Entrepreneurship, Features

BuildAFlock Launches at HBS to Help Students Spread Their Wings

We’ve all heard of tweeting, but it’s time for HBS students to start flocking.

BuildAFlock, a real-world social networking start-up co-founded by Cy Khormaee (OI), Deborah Hsieh (OI), and Shlomi Dinoor (UMass MBA), officially launched on November 29 as a private beta for the HBS community.

BuildAFlock is an online platform that takes the administrative headache out of organizing small group dinners, increasingly popular networking events often arranged within HBS student clubs. BuildAFlock automates the entire process from assembling a group of diners to making a restaurant reservation.

Khormaee, who serves as CEO, is looking to take advantage of the growing demand for these types of social gatherings. He wants to be a community builder in a fast-paced digital world with shrinking opportunities for meaningful face-to-face interactions. Ironically, but appropriately, Khormaee and his team at BuildAFlock are using technology to restore a reality where deep conversations and important social connections are made.

He also wants to save everyone some time.

“HBS students have demanding schedules and a lot is asked of them,” he said. “As I thought about the Google Docs and countless emails that are used to organize small group dinners, I realized that a lot of very busy people were doing something very menial that a computer could automate quite easily.”

Creating a username and password takes seconds, after which verified members of the HBS network can select calendar availability and choose from a number of general interest or campus-specific dinner topics (e.g. “Entrepreneurship” or “Section E”). The system assembles a group based on this information and sends an invitation to dinner. The restaurant is booked automatically and all that is left to do is “chirp away over some grub.”

BuildAFlock earns revenue by charging the restaurant a flat fee per guest. Since many HBS students will elect to dine on a weekday during off-peak hours, restaurants benefit by filling seats that otherwise would have been empty. Khormaee emphasized the immediate positive impact to the restaurant:

“This is not like Groupon where there is negative value to the retailer initially and you need to bet on value in the future,” he said. “If I’m asking for a small fee per person, the restaurant still makes a profit right away. There is no deep discount that needs to be overcome with uncertain repeat business.”

The initial idea for BuildAFlock arose earlier this fall when Hsieh invited Khormaee to a small group dinner. Khormaee had just returned from a year off, having temporarily suspended his studies to run CIMLS.com, a commercial real estate start-up he founded before business school. The dinner allowed him to quickly become an adopted member of last year’s Section I.

With an idea in hand, Khormaee and Hsieh took their concept to Startup Weekend, a tech-savvy summit that brings together entrepreneurs and challenges them to build a new product in 54 hours. In that brief window, a 10-member team put together a business plan, built the product, and took BuildAFlock live. Since the November 9th gathering, seven of those folks have continued with BuildAFlock, using Harvard’s iLab as their nest.

The BuildAFlock team is a whacky bunch that loves to play up its bird theme. When a user creates a new account, he or she is quickly greeted by an email from the “Support Stork.” Those who are delinquent in filling out their profiles will receive the following message: “We’d love to help you meet some great people in your network; wren you have a chance, please fly on over to update your schedule.” After the product launch at Startup Weekend, Boston.com called this humorous bunch “very punny” people.

While HBS is BuildAFlock’s first test community, the company has its sights set on a far greater target market: large corporate enterprises. The company’s goal is to help people make meaningful social connections in the workplace, something that is often hard to achieve within a big company environment. Relative isolation can reduce career opportunities, limit collaboration, and prevent mentorship.

“Meaningful social connections among employees reduces turnover and creates a more enjoyable work experience,” Khormaee said. “Building a community within the workplace is something that a company should really value.”

BuildAFlock estimates that its addressable corporate market is 140 million employees. If users attend an average of four meals per year and the hosting restaurant pays a flat fee per guest, the numbers get big pretty quickly.

Potentially even more exciting is the opportunity for BuildAFlock to analyze the data it collects from its users through online bookings and post-dinner surveys. Khormaee said this data can provide previously unexplored insights into the factors that make successful human interactions.

“There is huge potential for us to learn about recurring social connections,” he said. “For example, we’ll see two friends going to dinner with four strangers, or vice versa. Maybe the conversation is focused on politics. How do those dinners go? It’s a fascinating treasure trove of social interactive data that we can learn from to help create great events. I think there’s a lot of potential to become very sophisticated down the road.”

Khormaee and his team will work through the holidays to prepare for BuildAFlock’s public launch to the Boston community in January. He is excited about unleashing the team’s software outside of HBS.

“The concept of small group dinners is universal. It’s also universally done manually,” Khormaee said. “We’re here to change that.”

December 5, 2012
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