Crowdhall is a new social media platform that runs online forums as an alternative to town hall meetings. I recently had a chance to sit down with Crowdhall COO and Co-founder, Jordan Menzel to learn about how the company was started, how it operates, and what is in store for the future.
Tell us about yourself first. What is your history? Where did you go to school and work in the past?
My name is Jordan Menzel, from Salt lake City, Utah, University of Utah BA Sociology, worked in State Politics, international development, UNEP, Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, most recently worked as an Assistant to Sec. Madeleine Albright prior to starting CrowdHall. Once upon a time I was a sponsored skateboarder.
Who have been your business startup inspirations? Did you learn anything from them specifically?
Honestly, I don’t really have any specific person that I look up to with respect to starting a business. I have, however, gained an insane respect for ANYONE that has started ANYTHING. Whether it’s a taco stand, a dental office, or a successful tech start-up I now find myself super curious about their experience, their lessons, and their failures.
What was your inspiration to start your company?
I had dozens of ideas over my last year in Grad school and new I would go crazy if I didn’t go through the process of attempting to scale one of them. My inspiration was the desire to learn the process through failure or success. I knew it takes time to fail and to learn and so I knew I needed to get cracking ASAP.
Tell us how your company started and when. Who was involved and what did each person do?
My partner Austin Hackett had tossed around an idea about a Q&A type process 2 years ago. I didn’t really know him at the time and he had tried to get a developer and test some things out. He was in Columbia Medical School at the time and didn’t have any luck so he tabled his concept. Fast forward a year, I was working for Albright and finishing up grad school and pursuing a few ideas of my own, including on idea that made it to the final round of Echoing Green, which is a social entrepreneurship fellowship. I was talking to a mutual friend of ours about my idea for a crowd-sourcing deliberation platform to help organize and prioritize group ideas, questions, etc… He told me what Austin had been brainstorming a year ago and said there was a lot of overlap. That night, I hit up Austin, asked him about it, shared ideas, and set up time to meet in DC to sync it all up and gauge interest. In Dec 2011, We met. Got a www.crowdhall.com URL, chiseled out our joint concept in a weekend. I then snuck into an MBA course called Entrepreneurial business planning. The deal was, 25 students pitch ideas, the teachers pick 10 and students group around 5. The 5 chosen then get a team of MBA’s to work on a business plan. I knew I couldn’t take the class unless my pitch was chosen. I fought tooth and nail to the very last second to get people on my team and we were chosen. I won a few business pitch competitions, won some money, and got some momentum. We secured a huge contract with USAID for a big conference to use a beta product we whipped out with the money we won. With that traction and momentum we recruited a great CTO named Nick, applied to a few incubators, had a few offers and chose the Brandery. It’s been a fast moving train since then.
Tell us an interesting story about your business. Were there any “wow” moments? Anything funny or unusual?
We have had a lot of lucky breaks. My philosophy with start-ups is that you have to over promise AND over deliver in order to succeed. When I was brought in to pitch CrowdHall as a tool for USAID’s Frontiers in Development Conference (global event that featured multiple heads of state, celebrities like Mandy Moore etc…) Our first developer had just bailed and we didn’t even have a product built. The conference was in 3 weeks. I figured we could seal the deal on the pitch and then just turn it down if we couldn’t pull it together. We got the offer and through some combination of luck, timing and ignorance we made a commitment to deliver. We wrangled our old developer into coding away, paying him with award money from a pitch we won a few days before. Borrowed design help from friends, and presented ourselves as a legit company. The best moment was taking a call from USAID while I was working out of a public library study room. They asked if I was the most appropriate person to discuss additional business development opportunities in the office. I specifically remember laughing at my partner as we looked at a librarian stacking books. It was then I realized that they assumed we were a company, and it was time we actually had to act like one.
What is your role in the company now?
I am the COO and Co-Founder. My role has varied over the past year from investor pitching, business development, product development and marketing. Currently I head up our business development efforts and manage client relations and partnerships.
What does your company sell and how does it make money?
