How To Start A Community With Kris Hughes

Stephen: Hey guys, welcome to another episode of the Digital Masters Podcast. Today we have on Kris Hughes. He is the founder of the Leapfrog Collective community, and he's helping professionals build their personal brands and show who they are, to help them build up their careers. A lot of people are talking about building community but Kris is actually doing it.

So I wanted to sit down with him and talk about how he's going about it. What software is he using? How is he actually thinking through this whole thing? How is he developing the pricing? All the things that we think about, worry about. Kris is going to show us how to do it and I look forward to it.

So let's get into it.

Stephen: What’s going on, Kris? Hey, thanks for being on the show today, man.

Kris: Yeah. Exciting. Thanks. Thanks for having me on. Looking forward to the conversation.

Stephen: Yeah, of course, man. I've been seeing your content for a while. I actually had this guy, Darrel, on my podcast and I know you guys have worked together in the past.

And so I've been following you for a while, but then you just started getting on video. And that's where I really started to learn more about you and your personality. That's what I think is cool about video. Appreciate you spending a little bit of time here and chatting with me.

Kris: Yeah, no doubt, man.

Stephen: So before we get into talking about community building, I did want to ask you about your journey getting on video. Because I think this is a pretty important thing for people in general. So I'm curious, what was your journey like for getting on video? Was it hard for you? What did you have to overcome if it was hard?

Kris: Yeah, it's interesting. For a long time, I feel I hid behind my written content on LinkedIn. I was really focused on that and was creating a lot there, written-wise, post format, and doing a lot of carousel posts and things of that nature, but hadn't really dived into video.

I had a little bit of a background in the early days of my career. I worked in the sports industry and in sports media. So I had done some podcasting in the past and had done a little bit of video back then. I thought, I want to dive back into this and try it again, to get my face back out in front of myself.

And as part of what I'm doing to build my brand and really what kicked it off and moved it forward is I took a video intensive here in Austin with a group called Fireshow Media. Some local guys, Moby Hayat and Austin Larson. It was a six week video intensive and I dove into it head first and learned their process.

I went from there and really took it forward and shot those first few videos. They were really bad. I self-shot, iPhone style and went from there and feel I improved by doing. And that's really ultimately what it's about. You have to make the decision to rip the bandaid off and get out there and do it because otherwise it's not going to happen.

Stephen: That's cool. Yeah. I took a video course as well. And that helped me a lot. I think there are ways of accelerating the process, but I think you're right. In the end, you have to get out there and just do it. I've made a couple of posts about this, but my first couple of LinkedIn videos, I was super stressed.

People are always asking me, probably you, too. What's the ROI with content marketing? I always tell them, yeah, clients. Yeah. Get business, all that kind of stuff. That is obviously why most of us do it to begin with.

But don't forget about the feeling that you conquer some of these fears that you've had about video, articulating your value, showing people who you are, getting out there, don't underestimate those things. Because I think those things are  priceless, essentially.

Kris: There's a lot of growth that comes from it. When you get out there, especially with video, and you're saying things and you're repeating things, I learn through that repetition.

So ironically, I almost feel like I'm teaching myself some of the nuances that I might not have really thought about if I was writing about it, or if I'm reading somebody else's content or I'm listening to the podcast, I'm watching someone else on video.

When I'm talking about it myself, I started to pick up on things I'm saying, and then, okay, I hadn't thought about it that way before. Maybe I need to think about that approach that I'm talking about and actually apply that.

So I feel like a lot of that repetition that comes through video almost as a self-teaching moment and that's part of what I like about it. And it's really interesting. And it's the connection point. I feel like I've made a lot of deeper connections. My engagement on my content has gone way up since doing video.

I've built more authentic and close connections with people once I started doing it, because there's not that barrier there where people can't see my face or hear my voice, hearing the accent.

Stephen: So yeah, when I saw your first video, I was, yeah, all right, here we go!

You mentioned one of the things that I thought was really interesting, because I've heard a lot of people say this. It's like you said, ‘hiding behind my written content.’ And that was an interesting way you said that because I have run across quite a few people, there's no judgment, but they say, ‘it's my thing.’

