Public.com Director of Community, Willa Tellekson-Flash, talks about how the investing mobile-only app views social community differently than other financial apps and how it prioritizes community in strategic planning. We also discuss the marketing trends that stand out to her.
Willa Tellekson-Flash is Public.com’s Director of Community, where she engages with its diverse community of investors. Previously, Willa worked on the CX team at LOLA and held editorial roles at Here Magazine (Away) and Well+Good. You can find her on Public at Public.com/willatf.
0:53 Megan Ingram (MI): On today's Your Brand. Your Story. podcast episode, Willa Tellekson-Flash joins the show who is Public.com’s Director of Community, where she engages with its diverse community of investors. Public.com is on a mission to make the public markets work for all people. Previously Willa worked on the CX team at LOLA and held editorial roles at Here Magazine and Well+Good. How's it going today?
1:16 Willa Tellekson-Flash (WTF): It's good to be here. Thanks for having me, Megan.
1:18 MI: Yeah, I'm really excited. A big fan of the business model for Public.com, but really excited to dive into community and all those types of things today.
1:30 WTF: Yeah. I think we at Public love community, but I get to focus on it every day. So I'm particularly excited to be able to chat all about our community with you.
1:41 MI: Awesome. So like I said, I'm a big fan of the business model for Public.com and they're doing some very unique things in the financial space, being inclusive, educational, and social. I'd love for you to share, to start off how your model is different from others and its so-called competitors.
1:58 WTF: Yeah. If you open the app store and if you're looking for an app to use, to invest, you have so many options. But we're approaching it differently than just a place where you can deposit money and invest money. And it's not just a simple stock brokerage. We're focusing on building features for retail investors in order to make the markets feel like they're more approachable and like there's something that everyone can participate in. So, what does that mean? We're building a social network around the stock market. So it's a place where you can have conversations about the trades that you're making, about trends that you're seeing in the market about business news. Terminology that you are not quite sure what it means. And then we're also building features to give retail investors like you and like me more access to people running these companies. So we have a feature called “town hall” where you can submit questions directly to a company CEO, and hear directly from them. We also launched a feature called Public Live recently where industry experts can talk about market trends in the news and sort of like a radio broadcast feature to just give people in our community more access to information and conversation about what's going on. There are two extremes right now when it comes to investing. There's the super active day trader who is paying attention to what's going on in the markets all day long, every single day, and then on the other end, there's the passive investors who may have a recurring deposit into an account that they don't really touch or don't really look at. There's an in-between space, right? For people who are interested in knowing what they're doing and feeling. They're empowered to invest, and we want to help them feel like they have all the tools that they want to do that and community. In addition to the features that I mentioned just a moment ago is a really big part of that, because it brings conversation to the forefront and it allows you to tangibly interact with your investments by talking to other people who are doing the same thing.
4:23 MI: Yeah. And I like how you touched on the people who are maybe a little bit more passive, or maybe don't even feel like whether they should be an investor or not, doing cool things within the app and within social, in a social platform to make them feel educated and feel like, Hey, maybe I can do this.
4:41 WTF: Yeah. The mission of Public, which you mentioned in your intro, we're on a mission to make the public markets work for all people, because it hasn't historically felt like they have. I didn't see myself as someone who could be an investor prior to starting this job. Investing seemed super intimidating to me. And creating a place where people can be curious and not need to know all the answers all the time and learn as they go, rather than feeling like you have to go read six books where you have built out your strategy before you deposit some money into something and then do it. No, you can learn about investing while you're investing on Public, which I think is really cool.
5:23 MI: Yeah, that's awesome. Now you touched a little bit on some of the features within the platform, but I'd love for people who maybe haven't used the app before. How does social actually work on the app and maybe give us one capability that you believe sets it apart from other financial investing apps since it is a mobile only platform.
5:40 WTF: Yeah. So when you first open Public, the first thing that you see is a feed. Conversation, a feed of people. It’s a caption that someone might have posted when they made an investment or a post that someone might have created about a new feature that a company they're invested in just released and that they're really excited about instead of opening an app, seeing pages and pages of charts and numbers and account details, you're looking at a social feed first and that, to me, highlights the central piece of community to the app. And we're working to build more complex social features, but at its heart, being able to post a caption about something that you're investing in, or being able to post a comment on someone else's investment and ask them why they were interested in that company or why they believe in that company. Those basic features that allow people to have conversations, I think are some of the most powerful. And they've been around since the beginning of this platform. But you don't get that in a lot of places. We're building on top of that, but I think at its core, the ability to interact with other investors and not feel like you're in a silo, trying to make the right decision is one of the most powerful pieces.
