressive notifications. What most people don't know is that all of our learning content is free and always will be. So there's never going to be a congratulations to learn more and unlock your next, whatever, pay this money. And that the majority of our courses are built and created by qualified volunteers, AKA our community. So we launched in 2012, we had four courses. These were all developed in house by a staff of language experts, not scalable, but today we offer 94 courses. I think 38, we just launched finished yesterday, by the way. So 38 languages now. And the only way we could scale to this size was by opening up our internal tools that we were using to build the courses, open up the knowledge base and empowering community members to form teams and create courses.


Speaker 1: So also just to be clear, Duolingo is a company that makes money. How do you guys do that?


Speaker 4: We are the highest grossing education app in the app store actually. Wow. At its core, the commitment is we will not charge language, but if you want to a support our mission by subscribing B remove any ad that we would serve up at the end of a lesson or C, be able to download Duolingo when you are on an airplane, you could subscribe to Duolingo. So that is how we make our money. The main revenue source is subscription. So what was your mandate when you joined? What was the problem that he wanted to solve? Or the challenge that Duolingo was facing Duolingo, like many tech companies is extremely data driven. And we had this, the idea that we are creating our courses that are being used by now, millions of people by the community seems really clear how that's adding value, but there was a pretty extreme disconnect between the qualified value people inherently believed that community had there was internal buy-in, but the challenge was knowing how to quantify that.


Speaker 4: So while it wasn't expressly mandated, the team was struggling to get buy in and resources. I knew from my experience that unless we were able to clearly articulate that value, we couldn't expect anyone else to owe it to us. So when I came in, I just ruthlessly prioritized areas of our community that I thought could deliver measurable impact. And tell me how you figured out what they were. The first one was just diving in on this idea that our community was building the content that was then being consumed. So went back to just pulling what fraction of our learners are learning on a course built by community. Like what were the usage patterns extrapolating? What fraction of our learners were coming to Duolingo through one of those courses? So how is it being used? How is it being consumed? But also how is it being used as an acquisition channel and no surprise.


Speaker 4: That was a really significant number. And so once I was just able to present that you can use that data in any way you need, it just made sense to resource it. It's interesting that that hadn't happened before. I'm surprised. I think it had to be fair, but again, this goes back to the job of the community. Executive is to just constantly remind and constantly tell that story. And to be fair also, that was the most low hanging fruit, but there were other strategic places to go once that was established, I needed to change the way people internally thought about community as a function within Duolingo and community like our actual community of volunteers. Because I think that there's a lot of value that community can add. But if you're just beating this drum of, we need more, we need more resources. We're sad, but this isn't working.


Speaker 4: You don't believe in us. You can start to sound a little bit victimy. So a quick win for me was just talking to our teams that were concerned about product quality and giving our community members access to test builds because from the internal perspective, they would love to have eyes to help bug bash. And from a community perspective, they would love to have early access to our products and our features. So that was a win win. We did a rebrand at our community. It was helping in a lot of different ways, but I created this global ambassador name so that anyone who helped volunteer for our mission became a global ambassador. We could all pull in the same direction, almost the way. Internally companies do culture and engagement. We just needed a culture and engagement refresh for our community. Then we needed to focus on doing a better job, connecting our staff, think about the devs who would never interact with a learner.


Speaker 4: They're doing like backend architecture. We need to connect them with the people that they were impacting. So I started this mission of not only telling stories internally, but actually just going out and actively trying to find these stories, which led to this documentary about the refugees using our products and camps and Jordan, after all of those things, I had some social capital. My battery had filled a little. So at that point is when I dove into events because I knew that it could be accomplished, but B I knew that the time was right. And again, when I'm talking to community professionals so much about it is understanding what you can ask for and when, and not just going in and beating the drum and saying, you need everything now, because frankly, everyone needs everything now. Yeah. Kevin says this a lot. The way we work with clients and anyone we're training is we present a step-by-step framework for how to think about starting a community.


Speaker 4: What's first what's fifth what's ninth. And Kevin always says, when we present that, even when he talks to grassroots community leaders, there's a lot that you can do to serve a community, the challenges and ideas it's actually prioritization and going through the process of thinking about what to do first and why is where a lot of confusion comes in. It seems like you were able to do that both with priorities for the users, and also internally the user community and understanding what Duolingo as an organization and a culture needed to do. I could not agree more with this need. One of Duolingo operating principles is to prioritize ruthlessly, but we all know what it feels like to have that person who's bothering you. He was like, I need this, I need this. I need this. I say this as a mom of three, who is dealing with no childcare right now, it just makes you shut down.


