Building a Global Alumni Community: An Interview with Avraham Byers
Most educational institutions have some sort of an alumni community, though some are more active than others. Alumni communities are an effective platform for former students to reconnect over shared experiences, organize regular reunions, network, and even find new job opportunities. However, building and maintaining a thriving alumni community takes time and dedication, and some serious strategy.
So we’ve connected with Avraham Byers, Community Manager of forwarding Link, the alumni community for Seth Godin’s akimbo workshops, to learn more about his experience building a successful online alumni community, and how to keep 25,000 members across 45 countries continuously engaged.
Panion: Can you tell me a bit more about your professional background? When did you first get involved with online communities?
Avraham: I was always socially awkward in online communities. I’m not socially awkward in person, quite the opposite. I'm a conversationalist. For some reason, when it came to online communities, I couldn't get comfortable.
It seemed almost magical when I saw people being active in spaces like Quora, Reddit, and LinkedIn. Everyone was naturally communicating online, but I couldn’t figure out how to interact with them myself. #Truthbomb, I didn’t even know what emojis were until a couple of years ago. 😉
And I would never have dreamt that one day I’d be running an online community for Seth Godin.
Panion: So how did you go from being socially awkward in online communities to running one with over 25,000 members for Seth Godin?
Avraham: In 2018, I took Seth Godin’s altMBA. For those who aren’t familiar with the altMBA, it’s a four-week online workshop that’s designed to fast-track leaders to the next level. As teamwork and feedback are central to the altMBA, I was forced to go beyond my socially awkward self and participate online. The altMBA has a 96% completion rate which makes it a really busy space, and I had to interact with people on Slack, Discourse, and Zoom. I was totally immersed in the workshop, and for the first time, I felt that I had found my online community.
At the end of the workshop, I was honored with an award for my contributions to the cohort and invited to try to apply to be an altMBA coach. I never thought that I would have a chance to be a coach for Seth Godin’s workshop, and thought, “what the heck, it’ll be a good experience.” To my surprise, HQ called me two weeks later and told me I was selected to be a coach. There I was, a guy who had no idea how to interact with online communities just over a month ago, and now I was going to be leading one. Saying that I was in disbelief would be an understatement.
The combination of finding an online community that I connected with, winning an award, and being selected as a coach became the catalyst for my online confidence. That then spurred me to go beyond my comfort zone in the altMBA alumni community.
Back then, the altMBA alumni community consisted of 2,500 people on Slack. I saw an opportunity to organize people who wanted to keep the energy of the altMBA alive and created ShipIt, a three-week online sprint to do the important projects that are mostly ignored because of fear. It worked. People loved it, and I kept on creating sprints. What started off as a group of four people grew to hundreds. Around the same time, unbeknownst to me, Seth was in the middle of creating a new alumni platform for his workshops. They noticed the concept of the sprints I had created and invited me to be the Community Manager for the new community platform - Forward Link.
Panion: What does it look like inside the Forward Link alumni community?
Avraham: It’s an amazing space full of generosity from alumni that come from over 45 countries and a variety of industries.
Last year we had over 2,250 meetups that were all alumni-led. Sure, HQ hosts a few large meetups every year, but the secret is in the leadership taken by the alumni. They organize their own meetups on a wide variety of topics like accountability, goal setting, writing, podcasting, journaling, masterminding, think tanks, reciprocity, career planning, gratitude, social chats, and parenting.
Beyond the meetups, alumni also leverage the generosity and experience of the network. Alumni get honest feedback on projects, answers on industry-specific questions, job offers, introductions to others beyond the network, and community celebrations around projects shipped out.
Panion: How does someone become a member of Forward Link?
Avraham: Only by completing one of our workshops. A couple of years ago, Seth created an umbrella for all our workshops called Akimbo. Akimbo offers workshops on marketing, storytelling, freelancing, bootstrapping, podcasting, leadership, and of course, the altMBA. The alumni network is 100% free forever. You can’t buy a ticket into the alumni community, entry is earned.
Panion: How important is it to belong to an alumni community? What are the top benefits?
Avraham: It depends on the course structure.
