OPW INTERVIEW -- Nov 6, 2006 -- Steve Loughlin, is CEO of Affinity Circles, a company that provides private social networks for universities (and other organisations). Facebook from the inside out. - Mark Brooks
What is Affinity Circles founding story?
Affinity Circles was founded by a couple of students at Stanford. They created a social networking platform called “Club Nexus” for undergrads at Stanford. They got funding, secured the Stanford Alumni Association as their first customer and then hired a CEO to stabilize the company. He came in, did a good job and hired me to do sales and marketing and figure out how to get traction within the university vertical. So within the first 6 months I signed up 18 universities. I became CEO of the company in November, 2004. Two of my first employees were classmates from Stanford. We were all firm believers in the value that trusted social networks had to offer to individual users, and for organizations.
We had to address one key question… How can we create a trusted platform that provides value not only to users but also to organizations? We began developing the product and a set of features to benefit both. We have more than 60 customers today, most of which are leading universities and membership organizations. They’re very valuable, rich communities.
So what are Affinity Circles? How does your service work?
Affinity circles are trusted social networks. Our software platform enables users to search and communicate with one another based on a rich profile of who they are and a network of who they know. So a real example of that is Stanford University. Their alumni can find jobs, reconnect with old friends, join groups and network with professionals in their field through a social network exclusive to their alma mater. So that allows them to be more open, and also ensures that (1) they’re interacting with real members of the alumni, and (2) they share a common experience with everyone in that network.
Who’s your target market currently and what are the next couple of groups you would want to reach out to?
Universities. We have great relationships with our university customers, many of whom are part of other organizations and affinity circles. So we’re actually getting a lot of requests from our current users saying, “Hey could you provide a social network for our non-profit or trade association or for the fans of our professional sports organization,” things like that. In fact, that’s exactly how we were introduced to the Portland Trail Blazers. Last month we announced that we are working with them to launch the first official social network for a professional basketball team. We’re exploring opportunities with other organizations as well, and over the next few months will announce key customers in different verticals.
How would you say you improve on what Facebook is doing?
I think Facebook did a tremendous job of really capturing the social experience of an undergrad. We were actually around before Facebook. We’re trying to capture the experience of the organization’s network, because typically those networks already exist offline. These organizations also have great channels for marketing to their members.
Many universities are very old and have been servicing their alumni and students and the community for a long time. So partnering with them gives an advantage of sustainability, because we’re leveraging the knowledge they have about their members. Doing that in other verticals, I think, is going to provide a lot of value.
How do you make money?
In two ways. We charge a licensing fee for providing our social networking software and productivity tools. In addition, we monetize the user base through integrated advertising into the platform.
For example, since finding employment is a key concern for alumni members, our first foray into integrated advertising for universities is an online recruiting service called inCircle Jobs. It allows employers to post jobs into specific university communities for a fee. So if you want to hire a software developer from Santa Clara University, you can go to incirclejobs.com and post directly into their inCircle community. And so it preserves exclusivity in the community, but also adds value. Using a relationship-mapping feature users can actually view those job postings, and also see who in their network works at that company. We’re going to do a lot of work on that over the next six months to really build out that functionality.
What are your goals for 2007? Would you like to reach out to business development?
You will see us working with some marquee trade associations. They're a logical extension from a university and fit that professional mold. You’ll also see us reaching out to some high affinity organizations, such as professional sports teams, to find networks for their fans, as well as any affinity group that has a large membership base and high visibility with their members. Our platform recognizes the brand and is also trusted and provides essential security to our users and to the organizations that we’re partnering with.