Sramana: So, you basically bootstrapped the early stages of the company?
Adeyemi Ajao: Brendan and I developed a prototype with the assistance to two engineers. Once we had the prototype in place, we put it in front of some investors. Our first investors were professors and classmates at Stanford. One of my professors has been investing in Silicon Valley for 30 years. I was taking his entrepreneurship class, and one day after class he stopped me to ask why I was missing class. I told him that I was working on a project and described the project, and he said, “That sounds cool, I’ll write you a check.” That kind of dynamic existed at Stanford. We took on money, but it was low key.
Sramana: How much money did you raise from that group?
Adeyemi Ajao: We raised $1.5 million. At the time none of us who were starting the company had any liquidity. Tuenti.com had not sold at that point.
Sramana: You raised $1.5 million in 2010. How did you go to market? Facebook and LinkedIn were both in full swing.
Adeyemi Ajao: First we sat down and looked to see what we had out there for professionals. There are a lot of job boards, most of which are customized for a region or industry, and you have LinkedIn. LinkedIn is the one that is truly different because they are about building and maintaining one’s professional identity. We sat down and looked at how LinkedIn appeared different from Facebook.
For us, the key was that LinkedIn does not give you feedback the way Facebook does. We wanted to build something that worked like Facebook but looked like LinkedIn. We felt that it would be particularly appealing to young people because they had grown up with Facebook. Our go-to-market was people who were building a professional identity for the very first time without knowing what they were doing was different from Facebook.
Out initial tool was very simple. It would take your Facebook profile and information that pertained to your professional life, such as education, where you worked, and what friends you had in those locations, and we created a professional profile out of that. On the other side, we went to startups and told them what we were going to do. We invited them to build profiles so that they could tell students what they liked and what they did not like for various professions. We launched that out of Stanford, and we made it invitation only. Within two or three weeks, we had more Stanford students logging in than the Stanford Career Center.
That was a very good sign until we talked to the Stanford Career Center and they told us to shut down because we were exposing the information of students’ classmates. We shut it down, graduated and waited a few months. We did the same thing and launched it at Stanford, Berkeley and Princeton. Those were the very early beginnings. We found that the concept of ingesting Facebook profile data without having to re-add friends was something that people really liked.
Sramana: Did you launch it as a Facebook app?
Adeyemi Ajao: We launched it as a Facebook connect. Our whole point was to build a professional identity that was different from one’s personal identity. Once you use the Facebook baseline, then you have something different from that point forward.
Sramana: What is the process of launching in a school?
Adeyemi Ajao: Once we had people at Stanford going we looked to see who had friends and different schools. We looked at who the heaviest Stanford users were. We then approached them and told them that we were going to launch at a school where they had a lot of friends and then invited them to help us with that launch. That was very powerful. People who had a good experience wanted their friends to have the same and they recommended us.