If it’s a self-learning course without a cohort structure, like a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), I don’t think there is much value at all. Even if there was an alumni community for a MOOC it probably would struggle.
On the other hand, if it’s a cohort-based-course (CBC), one where there was a group learning experience and a sense of collaboration, then belonging to an alumni community would be tremendously valuable. You’re able to continue your journey together, support each other, and keep connected after the course is finished. I’ve witnessed that kind of commandery with our own alumni community through support, generous feedback, and a lot of various collaborations.
Panion: Your community has people from 45 countries around the world. Do you have any tips for community builders managing a global community?
Avraham: Be a great listener. Understand that you have your own worldview that might not be the same as someone else in a different country (or even your own). Embrace the differences and try to engage with ideas that are important to the community, not just yourself or your own culture. For example, if you provide content, is it coming from a diverse community? Is it inclusive?
There are logistical challenges that need to be overcome too, like the timing of meetups - how can we make a time that’s Europe and Aussie-friendly? If the book club is requiring you to read a book that’s a hardcover, is it accessible in an ebook format for the people in countries that are more rural?
Know that you won’t always get it right. There will be unintentional blunders along the way. And that’s okay, as long as you’re willing to listen to your community, sincerely say you’re sorry for the mistake and make the appropriate adjustments for the future.
Panion: Tell us one of your favorite stories about Seth Godin's community.
Avraham: We have a Reciprocity Ring in forwarding Link that focuses on paying it forward for each other.
One day, an alumni member from Northern California shared that her brother was undergoing cancer treatments in Southern California (keep in mind this is pre-pandemic). She asked if anyone had a car that she could borrow to visit her brother. Another member said that not only did she have a car to lend out, but they could keep it for a few months because it was her son's car, who is away in an out-of-state college. The next day, they dropped off the car, and this member of our community was able to visit her brother for the duration of his treatments until he got better.
The best thing is, if you told this story to someone in the Forward Link community, I don’t think they would be shocked. There is so much honesty and generosity happening in this global community every single day.
Panion: What are some best practices alumni community managers could do to keep former students engaged within the community?
Avraham: Build the community with your alumni, not for your alumni. Instead of trying to figure it all out on your own and launching things, what would happen if you found some fire-starters and helped them create the initiatives?
When an alum comes to you with an idea, help them develop it, and ask them how you can offer support. When you instill confidence in your community, they will personify confidence and will create things you couldn’t even imagine and, most likely, do a better job than you would.
Panion: What are your top three tips for people hoping to start a community?
- Develop empathy
- Be generous
- Keep your promises
Panion: What is your vision for the Forward Link community? Do you have any goals or milestones that you are looking to achieve in 2021?
Avraham: Forward Link has a lot of talented people in its community. Our goal for 2021 is to highlight the talents and expertise of our alumni more and, at the same time, strengthen the connection between them.
Panion: How do you see the future of community building within the context of developing technology and the “new normal”?
Avraham: For the short term, and possibly long term, the “new normal” will be different from region to region. For example, right now the US is opening up and dropping mask mandates for people who are fully vaccinated. Americans are starting to gather again. On the other hand, here in Toronto, Canada, we’re still under a strict stay-at-home order.
In some ways, in-person community events became more global during COVID-19. Take Creative Mornings, for example, a community for creatives that were traditionally segmented by geographic location. Since their meetups moved online, they have become more global and accessible to anyone who has internet access. The Toronto meetups now have people joining from all over the world on Zoom.
When you take the new normal being different region to region and combine that with a more global community structure you might see some interesting tech innovations sprout up. How do you organize a meetup locally and at the same time keep your international community engaged?
I’m curious to see how tech is going to lean into this new normal of local/international communities.
Before joining Seth Godin’s altMBA program, Avraham Byers had little experience participating in online communities. Through innovation, hard work and by including members in the development process, Avraham has built up an alumni community that benefits more than 25,000 members, allowing them to connect and offer support beyond just their professional objectives. Avraham’s mission to build a successful online community that encourages meaningful connections between its members closely aligns with our mission to provide a community-building platform for human-centric and empathy-driven communities.