SoundCloud: At the Intersection of Community, Product and Design

Soundcloud, the popular music-sharing platform, integrates community development with product development. This is something every startup in the web ecosystem -- mobile or browser-based -- should be thinking about. For many startups working in the developing markets, there is not a ready and web-hungry audience, so you have to think about creating the culture to consume the app that you want people to consume, even as you have to create the app that people need to solve a problem. That's a difficult task. 

Here are some thoughts about how that can happen. I interviewed Matas Petrikas, Product Manager for HTML5 apps at SoundCloud, and I interviewed Jami Welch, Community Manager at SoundCloud, to get their perspectives about where culture, community, interaction and product development collide. 

This blog post is written by Douglas Crets, Community Manager and Social Media Editor at Microsoft BizSpark.

This is not Jami and Matas. These are the founders of SoundCloud, courtesy Creative Commons License

Iteration as a Community, Product Development as a Culture

I'm going to be honest, to start. I had imagined I could write a four part series about community management and design, product development and customer development, but some of the things that came up in the interview with Soundcloud html5 apps product manager Matas Petrikas made me sharpen my focus, so I scrapped that idea, and now I am going to focus on how listening to the community and producing something for the community are integral puzzle pieces that must be considered together if you are to make a successful startup.

Soundcloud enjoys success. In the early part of 2012, they surpassed 10 milllion users, and this Germany-based startup has the perfect mix: host awesome, community created mixes, and let people comment on them, offer feedback and iterate and collaborate with each other. Seems an easy sing to do, right, because this is the heart of music-making. And it is, but to make an entire company out of it, that's something else. Here's how community management and product development work. I asked Mattias four questions. Here is what he said.

There are four skills I have found useful in building community. They are 1. Listening 2. Reflecting and Creating 3. Choosing and 4. Giving in to spontaneity. When I spoke to Matas, and his colleague Jami Welch, the Community Manager for Soundcloud, about what it means to build community into products and products into community, what struck me was the healthy symbiosis of the two. I am going to publish the difference responses to the same questions on other parts of the blog. You can get them here (community management) and here (product developer). 

What I have learned is that what you say to your community can prompt behavior just as much as reading and listening to behavior can create iterations to your product. The two teams have to work together simulatneously with the community to make sure the cycle is being fed and being kept, for lack of a better word, culturally positive.

What I mean about culturally positive is this: consumers on the the app feel like they belong to the app and that their feedback will go straight into the lives of the people who congregate with them on the app, but also in to the development of the product. a good product development team depends on a community manager to make sure that happens, and a good community manager makes sure that product development is always aware of how things are shaping up behavior wise on the site, in ways you can't get from just reading traffic analytics or user statistics. 

Reflecting and Creating -- Community Critique is Marketing (When there is response and creation embedded into the product, you can't lose)

One of the skills that makes this possible is something I call Reflective Awareness.

This is different than listening, but, like listening, depends upon a close interaction with your customers and community. I think that a lot of products with incredible momentum fall into a cycle of thinking that because it's working, people love it, and the product sells itself. This may be true for a really hot sports car, but for products on the web or on mobile, people's lives change the direction of the app's usage, and it can make the difference in whether an app is useful to someone or not useful. 

To get there, you have to stand back from telling people what to think about the app, and you have to see how people live with it. You become the neutral ghost in the machine that puts the user first. That's my take. Others may have a different take on it. 

One of the hardest things I struggle with is breaking out of the reflecting part, though, and turning the things I have learned into the product itself. I find that if I don't force myself to move from reflection to creating something based on a reflective thought, I get trapped into inactivity. So, for me, it's essential to take time out of the day, every day, and think about what I want to achieve, or to think about what I am observing. 

It turns out that this works very well with relationships, too. The more you reserve time for yourself, the more you are able to see your partner more clearly. Apply that to how Soundcloud works. I find the listening to tracks and commenting on them is both a metaphor for how product development works and shows how Soundcloud's community works. 

At this moment in the beats from Nishin's Showtime EP teaser, you see the community jump in and give praise. For almost every break, every insertion of some tripcore or some kind of Skrillex-inspired beat and dubstep loop, Nishin can give feedback. But look at it more intensely: people are listening and reflecting on what the music does for them, and then they are creating. Feedback is creativity and creation. In a media-rich app like Soundcloud this is the product just as much as the music platform is the product. Without either, they would be dead. 

This is incredibly interesting to me because in SoundCloud, not only do they  have the platform

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