And to a certain degree, not everybody has to get on video. It's not a requirement, but I do think that you hit on something. People do sometimes hide behind the things that they're good at and they come up with justifications to continue that. And so I think it's interesting that you hit on that because I like to encourage people to break out of those boxes.

Yeah. It's  an interesting point.

Kris: The comfort zone thing is really cliche. And you hear that all the time when you want to do what you're least comfortable doing. But it wouldn't be a cliche if it didn't have some elements of truth to it.

And I think that's where that comes from. As soon as you get out of your comfort zone and get over that fear of putting your voice and your face out there, it takes things to the next level. Yeah, I think it's a level up almost in my mind when you're doing it.  Written content, that’s one thing, but then you're leveling up when you're doing video.

Stephen: Yeah. I feel the faster you make yourself uncomfortable and get over it, the faster you grow. And I'm always trying to remind myself that every time I'm uncomfortable. I have to remind myself it's a process. And then remind myself that, hey, whenever I've seen my fastest growth, it was the most uncomfortable.

Get good at feeling uncomfortable, no doubt. No doubt.

So you're building the Leapfrog Collective, the community. I've been following that. I've been really interested. Maybe first, tell us real quick, I'm going to give you 60 seconds so we can dig into how you're going about building this, but for some context what is it, who's it for? And why'd you start it?

Kris: Sure. Something I continue to see over and over again on LinkedIn, especially with college students and young professionals and people in transition, who are obviously looking for a way to get a foothold in the internship search and the job search, they’re putting content out there basically saying, “I'm looking for an internship or I'm looking for a job and getting tired of what I'm doing. I want to move on.”

But they aren't creating the content that would help them flip that narrative.

And really that's what it's about for me, helping people find their voice so they can really show the world who they are and flip the narrative of the job and internship search in the same way that you and I do through content marketing.

So they have people coming to them with internship opportunities or for job opportunities. Because they keep showing who they are through thought leadership. Yeah, it's a lot of what we're working for on the platform. Really digging into some challenges, copywriting challenges on LinkedIn, growth challenges to get people interacting and engaged.

But it's all centered around, for most, everybody is a free member, so everybody can come on as a free member. And then I have a couple tiers of paid opportunities as well for people that really want to take it to the next level and get access to some exclusive content along the way.

Stephen: Yeah, that's cool. And what I like about your community, too, is a lot of times people are talking about revenue. “Let's build the business.” But it seems you're focused on helping people. Maybe there are people in your group that are trying to do that as well, but you’re really trying to help them show who they are as opposed to having a tangible money kind of opportunity.

Kris: Yeah. It's compounding returns in my mind and that's the core of what drives everything that I do. I'm growing that community and developing the relationships there within the community and getting people more interactive and engaged within the community.

I feel the monetary aspect will come in time and there will be things to leverage off that interactivity and engagement. But I didn't want to dive in and be “money first. You got to pay to have access upfront,” because no one's going to do that. Let's be honest.

They want to come in and test drive first and feel things out and see what it's all about before they commit to spend much. Even if it's not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.

Yeah, I didn't want to put a gate up front. The community is for the free content and for the initial interactions, because I felt I could kill it before it even started. And that was my mindset on it.

Stephen: Oh, yeah, I know that's admirable, too, but I mean in terms of a lot of times when people are selling content marketing to people, it's always revenue driven, “Get clients and get customers,” but you're really trying to help people show who they are to the world.

And I think in the end, even people that are trying to help people generate revenue, that's at the core of it. So people put a shell around it. “Hey, I'm gonna help you get clients or get revenue,” but in the end, content is showing people who you are and getting your voice out there, demonstrating your expertise in that thought leadership space.

Kris: And if you're doing that, the organic interest comes in time. If you're building it up correctly, if you've got a through line in your messaging, if you're solving the pain points, the customers that you want are going to come to you. You don't know when that tipping point is going to be.

You know what they always say on LinkedIn content. You never know who's watching. You might not get a lot of interaction or much engagement on a post, but it might be your best post because a lot of people that you don't know were paying attention are paying attention and for sure will come out of the woodwork and things change.

Stephen: I hear a lot of people say that. But I can confirm that a lot of times the people that reach out to me have never, ever interacted with one of my posts at all.

When you were thinking about building this, what were some of the first steps that you took?