Speaker 4: And so I'm embarrassed to say that we haven't worked on our forum. We haven't done any product market fit on our forum, which is a content gold mine. It is right in my sweet spot simply because it's not the right time internally. It's just not, there are more important things to prioritize. It does not mean that it is not important. It does not mean that it's not a priority. It does mean that to be able to make the biggest impact, you do have to understand what the P zero is and why that's different than a P one or a P.


Speaker 3: This relates to what we were talking about before that community building is, but investing in people and figuring out how to help them do more of what they want to do within a business context. It's also understanding how channeling this energy and enabling it can help push forward the mission and the goals of the organization. But that's easier said than done. There are all of these different possibilities and pockets around, like, can it help from a product feedback perspective? Can it help from a marketing perspective? Can it help in this way or that way? And it used the phrase quick wins. It sounds like you were ruthlessly prioritizing the opportunities to enable subgroups of this passionate mass in order to help push forward. What Duolingo cared about.


Speaker 4: That's a word box that is exactly what community managers need to do. You will not get the buy in internally. You will not be seen as credible. If you are chicken little, you have to understand the nuance of where your priorities sit in terms of the company wide priorities and know that every organization sees this issue. Every function is trying to say, well, you know, design is important. Here's why design needs to be prioritized. Here's why I need more resources. Here's why you should care. So from a community standpoint, we have to hold our programs to the same rigorous set of standards as any other internal org or function, and know that our priorities have to align with the greater business. Getting those quick wins that also can add value to other people. That to me, seems like a successful path versus just trying to push a big Boulder up a Hill.


Speaker 4: Yeah. It seems like it also gave you the runway to take a big swing at something that you knew would take more time to realize. And that is events, which is an incredible program that you started, which really realizes one of the key needs for anyone who is learning, which is someone to practice your language with. So I would love to learn about how you got that program started and how you tested and iterated so that it could be at the space it is at today, which is, I mean, we're in COVID land, but you were before COVID having thousands of groups meeting in cities around the world to practice language heard somewhere that you ran 40 different tests yourself, and you even were meeting users one on one for coffee. Tell me about the testing process for figuring out what event made sense. What question do you have at the outset and how did you go about answering it?


Speaker 4: He has 40 tests is true, at least 40 tests. So I'm sprinkling in Duolingo operating principles if you haven't noticed, but another one is test everything. This is just who we are as a company, Duolingo events was a pet project, but it's not some sort of brilliant innovation. I was absolutely co-opting existing behaviors, which is a great way to run in you. And it should have, cause you know, you're already solving a real problem. So this is not some sort of brilliant idea. Like no idea is a new idea, right? It's just the right time for it. So I sat down with my boss, the CEO, and I was like, you know, I really think we should do this. It makes a lot of sense. People are learning a language to speak it. And language is so inherently social that while Duolingo is this wonderful tool to access language learning, one-on-one when you're on the bus or laying in bed or wherever people, then aren't finishing their French course and then leaving, we should not consider that happy churn and we should not try and force them like congratulations for learning French.


Speaker 4: Now learn Italian like F you, I want to go speak French. That's what I want to do. So why aren't we capturing them? Why aren't we creating a way in our own ecosystem that they already are familiar with to go and practice with other people? And the pushback I got was, that's a really cool idea. How on earth do we scale that? And my pushback right away was, let's not even worry about that right now. Let me just try and see if I could get people to start meeting. So when I talk about 40 different tests, when I started, I, first of all, you can't stroll in and say, I hope this vision, give me all the resources and all the money and all these things. So I said, let me just try and run some events in Seattle. So I emailed a very small handful, like under 500 total learners in Seattle that were learning Spanish.


Speaker 4: And I said, Hey, my name's Laura. I work for Duolingo. I think it'd be really cool if we met and practice our Spanish together, no promises here, but would you want to come? I created a Google form so that they could RSVP the key during this phase was to just do it myself and learn the pain points. For example, it is not easy to speak foreign languages in loud venues. I did not know that. I didn't even know I was testing for that. I just wanted to see if I could get people together. So the 40 different tests are, I tried beacons. I tried afternoons. I tried bringing in a tutor. I tried meeting at libraries. I tried meeting at bars. I tried sending information beforehand, like conversation prompts or practice this, or do this thing on Duolingo. And then we'll talk about it. So it wasn't just the activity or the format of the event.


