Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) talks with Olutosin Sonuyi (MBA ’22) about Chord and why he is driven to help organizations build better communities online.
Tell us more about your background, what inspired you to be an entrepreneur, and how you got started.
I am originally from California and have the incredible fortune of being the last of five siblings. Seeing examples of my older siblings pursuing entrepreneurship played a big role in helping me imagine it as a possibility for myself. I spent my first years after school working at companies with a lot of middle management, and while I didn’t love the hierarchy or size of these companies, I still got a lot from these roles. At my first job, I got exposure to professional software engineering, and in my second job, I had the opportunity to manage people, which I found out I really loved. Having experiences as a developer and managing people gave me the confidence (totally unfounded in hindsight) that I had the skills to start a business. Lastly, my experiences in organizations rooted in community and mutual aid like Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and /dev/color served as the spark that got me started thinking about how software could help make these important entities more valuable for their constituents.
What is the problem that you are trying to solve?
The venture I am building exists to make communities as valuable and engaging as possible for their members, while saving community managers as much time and effort as possible.
When I mention communities, I am not talking about internal company communities made up of employees, and I am not talking about communities like the ones that you live in where you see the people in-person every day. When I say communities, I am referring to online communities run by corporate entities whether they are enterprises or non-profit organizations—communities where people with similar interests or affinities gather to share learnings and connect with one another.
A really good example of these exists at Glossier, where their founder used insights from the community to iterate on the product and understand best what resonated with their future customers. Another example is the Salesforce Trailblazer Community that brings Salesforce users (Trailblazers) together to learn, collaborate, and get the most out of their unique Salesforce implementations. An example near and dear to my heart is /dev/color, a community where Black software engineers across the country share career tips, get mentorship, and work on projects together.
These communities have one really critical thing in common: they exist for the benefit of their members.
In each case, the communities provide value to their members, and in return the members provide value, which could take the form of brand advocacy (free marketing), supporting other users of the same product, exposing market insights to inform company strategy, or, in the case of non-profits, helping to attract corporate sponsorships and grants. Critically, the entity that runs the community only gains these immensely valuable benefits from their community for as long as they can retain and engage the members.
Forrester’s research found that 60% of businesses own a branded community with an additional 15% planning to open one in the next year, but managing a community is a difficult thing. Community managers are incredibly busy, often wear many different hats, but have no unified tool with which to do their jobs. As communities scale, it becomes more and more difficult to provide great value for individuals.
In an effort to keep up with the needs of the community, managers often try to adopt new platforms or add additional communication methods, and they rely heavily on spreadsheets and one-off integrations to connect disparate tools together. This amounts to tons of manual work, siloed data, and scores of lost efficiency.
Yet even with the large time investment that we often see, a vast majority of community members feel unengaged and lack connectivity to the community. This in turn limits their opportunities to learn new things and build strong relationships.
And if communities stop providing value to the members, communities will fail to retain those members and the community will never grow to its potential or return the previously described value to the entity that supports it. Thus, Chord is built to help managers of online communities provide as much value as possible to the members within their communities.
What is your solution?
Community managers already have hundreds of tools and platform options. Instead of trying to make yet another platform, we are building a layer of infrastructure and services on top of existing platforms that are purpose-built to help community managers, regardless of where their communities live.
The infrastructure exists to help connect disparate systems, collect data about members (voluntarily), manage surveys, and profile conversations using natural language processing. This infrastructure and data is then used to power recommendations and automated services to help community managers save time while being more effective at engaging and retaining their members.
These automated services include uncovering valuable content buried within the community and surfacing it to the interested parties, in addition to people-focused recommendations, like introductions between members that would have the most valuable relationships within the community. The goal is to use these services to really keep community managers focusing their time and resources on what really matters.
What was the inspiration behind your company/idea?
Chord was born out of a lot of reflection on the experiences that led me to where I am now. When I was a 17-year-old freshman at Stanford, community is what introduced me to some of my closest friends today. Community was pivotal in getting exposed to people that showed me different career paths and how to navigate choosing a major. And, more recently, it helped me find like-minded people who shared cultural values with me when I needed the support and mentorship to transition into a new field of work.
As you may have noted from my background, I have lived in a lot of different places over the last ten years. When I moved away from where I grew up and went to school, I realized that a lot of those communities that had provided so much unfortunately seemed to lose some of their effectiveness and magic when I was not in the same physical space as most of the members.
Chord is really an effort to bring that transformative power of community to communities, regardless of where their members are. Chord is built to empower these types of groups to have the same value they bring in person to their online presence or these hybrid environments that we find ourselves in so often today.
Who is the team behind your startup?
I am currently a solo founder but am actively recruiting people to join, especially anyone with a background in product marketing and an interest in community building!
I am currently putting together my list of investors and angels and after getting some help building out a financial model. I have figured out the total funding I want to raise to have 18 months of runway. In parallel, I am looking to build out the team and do some more work on designing the next phase of the product. I have been spending a lot of time in Figma getting high fidelity prototypes to test with customers on the waitlist and build on the momentum of our pilots.
Olutosin Sonuyi (MS/MBA ’22) is a California native, currently working on his own venture focused on removing the barriers to creating great communities online. Prior to HBS, he spent his first few years after undergrad designing power plants and their supporting systems for General Electric in South Carolina. In his free time, he writes open source software and tutorials for educational purposes on his blog, &computers, and does freelance software consulting.
Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) grew up outside Pittsburgh, PA. Prior to HBS, he worked for five years in engineering, product strategy, and program management at Ford. In the last year, he co-founded Gaia AI, a robotics, AI, and carbon offset startup fighting climate change.