I'm thinking about building a community and I have a vision of what it is going to be. What were some of those first steps that you went through to get the ball rolling?

Kris: A little bit of idea validation. I'm going to reach out to three, four or five people that I already connect with pretty closely, who engage with my content or I've had conversations with on LinkedIn or otherwise, and ask them, what do you think about this? Is it something that you think you could value and get value from? Would it be valuable to you and what would you like to see from it? Pick their brains a little bit.

I didn't go the whole route of starting a Facebook group or something like that to validate the actual delivery of the content and the mechanisms.

It was more feeling it out and seeing what people thought about it. And then, my notion was to get the name, get the branding, get the website up. A one-pager that tells the story. But then really drive people to a LinkedIn page, a community page for the community and keep sending people back in that direction and tagging it.

Stephen: It seems like you've got quite a few followers on that page already.

Kris: Yeah, there's 120, I think at this point. So it's grown organically over the past few months, and then a good number of those people signed up when I launched. Yeah, that was my notion to drive everybody into this community and keep feeding and dripping content there. And then, work to pull those people onto the platform from the community.

Stephen: Yeah, that's cool. And I remember last year you reached out to me and I think you started a different community. Or maybe you had just started a Slack community for content creators. And I was going to join. The reason why I didn't was only because I was busy. Because I thought it would have been interesting.

But walk me through the thought process. There was obviously an iteration you were going through. I think that would be helpful for people to understand that you started someplace and then you stopped and then you found your footing.

Kris: Yeah, with that, I had the idea of a collab lab. It was going to pull everybody together that were content creators to collaborate on projects in terms of link building and pointing each other in the direction of opportunities. I've done a lot of that type of work in the past.

It seemed like a natural extension of my skill set and what I've done before in a recruiting capacity, building writing teams and in previous roles. I got into it and thought, yeah, this makes sense, but I had to be honest with myself. I felt like it was going to be a really heavy lift and not enough return down the road.

None of us are a charity essentially. So I had to back off of that and rethink. What can I do to still provide value and ultimately help people really get their footing and get established, but also have the ability to monetize it on the back end?

I didn't see that through the community that I started with, but it was a great iteration because it got me in the mindset and got me thinking about it, and then to move from there.

Stephen: Yeah. And I think that's the message I was thinking about. With these things, whether it's creating a product or a community, even getting on video, you have to start to actually try and do things.

Like the community I'm talking about. I could have probably already had it up and running. I am doing a bunch of different things, so it's hard to fit it all in your head. But the faster you do these things and try them out, the faster you find out this wasn't the idea for me, for whatever reason.

I run across a lot of people who want me to explain all of the things that could possibly go wrong. Or how do I prove it before I ever do it? And I'm saying, it's not gonna pan out that way.

Kris: We all learn through trial by fire. Who doesn't? If you're not trying very hard, you're not extending yourself really if you're not learning. Those lessons, it’s the hard way to some extent.

It's not going to derail your career or derail the business that you're building, but it certainly results in teaching moments and learning moments that you apply to what you do next.

Stephen: Yeah. But did you learn in the second round to do a little bit more market research the second time? Did you learn to do that from the experience of the first one?

Kris: I don't know that they were directly related. It was more seeing the obvious niche and obvious gap opportunity with what I'm doing with Leapfrog versus what was there with my original idea.

I think I could have built it as well because there was definitely an interest in it and it was growing quickly. But I think it was different. They were different types of opportunities and different types of communities.

I do think that the market research component is important. But you don't want to get into analysis paralysis where you're beating it to death and saying, Oh, I don't know. Looking at all these numbers, I'm not getting what I want to get out of an MVP, or I've built this little small cohort to test it out and they're not interacting with me. It must be a terrible idea.

That's not necessarily the case. You have to go do it.

Stephen: Yeah, I remember when COVID hit. I was not building a community, but when I built the first product I had, I just had to do it. I got a few people into it and I actually found a lot of problems with it. A couple of people weren't interested.

But it was those experiences that kind of led me to where I'm at now. And I dunno, I think it's actually a fun and interesting process to go through.

I'm looking forward to seeing where yours goes. And I've been watching you and getting some ideas.

And so this might seem like a mundane question, but what kind of software are you using to put all this together? I know you've got your website. People could use a million different things for that, but how are you running the actual community software?

