Community Dialogue project: fly-bottle

What I learned about building a community

It all began with a pattern. Knowing my background in philosophy, several people approached me to learn more about the subject because they didn’t know where to start. To them, philosophy was daunting. Yet each conversation was rich and exciting, and they took to philosophical inquiry like fish to water. I found myself wondering,

“What would it be like if we were all able to have a conversation? What would such a community look like?”

The first community conversation I had took place on 31 July, with a small group comprising of some friends who had approached me previously. By 3 August, the first newsletter was released and our Facebook group was created. I’m happy to report that our first community meetup took place on 1 September and the next one is currently in the works!

I am unspeakably excited about project: fly-bottle and have learned so much in the 1+ month since its launch. In retrospect, much of the process has been influenced by aspects of the Lean Startup methodology and Design Thinking — two protocols that I learned while running entrepreneurship modules in my school.

Process: Building the fly-bottle community
Process: Building the fly-bottle community

Stage 1: Observe and Analyse

“Is there need or demand for a community?”

I mentioned earlier that it all began with a pattern: individuals asking about philosophy. Some of these individuals knew each other, but were not engaging in conversations about philosophy with each other because they didn’t know of mutual interest or they believed that they needed guidance from someone who knew the subject.

Over months of observation, mostly due to the ad-hoc nature of conversations with friends and acquaintances, a few questions kept recurring:

  • This is the field that I work in… are there any relevant philosophical insights/concepts that I can learn from?
  • What’s the relevance of philosophy in real life?
  • How do I use philosophy to help me think clearly?
  • Where do I begin?

Evidently, people weren’t interested in becoming experts or philosophy professors. They just wanted something that made philosophy more accessible.

But philosophy’s value doesn’t just lie in concepts you can learn. Dialogue is invaluable in philosophical investigation regardless of expertise as alternative perspectives can really be insightful. How could I share what I knew and scale up the 1:1 conversations I was having?

Moving from 1:1 to a community conversation

Stage 2: Ideation

“Who is my community?”

“What would such a community look like”

“How do I best engage my community?”

Sustainability was a big consideration for me in building the fly-bottle community because

(i) I have a full-time job, and

(ii) building communities is a commitment — you can’t just bow out when you feel like it.

Further, my personal philosophy about education is that it should be learner-centric and progressive.

This narrowed down the suitable platforms significantly. Running classes and workshops were not feasible because I needed to manage this alone (for now). Neither were webinars because the project needed to spark conversations within the community as well as with me. A combination of a blog or newsletter and a social platform seemed best. That way, community members could learn some philosophy and see how it related to real life, and have a platform to engage. I started a group chat and went to the ‘proto-community’ with some ideas:

Checking with the ‘proto-community’
Verifying feasibility! Yes!

The feedback was amazing and very encouraging. This was 31 July.

A bit more reflection lent some direction to this project:

  • The material needed to be accessible, so as little jargon as possible and large chunks of text were to be avoided.
  • Content needed to spark conversation or (at least) reflection, so the project needed to ask more questions than it answered.
  • The community did not need to be restricted to people who wanted to learn. What about the people who have done some philosophy and wanted to just talk about stuff?

Stage 3: Build & Ship

“What’s the best community engagement platform?”

I started with a newsletter because that’s the easiest way to get the information to the community. They didn’t need to change their behaviour. They’d just receive the newsletter when they checked their inbox, which they already do!

The first newsletter was a simple affair. It comprised 3 progressive sections, each increasing in difficulty, and ended with a question of the week. It didn’t need to be fancy or flashy. I just needed to ship it. It was sent out on 3 August.

Unsolicited positive feedback is great encouragement!
Unsolicited positive feedback is great encouragement!

Simultaneously, I approached some friends from my Masters course and they were really keen to revisit the good ol’ conversations. That same day, the Facebook group was set up.  

Stage 4: Engage and Iterate

“What does the community want?”

“How can I better serve them?”

Conversations happened rather organically in the Facebook group, but were dominated by those more familiar with philosophy at first. This is not to say that those who were unfamiliar weren’t engaged. Quick checks with them revealed that they were listening and learning, but uncomfortable with sharing their ideas at first. So, some conversations occurred simultaneously in smaller chats.

Along the way, I checked in with individuals for feedback and implemented suggestions by the next newsletter.

For example, one community member said she enjoyed the use of fun images, like comics, and suggested incorporating more questions instead of having just one big question. (See Issue #3 for reference)




By the next issue, more guiding questions were added and GIFs were incorporated too!

