3 student entrepreneurs share how they built 5000+ member virtual communities
On October 13th, Glimpse launched its second panel event, “Bonds Buds and Brands: Building Strong Online Communities.”
The panelists were three student founders of virtual communities: Grace Ling, Milap Patel, and Jeremy Navarro. Grace is the Founder and Design Lead of Design Buddies, the fastest growing design community of 8000+ members. Milap is the co-founder of Product Buds, a community for budding product managers that has grown to over 2,000 students on Slack. Jeremy is a 2x founder as the CEO and Founder of dormops!, a marketing education and internship matching company, and Sprout.ly, a project based networking platform.
Through founding and scaling these organizations, the panelists gained valuable skills in leadership and entrepreneurship. Here is some advice from the panelists that can help you navigate your career:
How did you get started with these communities and with these projects that you’re involved with?
Grace: “Design buddies started because I felt like a small potato designer. I went through a lot of random career changes from anime artist to bioengineer, pre med, computer science, game development, and now design. So a lot of professors told me to not do design. And for me, no always means yes. So I decided to pursue design.
When I was searching for resources online, I couldn’t find any resources or any mentors to help me. I ended up feeling lost in that field, so I just randomly made a discord one day with the purpose of wanting to make design friends. I decided to just create my own community. I called the discord Design Buddies and marketed it as an inclusive community and made sure anyone who was interested in design felt like they could talk and ask questions without feeling judged. And I just kept taking in a lot of market and user research and kept designing programs, channels, features and Design Buddies just kind of took off. It’s been six months and we are nearly at 9,000 members now. So it’s been super exciting. I just focused my theme around being wholesome and making buddies in design.”
Milap: “I switched a lot of majors, I started as a bio major, made a couple of transitions and made my way into tech. With this quarantine and everything, as well as my search for what am I going to do in the tech industry and after a bunch of coffee chats, I realized the product industry was a pretty good place for me.
It’s a very popular industry a lot of people are trying to break into. I couldn’t find people to help in a proper way or a community to go to. I actually had a coffee chat with Chris, who is Product Bud’s other co-founder, early in the year, and then I directly messaged her. We expected a community of like 100 people, maybe max like 200 people, but the next day after we put our interest form out and there were 2000 people on the list. We wanted to keep Product Bud’s diverse and inclusive, making sure anyone could join our community.”
Jeremy: “Since starting undergrad, I’ve interned at over a dozen different startups, and just realized how much I love the space. And I think in my experience, the one thing that was really, really hard for me to learn, because I didn’t have a community like Product Buds, or Design Buddies to go to was marketing.
I think the reason marketing is so hard to learn is because you have to pay to learn. If you think about marketing, the different things in marketing, one of the most important but also hardest things to learn is how to run paid ads, because the only way to learn how to run paid ads is by paying money to run ads. What we’re trying to do with dormops! is make it easier for students to learn how to do that. In fact, we want to change the status quo of marketing education by helping them earn in order to learn. dormops! is an all in one marketing education staffing platform. We work with hundreds of students and help them get part time, or contract based, marketing work. We also use our innovative marketing software to teach them different types of things about marketing. One of the things that we do is an ad simulation game that lets students create ads, and then runs them on simulations of social media platforms so they don’t have to pay to do that.”
If you could give one piece of advice, just like one sentence for your younger self, what would it be?
Grace: “Don’t try so hard in school. The reason I say this is because I used to be pre-med. When I came into college, I was a bioengineering aspiring neurosurgeon, MD PhD. Growing up with two parents as professors, I was always told since I was four that I was going to get a PhD. So I spent up to 12 hours a day during my Freshman and Sophomore year studying in the library, I didn’t have a life. I wished I spent more time working on personal projects and discovering what I really wanted to do in my career. When I quit pre med I was like ‘I just spent so much time studying when I could have been living, I sacrificed my sleep, my mental health, my social life, my hobbies were my grades’. So grades are definitely really important depending on your goals. But if you want to work in tech or become an entrepreneur, don’t let grades stop you. Grades are kind of a measure of your ability to follow instructions. But as an entrepreneur, you always want to kind of think outside the box and not be limited to the constraints of school. So really don’t stress too much about grades and don’t take them personally.”
How did you bring your personal brand to where it is now?
Jeremy: “ I think something that’s really helpful to anyone who’s trying to build a personal brand nowadays is utilizing mediums out there for you to put content online. Anything that you put online is going to help you build that personal brand. I have a Substack, post a lot on Medium, and post a little on LinkedIn. In general, I just like to extend my feelers in a bunch of different places, and put them all together. And they’ve really helped me build a strong personal brand.
My Substack is called the serial intern. Through my work there, I’ve been able to profile startups, meet a bunch of founders, and get a ton of job opportunities. Once you take that first leap of faith and just plunge into really putting that content out there and putting yourself out there, the opportunities, networks, and connections will come out of that. While it might be hard to believe,there are people out there who want to read the content that you’re producing. Connecting to your personal brand is a great way of giving yourself some mobility. I would say just take the leap of faith, put something on Medium, or start your own Substack just to get into the groove of things. Just trust that it’ll grow and it will.”
How did you use people’s negative reactions towards what you wanted to fuel your passion and for the pursuit of time?
Grace: “I love proving people wrong. It just gives you so much energy. When people tell me no, it actually means yes. And I’m just really fueled by proving people wrong. I was really motivated because I had a lot of people message me on LinkedIn saying they joined Design Buddies and it inspired them to pursue design because their parents or professors also told them to not pursue design, but Design Buddies kept them going. You don’t need to follow what other people are telling you what to do. You don’t need permission to do anything you want in your career or your life, so you shouldn’t let anyone stop you because you’re not trying to please anyone.”
Milap, could you tell us more about how Product Buds went about really pinpointing its vision and how it has grown?
Milap: “One of the main goals that we had for Product Buds was to not care much about numbers, but establish more initiatives that create a community rather than a Slack workspace with a bunch of resources.
We took two approaches. One was just making sure our Slack was friendly by adding simple things like creating a channel for ‘happy feels’. We recently made a channel where people could post if they landed a job or got a first time interview. There is also another channel that is just funny memes or inspiring quotes that we just post to help encourage everyone. The other side, which is more actionable, are the initiatives that we offer. Just two weeks ago, we did a round table of 25 people on the social dilemma and this upcoming week we’re talking about imposter syndrome. Product Buds creates opportunities where people who aren’t necessarily confident to say that they need help on LinkedIn, or help someone else to create a community that they can go to and say ’hey, do you need help?’. I think that’s the number one priority for us, making sure we are inclusive and diverse for everyone. We’d much rather take that over a 500 person event where just the speakers talking and no one else really talks. So that’s the goal and the mindset we’re going into Product Buds with for the next month.”
What are some of your biggest takeaways from your journey so far?
Jeremy: “One really important thing I learned is to recognize where your superpowers are as a leader or an entrepreneur or a founder, but also recognize where you might have knowledge gaps. I love the business side of running a startup and I love just being a founder in general. At the same time, I’m non-technical, and I have no idea how to put together a website, or develop the software that we have with dormops!. It took me a lot of time to find the right people to fulfill those roles that I needed in order to bring dormops! to where it is now.
I think the best founders realize that it takes an army, a whole group of people to really build something that you want to build. The importance of building a community is something I learned through dormops!. People are always willing to help each other. It is all about giving people the means to do the things that they want to do because there’s so many students out there that have the initiative and the bias to action to do and create the things that they want to do. They’ll do it if you can give them the right tools.”