I’ve recently taken up a role in Gibraltar with a company that has created a successful global e-learning community within the iGaming sector. In the month since I started I have learned more about the important components of fostering community than I have learned over the past five years. I’d like to share some of those insights.

First a little background. Five years ago a professional poker player and a chess master got together to think about the best ways to teach others how to improve their respective games. Both had been embedded in their games communities thanks in particular to the rapidly evolving social web. They quickly realised that for them the most effective learning was achieved through purposeful coversations with other players in their networks.

Dominik Kofert (centre) co-founder of PokerStrategy.com accepting the iGaming Affiliate of the Year Award 2010

Out of those conversations PokerStrategy.com was born, with the vision of creating an online community focused on helping people improve their poker skills. Today the community consists of 5 million players across 19 different language communities in countless countries around the world. The company employs nearly 300 full-time people in Gibraltar and Germany together with hundreds more freelancers spread far and wide. PokerStrategy.com asked me to come on board to assist with their continued growth in both existing and new territories and in new verticals – a new e-learning community focused on trading will be launched soon.

So, what has PokerStrategy.com done to grow such large e-learning communities? Here are some of the key ingredients I’ve observed:

1. Passion

Many larger companies take this for granted. When you are small you live on it. When you are building a community you cannot do without it. The founders of this community and every one of the first 50+ employees was passionate about poker. They liked to play it, talk about it and meet with others who shared their passion. Think about it. Have you ever been a member of a club that was filled with people who were not passionate about the thing that club was about? Of course not. Online communities are the same. The members of a community need to see that those ‘in charge’ are as passionate about the topic as they are.

Thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier to demonstrate that passion to millions of people around the globe. The one thing that your competitors cannot replicate is YOU.

2. Participation

Dominik Kofert (aka Korn) is one of those original founders of the first PokerStrategy.com community. Today he runs a multi-million dollar company and yet every day he posts and interacts with other members of the community. Why does he do that? Well he firmly believes that his and every other paid employee’s participation in the community has been central to its continued growth. A community is an organic ecosystem that is fed 100% by the contributions of each member. The sum is greater than the individual parts. But every individual contribution, no matter how small, supports the overall health of the community. The participation of paid employees is central in demonstrating continued commitment towards the community and is noticed and appreciated.

Furthermore, when growing communities, your own proximity to the community is critical in helping to quickly identify potential difficulties or opportunities to improve how things operate. Your ‘customers’ are telling you every day what they think and if they feel they are not being listened to, they will go elsewhere.

3. Locally Global

No matter what we may think, most people think locally. We are most interested in what is happening in our locality, our region or our country. PokerStrategy.com figured this from early on. Starting from within the heart of Europe this type of thinking came naturally to the founders. While the English-speaking community remains a catch-all for poker players from around the world, among the most successful communities have been those with strong leadership and support structures within local territories.

Today PokerStrategy.com is run from a global HQ in Gibraltar. Here, 19 small teams consisting of native speakers are dedicated to supporting each different language community. They both observe and participate in the communities so that they can identify new strategies for improving the experience for members in their local community. Each community has its unique characteristics and it would be foolish to think that you could bring one template to the world and expect it to work universally.

4. Less is More

Many Internet start-ups make the mistake of continually adding new features to their product offering, often in the hope that the new functionality will compensate for the under-performing existing functionality. Every man-day you invest in new features is time you lose on polishing what you already have, making 120% sure that is works for your customers. In the age of social media, mobile apps and widgets I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at PokerStrategy.com to see that they had stuck to the knitting. To be fair, there is much more that the team would like to do in terms of features and functionality, but they have spent the vast majority of their efforts on ensuring that the core functions within their community work extremely well.

The trick is to realise early on what is the cement that binds your community. PokerStrategy.com focused on continuously improving and optimising this aspect of what they do.  If the core isn’t working, don’t hope that the fancy stuff will mask over the real problems.

5. Add Value

Every community must have a purpose. People participate in a community because they get something out of it. Education is a great way to add value and is one of the central activities in many communities or clubs that people participate in. From the start, the PokerStrategy.com community has had learning at its heart. Members keep returning since their active participation results in the improvement in their game play.

A community-based learning environment is different to a traditional college or open-university approach where all the expertise is centralised in a few lecturers. In a community approach the expertise is decentralised and therefore teaching is democratised. I can learn as much from someone who is just a little better than me as from someone who is a full-time pro. In fact, in real life most of my learning comes as a result of my interactions with people who know just a little bit more than I do. They are often in a better position to empathise with my current learning hurdles. Furthermore, learning in community is reciprocal as teachers too learn from the self-reflection required to become a good teacher. Thus many coaches in the PokerStrategy.com community are motivated to work for free since they are benefiting from the intrinsic rewards of teaching.