Also, while I didn’t think that the community was large enough for a meetup, some members were very keen on the idea. So, a small group of us met up on 1 September. In the spirit of a community-driven initiative, the discussion topic was also proposed by a member 🙂 We didn’t finish the conversations, by the way, and will be continuing in the next meetup.

Lessons Learned

1. Listen, listen, listen.

Find out what your community wants and needs. It’s about them, after all. Do so passively, by observing what’s happening. And do so actively, by asking for feedback and insights and listening to it.

Through this, I learned that some members were uncomfortable with the level of expertise of other members, and felt daunted. My bad! So I stepped in to form a middle ground. Listening also led to the discovery that some people weren’t receiving the newsletter. A quick check showed that the emails were being redirected to the spam folder. The matter has since been rectified, as far as I can tell, but I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t check.

2. Empathise.

Remember what it was like to be a community member. Who is your community member? What is it like to be in that position? The meetup was intentionally kept small as I wanted the opportunity to give members a chance to speak (in addition to the Facebook group). And boy, did they engage! Conversation flowed organically and one of them even messaged me after to thank me for the opportunity to share their views.

Post-meetup text from a community member
Post-meetup text from a community member. (P.S. It was related!!)

3. Iterate and do so quickly.

The product or content or strategy does not have to be perfect. I’ve learned that it’s good to have a plan and a direction, and changes to that plan are not necessarily bad. It’s not about you, so don’t feel insulted that your work has room for improvement. It is about the community, after all. And don’t you learn through the process? Do what’s best for them and do it quickly. Then try again the next time. Why spend a month thinking about a massive overhaul when you can start making changes tomorrow? The goal is still to benefit the community.

4. Work within your own means.

Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Community engagement is a marathon, not a sprint. If you burn out quickly, it’s the community that suffers, isn’t it?

5. Want to do a meetup? Do it!

If you have a passionate and engaged community, chances are, they’ll be really excited to find kindred spirits and like minded folk. Start small if you must, but do it. Conversation between community members has picked up after the meetup, and I think it’s because excitement is infectious!

Looking forward

Building the fly-bottle community has been such an enriching experience for me, that I’d love to share more lessons I’ve learned along the way. Some ideas for posts are: the twin roles of analysis and synthesis in community management, and how to select tools and platforms for community engagement and content management. All of these will be filed under ‘Community’ so do check back if you are interested!

Finally, if any of this has piqued your curiosity about the fly-bottle community and project: fly-bottle newsletter, you can check out past issues here or subscribe here 🙂

Hope you found this useful! I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments 🙂 Drop me a message at the project: fly-bottle blog or tweet at me (@stephe_lee)!

*Names of community members have been redacted in screenshots at their request 🙂

Curated Dialogue

Pinterest: Another Tool In Your Social Media Arsenal

I am a big Pinterest fan. So much so that I signed up for a Buffer Awesome plan trial just to try out scheduling for Pinterest (I always feel bad spamming my fellow pinners with a barrage of pins). If that doesn’t convince you of the extent of my fangirling, let it be known that my partner has once remarked to me that “life isn’t a pinterest board.”

During a recent #bufferchat, I was excited to discuss this platform’s potential for promoting Hangouts on Air with some twitter friends (Hi, @jacobhenenberg & @JoelRRenner). Yes, it’s a little unconventional, but Pinterest’s particular strength in promoting the longevity of its pins makes it a valuable ally to your other social media efforts. While many of the engagements with my posts occur within a day of two of (re)pinning, I’ve found that many of the pins are liked and repinned weeks and months (sometimes a year!) after I’ve posted them up on my boards. Kevan of Buffer shares some insight into this in this recent article.

The longevity of pinned material makes Pinterest a great complement to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, which have a more immediate effect on engagement and conversion. A great marketing strategy that incorporates these platforms could drive interest and early engagement via the more timely platforms like the abovementioned Big 3 — articles, tweets, influencer endorsement, flashy pictures galore! — then ensure that interest doesn’t wane too much by pinning great relevant images (a little on this later), retweeting and resharing older articles, and posting images via Instagram.