Kris: The website is WordPress, just a regular old WordPress website.

I'm using the Circle community platform, . I have seen a lot of pretty heavy hitters using it. Pat Flynn uses that for his Smart Passive Income community. I figured if he's using it, it must be pretty solid cause that's a substantially large community there.

And I tested out a lot, I tested out four or five platforms, did a test drive, did some demos, some free trials. And it was really the simplest. And what I liked most about it is it has this feel almost a combination of what would look like a Facebook feed in terms of the feeding of the content and the comment threads.

And then you've got a sidebar with where you can set aside categories driven around hashtags. And it really looks like a nice mixture of Slack and Facebook.

It has a Giphy integration, which is awesome. So you can pull up gifs any time and throw those in. It doesn't have native streaming which I'm hoping that they'll add. You can do a lot of video.

Stephen: Did he do live streaming or something?

Kris: Yeah, you can't do it natively within the platform yet, but they're evidently working on it and I think that'll be a big upgrade and a big addition for them when they get there. I liked it the best of the ones I tried out.

Stephen: Can you post a video to it?

Kris: Yup. Yeah. I do my podcasts every week and I do promotional snippets for those, same as on my podcast previously. And I have all those hosted there on the site.

Stephen: Cool. And does it integrate payments and stuff like that as well?

Kris: Yeah, I'm using a Stripe integration which was really pretty seamless.

They actually have a built in as an option using WPForms for forms. It let me tie the Stripe integration into WPForms, which is pretty seamless into WordPress. So I had to patch it together a little bit. It feels pretty good.

Stephen: That's what I'm wondering. Is the payment going through your website or does the platform do it?

Kris: People pay on the site using the Stripe integration through WPForms.

Stephen: I see. I gotcha. So the community platform itself doesn't offer it?

Kris: That was one downside, but the other upsides were substantial enough that I was happy with where it was going.

Stephen: And then in the platform itself, it sounds like you have a different structure of plans. It sounds like you have a free plan. And then how does the software manage different plans and give access to different things?

Kris: Yeah. It's limited by spaces. So you have spaces that you can create space groups, which are headings essentially. And then you have spaces within those space groups.

So I have a community and everything that's for the free community. And then I have a members only section, which has everything that's available to paid members. I can gate that and invite people to that content. So that keeps it separated from the community section.

Their plans are based on the number of spaces that you want to use. I think the free playing caps out at 10 total. If you want to use more than 10, which you'll need to do to set up the community, you go to the next level plan. Their mid-level plan is 80 bucks a month.

Stephen: Got it. Actually I get a lot of questions about this.

How did you decide? A lot of people are going with Slack. A lot of other people say don't use Slack because it's hard sometimes for people to use. A lot of people aren't familiar with Slack and a lot of people are already on Facebook.

And so with Facebook it's nice because you're not asking people to log into yet another place. So what was your thought process on picking something and going for it and not doing something different?

Kris: Yeah, that's a good question. I think Facebook has its place for sure. But I didn't want to get to the point where I'm building a large Facebook group and then all of a sudden I'm, “Hey, everybody, guess what? We're going to move to this other platform now,” because I actually want to make a little money.

I just saw that as a barrier to entry and something ultimately that would be painful for everybody down the road if they got used to and addicted to using the Facebook group platform.

I think Slack can get overwhelming for people, especially if they're using it for work and they've got three or four or five different accounts. They've got all these different feeds and notifications are pinging and going off all the time.

So my thought was really to isolate it and make it separate, make it deliberate and intentional. If somebody is coming to the community, they're coming there for that purpose. And hopefully the distraction will be a little bit less and that increases engagement.

Stephen: Yeah. I, one thing I think is with Slack, I think that sometimes it's a disadvantage because there's, it's  there's an app you can download and the way they make you log into all the different sites, I think it was actually clunky. And then Facebook has its disadvantages as well.

And yours is a web app, right? It's in the browser. It's not like it's something that they have to install or anything like that.

Kris: It's redirected. So if you click on my community page, it automatically redirects to the platform on Circle. There's a couple of ways you can go about it.

They have a widget integration where if you didn't want to go that route, you can click on a widget integration. It's like a bubble that's in the bottom corner. And that pops it up, like in a light box style, like overlays your website. So that's another option. But I thought the redirection would be the easiest because people have seemed to be cool with it so far.