7:06 MI: Yeah. I think it’s so cool about the model, especially highlighting the key component of community and whether you're talking about your business model or really any other business out there, it’s really having the ability to build community and build engagement and build conversations is really so key to being able to create, have your customers feel valued and all these other really great things.
7:30 WTF: Yeah. I think when it comes to topics that are either intimidating to people or might be sort of uncomfortable to talk about. And I think of money as being one of those things. We don't know, we don't talk about money all the time at the dinner table or with our friends and with our family. In my experience and in my opinion, being able to have open conversations about a topic makes it feel a lot less scary. And so even if it's just asking a simple question, or being able to share your perspective on something, those pieces of a social platform are engaging, sure. But at a much deeper level, they're making something that I think has felt intimidating and unapproachable to a lot of people. So by opening up conversations about it, as soon as you talk about something, as soon as you can ask questions or talk about what you don't know, I think it becomes less scary and then you're more excited to participate in it.
8:39 MI: Yeah. Totally agree. Now, just in your opinion, how would you say you have used and viewed “community” differently than some other organizations out there?
8:50 WTF: “Community” is such a buzzword right now, which I think is a double-edged sword. I think it's largely positive, but “community” looks different at a lot of different companies, their support communities, their developer communities, their brand communities. But going to a deeper level of what I think makes community at Public different is that “community” isn't something that we've built around our product - community is directly at the core of what Public is. And we're continuing to build and grow this platform. For our community of investors, based on this mission that we have, but we wouldn't be able to do that without our community either because it's the conversations, it's the insight sharing. It's the dialogue that makes Public what it is. It's not just, oh, that's a good business strategy. It's a, this is really the heart of what we're doing. And it makes it matter in a completely different way.
9:53 MI: When the community can carry on its own, where those people within it are having those conversations and building each other up. That's when you know you've got something special because it's not really you as a company necessarily setting the tone. The people within it, really talking and engaging together.
10:15 WTF: I heard someone describe or define community once as a space where your community members are coming to help one another. And that goes exactly to what you just said. You're in a good place. It's healthy, it's successful. If those people are finding value and coming back to interact with one another and not just your product.
10:39 MI (voiceover): There are two things there that I think are just awesome about what Willa said. And the first is inclusivity. And it's evident in every part of their brand that they want people who don't think that they're naturally investors to invest. And that's so important when building a brand to make sure that you're being inclusive of your audience across different ethnicities, different types of people, different backgrounds, and Public.com is just such a great example of that. And the second thing is curiosity. They've built a platform where it enables people to be curious. It enables people to want to ask questions. It enables people to want to talk with each other, and that's what has propelled this great community to be as successful as it has been.
11:29 MI: Yeah. Taking that a little bit further, I want to talk a little bit about just learnings and what you've gathered from everything that you guys have done so far, where would you say you've gotten it right and where have you gotten it wrong, but learn a valuable lesson when it comes to building this investment community?
11:49 WTF: Yeah, I think the moment that stands out to me in terms of when I got it wrong or when I was surprised and sort of learning on my toes was back in January, there was this hysteria around meme stocks, GameStop and AMC, and it was based in Reddit. And all of a sudden people were flooding to the markets to invest in these stocks in a way that we hadn't seen before. And the community on Public is made up of 90% long-term investors, investors who consider themselves, primarily focused on long-term investing. And so it's like our community isn't going to care about this. They're not going to want to dig into this type of investing or trading. And I was wrong. There was so much excitement around what was happening and so much interest in what was happening with these stocks, and with what was going on that first time investors were flooding to the markets to take part in this. And so I had to adapt really quickly to figure it out. How are we going to approach this? And, this is a different kind of conversation than we're used to having. And I think the way we looked at it was if someone is a new investor, they have no experience with investing. They don't really understand it yet, but they're really interested in investing in this one stock that they keep hearing about. If they're just doing this in a silo on their own, they come in, they make the investment. That's sort of it. Maybe they follow it, they follow the price, they follow the chart. And you don't learn very much by doing that. You may learn a little bit by watching how it changes, but in a community environment - and this is what I think we tried to, to harness the power of - you come in, you make your investment, and then you see these other people around you and you see how they're treating their investments and maybe what else they're investing in. And all of a sudden it's sort of this educational and collective experience in a different way. And you're not just focused on that one stock. You may be inspired to actually learn about what investing means or actually build out a portfolio. I think what I learned from all of that too, was we can have multiple types of conversations in this community, and there's a space for the “and” rather than the “not” so someone can be a long-term investor that's making lower risk investments and be really interested in what's happening. A stock that might be taking off or super volatile. And it's not either/or, and people don't fit in boxes with their investment style either. But it was a few weeks of just sort of madness in the markets when all of that was happening and on the community front, I think we were learning a lot as we were going. What are people's interests and what are they curious about and what do they need and how can we adapt and shift to make sure that this continues to be a productive space for them to learn about those?