Besides the longevity of pins, Pinterest is also great because:
  • It has an excellent UI that is beautiful and engaging
  • All pins and repins lead back to their sources, so credit’s (usually) given where credit’s due and you can drive traffic to your site even through repins
  • There’s a discovery-centric ethos that runs through the site, from clicking on repins to see the boards that an image has been pinned to (great for discovering likeminded folk) as well as the Related Pins and Also on These Boards features that direct you to similar boards/pins.
  • The Pinterest algorithm suggests boards that users may be interested in based on their pins and likes (look out for ‘Picked For You’ pins on the homepage)
What does this mean for you?
  • Pins (e.g. rich pins) can drive traffic and conversion if they are posted strategically. Pinterest’s considerable conversion rate means that it’s worth exploring it if you’ve already got your Facebook strategy down pat. (Read this HubSpot article for some impressive factoids.)
  • Consider pinning several engaging images that lead back to the same source. This gives a richer dimension to the content and ensures that more people can stumble upon your site through Pinterest’s wonderful discovery algorithm
  • An engaging pin can drive traffic to your site months after your article has been published!
  • A well-curated collection of boards can really set the visual tone for your brand. You can also leverage on Pinterest’s algorithm to reach out to users who are fans of similar brands
  • You can focus more on content (pins) and less on follower count since even non-followers can find your pins.

But what if you’re not trying to drive sales up for a product? As I suggested during the #bufferchat, it’s entirely possible to use this great platform for even something as unexpected as a Hangout on Air!

Here are some ways I can think of:
  • Complement the pre-Hangout promotion by pinning great images on both Instagram & Pinterest
  • Maintain post-Hangout engagement by pinning multiple relevant images that could capture the interest of audiences who didn’t manage to catch the ‘live’ Hangout on Air (direct them to the youtube video or your site)
  • Leverage on Pinterest’s collaborative feature on boards and get your Hangout guests to pin relevant material on a board. Each Hangout could have its own board!
  • Compile key insights from the Hangout on Air into an infographic. (Make it vertical for extra oomph!)
  • Share pins on your Facebook page to reach out to your Facebook fans who may not have known about your Pinterest page. Who knows, they may even click through to some older sites.

In any case, cross-check the demographics of your desired audience with these demographics from Pew Research Centre. Is your audience a little older, mostly female, and into arts and crafts? If so, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t spend a little time pinning! Also, I wouldn’t worry about Pinterest being a more female-centric platform — male users are increasing by the year, and some of the best curators of pins that I’ve come across are men.

Want more?

Here’s an interesting interview with Pinterest’s ex-Partnerships Chief, Joanne Bradford, and Twitter’s President of Global Revenue & Partnerships, Adam Bain, on the Re/code Replay podcast.

Some great articles:

The 4 Biggest Pinterest Marketing Mistakes We Made (And How You Can Learn From Them)

17 Tips, Tools and Tricks To Improve Your Pinterest Marketing Strategy

12 Most Strategic Ways To Use Pinterest For Marketing

How To Use Pinterest For Business: The Definitive Guide

Pinterest For Business: Everything You Need To Know

5 Ways To Automate Your Pinterest Marketing Strategy

Pinterest’s Evan Sharp: Guys Are On Here, Too

Dialogue Work-Life

“Independent Team Player” is not a misnomer: How to help your team thrive

Working in a team can be one of the most enriching experiences you could ever have. Yes, there is great freedom in being accountable to no one but yourself, but working a team is not antithetical to independence and freedom. In the past 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of being a team leader, manager, and member. And this is what I think makes a good team great.

Use values as the lodestone for attracting talent

I started thinking about this after running a couple of interviews last week. As a team manager, one of the most important things I look for when evaluating candidates is cultural fit. I see the interviews as a matching process where we’re establishing a dialogue to see if the individual’s core values are compatible with the team’s culture. It’s less of a mercenary selection process to determine if someone is ‘good enough’, and more about identifying compatibility. After all, it isn’t beneficial for the team or the individual if he cannot relate to how and why things are done the way they are because he wouldn’t thrive in such a situation.

Have a diversity of voices

But cultural fit alone would not guarantee that the team thrives. If everyone is an automaton that simply repeats values in a literal fashion, then the sum isn’t going to be very much larger than its parts. Having a diversity of voices — not a cacophony — can take the team to greater heights through a nuanced interpretation of those values. So many of my positive experiences working in teams came from seeing things from a new perspective thanks to a co-worker’s insight. I never would have gotten that if I hadn’t been in teams that encouraged discussion. Mosaics are beautiful precisely because of all that lovely color!

This would be far less interesting if it were made of one color.
This would be far less interesting if it were made of one color.

Have a dialogue, not a monologue.

Even my Masters thesis (easily one of the most solitary projects ever) benefitted from conversations with others about the topic. If that is true for an academic paper, imagine how far a dialogue can take you in your team.

(Plus, I believe Immanuel Kant would approve of you treating your team as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to an end. In case that matters to you.)

Empower your team to act independently

Micromanaging is tough work! Why use only one brain — even if it’s a really good one! — when you have 5 or 6 others to tap on? Don’t dictate how and what your team member does, as long as she is clear that those actions are consistent with your larger values. Have ongoing conversations about decision-making, and how the values translate in real life, and let her run with that autonomy. That synthesis of goals (mine, his, ours) is necessary for thriving in a team setting, and pushes people to stretch themselves further.

