Participating in the GNVC: Listen, Learn, Pivot.

New Venture Challenge

Prem Iyer is CEO & Co-Founder of Rekonnex, a professional networking platform designed for private social networks. Rekonnex (formerly Aluminate) was started at Chicago Booth when Prem and two other classmates competed in and won the Global New Venture Challenge [GNVC]. Since graduating from the Executive MBA Program in 2015, Prem and his co-founders have continued to grow the business. We caught up with Prem to hear more about his experience and where he sees the company heading.

How did the idea for Rekonnex come about?

I knew I wanted to participate in the Global New Venture Challenge [GNVC] but I didn’t have a business idea. It wasn’t until my wife and I traveled to Mexico that something came to mind. We spent the entire time at a resort and ended our stay without knowing that a close friend of my wife’s was staying at the same place. We were so disappointed to have missed an opportunity to catch up.

My immediate thought was; how many others are experiencing this every day? How can we prevent missed opportunities from happening?

During the next class week, I sought out my classmate, Parijat Sahai, who specializes in mobile apps.  I remember him smiling at me when I pitched him the idea. He said, “Man, every time I go to India, I have the same problem and all my friends ask ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were here’! I can build this.”

After we built a prototype, we brought in another classmate, Anthony Saladino. Anthony has an accomplished educational and professional background and most recently worked in private equity and real estate. He was brilliant at getting us focused on the real problem at hand.

What does Rekonnex do?

Rekonnex is a mobile-first social platform for private, vetted networks. You can use any affinity that you have (such as a school, company, social organization) to find other people with similar interests for career opportunities, events, information, and meetups. Rekonnex also offers curated content by leveraging machine learning based on your location and your personal and professional profile. This ensures that the user sees only the content that is most relevant to them.

How did you prepare to pitch at GNVC?

GNVC gave us a structured way to iterate a pitch. What we presented day one was terrible but over weeks of refinement, our pitch really flowed by the end of the class.

To prepare we tried to get customer validation. I went to large enterprises like Deloitte and big universities, and we showed them the solution and asked what they thought. Everywhere we went the responses were positive. Those conversations with customers helped shape the product and the presentation.

Finally, Professor Waverly Deutsch looked at our deck and in 25 minutes she reshaped our entire flow. We were amazed at how easily she gave us a more effective way to share our message. She is incredible at telling a story.

What was competing like?

It was intense – we had to get up in front of a bunch of Booth colleagues who are very intelligent, and extremely competitive! We were confronted with some very legitimate ideas. There was some natural tension, but even though we were all competitive it still felt like colleagues hanging out and having fun.

Throughout the process, my team knew I was not participating to lose. I kept saying, “We’ve got to win!” After all, we had invested a ton of hours towards iterating our pitch.  We kept asking ourselves, “Are we conveying the right message?”  We listened to all of the feedback by the judges and mentors. And throughout the process we remained humble; we knew that we didn’t know anything about this process. We reminded ourselves, “If you haven’t done it, be quiet and listen and learn.”

What was some of the best advice you received?

Professor Deutsch told us not to fall in love with your idea. In the time between having the idea and the finals we had shifted to a B2B model and everything completely changed. We listened and we pivoted. We talked to customers, and listened to their problem; our product definition came from their feedback. And that was all the result of not falling in love with our product.

If you come out of this process with what you came in with, you didn’t listen.

Where are you with the business now?

We have raised a portion of an investment round, we have an Android app available on the Play store, and a mobile responsive web version.  We’re in the process of looking for initial customers. At the moment, we have a nice pipeline of prospects fielding requests for proposals and we are focused on getting past beta to a commercially available solution. The hardest thing is to acquire customer number one – we are looking for early adopters.

The founding team is still intact. We’ve grown by adding three developers and a technical architect, an Advisory Board – Professor Deutsch, the Chief Digital Officer for the world’s largest fast food chain, the Global Director of Alumni Relations for the #1 consulting company in the world, and two other executives – the Principal of Global Strategy and Operations for Google and the CEO/Founder of three mobile web security companies.

Did your wife ever reconnect with her friend?

They connected afterwards on Facebook but they never did see each other. In fact, they still haven’t seen each other because we live so far apart. If only they had Rekonnex!  

As told to Meghan Keedy by Prem Iyer, '15 (XP-84)