CrowdHall is an online venue for audience moderated town halls. It works like this: Any one can sign in, create a town hall, invite an audience and let that audience submit questions, concerns, ideas, suggestions, etc… and peer vote on the best content. You can then learn from your audience and pick the top posts and provide a response via text or video that can be socially shared along with the question. It’s like a private Reddit that is clean and user friendly. Public town halls are free so there are two ways we make money: 1) Customization. If you want to create private town halls for internal audiences or embed a town hall on a website or as a Facebook app, there is a subscription model that will allow you to do that. We also sell larger custom experiences to brands and companies for events and full service town halls that are completely hosted on a company’s website. 2) User Monetization. Advertising, town hall sponsorship and promoted content are also sources of revenue but ones we will not explore in the short term.
Which companies do you consider to be competitors?
We view competition in two groups: 1) sites where people are trying to force online Q&A’s in a messy and unsuccessful way. There are important sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, they aren’t built for this type of interaction and lack moderating tools to organize large group voices. 2) Direct competitors. Reddits IAMA feature is an example, internal company tools like Get Satisfaction, User Voice are also examples.
What makes your products and services better than competitors’ offerings?
No service combines a clean, brandable, portable venue with the right moderating tools to allow a fast, easy to host, socially integrated town hall experience. No tool allows you to embed that experience on an existing website, and no tool allows you to customize the experience for internal uses while allowing the flexibility for open public town halls that can integrate with traditional social media. We are also rolling out some great features that allow for multiple hosts to provide responses to one feed of questions, so this also creates the first place for digital debates, panels, etc…
What are revenues so far this quarter? Year? What is your quarterly revenue growth from this same quarter in 2012?
Totally pre-revenue stage start-up. That said, we have sold some of our early beta town halls and generated about 5k in revenue. Focus is currently on nailing the product and testing out what we can sell in the coming months.
Does the company have any cash flow from financing activities? What is your total debt, if any?
The only debt we have is in the form of convertible debt. This is really a tool to raise capital that will convert to equity upon a priced round of investment to take place at a later date.
Are you planning an IPO? If so, when? How are you raising capital?
Not planning an IPO in the short term, medium term, and likely long term. We are growing a smart company that has a lot of potential to add value to a number of existing competitors and companies. If there is an exit any time soon, it will be because we have built an attractive acquisition opportunity.
We have raised an early round of seed investment from Angels and the Brandery and are in the process of making some big decisions where we base moving forward and which investors we partner with. We have some great offers on the table for a larger seed round that should give us a solid year run-way and are excited to make a decision soon.
Where do you see the company in five years in terms of revenue and profitability?
We obviously have a shit load of excel spreadsheets, assumptions, and forecasts. We also obviously accept that the numbers are all a fairy tale until we phase in our revenue models. For perspective we think we are looking at a total addressable market of 500M that spans the public sector, companies and organizations, and people of interest (bloggers, athletes, entertainment, etc….) We think we can be cash flow positive and capturing around 80M in five years.
What would you define as your “primary market”?
Anyone with an online audience of 5,000 plus. That spans the public sector, companies and organizations, and interesting people (entertainment). All are important and we test halls in all sectors, however, the first targeted marketing effort is taking place in the public sector.
What forms of marketing do you use to attract clients?
Given our stage, we rely on gorilla marketing, strategic partnerships with digital agencies, and social. To date, we haven’t spent more than a thousand bucks on marketing.
How big is the company in terms of its workforce?
We are 3 original co-founders, and just hired our first employee, Patrick Carroll and also just brought on board a part time associate named Kat Schmermund t help scale our efforts in DC. We also have two contract developers and are in the process of making our first full time hires in the development side.
What are the biggest growth catalysts (new technology, new offerings, etc.) for you right now? Tell us about any patents or other IP.
Getting the right people to host town halls. We are rolling out some great tech offerings but are excited to get the right people on board.
Is there any announcement you’d like to make?
We are in the process of closing a good round of funding and can’t wait to get the details out once it’s all wrapped up!
If you’d like to learn more about CrowdHall visit them at http://www.crowdhall.com