An Open Letter: On Community


Community building isn’t easy. This weekend, everything went wrong.

It started with a weird bug that was causing us a few problems. Here and there, a paying customer would write to ask “Why am I receiving a rejection email?”, or something similar. We would explain it away and change a setting to prevent it, but it kept happening. And then on Saturday at 3:15 a.m. EST, a deluge of angry, confused or sad emails bombarded my inbox.

Behind the scenes, the 2PM Inc. organization is seven people large. I am the only full-time worker, like Sahil Lavingia’s lean strategy at Gumroad. That’s not to slight our team, however: four contractors and two paid interns are incentivized and capable of doing great things with the time that they share with the company. The 2PM team is so talented and consistently productive that the company would have to be venture-backed to afford each of them. I am working to get to the point where cash flows can support them. They are the best at what they do. We scrappily do the work of many, three days per week. If memberships are low for one week, I can at times feel like I disappointed them. This weekend, I disappointed far more than my team.

Why am I being rejected from something that I didn’t apply to?

In that moment, your entire business rests in the balance. Dozens upon dozens of loyal members opted out of auto-renew, angry at the insult. One email reply was: “You’re dead to me.” Another member wrote: “A real polymath would be smart enough to turn off automated emails before deciding who they want in their stupid little club.” He would later reply: 

I should have given you the benefit of the doubt and instead I sent a mean email. Thanks for clarifying. I enjoy your work so I was extra sensitive.

They were not mad because they were interested in joining 2PM’s growing community but because the email itself was incredibly callous. The subject line read: “You’ve been rejected from Polymathic.” And in the body of the email: “A staff member rejected your account.” Neither were true. Our community software sent that email from its servers with our branding but without any of the following: our permission, copywriting, or basic understanding of how 2PM’s community works.

Discourse, an open source community software, sent thousands of emails that we didn’t author after an admitted API bug between their backend and Memberful’s membership and paywall software. I emailed their support but the office is closed on weekends. By that morning, I had to send an email addressing the issue. It would be the first time that I’d ever send an email of that sort. I moved as quickly as I could, hoping that the vast majority of those offended would see it.

No Title

The one and only ⁦@web⁩ wrote this for your swipe files. Put it under “how to apologize when something beyond your control goes wrong”. We’ve all been (or will be) there. Well done, Web.

Meanwhile, communication between 2PM and Discourse’s teams moved slowly back and forth through email. I tried to communicate the severity of the situation; they tried to communicate how inconsequential the trigger that caused the fallout was. It would be 20+ hours of synchronous communication before this stalemate broke.

By this morning, Jeff Atwood, the Co-Founder of Discourse, chimed in, perhaps the first sign of affirmation that our hosting company recognized the severity:

We’ll be happy to send out individual apology emails to all affected users, taking FULL responsibility for that erroneous email – because that was absolutely our fault! I can offer to personally send them signed Stack Overflow stickers, if that helps (not sure if your audience uses / knows Stack Overflow, but I was a co-founder). I will write these apology emails myself, and send them from my personal email account.

I chose to opt out of this email. For one, our members don’t need another email from Discourse – even if it does provide 2PM’s vindication. And unless they were willing to apologize for the copywriting and flaws that relinquish the control of their clients, I wasn’t interested in continuing the conversation.

What we’re building at Polymathic

Anyone who reads 2PM understands the value of deep generalism (or polymathy) as an educational pursuit. Each newsletter’s curations are broad and cross-disciplinary. The Polymathic community that we are building for members is the next step in this process. We encourage the sourcing of reports, data, and insights in economics to art history to the sciences or real estate. It is my belief that the study of broad subjects unlocks deeper knowledge of your own industry. I often share the obscure Henry Ford anecdote as an example:

Henry Ford’s great technological breakthrough didn’t come by way of his own Industry. He visited a Chicago meat packing plant, watched the disassembly process, and reverse engineered the idea for his factory’s manufacturing revolution.

It has been a slow build, sometimes just adding 4-7 people per month across a spectrum of professional and academic specialties. Each of these members share a desire to contribute and learn from the woman or man next to them. The goal is an ambitious one: Polymathic is to become a school of thought for thousands. One where any long-term Executive Member can one day join and contribute and learn. In short, there are no rejections. That simply defeats the damn point of everything that I’ve worked to build.

When you are bootstrapping a company like this, you make several trade offs. In an ideal scenario, I’d build my own community server instead of whitelisting another’s but for the stage that the company is in, the current stack makes sense. Our technology stack consists of a number of outsourced solutions: WordPress, Memberful, Mailchimp, Discourse to name a few. But you never expect those platforms to do you active harm. The act of Discourse sending that email cost 2PM nearly $70,000 in short term business. The persisting problem with Discourse’s API connection to Memberful (who’s been a wonderful partner) is currently hindering nearly $1 million in long-term revenue for our company with no promise that it will return. But the lessons learned are far more important than money lost.

Community building is not easy, even when your software is working for you. I have never valued the grace and perspective of the 2PM community more than I do today. What it taught me was the power of the benefit of the doubt. Many in the community were apologetic after receiving the email that clarified what happened. An even larger number of community members waited for justification before assuming the worst, assuring me that I had done enough good with 2PM to know that we’d never send an email like this. But the most critical takeaway is that nothing matters more than the collective that you build around your products. In one weekend, five years of hard work was threatened. It was the community that kept it together as technology failed them.

By Web Smith

Here is Discourse’s official apology.

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