Speaker 4: It was the time and the day. And I tried partnership. I tried talking to, we work like, could we use, we work in the off hours. I tried talking to venues like, Hey, if I brought 40 people here every Tuesday night, could we work out some sort of happy hour deal? I just wanted to see how I could create something myself, because I knew that I was going to scale it by having volunteers do it. And I knew that if I didn't understand the pain points myself, I would not be able to ask anybody else to do it. What time period are we talking about? Did you basically say I'm not coming into the office for two weeks and I'm going to just full throttle this. How did you create space to do that kind of experimentation? That is a great question. No, I did not.


Speaker 4: This went back to my 21 seven Yelp training. I didn't sleep. There was no sleeping. I think people see it as a very large program that it is today, but I treated it at the order of magnitude that it was at the time. So something again with this fruitless prioritization is really understanding your ROI. And I was not investing any more of the return that I was getting. So in the beginning I would pull some emails and I would send them and then I'd go to an event on a Sunday afternoon. It really wasn't much as the return started getting greater, I would shift things around and optimize my own schedule to be able to account for that. But in the beginning, no, I didn't go full in. So you had a couple of different variables that you were testing, like you said, location, date and time format partnerships.


Speaker 4: What signals were you looking for? Was there anything that you were measuring or that you knew that you needed to move on to the next stage of deciding, okay, this variable, I figured out, like, how do you break down the ways that you made decisions and moved through the iterating process? It's a great question. Because of course I wasn't using any sort of high tech software that would even be able to allow me to learn things like retention rates. So this was not a scientific AB test that I could conduct Michael in this stage was to get it out there and validate and make sure it was not a personal bias that I was solving for. Some of the signals that I was looking for early on was if I throw an event one week, the next week, how many of the people that were there the first week we'll come back, retention love it.


Speaker 4: They vote with their feet, right? And so I would send out feedback surveys, but I do think that there is with any feedback survey, a selection bias, the people that are going to fill out the survey are probably already interested or already highly retained are already bought in the way to know whether people like it or not. As if they come back physically come back. Another key growth factor for me was wanting to get to the point where I could have someone host the event instead of me in the beginning, I was like, okay, hi, I'm sure I could always get people to come to these events, but could I get someone to hold these events for me? So I started in Seattle and I just picked a second language. I said, okay, well, I don't speak French. I'm going to see if I can get a host to hold French events for me. And as soon as I was able to crack that, as soon as people that were coming would not only come back, but also volunteer to hold events in the language that they spoke more fluently. That's when I knew it was time to invest more deeply because I wasn't solving for a personal bias. This was actually working.


Speaker 3: What advice would you have for leaders for community members who are trying to decide whether they keep iterating on an idea, they might have a personal bias for, or go back to the drawing board entirely. Cause we work with clients events. You come in saying, Hey, we really want to invest more in this particular group of users, this particular group of people, and we have a couple hunches around what they might do together. And it sounds like you had this hunch around language circles that did gain traction over time and give you that positive feedback. But what would you do if on like number four or five, like it was, are people coming back or not curious how you would navigate that kind of gray area with, you're not sure whether or not you're working on the right machine.


Speaker 4: This is such a tough question because it goes back to this very highly honed ROI filter. Fortunately, I think a lot of communities are solving real problems, but they're not, it could be a right place, right time. It could be something else is solving the problem also. And unfortunately, a lot of times these passion projects don't show high ROI. You're putting in a hell of a lot more than you're getting back. And we can't be afraid of cutting when we're purely allowing a Nosha to just have us continue doing the same things over and over and over again. This is insanity. I think at some point, if you are not seeing growth, if you are putting in more than you're getting back, honestly, that is when it's time to go back something I say all the time is you only should build what you need because you're trying to get this airplane in the air, right?


Speaker 4: It's really tempting to want to build your inflight entertainment options and your meal menu and all these things. But no, you need wings, wind. I mean, maybe wheels questionable. So again, if it isn't, you could probably build those in there. If you build those basics and you're not seeing success and you start thinking about the next order of magnitude before you're seeing early indicators that they're even needed. That's when you need to cut that's when you need to go back and either iterate or go back to the drawing board entirely and ask yourself, am I solving a real problem? Is this the right? Am I asking the right questions? Is this actually adding value to people? Because if it is, you should be able to see indications of growth, whether that's retention and if it stays at a plateau, it's probably time to go back and check.