Stephen: Yeah. Cool. In terms of  promotion, one of the things I saw you do that I thought was pretty cool was you made a couple of posts where you, I'm assuming to people that are in your community, you said, does this person look like you, or does this person feel like you?

How have you thought about doing the promotion? What's been the process that you've gone through to promote this in a constructive way?

Kris: Yeah. Those are really thinking through personas. The more I watched and the more I talked to people, those were really my three primary personas. So I wanted to put those out there and tell a story around those three.

I thought that was a good way to approach that. I've seen people do similar things in the past. I did a few kind of click-through type walkthroughs early on before launch where I'm basically live streaming and walked people directly through the platform to show them a sneak peek of what it would look like.

Because I'm sitting here talking about it, I'm telling you how great it is, but I want you to see physically what it actually is. So you can have a visual. So I did that and then really started to brand the podcasts weekly around it as well, to keep driving that home.

Stephen: Yeah. And I think you're using those live streams as the content to help people go through, I could be wrong, but I’m hearing you say that it became your training manual, too.

Kris: Yeah, it was every Friday for four weeks, walking people through the platform and people joining them live. When they weren't able to join live, I would hold them and put them on an unlisted YouTube link and offer that link for a limited time.

Because I didn't want to leave a stream up on LinkedIn for too long. People cherry pick it. So I leave it up for two or three hours and give people that unlisted link, and do it again.

Stephen: Cool. So then walk us through. You talked a little bit about it before, but you have a free plan and a paid plan.

Kris: Yes. On the free one... Yeah, go ahead...

Stephen: I was going to say, tell us a little bit of how you developed the pricing model and then what is the difference that that people will experience. I'm sure this was a difficult thing you went through when you were thinking about it.

It's that real sensitive area. So tell us what you were thinking.

Kris: I had a lot of iterations there playing with price point, playing with features, pulling some off onto the paid plan and off of the paid plan. They're really thinking, okay, in the free plan, I want to offer some basic content that shows people okay, here's what you can expect to see.

I'm going to pull up new pieces of content every two days, wanting to give them the opportunities to interact and chat. I have the resources section, which is literally all the resources that I use in my daily work as a content strategist and what I do with my clients, so they can have an easy way to build their tool stock for free, by clicking around.

And, those people are always asking me, what was that tool? What did you use there? What'd you do there? So I am giving that away. Essentially I have an announcement section, have a couple of sample pieces of content, so people could see what the members only content will look like, as a teaser.

Then the separation point with the first tier of paid plans is the higher level content that's more tactical, more actionable, I think more granular where it gets into more detail of the high level concepts than the free content. I'm going to offer town halls once a month.

I'm gonna have a speaker come in and do a talk on a subject and open up a live Q and A. Going to do office hours twice a month, that is basically a two hour block on Zoom where people can come to talk to him and ask questions, gonna have a job and internship board and going out and curating jobs and internship opportunities and putting those up there.

So people can go there to look at those rather than bouncing around all the different social mediums. So that's the paid plan.

And then I'm doing a premium plan. That's the high end offering, which includes one one-on-one coaching session a month. And also a brand audit six times a year.

We'll actually dig into people's content and tell them, yeah, this is good. Here's an opportunity for improvement. Here's how we can improve your mix. That's cool. Things like that.

Stephen: And then how did you develop those products essentially? Was it through feedback or was it through...

Kris: A lot of observation of people and doing some more things...

I feel like...

Stephen: Yeah. Yeah, that's interesting. I'm going through that phase right now. So you felt  you had to have that free level to get the momentum going.

Kris: Yeah. And obviously you can go either way. The other route to go, which I considered, is wait listing people for a long time.

So you build the wait list, build that email community. Drip content, build value through that email cadence, and then pull up to launch, open the doors and see what happens. I think a lot of people do that and it works but it has a longer runway. I really wanted to get it done and get it out there.

So that was my reason behind going the free route, rather than trying to do it through email marketing and in dripping content and trying to pull people on all as paid members upfront.

Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of the main arguments I've heard for having a paid model upfront is essentially trying to make sure that people want to be there.

