A chat with Katie Perry, VP of Marketing at Public

Social interactions as a vector for expanding access

Sar : Public is the first app I have managed to grab Sar as my username in! It is definitely a milestone and I'm glad I hit it in an investing app! We tried finding a time to hang IRL when I moved to NYC earlier this year but then the pandemic happened. You sent me over some swag. Which got me to start paying more attention than I would probably would have to the product!  You have been the head of marketing at Public for about a year now. I cringe when people in tech refer to everything as a community. It’s fare more rare than we pretend it is. It is one of those things you know when you see it. I think you have that going on at Public. What is your high level philosophy in how you want to build the brand?

Katie : I think you nailed it. Community is one of those buzzwords you see everywhere and so its definition gets more nebulous the more common it becomes. The best definition of “community” that I’ve seen is that a community is a group of people with common interests, values, and goals. At Public, we’re building an inclusive community of people who are interested in business and investing trends. They share similar attitudes about the way to have productive conversations in this capacity, and most importantly, they share the same goal of strengthening their financial literacy. You can read our community guidelines here.

Our mission is to change the culture of investing—and for us this means creating a positive environment for people of all backgrounds and walks of life to come together and share their experiences. When people can openly talk about these topics in a respectful environment, it automatically makes the stock market less scary, not to mention more accessible and educational. Because we’re out to change the culture, the way we go to market is often unexpected compared with our category. See things like Ticker Tees and the Ticker Time Machine.

Sar : This idea of how technology increases access is widely known and empirically proven. Most of the time the vectors for accessibility are costs and user experience. Now we are seeing a whole generation of companies like Public that think of conversations as a vector for accessibility too! Your thinking helped me clarify this a lot. 

As the name suggests, you guys have made a ton of product decisions that take what’s very personal and make it more, well, public. Everything you guys do seems biased in favor of more transparency. Where do you think you guys draw a line in how much and how many aspects of stock investing should be public? 

Katie : Historically, the stock market has been marked by exclusive “clubs” and smoke-filled rooms. For example, women weren’t even allowed on the NYSE floor until the 1940s—more than a century after it was founded. On Public, roughly 40 percent of our community is women. There is also a stereotypical culture of bragging about “YOLO trades” and sharing screenshots of speculative exploits. These aren’t behaviors you find in Public.

So, the transition you point out here isn’t just going from personal to public. It’s also about moving from a competitive environment to one that’s more collaborative. Our goal is to open up conversations to make the experience of investing more inclusive. 

It’s also important to note that our members can dictate how “public” they want to be in the app, and we always allow people to make certain investments private. And when you share that you bought or sold something in the app, the dollar amounts aren’t shown in the feed.

Sar : I love that you put the philosophy behind the product in historical context! That being said, I do want to push back a little on what you said about moving from a competitive to collaborative environment. It feels counterintuitive to me. Wouldn't making trades and portfolios public and introducing the idea of influencers to an investing app make people engage in undesirable behaviors more out of competition ? You see this on UGC networks like Twitter where many people seem to think the sole goal of the app is to up one each other!

Katie : When you share your investments on Public, the dollar amounts aren’t shown in the feed, and—more importantly—there’s an opportunity to share why you invested. In a way, this incentivizes positive behavior in the app: thoughtful commentary that oftentimes includes research or other points of evidence that back up why you believe in that company. The members that see a lot of engagement in the app are the ones who are starting productive conversations about investing, not flexing about a wild trade. 

It’s also important to reiterate here that Public has a no-day trade policy and most (74%) of our members say they are longer-term investors. When you’re really thinking about where to put your money for a longer period of time (vs. making a quick trade), the conversation that flows from that is naturally a bit different than what you might find from someone who is flipping something quickly. What trends were you seeing? Was there a new product or partnership announced? In the context of investing, there’s a lot you can learn and discover from not just what other people, but how they think.

If you sell an investment in the app, we show the percentage gain, but again, no raw numbers. Selling also prompts the member to talk about why. Some members will note that they are selling a small slice to show their progress, while others will explain why they felt it was time to part with the stock. We also don’t have leaderboards or have features for copying other people’s trades, so if you follow someone on Public, it’s likely because you find their content to be interesting and educational. I personally love to seek out members whose backgrounds are different than my own: e.g. engineers, designers, healthcare professionals, etc.

Sar : You guys are extremely product obsessed and it really shows from your answer. I have given feedback to both cofounders separately and they have been wonderful. You guys ship not just the core product but also the side projects with a lot of taste.  What can you tell us about differences between working in product driven and marketing driven cultures? Both have a history of success in various markets. Do you have a preference as a marketer? 

Katie : I’ve worked at and with a lot of tech companies. I can honestly say that the team building Public is the best I’ve ever worked with. Sometimes as a marketer, you find yourself having to “lead” the product—finding creative ways to show momentum even when the product isn’t changing all that much. At Public, one of my biggest challenges is keeping up with our product team. 

For example, just the other week, in the span of a few days, the team shipped an iOS14 widget and a Chrome Extension that allows you to hover over tickers on Twitter to see a pop-up stock chart. These side projects were created in addition to all of the ongoing innovations happening in the core product all the time.

Before I took the job at Public I knew that I wanted to work for a product-led organization. Without a strong product, there is nothing. Marketing is about telling the story of your business and product, and without a mission you believe in and a strong product focus, the job of a marketer becomes 100x harder. I feel uncomfortable when someone gives me props on a new product launch, because the way I see it is that it’s a 4x100 race and marketing is the last function that gets the baton. By the time it’s handed off, we’re already way ahead.