Thriving members = thriving team.

Have conversations about your values

Don’t flip flop on them, but don’t expect them to be static either. (Or they will someday fossilise and you’ll wonder what life was like way back when.) Every now and then, think about what the team stands for and whether the avowed values are consistent with that. I’ve found it best when the team doesn’t determine the values on a whim, and the values don’t imprison the team either. As with interpersonal stuff, dialogue with and about values can be really beneficial.

Sources: Thanks missvancamp for the quilt image in the header image.
Mosquée de Paris image by MarcCooperUK (Flickr: Paris central mosque) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Dialogue Musings

Lions, peacocks, and lessons in listening

As Singapore becomes increasingly cosmopolitan by all outward measures, Singaporeans seem torn between their old-world, gritty, down-to-earth cultural narrative and an urbanity that reflects their economic status in the world. We both covet and abhor anything that seems foreign. Singaporeans are always at the threshold of the traditional and the modern, the familiar and the foreign, and any small movement could tip the scales.

They call themselves The Gentleman’s Pride (or simply, The Pride), and their goal is to evangelise a brand of dandyism amongst Singaporean men. Unfortunately, people didn’t agree with their pontification on masculine style.


We like things to make sense.

One of the things The Pride received a lot of flak for was the inconsistent messaging. On one hand, they proudly (see what I did there?) declared that being a gentleman is “not just the way you dress, but how you treat people”. On the other, they first established their presence via an image-heavy medium — Instagram — and the mainstream audience first encountered them through a Straits Times article that featured a video of them discussing being a gentleman in largely style-oriented terms. And if this Asiaone article is to be believed, their movement involves promoting the, wait for it, aesthetic aspects of being a gentleman.

Singaporeans don’t like that sort of thing. Tell us the whole story and tell it like it is.


We like the familiar. We like the ‘we’.

All the fuss online is to be expected because what The Pride is really proposing a kind of subculture. One that is so divergent from mainstream culture that it almost is counterculture. Not that The Pride seems to see itself as a kind of opposition. But to practical, down-to-earth Singaporeans, anything that smells of a class-system will be regarded as an opposition of sorts.

Take a look at the comments. They’re largely driven by:

  • Practicality: citing the absurdity of suiting up in Singapore’s humid hothouse
  • A fundamental disagreement about the hallmarks of a gentleman: how one acts >  how one looks
  • Protectiveness over our Asian roots

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 4.27.11 pm

Human beings have always had an aversion to Otherness. Anything that is overtly other, like this subcultural movement, will surely be regarded with some hostility.


Let’s talk about this.

People would probably be more receptive if they sense that you’re trying to create a conversation, or better yet, a dialogue, than if you tried to impose your opinion on others. No one likes to be told how to be. If social movements tried to establish a conversation about social norms and values — practicality vs presentation, what does polite society consist in? etc —  people may feel less threatened and be less hostile.

Why not let culture develop organically? People are less skeptical of an influencer they christen, than of someone who claims to be influential. People want to have a say in the world they live in. Change that stems from authentic debate about what is and what should be tends to have more long term value. Let’s not impose our norms and mores, and instead negotiate our collective understanding of everything from ‘marriage’ and ‘love’ to ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’. Let’s go beyond hearing other people — let’s listen to them.


And yes, listening swings both ways.

If you are keen on becoming more gentlemanly, may I recommend this interesting read?

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness

Community Dialogue

How to build meaningful relationships with your community

I participated in a #bufferchat earlier this week and thoroughly enjoyed discussing community with, well, the bufferchat community. Aside from being immersed in positivity, encouragement, and great insight throughout the 1-hour Twitter chat, the experience got me thinking about the concept of community in whole new ways. (See, that’s why dialogue and conversations are so important.)

One of the interesting chat questions was about determining goals for community efforts, and my first response was: listen, align, then respond.

FullSizeRender 2

But the further question is:

How should we respond?


I think we know quite well that how you say things matters as much as what you say. Perhaps even more. In fact, what you say could be totally lost on someone if you don’t say it the right way. As I was toying with this question in my mind, Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages popped into my mind.


Wait! Don’t run away!


What I’m discussing has nothing to do with romance and everything to do with interpersonal connection.

You can communicate with your community, and you can communicate with individuals that make up your community.

