Her journey into community building started on college campuses.
In the 2010s, Sarah Stockdale, now Founder and CEO of Growclass, built a thriving international community of students with thousands of members. Better yet, they were all buzzing about Tilt, the social payments startup she worked for at the time.
Sarah laid the foundations of her community by tapping into her own network (read: reaching out to kids she used to babysit who were now in college). This group snowballed from a small Facebook group to a buzzing multi-country community.
Soon, students were not only using the app but joining their curated ambassador program, hosting events, getting other students to use the app, and helping advertise on campus.
"We were building real relationships with our Ambassadors," says Sarah. "We built a great community, and I still keep in touch with a lot of our Ambassadors to this day."
By the time the company was acquired for $12 million, it had 6,000 campus Ambassadors across seven countries.
Her experience of the power of community meant creating one for her own company, Growclass, which was a no-brainer.
"Our community is our 'Trojan horse' — but in a really positive way," Sarah says. "People don't always think to pay for community, but they do pay for hard skills. So we focus on teaching them practical digital marketing skills. But everyone talks about the community in their testimonials. You need to feel a sense of belonging and support to learn something new."
Here, she tells the story of how Growclass — the online marketing learning platform she founded — came to be and the importance of community in online education.
Sarah: Growclass started as an experiment when I was running my consultancy, Valkerie. We worked with Series A and B startups to help them with growth strategy and acquisition — and our clients had a hard time finding great marketing talent.
Back in 2016, I was trying to hire growth marketers. I got so fed up that I just hired smart recent grads and trained them myself. Around that time, I'd secured the domain growclass.co, with the idea to eventually create a place where specifically women and marginalized folks could acquire hard marketing skills without the brotato-ness of the marketing courses that were out there at the time.
So when that problem came up again, we knew we had to try a course. I asked four of my smartest marketing friends to join me and teach the subjects they were experts in.
Bella Francis put up a Squarespace page and emailed our tiny list to let them know we were going to teach an 8-week, in-person growth course.
It sold out in 48 hours.
Bella and I would lug suitcases in the freezing pitch-black early mornings to set up rooms so we could make sure the room was ready for the students.
Our first cohort was a success (and so much fun). Our students secured promotions, better jobs and built their confidence. And more importantly, the group stayed really close.
Years later, we're still in touch with people who were in our very first cohort. Many of them are pillars in our community to this day.
From there, we did three cohorts in person. The third one was in March 2020, absolutely fantastic timing to be running a live course!
Fortunately, in 2019, we were already building Growclass online, but the process had been moving slowly as we kept up with clients and ran the course in person. We hired a course developer, Glenn Elliot. She is a genius and is still a part of our community. So when COVID hit, we accelerated the learning platform and had it running in 90 days. During that time, we also rebranded from Valkerie to Growclass — I don't think I slept much in those months.
Now Growclass is fully online, we've trained more than 750 students from all over the world.
Sarah: We believe that community and belonging are the foundations of learning, so when someone joins — we want them to feel like they're coming home.
When someone joins Growclass, they receive a welcome email and a guide outlining what will happen next. Then, a series of emails introduces them to different parts of the course and the community. Everyone joins the community from the cohort on the same day they onboard. So, on the day the course starts, we do a huge welcome waterfall on Slack with lots of emojis and gifs.
Every week we have live sessions that everyone in our community is invited to, co-working sessions, accountability sessions, and a mastermind call for solo-marketers.
We also have a lovely Ambassador program. We're fortunate that so many former students (about 40% of them) sign up to be ambassadors of Growclass.
Because we let people join any cohort (or more than one!) within the same year — we often have incredible Ambassadors welcoming the new folks into a fresh cohort.
They become something like friend-tors — a wonderful combination of friend and mentor.
People come to our community for what they can get (education, new skills) and stay for what they can give (support, guidance, and mentorship).
The very first video in the group class is about our values. It's about the kind of setup we've built and the importance we place on inclusion and belonging. There are no acronyms in Growclass because people who understand concepts don't need them to explain — and they can make folks new to the space feel really out of place.
We primarily serve women and marginalized folks because those are the people other marketing courses tend to leave out — so we're focused on creating a safe space where people of all identities can connect and learn. It's why we're so intense about our code of conduct.
And the right people tend to find us! Every single cohort, we are blown away by the intelligence and kindness of the folks who find Growclass.
The onboarding process is intentional because we want to create a space where new students immediately know what is going on when they join.
We often ask ourselves how we can make the first 15 days of the cohort sticky so folks want to come back to this community every day.
How do we help people make a friend in the first couple of days of joining Growclass? How do we make every new student feel included and connected?
These are the questions our whole team is thinking about 24/7.
The second part of this journey involves helping match-make folks who can help each other (or just become really lovely professional friends). It's hard to make friends as an adult — education can be a trojan horse for finding your people later in life.
This is important (and time-consuming). Recently we've been testing Meetsy to help us scale these connections!
A space for everything
We have a bunch of Slack channels we keep buzzing.
My favorites are #gratitoad, a place for gratitude; #wins, a place to tell us great things that happened; #hype-train, a place to get a little social love for our latest project; and #petsandpickmeups, a spot for sharing cute creatures. We also have a channel for each marketing channel in the course and a space for all student questions. No question goes unanswered, and if there are ever crickets — I jump in and make sure that person gets the help they need. I've personally sent over 30,000 messages in our Growclass Slack — so you'll hear from me!
Sarah: I remember talking to one of our students the other day, and they told me they recently had a seizure in a restaurant. They couldn't carry on with the cohort. They were really worried that they'd have to forfeit their tuition payment.
What?! Absolutely not. I think the university system has traumatized everyone into thinking that their needs don't matter, but education should never be run like that. Our students are humans. We are humans. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and care, so we build an incredible amount of flexibility into our programs.
That student got well and then joined a future cohort that made the most sense for her, and then came back to join our writing course as well. She's an incredible member of our community.
At Growclass, you're not just coming into an online course, plugged into a learning management system, and left to fend for yourself. That's most of the internet, but it's not what we're about. You deserve to have the value you paid for come back to you 10x, and that's my personal goal for every student.
There are a lot of humans buzzing around and checking in on you, connecting you, and cheering for you. It's why folks who took Growclass three years ago are still active in our community.
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