Founders and VCs have spent the past year secretly chatting on Upstream, a new social app where big name tech players like Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock Partners can network with users

  • Upstream, a new social startup that aims to redefine professional networking, officially launched to the public on Tuesday.
  • Startup founders and VCs from firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock Partners have been using the Upstream app to socialize and network during the pandemic.
  • Cofounder Alex Taub spoke to Business Insider about Upstream's "Events" product, which hosts big-name tech players like Greylock's Mike Duboe and also facilitates rapid-fire breakout sessions where members meet each other randomly.
  • Taub told Business Insider in an exclusive interview that he believes there can be "multiple billion dollar businesses" that operate in the professional communities space in the coming decade. Upstream, he believes, will be one of them.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

For months, startup founders have been secretly mingling with the tech industry's biggest names, including venture capitalists at Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock Partners, as well as experienced operators from Google, Amazon, and Twitter. There are even some journalists in the mix — like the New York Times' internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz.

They're all part of a new professional networking app called Upstream, which announced its public debut today via a Medium post. The one-year-old startup is cofounded by CEO Alex Taub, a 33-year-old New York native best known for starting the marketing analytics firm SocialRank, which counted clients like the NFL and Netflix and was acquired last year by Trufan. His fellow Upstream founder and CTO, Michael Schonfeld, was also a cofounder at SocialRank.

In an exclusive interview with Business Insider, Taub discussed his decision to sell SocialRank and the value he sees in professional-networking apps like Upstream, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended traditional networking events.

Taub said his decision to sell SocialRank was in part because of the potential he saw in Upstream, which debuted its beta version last year. Its first product focused on creating professional communities where users — primarily founders, investors, and operators — could ask for advice via something called Professional Asks. Those requests could include an open-ended ask to get connected with someone at Nike, for example, or find a part-time CFO for a startup.

The company's early appeal, Taub told Business Insider, was the higher quality and more personalized responses Upstream members received from their queries than, say, posting on LinkedIn. The app started last summer with between 200 and 300 members, though it's now grown to more than 3,000, Taub said. He attributed that growth to the unique ways Upstream treats professional networking.

Taub pointed to Upstream's Events product, which launched this May. That function hosts virtual events with prominent tech industry players (this week, for example, Upstream is hosting Greylock partner Mike Duboe), and then pairs event participants in four, random one-on-one conversations that last five minutes each. 

The goal is to try and recreate the spontaneity that normally comes from the social mingling that occurs before and after organized events like panels or fireside chats. So far, Upstream has made more than 6,000 matches and has hosted more than 200 events, the company said. 

"Serendipity is sort of a little bit gone in the world," Taub told Business Insider. "Even if it's just a little bit that [Upstream] is bringing serendipity back into the world, I think that's a good thing."

Taub sees a broader market opportunity for truly social professional communities. He says he's competing less with LinkedIn than with LinkedIn groups, forums where professionals in similar industries share experiences and ask for guidance. 

"They're not really a social app," Taub said of LinkedIn's core offering. "It's more post-social. So I met you somewhere, whether it was in person or online, and then I connect with you on LinkedIn."

Upstream users can join any of the app's dozens of professional communities, with names like "New York Venture Community," "Fellow Female Founders," "Healthcare," and "Jews in Tech," to meet and network with others in their industry. The app's professional communities are run by other Upstream users, who also approve new members.

Many of Upstream's features — like an audio lobby where participants can chat before events begin — are designed to make the experience of professional networking as informal and casual as possible. This week, the company unveiled its Office Hours feature, which allows individual members to offer up scheduled time to speak with other Upstream members. 

More than 30 members have already offered up office hours on the app, including partners at Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures, as well as Foursquare and Expa founder Naveen Selvadurai, according to Taub. 

The competition is undoubtedly growing, as more and more startups now try to redefine online events and professional social networking in a world dominated by virtual work. That includes audio startups like Clubhouse and Chalk, as well as LunchClub, which matches users based on shared interests and recently raised $24.2 million at a valuation above $100 million. 

Upstream is still in its early stages, having just completed a pre-seed round of an undisclosed amount earlier this year, with backing from 8-Bit Capital, Human Ventures, Basement Fund, NYVP, and various angel investors. Still, Taub insists that the market opportunities for professional social networking are huge, and can accommodate multiple players. 

"There's so much open opportunity in this space over the next five, ten years that there's going to be multiple billion dollar businesses that are built," he said.

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