What is IndieHackers, and how does it align with the definition of community of practice?
IndieHackers is an online community of entrepreneurially minded people who are "seeking financial independence, creative freedom, and the ability to work on their own schedule" (Stripe, 2021). Most members of the IndieHackers online platform tend to be the founders or very early employees of tech-forward startups and small businesses. The IndieHackers website (https://indiehackers.com) features:
- a forum where members can "Talk shop with other indie hackers" (Stripe, 2021)
- a list of upcoming meetups whereby members can "Meet indie hackers across the globe" (Stripe, 2021)
- a database of member-created projects where members can "See what everyone's working on" (Stripe, 2021)
- a store where members can "buy an Indie Hackers t-shirt" (Stripe, 2021)
- a newsletter by which members can "Stay up-to-date in 5 minutes or less" (Stripe, 2021)
- a section where members can submit long-form writings with the community to "Share your knowledge and experiences" ( Stripe, 2021)
A community of practice as defined by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner is a group of people "who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (2015). The IndieHackers website is an archetypal example of an online community of practice.
Members of IndieHackers, who call themselves "indie hackers", are encouraged to share updates on their independent projects regularly and community members provide feedback to these updates that draw on their own areas of expertise and knowledge. Some project updates are celebrating successes, and some are asking for advice from the community. In either case, the community support and feedback is often useful and is always supportive.
In addition to the various web properties, the IndieHackers organization also has a podcast network of podcasts created by and for the community on topics often inspired by the community's discussions and posts.
How does IndieHackers demonstrate the three characteristics of a community of practice?
The Wenger-Trayners explicitly list three characteristics of a community of practice. With regard to the domain characteristic, the membership of a community of practice shares a "shared competence that distinguishes members from other people" (2015). In the IndieHackers community, this shared competence is in creating and executing on a tech-forward, usually software based, startup without going the traditional venture-capital backed route. This means that most of the projects made by members of the IndieHackers community are either self-funded or bootstrapped businesses. This defining characteristic of the financial structure of the project directly influences every aspect of the project and is the main contributor to indie hackers finding their tribe online with other entrepreneurs on similar paths.
As previously described, the members of the IndieHackers community routinely solicit and provide advice on business practices. In addition to this online information sharing via the community forum, there are also self-organizing IndieHacker meetups around the world. As would be expected, these in-person gatherings have diminished in frequency over the last ~two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were replaced with online meetups and live community discussions, and are now beginning to make a reappearance as people become more comfortable meeting in person again in some situations.
The Wenger-Trayners third characteristic of a community of practice is "the practice", which is defined as "a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems ..." (2015). In the IndieHackers community, this shared set of information and experiences to draw from is ever present. It is present when an indie hacker asks for advice on how to optimize a sales conversion funnel and a host of other indie hackers reply with what previously worked for them in a similar situation. It is present when an indie hacker is a guest on one of the various podcasts in the community's network and shares an anecdote about the "aha! moment" that led them to start their business. The various tips, tricks, practices, and tools that can be leveraged to help non-venture capital startups succeed are regularly discussed and dissected by the group to reason down to the root of why that particular solution works for the situations where it does and why it doesn't work in the others.
How does IndieHackers adopt the seven principles for cultivating a community of practice?
Wegner lists seven principles for cultivating a community of practice. For each of those principles listed below, IndieHackers provides a clear illustration of how that principle can be put into practice.
Design for evolution
IndieHackers originally began as nothing more than a series of ten interviews with business founders whose creating narratives resonated with the original creator of IndieHackers. The early dialogs and responses to these interviews caused a well-known Silicon Valley venture-backed startup, the antithesis of what an indie hacker would aspire to build, Stripe, to acquire IndieHackers. This acquisition was fueled by Stripe's desire to see more tech-forward online businesses in the world since that demographic is Stripe's ideal customer segment. Because Stripe views IndieHackers as a "top of the funnel" customer acquisition mechanism, Stripe provides IndieHackers with a budget and some general guidance but otherwise lets the community self-organize with the gentle nudges from the core IndieHackers staff. This has allowed areas of the community to develop such as written interviews turning into podcast interviews turning into a network of related but distinct podcast shows.
Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
Because the IndieHackers community focuses on non-venture capital backed startups, which are the minority of tech startups, much of the discussion is through that lens. Occasionally, the IndieHackers podcast will have a guest who is not a self-identifying indie hacker. On those occasions, there is often informational discussion, both in the podcast episode and then in the community forum, about the advantages and disadvantages of applying the guest's provide information to indie hacker projects. While this isn't a clear two-way dialog and mixing of perspectives, it is almost always insightful and inspiring.
Invite different levels of participation
Because IndieHackers is in essence a customer acquisition strategy for Stripe with some ancillary benefits to members of the community who usually end up becoming Stripe customers, there is a wide variety of how members participate. Some members draw a salary from Stripe and their day job is to build the infrastructure that powers the IndieHackers web properties and serve as lead decision makers in the community. Other community members serve as volunteer moderators and help steward useful and respectful community interactions. The largest group of IndieHackers members are peripheral members who tend to consume more of the community's content than create it. Regardless of ones previous level of participation in the IndieHackers community, the community itself is encouraging and empowering of indie hackers however they choose to participate on any one topic/event/item.
Develop both public and private community spaces
While the IndieHackers community forum can be read by non-members, only members (i.e. someone who has created an account) can write in the forum. This allows the community to attract new members who find value in consuming the content and chose to move into the community and become a participant.
Additionally, the IndieHacker in-person meetups are private events that are only attended by community members. These private events share the same ethos as the online properties, but enable forming more personal connections within the community than the online properties do.
Focus on value
Usually when people find the IndieHackers community, they join it because they found some initial value in their interactions with the community. The exceptions to this rule are mostly people who Stripe has employed to enable IndieHackers and it is assumed that some of those employees only join the community initially because doing so is a prerequisite for doing their job functions. However, community members often quickly find value in the learnings that are gleaned from the various content and ensuing discussion put out by other community members. This is evidenced in the default ordering of forum posts by popularity as judged by the voting and engagement by the community. Presumably, a post would only be engaged with and then up-voted by a community member if they either received some value from it themselves or if they thought that the post would likely be of value to someone else in the community. This default ordering allows the most potentially valuable content to a community member to be presented first and foremost in the IndieHackers homepage.
Combine familiarity and excitement
While every business faces the same general shape of problem along its lifecycle, each business has their own unique nuance to their version of the particular general business problem. For members of the IndieHackers community, many of these business problems cannot be solved by simply "throwing money at the problem" as a venture capital backed business can because the companies that are created by indie hackers usually do not have extra cash on hand to spend. (As a member of the IndieHackers community myself, I cannot write that sentence without adding an aside that it is my belief that a VC backed business "throwing money at a problem" usually only solves the problem in the short-term as the solution to the problem becomes its own problem of being an often ongoing and often large cost).
Because of this nature of the problems faced by indie hackers, and because of the shared ethos that values clever non-monetary solutions to business problems that drive indie hackers to join the IndieHackers community, many times the community is able to discuss the issue in such a way as to unblock the stuck indie hacker in a way that allows all discussion participants to view their role and efforts in the community in a positive light. This "excitement" comes in the form of a dopamine hit by solving a problem within the bounds implied by the IndieHackers community ethos.
Create a rhythm for the community
The IndieHackers community rhythm is present, but is often imperceptible until after-the-fact. Because of the nature of the community, tech-forward startups, the projects and people involved in the IndieHackers community tend to be early adopters and advocates of new technology. This means that the IndieHackers community tends to be at the forefront of startups entering a new space. Currently, this is "web3" and cryptocurrency protocol backed projects, but only a year ago, the "new big thing" that many IndieHackers where building for were podcasts (Me included - see https://www.indiehackers.com/product/mortar-fm for an example of a project that was created during the previous tech hype cycle and has since been placed on the back burner).
The community does have regular rhythmic events such as a Black Friday deal sharing event where community members share their project's seasonal deals with the community, and many of the in-person meetups have their own regular cadence.
Stripe. (n.d.).Start a Profitable Side Project in 2020. Indie Hackers. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from https://www.indiehackers.com/start
Wenger-Traynor, E. and Wenger-Traynor, B. (2015). Introduction to communities of practice. Retrieved fromhttps://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/
Wenger, et al. (2002). Chapter 3. Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice.Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge.
This work was created for Instructional Design 6740 Digital Learning Theories at Bowling Green State University.