Consider what it’d be like if we took the additional step to communicate with someone in a way that they’re naturally receptive to. I think we can agree that the same action may not be perceived in exactly the same light by 2 people. That’s where a taxonomy like Chapman’s could come in handy. (This is just a framework. Suggest other alternatives in the comments below or on twitter!)


(Love Languages + Community Efforts) = ?

Chapman’s 5 Love Languages are basically the 5 ways that people typically express love and understand expressions of love:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Acts of Service
  • Quality Time
  • Physical Touch

He claims that we subconsciously prefer some Love Languages over others and those are the ones we understand best.

Let’s substitute “express love” with “communication” or “dialogue”, and look at these Love Languages as ways to communicate with someone in the language they are most familiar with.

While Physical Touch may be a little, ahem, controversial for community efforts, the other 4 may inform a community manager in interesting ways:


Words of Affirmation

Ever had that warm, fuzzy feeling when someone compliments you or just says that you’re a great human being? That’s what Words of Affirmation are about. Some people favor this language so much more than, say, Acts of Service, that a simple “Thank you” or “I’m glad to have you in my life!” goes a longer way than cleaning their room for them. In community, communicating through Words of Affirmation would manifest in telling your community how much you appreciate them. It’s that simple. Just reaching out with a quick Thank You note can make someone feel really special and puts the both of you in a positive space.

Receiving Gifts

This one’s pretty clear. People whose primary language is Receiving Gifts value the thought behind the gift they are receiving. To them, the physical gift is a symbol and testament that you care about them. Better yet if the gift reveals that you’ve paid attention to something they mentioned in passing, or that you understand what matters to them.

When it comes to your community, this could come in the form of personalized notes (a combo with Words of Affirmation — pow pow!) or sending people some swag. Buffer is really really good at this, and it’s even better since you know it’s not automated. The Community Champions behind these gifts really put heart into sending them out and the gifts aren’t necessarily the same! Authenticity counts.

Acts of Service

Do you know anyone whose favourite platitude is, “Actions speak louder than words”? Well, her preferred language is probably Acts of Service. When you do something for someone like that, she knows that she means something to you and that you appreciate her. Better yet if your act is something she hates doing or can’t do!

Community Managers, this could be as simple as recommending services or products to your community even if there’s nothing in it for you, like Buffer does. Or organising networking events for them. Perhaps it could be empowering individual employees to be a community champion in their own right.

I recently had a personal matter to attend to and had to cancel a trip. Now I did what all diligent travellers are told to do and I purchased travel insurance ahead of time. (This is only the second time I’ve had to use it, thankfully!) To claim the cost of my airfare, though, the insurance company insisted that I produce written confirmation from the airline that they will not refund my fare. Unfortunately, the official customer service channels were unresponsive. I tried to reach out to them multiple times online to no avail, so I paid a visit to the Sales Counter at the airport to seek help. Now, I was there really really early — before the counter even opened — and this could have turned out badly. But it didn’t.

Instead of turning me away, a really pleasant Guest Service Assistant listened to my sob story and offered to send an internal e-mail to the head office on my behalf. And she did. She also followed up and kept me updated with developments. While the matter hasn’t been resolved yet, I really appreciated that this lady went out of her way to help me even though this wasn’t in her job scope. That’s some good community relations right there.


Quality Time

‘Being there’ for someone is what quality time is about. It’s about being present with the person and spending the time meaningfully with him. By ‘meaningfully’, I mean that it is evident that you want to be there with him, not some place else. Trust me, people know when you’re not really there with them.

With community, efforts that appeal to Quality Time may not be as obvious. In my opinion, this manifests as any initiative that shows you are listening attentively to your community and that their voices are what matter. This could come in several forms:

  • Attentive communication on Support forums (instead of leaving them hanging for hours before you get back to them) (e.g. WordPress Support forums)
  • Twitter chats where you respond and affirm your community members individually — this shows that you hear and value their responses (e.g. #cochat, #bufferchat, #hootchat, #sproutchat, #TnTechChat)
  • Community Meetups
  • Responsiveness and engagement on your Facebook page
  • Speedy, patient, and pleasant customer service/support responses


Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 5.16.02 pm

Those are some examples off the top of my head, but I’m sure you can think of many more.


A great community strategy would benefit from a combination of the 4 languages to really connect with the different types that make up your community. This could complement the auditory-visual-kinesthetic preferences, which could also inform the kind of media employed. (Combination of podcasts, blog posts, webinars, and swag, anyone?)

It’s fascinating to think about this and doubly fascinating to pen this down in a post. Thank you to all the amazing community builders and managers, and customer service people that I’ve crossed paths with. I think people don’t thank and appreciate you guys nearly enough for the amount of effort that goes into your job.