Sar : I really love the analogy of race and batons. I have never heard it framed that way! The idea of marketing “leading” products is very common across companies. Okay, so switching gears….There have been attempts at getting millennials to watch CNBC. Cheddar is a good example. There have also been attempts to have dedicated places to talk and meme about stocks. Stocktwits, Wallstreetbets and Twitter facilitate this today. What would Bloomberg Terminal & Chat look like for young people trading stocks for the first time?. There also have been lots of attempts at becoming a place for educational content. Robinhood, Wealthfront, Acorns et al have been pursuing in-app content in different ways. What would a modern version of Investopedia look like? I get the impression you guys are trying to build a product and a surrounding content, tools and community ecosystem at the intersection of all those three trends. Would that be a fair assessment? How do you think about it?

Katie : Only about 50% of Americans have any position in the stock market. Things like zero-commission trading and fractional shares have lowered the economic barriers to entry for a lot of people, but for some people there’s still a psychological barrier to entry. A lot of this goes back to financial literacy. I learned how to operate a jigsaw in 7th grade shop class, but somehow learning about budgeting, investing, etc. were never part of the curriculum. We surveyed our members recently and 55 percent of them told us they were self-taught when it comes to investing.

Our community is the primary source of education in Public. We’ve created an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions, and where more seasoned investors can share their ideas and help novices build their confidence. Because the conversations are rooted in longer-term investing, you have people discussing not just “stocks” but also demystifying concepts like dollar-cost averaging, and explaining strategies for assessing the long-term viability and growth prospects of businesses. 

Sar : I'm glad you brought up the UGC community as a source of education. It makes me reflect on the arc of fintech over the past decade. The first wave of consumer fintech in the 2010s had been about taking everything that people already were doing and making them cheaper, more digital, more accessible, more personalized and a bit more fun. The second wave, which I believe Public is a part of, is going further and making the same activities more social. Do you have any thoughts on whether this new wave will mostly bring in an entirely new generation of people who are more open to having their financial activities more public? Or, do you see it mostly as people switching over from the legacy and modern apps that take a solo player approach to product development?

Katie : Research shows that younger people are generally more transparent in the way they talk about money. You see this with trends like millennials sharing their salary information with each other, and with the popularity social payment products like Venmo (our investors Greycroft and Accel are some of the original investors in Venmo). Our own member survey corroborated this: 64 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds say they discuss investments with friends vs. 38 percent of retirement-age investors.

What we see in Public is that many investors, including people new to the market, don’t necessarily want to be alone with their charts and numbers. We’re providing a layer on the investing experience where you can talk about why you invest, and share ideas so you can build your confidence over time. For more seasoned investors, Public is a platform for connecting with people from different backgrounds and gaining horizontal industry knowledge. For example, if your background is in tech, you might find value in connecting with someone who has expertise in design or healthcare.

 Sar : I didn’t realize those stats were so high! As someone who loves Twitter, I definitely see the appeal of what you are describing. And, as a user, I have seen it in action! I'm obsessed with this idea of being in different information flows for different interests. Public is definitely building out a new network of information flows. There’s an ongoing debate about the responsibility for poor outcomes of how stock investing apps design the user experience. People losing a lot of money on stocks is not a new phenomenon by any means. But, like any other platform that grows big, there is a debate surrounding whether they enabled “bad” outcomes. By making stock investing social, you guys have taken on content moderation dynamics on top of trading platform dynamics. Can you share how the team thinks about this? How does that impact your work as a marketer? 

Katie : The democratization of the stock market is a great thing. The way we view democratization is that there are a couple of things at play. First is the obvious: things like fractional shares that make investing more economically accessible to more people. Second is the culture. In our view, you can’t truly democratize the stock market until you change the culture.

When we say “change the culture,” we mean to make it more accessible and educational, and to build with the responsibility of ensuring that new investors can learn in a safe space. At Public, we have a no day-trading policy and we don’t offer complex trading instruments. On the portfolio page, there’s even a dedicated section called the Long-Term Portfolio where members can drag-and-drop investments that they plan to hold onto for awhile. If they try to sell the stock, we’ll remind them that they intended to hold onto it.

We also have Safety Labels on certain stocks and ETFs that may be riskier per the SEC (e.g. bankrupt companies, micro-cap stocks, and specialized ETFs). We built this feature after Hertz announced plans to sell more stock despite going bankrupt.

Our co-CEO, Leif, wrote a Medium post on all of this that is worth a read. The long and the short of it is that with greater access and more intuitive experiences, we believe there must be a cultural shift and guardrails designed to protect new investors.

Sar : When I saw the blog post about Hertz, I did think that you guys are not only opinionated about the product but are also unafraid to take a strong stance on policies. I think this idea of changing the culture really resonates when I see all the subtle yet powerful choices you guys have made.

Tell us what being a marketer for an investing app is like. If I was in your role, I would be constantly anxious about finding a line between promotion or gamification and thoughtful education given the nature of the product.

Katie : Going back to the subject of being product-led, our POV on the right way to democratize is baked into the app experience itself. Therefore, communicating this perspective as a marketer is an authentic exercise. These are real, tangible things in the app that support our mission.

Sar : My last question for you is what fintech companies have done a commendable job at marketing in your opinion? 

I really dig Klarna from a branding perspective. Making “layaway” relevant and cool is not something that’s easily done, but the look and feel of their brand does just that. Lemonade has done this same thing in their space. Insurance has got to be one of the most unsexy industries, and yet they have successfully built an incredibly relevant brand.

I’m also a fan of Chime. If you follow them in social, you’ll notice that they always find interesting ways to elevate their customers in their marketing. Chime’s mission is to make “financial piece of mind” a reality for more people, and so it makes a lot of sense to highlight the broad customer base they’re building.

*This is not investment advice. See Public.com/disclosures/

I would highly recommend checking out Public. Use this link so that I can get some free stocks :)