15:20 MI: Yeah, very well said. And I think that that's such an awesome thing. I know you talked a little bit in the beginning about how you guys view “community” in the way that you're making it a part of your business. And I think that's a really refreshing take and even a lot of companies that prioritize “community” don't view it as in the sense of coming at it from a strategic standpoint. So I'd like for you to talk a little bit about how the brand sees “community” from a strategic lens and how this is unique to how others are doing “community” right now.
15:57 WTF: Yeah. So community, because it's so important to our product and our brand and, and sort of seeps out of just a community department. Our community is then part of everything else that's going on, too. And I think one of my favorite examples of late is we launched a new brand campaign that highlights real people from our community. They're on billboards and taxi toppers in New York City. And it's their faces up. I got excited when I walked by, and it was really cool. I went to visit one of the billboards the other day, because I wanted to see it live. And I think, especially in the FinTech space, when you see things that companies are marketing, or that they're announcing to the world, it's all product features. And that our brand is putting people front and center because they are front and center to our product. And so being able to see that in the campaigns that our marketing department is building is exciting for me. And I mean, you see it in our logo, too. We just changed our logo. And it looks like a conversation bubble and to just sort of hammer that home, that this is a community platform, yes, you can invest in and that piece really matters, but the conversational piece of it is what makes it really special. And seeing that spread its way outside of just the conversations happening on the app is really cool. Thinking about how community plays a part in our team at Public, I was the first marketing hire under our VP of Marketing. And so since the early days community has been a big thing. It wasn't like our community grew and grew and grew. And then we thought, oh, we should probably hire someone to do this. When I started our community was significantly smaller and I was in the weeds of the app, having conversations with people and getting to know them, and what they were interested in and what kinds of resources or other people I could connect them to. And I think being able to sort of be there from early on and get to work on laying a strong foundation for our community so that when it started to grow more quickly, there were expectations and there were norms around behaviors in terms of how we treat each other and how we talk to each other that I'm not sure would have been as easy to implement if community hadn't been so front and center in planning early on.
18:50 MI: And I think that's a great example about how you make it intrinsic with your brand, so to speak, right. Where it's just one of those founding fundamental principles, and it's clear and evident in everything that you do.
19:03 WTF: You’ve got to resource those things in the community.
19:05 MI: Yeah, exactly.
19:06 WTF: It needs work. It needs people to take care of it.
19:10 MI (voiceover): So many brands out there say, hey, we want to have a great community. We want to build community, we're for community. But at the end of the day, they're not doing the things that actually prioritize that. What I love about what Willa said there is that it's about open conversation and they are actively doing things within their platform to help create and foster that type of conversation. Hey, community is hard. It's hard to build a great community. It's hard to do these types of things and be successful at it. And what they've done is created and eliminated that fear or that level of intimidation. So people feel open and willing to want to have those conversations. And that's so critical to being an effective community management brand.
20:00 MI: I know you guys also look at using “community” and actually attaching success to it. So I'd love to ask just how you are defining and evaluating success from a strategic community perspective.
