Community Builders: An Interview with Stefan Palios

Community Builders: An Interview with Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios co-founded Venture Out, Canada’s largest LGBTQ+ tech community. Their mission is simple: to connect LGBTQA+ people interested in technology to opportunities, networks, and each other.

Q: Stefan, thanks for joining us today! You’ve spent 3+ years building Venture Out, Canada’s first and largest community for LGBTQA+ inclusion in tech & entrepreneurship. What motivated you to start Venture Out? How did the idea come about?

I was already volunteering with the two folks who would become co-founders with me (Venture Out had 3 co-founders – myself, Jeanette, and Albert). Albert had already hosted a tech / entrepreneurship panel at another conference called Out On Bay Street (OOBS) where we all volunteered. I was leading sponsorship for OOBS, and many tech companies wanted to get involved but they didn’t like the “Bay Street” reference (Bay Street is Canada’s Wall Street). Jeanette was running social media / marketing for OOBS. 

We got together to try a standalone event about LGBTQ+ entrepreneurship during Pride 2016 in Toronto, which I took the reins on planning. It was a hit. People really wanted this kind of community in Canada (there were already many organizations like this in the United States such Start Out, Out in Tech, Lesbians Who Tech, and Out 4 Undergrad Tech). 

From the success of the standalone event, the three of us decided to launch a whole conference. Albert helped secure the venue and logistics, I took on sponsorship, and Jeanette took on content. We eventually brought on around 10 more volunteer team members and we were off to the races. Our first summit was in March 2017 and was sold out at over 400 attendees. 

I continued on the Venture Out team in a formal capacity until 2018, and then for another year more passively. I’ve now largely stepped down from Venture Out – the new team is brilliant and I am 100% confident they are the right folks to move the organization forward. Now I just get to brag about the awesome work they’ve done.

Q: Got you! How did you grow Venture Out, what worked the best for you?

It was totally through community building. VO is an events organization, so it was easy to invite people to events. And while we charged for our big event (annual conference), we didn’t charge for other events like job fairs. That made the barrier to entry much lower for folks. We also offered pay-what-you-can tickets for folks who couldn’t afford the conference fee. 

Behind the scenes to start, there was a lot of cajoling. We leveraged our social networks as hard as we could. We encouraged a group to come because another group was coming, and went down the line until we had 20+ sponsors for our first summit and over 400 attendees.

Q: Wow. That’s a lot. What were your main user acquisition channels?

Community partnerships! We reached out to as many people as we possibly could to let them know we were starting up. 

From the beginning, we were partnered with our parent organization, Start Proud, which ran the OOBS conference. That helped us reach out to startups (who also happily marketed their involvement). From there, we reached out to other communities for folks of colour, for Indigenous people, for folks with disabilities, etc. and asked if they’d be willing to spread the word. Then we talked to other LGBTQ+ organizations to let their communities know that if anyone was interested in tech to check out Venture Out. 

At our events and on our social media, we offered the same shoutouts in return – so anyone we got through our other marketing channels (we leveraged PR and a bit of social media advertising) would know about the other great community work being done in Toronto / across Canada.

Q: That’s smart. What’s one of the hardest lessons you learned while building Venture Out?

That monetization can’t just be about cash – it has to further uplift the community. 

For example, Venture Out is about helping LGBTQ+ people get into startups and / or entrepreneurship. 

As co-founder, my focus was on monetization and sales. I immediately had interest from big corporates who wanted to connect with startups and could sign huge sponsorship deals. My co-founder, Jeanette, kindly reminded me that the community was focused on startups and entrepreneurship – the “little folks” of the business world. As such, we couldn’t just take money from anyone and needed to think consciously about how we monetized the community so that we don’t hollow out its vision and integrity. 

That was a massive lesson for me. So often, communities die when monetization is introduced because it’s assumed that monetizing means selling the community. It doesn’t. By sticking to our community guns, we got so much more in return (goodwill, growth, and money).

Q: I agree, it can’t just be about cash. Anyway, did you generate constant cash flow while building your community? If so, how do you do that?

Yup – I’m a freelance writer. I work with scaling tech startups and VCs to identify their brand voice and produce awesome content to bring that voice to life. I’ve been running that business since 2017 and have been full-time on it since 2019, and it provides my livelihood while I build other projects.

