Dogpatch Labs: Interview with Jayne Ronayne of KonnectAgain
Dogpatch Labs is a globally recognized brand across the tech community.
It has been home to many of Ireland’s fastest growing technology companies including Logentries, Boxever, Profitero, Intercom and CoderDojo and in its past has originated companies such as Instagram.
Dogpatch Labs is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship and a culture of innovation, and provides a foundation for start-ups go to grow and scale and is crucial for supporting the continued growth of early stage innovation in Ireland.
Dogpatch Labs is the place where start-ups, investors and corporates come to rub shoulders and spark ideas. Ulster Bank has taken a leadership role and positioned itself as a thought leader and top tier sponsor of Dogpatch Labs.
We sat down with Jayne Ronayne of KonnectAgain and talked about her online tool that strives to connect students, schools, universities and workplaces together all over the world.
Tell me a bit about KonnectAgain?
"At KonnectAgain, we build alumni relation software. We give institutions around the world a platform to re-engage with their alumni."
How did you come up with the idea?
"It came from my own personal challenge when I graduated college, I wanted to use my alumni to try and help me get a job. I went to UCC and they have 100,000 alumni and graduates around the world, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to tap into my network. But I found that when I tried to use the network that UCC provided us, it was really slow and inefficient and you had to fill out these big manual forms. I just felt the process was really clunky and I wanted to create a platform for UCC. Then the further I went into it, I decided to do a thesis on the subject as part of my MBA studies and as part of that, I rang every university in the UK and Ireland. I then asked them the following questions: Was the engagement of their alumni community a big thing for them? Was it important? Was it valuable? Would they buy a platform that was way more powerful than what they were currently using? And every one of them said yes."
So existing institutions would use their own systems currently?
"They’re using this software giant called Blackbaud which is about 12 years old. This is like the IBM version of Apple. It’s been around for many years now and one of its problems is that it stores information and doesn’t update it when it should. So let’s say I decided to move to China tomorrow and start a new job in Apple - the only way that my University would find out what I’m doing is if I wrote to them or picked up the phone and called, which realistically, I’m not going to do - that’s what Blackbaud provided. Whereas what I want to do is build a system that was on top of LinkedIn because I’m more likely to update my LinkedIn profile before I ring my University to tell them what I’m doing. So that was the simple idea behind it."
The KonnectAgain system operates off LinkedIn?
"The alumni themselves actually have their own portal and that’s why we are that little bit different. We’re coming at it with the angle of: Why would an alumni re-engage back with their institution or their network? We wanted to make it super simple for any alumni to do that. They create a profile using their LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook account which means their profile is automatically created. But what’s kind of special about it is that if they change anything on their social portal profile, it changes on our system as well. This results in us getting constant updates and info on the alumni."
What can be the benefits of engaging with your alumni association after college?
"It’s pretty interesting. We started in the university market and in Ireland we are particularly bad at engaging with our alumni communities. Only 1% of alumni donate back in Ireland in terms of funding/fundraising and that’s down to a lot of different reasons. It comes down to them not knowing how to donate back. So if you wanted to write a cheque tomorrow, it’s really difficult to get it to the right person.
Whereas in Stanford, it’s up to 70% of alumni donate back. There’s no secret ingredient but they understand if you are to get a donation back, you have to engage them about something that is relevant to them. If your institution knew what you were doing, they could invite you to events that are relevant in your life right now, instead of spamming them with emails or a graduate magazine that’s probably going to the wrong address.
So that’s where we come in - we’ve built a tailored system that we can personalise specifically for you. Each user can then mark out on their own profile about being contacted for x, y and z - things that are relevant for you in your own life at any given time. So you may not be a potential donor right now, but I could go back and talk about my experience building a company or I could go back and give my time. Then maybe 2-3 years down the line, I could then be in a position to donate.
We’ve now gone into the corporate market a little bit. It’s a whole new level altogether with huge firms from tech, bank, consultancy etc - they now want to use their company's employee alumni communities for recruitment."
How many people do you have engaging with your system?
"We’ve got just over 12 customers between Copenhagen , UK, Ireland and the US. This year is a really big year for us and we’ll be rolling out our new platform into phase two. We spent the first year getting market research and making sure that the product made sense and we raised a bit of investment. Now we’re on to phase two and we now have a really experienced team. Now it’s about driving the product and getting it out there as fast as we can in the next 12 months."
How many users are in the KonnectAgain system now?
"We have just over 50,000 users and that grows every week as the institutions push it out to their own alumni channels."
With Ireland being so small, is one of the main focuses to target the international market?
"Yes, Ireland is tiny. There are 9 universities here. Our sales and marketing team are based in our office in San Francisco. In the States, they understand the value of the product. Ireland can be really slow to change. So while nearly every university here in Ireland could identify that yes, this was a challenge for them, they ultimately are sticking with the old, less efficient platform."
What is one of the key learnings you have picked up along your startup journey?
"One of the best things I ever did was to get out of Ireland when I first started the company. Ireland is such a small market and here, we wouldn’t have had that same vision or excitement to build a global company. We travelled a lot around Europe and then spent the majority of our time in the States. I went to San Francisco for my first time last June and since then, I have been back every 6 weeks. It’s just a totally different environment - putting aside the sizeable difference in market size - the atmosphere over there is just infectious. To be a startup over there is completely different. People are a lot more open to you and your idea and what you’re trying to do. People are massively passionate about their alumni in America, you could be chatting to someone for 10 seconds over there and you know where they went to college or where they worked."
What do you think of the startup scene in Dublin?
"I think Dublin is entering into a really exciting time - it’s just getting bigger and bigger. It’s also such an advantage being Irish anywhere in the world because people do acknowledge that Airbnb and the likes of Google are all here. But sometimes, it can be quite hard to raise investment here as it’s that little bit smaller and the model is very different to what it is over in the US. Trying to get that initial capital can be challenging, whereas in the States, investors can be a lot more open to writing you a cheque because they believe in you, your team and your idea. In Ireland, there have been situations where I’ve been told to go back to my job until I was 30 and then try building a startup. So it’s just a different mindset."
You're based in Dogpatch, what has this done for you?
"It’s incredible. We were actually the first company there. Paddy Walsh and Hugo Mahony showed me around when it was just a construction site, and I was immediately sold on the their vision for what they wanted the place to become. It’s great now and is only getting better. Within a year, they’ve already got two huge partnership deals with Google and Ulster Bank. The Dogpatch team has created this atmosphere for a type of VIP company, and created an urgency for people to want to get in here which is pretty cool. There’s a natural and healthy competitive vibe in here too - we would be one of the youngest companies here and we’re always trying to make sure we’re building every month. The community in the Dogpatch Labs is really brilliant."
What would you say to anyone that has a startup idea?
"Just do it. You should think ‘What is the worst thing that could happen?’. We ask ourselves that every single day."