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Building a community online with Sergi Mateo

The idea behind communities, both physical and online, is simple: gather a group of like-minded individuals who share similar interests, values, and goals, to build relationships while working towards them. 
But how do you actually do this? How do you make sure your community provides value and unites everyone under a shared purpose and set of values?
“What are we accomplishing together that we can’t do individually? That’s the big reason that people are going to keep coming back to your community. That’s why they want to be part of it. If it’s something they can do on their own, and they get that same value on their own, why would they need to be part of this greater group? It’s really about honing in on what’s that thing we can accomplish together that we can’t do individually.” - Spencer Jentzsch, How to build a remote community
After discussing what community really means with Spencer, the former CEO of Hacker Paradise, we reached out to Sergi Mateo, the founder of Workew and one of the biggest (more than 200k collective members so far) and most active communities for remote workers and entrepreneurs on the internet.

How do you define the main purpose of the communities you create online?

"Humans are a social species that tends to live in communities instead of separating ourselves as individuals and dispersing to unoccupied territories. The very same principles apply to the online world. This is the reason why social networks are the most downloaded mobile apps and the most visited websites on the internet. I always have the feeling that digital nomads have a strong sense of belonging because we don't simply want to meet people along the way, we want to be part of a supporting tribe of individuals whose values are aligned with ours. This is the main purpose of creating and maintaining online communities and why I'm very passionate about it. We are all united by the same lifestyle, traveling the world while working and building remotely."
The first community Sergi started, Digital Nomads Entrepreneurs helps “gather people with shared interests and business in order to be inspired and build great things together.” After that, he created a group specifically for Remote Work & Jobs for Digital Nomads, following his strong belief that everyone should get a chance to work remotely and find a remote role. You’ll see regular posts from members in the group asking for remote work advice and looking for other entrepreneurs to collaborate with. This is a great starting point if you’re looking for someone to venture on a new business opportunity with or start a new project. 
Additionally, Sergi noticed a demand for a group focused on location independent creatives and started the Photographers & Travel Nomads community. 

How did you manage to grow both of your groups into a thriving community of remote workers & nomads? What was the best strategy for attracting people & facilitating meaningful connections? 

"I've been working remotely for more than 12 years, but it wasn't until 2014 when I heard the term "digital nomad" for the first time, referring to location-independent people working remotely while traveling. At that time, I was living in Thailand and I knew that the nomad community would continue growing as more people embrace the possibility to work from anywhere as long as they have a laptop and an Internet connection. The idea of working from paradise locations such as Bali while maintaining a corporate job with a fixed salary, or starting your remote business surrounded by peaceful temples in Chiang Mai, was very appealing to many young people. They were looking for an alternative way of living, deviating as far from 9-to-5 working class culture as possible. So I decided to create the very first digital nomad community on Facebook, not only with the idea of creating a thriving and supportive online community, but with the intention of organizing monthly retreats and workshops for digital entrepreneurs across different locations in Asia. And everything took off from there. I invited my nomad friends, they invited theirs, and so on. Start from your own network first. In the early days, I had more than 600 daily requests from remote workers wanting to join the group!"

How do you motivate passive community members to participate?

"This is one of the greatest challenges for any community. There are always people more outspoken than others and that's completely fine. Actually, most of the digital nomads that I know are kind of introverts at heart. Nomads have a very flexible and independent lifestyle, and despite all the good things that come with it, we know that sometimes life as a remote worker or nomad can be tough as well. In my communities, everyone is free to participate, ask questions, recommend places, share travel ideas or look for business/travel partners. It's where people go to seek support or advice from fellow remote workers and nomads."

In your experience through conversations in the groups, what are the biggest needs & challenges of remote workers & nomads at the moment? 

"Loneliness and lack of human interaction. 
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public-health experts were concerned about an epidemic of loneliness in many developed countries. The reality is that working remotely doesn't help much in that regard. To some extent, unless you have family at home or friends available to meetup in your current location, your co-workers on Slack are your social circle. And, to be honest, sometimes it is hard to explain to others that all your friends are online. The pandemic definitely escalated this and I’ve been actively trying to be present within my communities to offer support. After weeks of working from home and lockdowns we had to go through, finding the courage to go out into a world with the virus still being prevalent and trying to connect with other people is a huge challenge. It is important to take measures to not feel isolated even when working from home or bootstrapping your startup from a newly rented apartment in a remote location. For instance, include social breaks in your schedule like lunch with friends, join local groups or meetups, attend networking conferences and try working at coffee shops or co-working spaces to at least feel like you're still a part of society. As mentioned with my communities, even though we exist and communicate online, we plan on putting a lot of effort into physical events and gatherings. You can find your community online and find a way to organize regular meetups. I am currently building a new social travel app that will help digital nomads, remote workers and long term travelers create more meaningful connections. This has been a challenge that I've been dealing with for awhile now and I think it's time for launching a platform that will solve this problem. In essence, you will be able to find like-minded individuals in a new destination (launching the beta version soon!). If you're interested in getting early access, please join any of my Facebook groups or follow me on Instagram for upcoming announcements."

What systems do we need to build that are lacking in the world of remote?

"This is already a widely discussed topic, but visa rules are still a challenge for most of us. I've held all kinds of visas while living abroad but even to this date, having a visa expiration date stamp on your passport creates a lot of stress. You're essentially being forced to leave a country in which you have already started building a life that you enjoy. Fortunately, many countries are seeing the remote work revolution as an opportunity to attract talent and boost their economy. But there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. My dream is to one day have a passport that allows me to travel without restrictions and limitations across countries. If you can prove that you can sustain yourself with a remote job that generates a steady income, or you run a profitable business and already have a global social safety net like the one SafetyWing is building for us, nobody should stop you from living anywhere in the world and having the freedom to stay as long as you wish."

How did the communities lead to you launching Workew?

"Workew was born with the goal of helping community members become location independent and work remotely. As the community was growing, the first question from new members was always around the same topic: how to travel and have a regular income at the same time. One of the most sustainable ways to achieve that is by getting a remote job and that’s exactly what you can find on Workew. As more companies are switching to remote, we have listed more than 350+ companies with open roles. But back at the time when we launched, it wasn't easy to spot remote job opportunities in the traditional job boards. There were only a bunch of tech startups with remote work friendly policies and we were among the first ones to advertise these positions. At Workew, we want to help connect companies and individuals who believe that great work can be done from anywhere."

How will remote communities continue to evolve? 
Online communities have been a lifeline for many of us that had to rely on these digital ecosystems for connection and conversation during the several lockdowns we went through in 2020 (and 2021 for many of us). But regardless of the current state of the world, creating personal and professional connections through online communities has and will continue to be one of the major ways technology is revolutionizing the way we communicate and live. As the world continues to open up, online communities will continue to have a huge impact on how we collaborate, share information, knowledge and experience remotely, but will likely go back to hybrid solutions and choose to hold in-person events in certain locations and, while basing most of their communication online, will be a great way for people to build connections both online and IRL. We might even see online communities be the catalyst for finding physical ones.  
As Sergi Mateo mentioned during the interview: “when communities stick together, everyone benefits."
New remote roles
As a result of companies shifting focus to community building, there are new remote roles emerging, such as: Community Designers. The role is inherently different from a community manager, but could be fulfilled by the same person. Think of it this way: Community Designers build the ship, while Community Managers make sure it's sailing smoothly. Late Checkout might be the company that coined the term.

About the author

Barbara Jovanovic

Head of Content
SafetyWing
Barbara is the Head of Content at SafetyWing and a location-independent visual artist/photographer/videographer. She is creating valuable resources and curating information for digital nomads and remote workers worldwide.