20:15 WTF: Success, I think, can go in a lot of different directions. It can mean big numerical things for business goals. And it can also mean some of the anecdotal wins, too. And I think it's both. First and foremost, when I think about moments where our community has felt really successful to me are moments where I see people taking the time to explain something to another community member, or I see someone talking about how they've used investing to help pay off student loans or make a deposit on their house. And those moments where you're reminded that this really matters to people's lives. It's not just an exciting thing to talk about. No, it's building financial stability or it's building wealth for the future. It's not just another social media platform that is taking our time and attention. But I also think a lot about community health and sort of looking beyond how many people are in our community and looking more at what value are we providing with people and how do we see that in terms of - Are people coming back to participate in conversations? Are they coming back because they've connected with other people on the app that they want to hear more from? And then also thinking about what value can our community team add to our community? If we talk about wanting to make the public markets work for all people, if we talk about wanting to make this a more inclusive space, where people who haven't considered themselves investors can actively play a role. Then what can we do as a team to make sure that we're actively welcoming those people into the conversation? And so, what impact can our team have in terms of making people feel like they are connected and involved so that they stick around a little bit longer, and how can we have that impact on retention numbers? Community health can mean a lot of different things. It can mean ongoing engagement. It can mean, from a moderation standpoint, what kinds of conversations are happening on the platform? Are people respecting each other? Are people being good humans towards each other? And then how do those interactions and those engagements happen on the platform? How did they roll up and impact larger business goals? And I think a successful community impacts organic growth because if you really love this experience that you're having, then you tell your friends about it. I think community affects retention numbers because if there's valuable conversation or activity happening, then you're more likely to come back and keep using this product. You're more likely to continue using it for your investments. So from a financial side, it matters there, too. So I think the community often sort of looks like an assisting role, and you may have to work a little bit harder to make the connections, but I think that the value there really does impact our growth and success as a company.
23:45 MI: Yeah. Financial literacy is a key content pillar for the brand. And I know we talked about it at the upfront about getting people involved who maybe don't see themselves as investors. How have you helped educate consumers, especially minorities and people who don't view themselves as investors to gain confidence, to use the app and invest in that?
24:09 WTF: I think one of the first pieces is helping people identify as an investor and feel like this is something that they can participate in. And so I think a lot about helping people find their entry point to investing and their entry point into the conversation. Someone could tell me that I'm not an investor. I don't know anything about the markets. I don't understand the charts or the technical components. And my response is more of, well, first of all, I think you probably do know a lot more than you think you do, but just asking someone about the products that they use and the brands that they love, you may love music and you may tell me that you have a Sonos speaker system that is the best thing you ever purchased. You have something to tell me about Sonos, which is a publicly traded company, and that's really interesting, or maybe you're a runner and you only ever run in Nike apparel. And then you have something to tell me about why you see value in Nike. And I think helping people figure out the spaces that they have more confidence in than they may have realized allows the door to open a little bit and something to become a little less frightening. And then from there, then you can explore things that you're more curious about then maybe you can identify, okay. I don't know a lot about renewable energy, but I think it's really valuable. So I'd love to interact with some people here who I can learn from about what that industry looks like. Then once you've sort of opened that door and are looking at more things, you start to identify terminology that you don't understand. And then, you can use the social features on Public to have conversations and ask questions there. Or we have an investing glossary and that can be really valuable. And in terms of adding some color to what those things mean, you can even get into the financial literacy pieces if you're so separate from it that you're not willing, or you're not interested in learning or looking at it. I think that what I've seen in our community and our community is made up of 40% women. It's made up of 45% people of color. 90% are first time investors. And I think that what we see is that the more people who are willing to participate in conversations and willing to interact and connect and engage with one another, the more valuable a learning space this becomes. And so continuing to put energy and resources into actively making sure that people identify as an investor and actually feel empowered to dig into all of these things is what is really important.
27:15 MI (voiceover): So many brands talk about, Hey, I want to be inclusive, but what Public.com is doing is they’re really tying that back into a person's brand interests, thinking about Nike and Apple or whatever product or interest that may be, and looking at stocks and investments as a way to tie it into the things that you like. And again, we talk about this in targeting all the time. You want to talk about things in your message that are driven by the things that your audience is interested in. And they've extended that a step further by taking that into the investor identification process and giving people the empowerment to want to invest.
28:02 MI: Yeah. What's one marketing trend that really stands out to you right now?
28:08 WTF: I have to say something about community don't I? I don't know if it fully works as an answer, because I'd like to think that community isn't a trend. I think we've certainly seen a lot of interest in the past couple of years in investing in it as a business. But I think that more recently in the past, maybe it's in the past six months or twelve months, time feels sort of blurry - that we're starting to focus more on community, not just as a marketing tool, but what genuine human connection can actually mean for brands and the value of things that are human?
