In the fifth part of our Ask the Expert series, Guild speaks with Leapers' Founder Matthew Knight.

Tell us a bit about your professional community and why you run it?

I started Leapers in the Summer of 2017, when I had just resigned from my job with a six month notice period. I didn’t have a job to go to, and was planning on using that six months to figure out what I wanted to do - and shared the exploration process publicly on LinkedIn. People were reacting well to my posts, but LinkedIn is not good for group conversations, so I wanted to create a place where we could continue chatting, and set up a Slack group - the purpose of which was to discuss how work was changing.

Two years on, the group now has over 800 members from over 17 timezones globally, and its focus has shifted to providing support for people who are changing the way they work, and stepping away from the traditional structures of being ‘full time employees’ - this is everything from remote workers, part-time and job-shares, portfolio careers, self-employed, freelancers, small business owners and more.

Whilst exploring how work is changing, and looking at how an increasing number of people are choosing to design working in different and more independent ways, as well as seeing how organisations are embracing this change, I’ve observed that shifts are happening but may have unintended consequences and gaps in support, which if they’re not addressed now, we’ll see a major negative impact on the workforce in 5-10 years time.

These are a skills gap (who is investing in the learning and development of talent?); a quality gap (when you’re hiring people for the duration of the project based upon availability and day rate, where is diversity, where is proactivity, where is relationship building, how can you build strong teams which work together well?); and a health gap (employers are responsible for the wellbeing of their talent, but if you don’t have an employer, who takes care of you? And if you’re hiring independent talent, how are you supporting their wellbeing?).

Leapers looks to address those gaps, starting with mental health - so we are currently a support group who aims to help each other out. We’re not a marketplace for jobs, we’re not here to make suggestions on which accounting software to use or explain what IR35 is, we’re not a network to find others to work with. We’re a support group to listen, and share wisdom if it’s appreciated.

We also run projects which aim to tangibly tackle the gaps, such as guides, tools and resources, our first publication this year, for instance, was an e-book aimed at people working for themselves, and how to look after their own mental health.

How do you combine face-to-face with digital in your community? How has this changed over time?

We’re a wholly online community - but many of our members have chosen to meet up offline. We have a number of ‘local’ chapters, for instance there’s a strong community on the UK’s south coast, and whilst we don’t actively facilitate any of these meetings, I know that many of our members have met, had coffee, and even collaborated on projects.

I expect this will only increase over time, and people have expressed interest in creating meet-ups, co-working and more. We have a policy that, if anyone wants to do something which aligns to our aims, we’ll support them how best we can. It’s also our 2nd birthday, and we are approaching 1,000 members, so I expect we might have a little party - so if someone wants to arrange a birthday party, let me know! :)

What tools or platforms do you use to engage with your community digitally? How have these changed over time?

We are almost entirely in Slack - it’s a great tool to get started with, but not necessarily the most intuitive of platforms, and I feel it is a barrier to many people, so in time, we might look for alternative approaches to managing the core of the community.

We’re also going to start to look at better ways of surfacing the wisdom and insight from the community, whether that be articles, content, podcasts, tools, profiles - I’m not sure how they’ll manifest yet.

What metrics or approaches do you use to gauge how well your community is working?

Nothing tangible or codified. Number of members is an obvious one, but that doesn’t speak to whether the community is effective, and volume doesn’t mean quality. I mostly listen, and seek feedback from people, to understand where the community is being helpful, where it isn’t, and most simply, if people are not engaging in something, we don’t force it, we just move on to trying something different.

What do you think are the hallmarks of a successful professional community?

Its members contribute, not just take.

Its members feel there is value in returning frequently.

It has impact outside of its direct membership.

It continues to run, even if it there is no ‘prodding’ of people to take part.

How important is it for a community to have some kind of host or leader to be successful?

I think every community quite naturally has people who help drive its direction, maintain momentum, make decisions when decisions need to be made. We’ve very recently moved from myself being this individual, as its founder, to putting a group in place, who are responsible for discussing how we take decisions, and agreeing between us how we better support the community. There’s always a balance between leadership and democracy which needs to be balanced.

Are there any professional communities outside yours that you admire (if so, why)?

DIFTKs has a great community which focuses on self-employed parents, and the unique set of challenges that community faces. I love its singular focus, not only because they do it with a good sense of humour, but also because I’m a single parent, freelance, and believe in the power of flexible working.

How do you personally research and learn about making your community the best it can be?

Listen. Lots of listening. To what people feel they need and want. But also make some critical observations about what people aren’t talking about, and looking ahead a little. I’m also always mindful of not duplicating effort.

There are so many wonderful communities which support freelancers and entrepreneurs, so if there is already a brilliant group doing stuff, we signpost and recommend existing things, rather than trying to ‘own’ our own.

It feels like communities are becoming more niche, and you’ll be a member of multiple communities to address your particular needs, rather than being part of one which answers them all. This is reflected in services as well as communities (I have Netflix, Amazon, Disney, etc for watching TV) - and might cause frustrations for many, as it’s hard to keep up to date with many of them at once (my Slack for instance has about 15 groups I’m a member of).

We still don’t have good tools to navigate, filter, browse and find information we’re looking for - and that means those with the biggest marketing budgets or sponsorship get an unfair advantage, regardless of the quality of their community and content.

I would love to see more ‘alliances’ of communities which have shared interests, so we’re working together rather than a sense of competing for members, and signpost to the resources where we can best support our members' needs.