And one of the things that I've heard is really important is having engagement on the platform. That when people are paying, that when people are willing to pay, it's obviously...

But yeah I know that there's no right or wrong answer, obviously most of the Facebook groups are free. I’m curious for my own thing, about your thought process behind it.  

Kris: Yeah. It's interesting. It was a hard decision. Now the engagement piece is the challenge. Now that the doors are open, right? I've got the people in, how are you gonna keep them engaged? How do I get them engaged?

This is part of what's really cool about the analytics within Circle, as you can see. I see activity every day and see what people are doing, how many active members I have, what they're doing as they click around, trying to use some of that to inform what I do to keep people engaged.

Stephen: Yeah, that's probably one of the stressful parts of putting it out there. It's like you get people in and out. Because I remember when I got my mastermind going, I saw some of the people consuming the content, some of the people not consuming the content, some of the people showing up every week, and then some of the people not showing up.

And, it's stressful. You want to please everybody, but you can't. Yeah, so it's hard to negotiate that because there's probably something that you could be doing to drive more engagement, but there's probably some people that you can't and won't ever reach.

And so mentally figuring out where that line is probably something that you're right in the middle of.

Kris: Yeah, absolutely. Reading a lot and hearing a lot about kind of a rule of thirds. You're going to have that one third, that's going to be highly engaged and will probably turn into your moderators or the people that help you when you get to the growth point.

Then you've got the middle third that'll dip in every now and then if something really catches their attention and then, like LinkedIn, you probably have some lurkers in the background who may be getting value out of what you provided and they may love the community, but they're not the type to step up and engage or interact, but that doesn't mean they're not valuable and doesn't mean that they're not important for the community structure as a whole.

Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. I know what people do is going to be valuable. It’s funny, because I was talking to somebody the other day. He was hiring somebody and there were all these people that applied, but he ended up finding somebody he saw on YouTube and he liked their energy.

And they weren't even doing the same thing that his job was. It wasn't even the same thing. But this person, I want to work with this person. He reached out and he hired that person. I thought that was a pretty convincing story about how this stuff actually plays out.

Kris: That's crazy. It can happen.

Stephen: It’s gonna happen more and more, too. And the thing I encourage people to do is do it before you need it. Yeah. Don't wait until it's too late.

Kris: There's another, there's an assumption. You've got that comfort level. You get caught up in your day to day, and then one of those life moments happens. And if you have that background foundation to fall back on, it's a lot easier to make that next step and pick up some momentum than it is if it's not there to begin with.

So I think that is the case for doing it.

Stephen: Yeah. I started my podcast not really that long ago. And it's amazing how week after week I look back and now it's man, I have a ton of stuff on there covering all these different topics and people can run into that.

And it  builds up over time. So it's a pretty amazing thing.

We talked about it but tell everybody what else you might want to tell them about the community that you're building and specifically where they can get a hold of it?

Kris: Sure. So the website is and we've got the big community on LinkedIn and you can check us out there, get a feel for what's going on.

You'll see me tag it all the time in my LinkedIn content. And yeah, it's a community for emerging professionals and ambitious people who want to show the world who they are through content creation and building their brands.

We're going to be working a lot on finding your cause. What I call frames and buckets basically is where you have your buckets of content, your different types of categories of content that you're going to work on and your frames and how you frame that content.

So that's a lot of what we're going to dig into kicking off the membership side of the community, the paid side on March 1st, and also kicking off a LinkedIn growth challenge on March 1st, where we're going to do a LinkedIn activity every day for 30 days.

It has to do with strengthening their profile, outreach, commenting, yeah, everything that I do and everything that I've seen people succeed do to build their communities and their following and get good opportunities from the platform.

Stephen: That's awesome, man. I look forward to it personally, to see where you grow.

I know that what you're doing is not easy. And so I respect you for doing that. I'm about to follow your footsteps on that. Maybe you can help me out here and there.

And I appreciate you coming on and sharing this knowledge because a lot of people are talking about community. Not too many people are building a real dedicated community, so much respect to you.

And I appreciate you being on the show. And having me on your podcast as well. So yeah, looking forward to continuing the back and forth and thanks a lot, man.  

Kris: Yeah. Thanks, Stephen. I enjoyed it.

Reach out to Kris:

Stephen G. Pope
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