28:56 MI (voiceover): Not to seem redundant, but this is just a clear and great example of how community extends so much more beyond just simply creating conversation between like-minded and relevant people. It's about retention. It's about what the benefits are for organic marketing and growth. It's about how you're viewed in terms of your brand reputation and your overall brand visibility, all of those things play a role in why strategic importance to community and tying it into community is so important for your organization. And again, they do such a great job of tying it into everything that they do. Every part of who they are. And it's just so clear and evident in the way that they view and value how important community is to every single part of their business. It's not just, oh, Hey, that's not giving me revenue. It's not giving me ROI. So I don't care. Because they've prioritized it where it has mattered to their bottom line because they get that. It's not just about ROI and revenue. There are other intrinsic benefits that happen there because they value community, because they prioritize it at the strategic level that have extended into other areas of your marketing and sales cycle. And oh yeah, hey, we get more revenue because of it. And it's just such a great model to see.
30:26 WTF: And thinking about how brands can be part of that in a genuine way, rather than just saying, oh, we want a community and meaning that they want Instagram followers, that's different. So actually seeing brands taking the time to invest in creating spaces and creating reasons for people to come together and connect with each other and help each other. I think we'll see brands doing things that are exciting in a different way than we have in the past.
31:02 MI: Yeah. I think the thing people often forget is that community building is hard work. There's a lot of effort that goes into it. It's not just like, I want to build a community. Okay. Well, that's great. But it's really investing in the people, taking time to make sure that your platforms are inclusive and engaging and all these other great things. It's hard work and the brands that do it well, like yours and others out there, really put a lot of time and energy into making sure the people feel that when they're on their platforms.
31:35 WTF: Yeah. I think community building is a slow process. And if you think about it, if you think about friendships, you've made. I mean, there are certain people that I've met and within 30 minutes I felt like, oh, we're best friends, but in general, forming connections takes time. It takes a sort of continued effort. And we're so used to - in the startup world, especially, seeing things move so quickly that I think it can be sorted. Hard to acknowledge that this thing is actually going to take time and it's actually going to involve a lot of effort into getting to know people but it pays off. It pays off over time.
32:17 MI: It definitely pays off in the end. The last question, as you look at what's ahead on the horizon for Public.com, what's on the roadmap, both for the brand, and then also for yourself?
32:28 WTF: I think one of the biggest things that people are excited about is that crypto is coming to Public. There's been so much interest in crypto, in the world in the past year, but especially, it feels like the past few months of excitement and interest there. So that's something that we're actively working on. And continuing to build out features that will enhance the social experience and the educational experience so that we can continue to build financial literacy in a way that's enjoyable and not just feeling like you're reading and doing homework. And then on the community front, I think it's really exciting to work in a community team. It's not just me and to actually think about, okay, now that we have a team and have really smart people. There are three community managers on the team that I get to work with and all really smart, really thoughtful people and getting to think about, okay now that we are engaging with our community, that is much larger than it was when I started in March of last year. What else can we do? How else can we support these people? And how else can we create spaces for them to engage with each other and with the brand. So getting to think about community in a larger sense than just ongoing engagements and interactions with the platform and getting to sort of harness the power of our team as a resource and get creative with what our community is doing is something that I'm excited about. Again, it goes back to that a community needs love and attention in order to flourish. We built out a team in the past since January, we’ve been building this team. So getting to actually put ourselves to good use.
34:29 MI: Awesome. Big fan of what you guys have been doing and building and nothing but best of luck in the coming year.
34:39 WTF: Thank you so much, Megan.
34:42 MI: Where can people find you, get in touch with you?
34:44 WTF: I am WillaCTF on Twitter, and you can also find me on Public, download the app. I'm WillaTF on Public, and those are probably the two best places to find me. And if you're on Public or download Public and want to shoot me a message there, I love connecting with our investors and getting to know more folks there and what they're interested in and how we can support them.
35:20 MI: Great. Well, definitely check it out if you haven't checked it out already. And again, it was a pleasure having you on today, Willa. Really enjoyed chatting with you.
35:30 WTF: Such fun to chat with you, too Megan, thank you.