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If there's a common trope from the founding stories of startups, it's an origin story rooted in a niche community. These companies solved a problem a small group of people – getting a tight feedback loop and iterating quickly. Here are some niche communities that spawned billion dollar startups.
Palmer Luckey, one of the co-founders of Oculus, met John Carmack on a forum for VR enthusiasts. Luckey had been a longtime moderator of the community. Here's Luckey posting about his DIY headset in 2009. The Oculus Rift would be launched 3 years later.
WhatsApp found its roots in a travel community. An especially useful app for traveling entrepreneurs or immigrants with family in a different country. Apple would release push notifications a month after this post and completely change WhatsApp's utility.
Notch launched Minecraft in an indie gamer forum in 2009. Two years later, it would come out of beta and launch to a general audience.
The Homebrew Computer Club was a group of computer hobbyists in Menlo Park, California in the 1970s and early 1980s. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would demo the Apple I at one meeting.
Not only was the origin story of Apple intertwined with the Homebrew Computer Club, but Microsoft was as well. Gates wrote An Open Letter To Hobbyists which told hobbyists to stop pirating the BASIC interpreter he had built for the Altair.
Where are the communities today?
Many have moved to Discord. Other discussions have moved to Twitter. Some groups still use subreddits on Reddit. As an odd data point, all of these forum posts occurred in 2009 – WhatsApp, Oculus, and Minecraft. Was that the golden age of forums? (for me it was!)
What's the right size for a niche community?
Here are the community sizes at the time of these posts.
Minecraft – TIG Forums – 4000 members
Oculus – Meant to Be Seen Forums – 5500 members
WhatsApp – FlyerTalk – 180,000 members
The sample size is too small to extrapolate, but it's interesting that Minecraft and Oculus incubated in their smaller communities for longer, while the initial post might not have been as important to WhatsApp.
If you're part of one of these types of communities, let me know. I'm always on the lookout for new groups of interesting people!