Speaker 4: So you hosted these events yourself, and then you had a friend, Jimmy who? French friend, that's right. You had a friend or a Duolingo user host and event. So you didn't host it. You started finding hand raisers who might do this for you or with you. And eventually you were at thousands of events each month. Did you have a moment where you put extra marketing firepower launching it in a public way or was it always an iterative growth process? Did you add any superpower to the program at any point? Not yet. We were very, very close and then COVID derailed things. But as usual, these kinds of hiccups or forcing functions actually open up new opportunities that you never would have anticipated. So at our peak, which was the end of February of 2020, we were almost hitting 700 events a week. And wow, these are in 120 countries and 900 cities and they are just like on fire.


Speaker 4: So we did have a plan for integrating it more deeply into Duolingo is mobile app, which would be the big feature launch and the big product marketing push. Like, Hey, we have events, check it out, it's in the app. And then, you know, surprise global pandemic. We went back and forth a lot around what we should do has this derailed, our plans completely do we need to redistribute resources even like we've put these team members into actually building our own event, tech stack in house. What do we do now? So what we did was we converted any host who wanted to, into online events and similar to the event program. Initially we didn't require, we let them be autonomous. We gave as many resources as we could, but we let them choose if they wanted to convert online or not. And we are certainly not at the 700 a week Mark, but we are inching close to 300 events a week, which is not small.


Speaker 4: And we do plan to reopen as soon as we can. And what's so special now is it's even more so aligned with Duolingo mission. So many people couldn't go to events because there just wasn't one near them. But now bringing free education to the world as a user is delightful to be able to say, well, cool. I want to go and meet with people in Washington, D C speak Italian and like drink a party. Or I don't want to put pants on. Like, I just want to sit here and speak in French with my people online. So no, we did not put any marketing, fire power behind it. However, we did utilize some of the levers that Duolingo has. So we integrated it into the point system at Duolingo. If you went to an event, you could get Duolingo points, which are called XP experience points. And we put an advertisement at the end of every 10 lessons like, Hey, do you know that events are a thing you can do? So those two things actually led to a lot of growth


Speaker 1: In product in product communication. Very powerful,


Speaker 4: Shocking, shocking. One of the benefits


Speaker 1: It's a running a piece of software is that ability to communicate directly. If you were to describe the essence of what is a community builders job, especially professionally, how do you describe it? How do you describe the philosophy or the essence of the work that you do?


Speaker 4: This is a challenging question because everyone thinks they know what community is with other functions like a designer or an engineer. There's this like, Oh, well, I don't really know what you do, but literally everyone has their own relationship with the word community and the lens through which they see community. It's this shared experience yet it's personal and intimate and private and almost sacred. So I think the essence of what a great community manager does is bring people together and being this Lorax, being this go-between that help the community, understand your brand and your product and resonate with it and also help the people behind the scenes, understand the people that they're impacting. Laura. I think that's a wonderful place to end. Is there anything that we didn't ask you that you would want to share? The only thing that I would leave people with is that community can't be faked these communities form around everything that you guys have explored this, but appliances, the color purple, you know, phases of the moon clouds for census.


Speaker 4: Yeah. It's crazy. It's crazy. Yeah. And so again, I'm probably preaching to the choir, but you would think that you could just learn these foundational principles and apply it to whatever you're trying to build community around that. If you build it, they will come. But unless you, yourself, as the leader are authentic yourself, it just won't work. Even if you're super well intentioned. If you're not authentic, if you don't also love the color purple people can see through it. And even though that might not be articulated, your leadership at your organization will see through it as well. So that would be what I would leave people with. It's just start small start now. Just start, stay authentic. If you want to connect with Laura, you can find her on Twitter at, at Laura Nestler, N E S T L E R, or head over to to get involved, check it out special.


Speaker 4: Thanks to our team. Thank you. Maggie Zang for editing Greg David for his design work, Katie O'Connell for helping them with marketing on this episode and wild sound for sound engineering. You can find out more about the work we do as people and company, helping organizations get clearer on who their most important communities are and how to build with those people by heading to our website people And also if you want to start your own community or supercharge one, you've already been a part of our handbook is here for you to visit, get together to grab a copy. It's full of stories and learnings from conversations with community leaders of all kinds like this one with Laura. Oh, and final thing. If you don't mind, please review us


Speaker 2: The episode and click subscribe to that helps more people find out about these episodes and learnings from folks like Laura, about how to build communities. Great. Thanks so much. See you next time.