Empathy Circle session with Symph team

Finding better formats for online engagement in PH startup community meetups

It has always bothered me that virtual events almost always feel more transactional compared to face-to-face events especially in the startup community scene. Like how lecture-style virtual event formats would make you sit alone in a room, without having the satisfaction of getting to know a seatmate, and have you listen to a series of hour-long talks and calling that experience a โ€œconferenceโ€.

Though I know that these efforts are a way to keep communities together, especially since the COVID-19 crisis just hit, I wonder if there is a way to not just make these interactions better but to also design a virtual, and genuinely connected, community around it

I realized, to make this work, I need to be better at facilitating conversations virtually, and, to work with others to do the same so we can collectively bring the communities we care about together.

These thoughts stayed with me through my Learning Circle experience, my u.lab hub experience, and, later on, stumbling upon initiatives that aim to strengthen human connection such as Tea With Strangers. These experiences convinced me to finally try some experiments with a few willing tributes from the local startup community.

Regular Topic-Driven Calls

I reached out to a few friends and formed an informal group of 8 community builders who were based around the Philippines. I was super impressed with them because I knew I did a horrible job at pitching the idea but they agreed and stuck around for most of the experiment anyway.

To be honest, at the time I sent the invitation, I didn’t know what I was going for. I proposed that we meet with other leaders and talk about our community building efforts, what our grievances were and how others might have solved them, and that premise alone attracted those who I invited. This confirmed my assumption that there is a demand by community builders to connect with others from different regions.

But then the first session happened and… it didn’t go as expected. I was thinking that following the Lean Coffee structure would speed things along and get us to the more meaty parts within the 2-hours we blocked for the call but we spent most of the time getting to know each other instead.

I realized that I knew who everyone was but many did not know each other, and this lack of even a base level of trust and familiarity hindered us from getting into the “meaty parts” that I badly wanted to skip to.

Suffice to say, we didn’t learn anything “technical” from the call but we started feeling more in tune with each other and this meeting would set the tone for the next 3 sessions we would have.

The succeeding sessions were topic-driven and leaned more towards either exploring a conversation format (Lean Coffee, Empathy Circles) or doing an activity together (filling out our Community Canvases).

Our sessions ended by June and I sent out a survey for the call participants to answer so I could learn more about their thoughts on the experience. Of the 8 invited and present in the opening call, 5 were present in all succeeding sessions and the other 3 missed 1 or 2 sessions.

Empathy Circles

Another experiment I wanted to try was to sign up to become a Host for an Empathy Circle. An Empathy Circle, based on Empathy Box, is an online conversation format that allows its host and participants to create a virtual space for empathy and connection.

The community around this movement was diverse, ranging from people who did social work to those who wanted to bring the platform into the companies they worked for. I wanted to see how this format could elevate not only my personal facilitation skills but also contribute to the way tech startup community events were done.

The format itself didn’t disappoint and it became a new way for me to get to know people even if I couldn’t sit around an actual campfire with them. Because of its structure, it  enables a deeper level of sharing and trust, and I could totally see how it can become a gateway to fostering better relationships between people.

Considering that the average rating of the session I facilitated with my co-workers was a 7/10, I think that the experience can be improved either through better facilitation or better understanding of the format. Though, I am open to the reality that virtual events can never quite reach a 9 or a 10 since good human interaction is very dependent on an in-person environment.

Empathy Circle in Minecraft with Symph Team
On a side note, I liked the format so much that I tried working with Symph’s resident gamer to create a space for a session on Minecraft and he did an amazing job!

Casual 1-on-1s

Ever since the start of my unemployment, I’ve been getting on a lot of 1-on-1 calls with friends in the community to mostly talk about work. With the new sensing mindset I’ve adapted, I decided to try something different and see if that would help change the tone of our otherwise formal conversations.

I realized that if I start being casual first like, for example, telling them that I’ll be doing the meeting while I’m in my pajamas as I fed my cat, the premise of the call immediately becomes less formal and it feels as if a wall that was previously there vanishes.

Unlike the other two efforts above, I don’t have any surveys or metrics to back up my observation. However, what I learned from doing this for almost all of my calls since the start of June, was that if I want genuine and authentic conversations despite talking about “business” (tech and other startup community stuff) I need the courage to set the tone myself and lead by example.

Trying Toasty.ai

I’ve never used a video conferencing tool with additional interactive functionalities and the idea that something like that existed got me really excited! When I opened the opportunity to try out the tool together to other community builders, 12 people ended up joining the final call.

I didn’t really expect that many will attend since this was published on a whim, but it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one exploring different methods of engagement. I was especially inspired by Brenda who was looking for a way to simulate the feeling of being at a networking event while being in a virtual space.

From the session, what I found missing from the tool was that it didn’t allow me as a Host, to see what the participants were seeing. So it was difficult to see people’s reactions and get feedback as a new activity started. I also missed to begin the session with an Introduction section where everyone would have the opportunity to engage, relying on placing people into breakout rooms with conversation cards and thinking that would do the job. That’s what I get for being complacent haha! This is the same lesson I had to relearn from the first experiment.

The meetup didn’t go as smoothly and in the end, with a 2.5/10 average rating from everyone, we all agreed that Toasty.ai was not a good fit for events where people didn’t know each other yet and was more suited for established teams who wanted more variety in their virtual happy hours. Despite this, I felt grateful that we all got to see each other and were supportive throughout the experience.

Toasty.ai allowed for attendees to go into breakout rooms, play games and participate in polls. Thanks for the fabulous screenshot, JC!

Lessons Learned

I’m still far from understanding how exactly I’m going to “foster deeper conversations” during virtual tech startup community meetups. However, through these efforts, I’ve gained a few ideas on how to start a bigger experiment.

Firstly, creating a foundation for the group to be comfortable and trust each other is key. It’s no surprise that people are the center of it all and how comfortable they are with each other is crucial to having quality conversation. Given this, consistent interaction has to be fostered. It’s from this lesson that I was inspired to revive the old Startup PH: Community Builders Facebook group and through there lay the groundwork for interaction between community builders in the country. I thought, if those who are facilitators of their own communities can broaden their perspective and open to adding a new dimension to their efforts, the benefits of having a more deeply connected community can spread faster.

I’m thinking of sharing resources first and roping others into my experiments (like in the Toasty.ai Trial above) and see if these interactions will inspire others to do the same (inviting other community builders to help with their own personal efforts or experiments and share the spirit of curiosity).

Secondly, I’m thinking of hosting monthly themed virtual campfires for the group, where each participant is encouraged to invite one other participant to ensure that at least one person knows someone else in the group as the session commences. I know how limiting this can be though and I’m still ironing out the details before executing, especially on how to measure the expected benefits of these efforts, if any at all.

Given my observations in the Regular Topic-Driven Calls above, I imagine that the first phase of success, in numbers, will look like 4 campfires with at least 80% of the participants present until the 4th campfire, and the group is represented by  at least 2 major regions in the country. If this is achieved, this means that a regular and diverse group will have been formed and that there will be enough to foster a feeling of kinship in the succeeding campfires.

What do you think? I wanted to talk about this even though I haven’t figured everything out yet. I wanted to see if others are also thinking of exploring the same concepts in their own contexts and maybe exchange ides on how we’re going about achieving this shared dream. It’s counterintuitive to think about communities alone, so if anyone’s working on, or wanting to work on, something similar to this, I’d be ecstatic to meet you.

Thanks, Mark, for helping me edit earlier drafts of this blogpost.


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