Q: Got you! Tell me more about tech stack you had while building VO?

The Venture Out team was lean – we leveraged social media (Twitter mostly) and used Slack for team comms. The rest was all about marketing our events through word of mouth, some PR, and a heck of a lot of emailing. 

Q: What do you think about messengers like Slack or Telegram in the context of communities?

I think these tools are incredible for direct communication. The wrapping of a Slack or Telegram “community” is helpful for some automatic trust-building (as opposed to open communities / networks like Twitter). But I often find myself having trouble remembering everything that’s said, and the search functions aren’t that strong.

Q: Well, do you think more structured channels are a better fit then? And if so, what’s your thoughts on running a community on your own website versus running it on Facebook Groups or other social platforms?

I think you need both, in the end. You have limited control when you use other people’s platforms (particularly around monetization, in my opinion – it’s hard to justify charging people for off-the-shelf value that’s offered for free in other ways). 

For newbies, though, leverage other people’s platforms! You get instant familiarity, it’s often free, and you can focus on the more meaningful work – let the platforms handle the backend for you. And then you can look at transitioning your most engaged community members onto any new platforms you use (think: YouTubers launching Patreon communities). 

Q: Interesting. What do you think about siloed external platforms versus embeddable solutions for community building?

I think it depends on the platform / community and what the value proposition is. I’m in both types of communities, and I don’t have a problem either way. The bigger part is going to be communication. If you’re using a different platform to host the community vs market it, then you have to be clear with the steps (and do everything you can to make them as easy as possible).

Q: Got you. Sometimes, you have to deal with disruptive members of the community. What’s the best way to manage it?

Engage with facts, not emotion. I come from a customer success / customer service background in tech, so I got used to addressing angry clients. What I found worked was to identify what they really want (usually it’s: validation, someone / something to blame, or to feel like they aren’t the reason something went wrong), and do what I can to give it to them. 

I also have no problem being corrected or someone sharing a different conclusion from the same logical path – I don’t consider that disruptive at all. It makes the conversation better, plus I almost always learn something. If someone takes that disagreement to a rude place, I default to engaging with facts, not emotion, and leaving it at that.

Q: Engaging with facts. Good point. By the way, what’s your favorite online community?

It depends. Indiehackers is great for ultra-focused conversation around a business-of-one concept. Reddit is great for larger conversations and explorations of every possible theory. I’m also in the alumni community for Growclass, a growth marketing course I took in January 2020, and really like the conversations that happen there because they tend to be focused on growth marketing (duh) but come from people who already have a common vocabulary and experience. In general, I gravitate towards communities where people genuinely seem nice.

Q: Been hearing good things about Growclass. This year, you switched your focus on remote work and remote entrepreneurship by launching Remotely Inclined, a Substack newsletter. What’s your plan in terms of community building?

Perhaps it sounds bad, but I don’t have a community building plan. I started the newsletter with two goals in mind: 

  1. To provide intellectual, honest commentary on remote work, geared towards entrepreneurs and freelancers (not about finding a remote job). 
  2. To learn the ropes of newsletter building. 

With goal 2 in mind, I was open to trying anything. I read a bunch of posts on how to grow newsletters and tried pretty much everything. 20 platforms and 18 experiments helped me go from 0 subscribers in Feb 20th, 2020 to over 665 subscribers as I write this on July 20th, 2020.

Q: You’re experimenting a lot! Are you going to monetize it? If so, what’s your plan?

Yes. I manage Remotely Inclined on Substack, so I’ll likely turn on paid subscriptions at some point, keeping some free content for free subscribers.

Q: Sounds like a plan. Where do you think the community space is moving in general, do you see any big trends?

Private, topic-based communities bolstered by public presence. So instead of “read this if you want to know about X” it’s going to be “join this community to meet like-minded people for X”

This will naturally open up opportunities for certain platforms to expand, but I see online communities beginning to replicate (and potentially even replace) the physical-location based communities we’ve had in previous generations.

The interview was brought to you by PeerBoard, a fully embeddable community solution that supports rich user profiles, no code integration, real-time threads, and much more. Try now for free.