According to recent estimates, Cornell boasts an alumni network that includes more than 255,000 people. To put that number in context, if Cornell decided to form a country using its alumni as citizens, it would have a larger population than 21 other countries in the world. Moreover, of these 255,000 alumni, Cornell has 31 Marshall Scholars, 28 Rhodes Scholars, and 41 Nobel laureates connected to the university. In short, there are many Cornellians out there, and you’d probably learn a thing or two from talking with them.
But where do you find these alumni, and how do you arrange a time or place to meet? Say hello to Hyphen Connect: an app described simply as “networking revolutionized.” Hyphen Connect uses location-based technology to pair you with people in your area who have experiences similar to your own based on college attended, job, and clubs. Once you select someone you’d like to chat with, you can message that person within the app to set up a time and place to meet.
Hyphen Connect was founded by Alastair Chang (’17), David He (’16), Zhongyuan (Ma) Ma (’17), and Guandao Yang (’18) to help aspiring professionals take a simpler approach to networking. Their story behind Hyphen Connect is shared below:
What prompted you to start Hyphen Connect?
Ma: Back in the fall semester of sophomore year, I had traveled to visit one of my friends at Penn State. On the way back, I transferred in Philadelphia and sat waiting for the plane with nothing to do. I realized there were so many people from Cornell taking that plane back to Ithaca, I just didn’t know which ones. Two people actually started talking to each other next to me after they found out both were Cornell alums. They became friends, and I started to wonder: why did I miss out on that opportunity? I realized it was because we lacked a platform to figure out who’s around us.
What does the Hyphen Connect app do?
David: Hyphen Connect bridges the gap between two people. Our app is based on forming connections. It’s location-based, meaning it functions by letting you know about the people who are near you with whom you have something to talk about. It makes networking more concrete. It’s hard enough to meet up with people at Cornell, and when you’re somewhere else, it’s difficult to meet with someone without planning to meet ahead of time.
Ma: To add to that, imagine you’re in London. You know there are many Cornellians in London, but you don’t know who exactly is from Cornell and where exactly they are. They could be as little as two blocks away from you, and by using Hyphen Connect, we’re letting you know that Cornell kids are around you, that CUABS kids are around you, that Alpha Kappa Psi kids are around you. What you meet about is up to you, but we want it to unify people based on their interests.
Who do you see as your chief competitor?
David: LinkedIn is our main competitor, but we distinguish ourselves through our instant messaging service and the location-based services, or LBS. LinkedIn is very useful for people in the business world, but for college students looking for jobs, it’s not very helpful. We want to bridge the gap. We want to make networking an easier and more friendly process. If you have something to talk about beforehand like a club or a university, it really gets the networking going.
Why have you chosen to target the professional market as opposed to grouping people by general interests or similarities?
Ma: There are apps that pinpoint people nearby with similar interests, but what we’ve found is that those connections aren’t strong enough to start a conversation. Things like sports and TV shows don’t give you enough confidence to make this connection happen, but if you’re both from the same group like a dance troupe, a club, or an a Capella group, you have a stronger connection united by a common experience instead of just a common interest.
At what point would you define Hyphen Connect as a success?
Guandao: We want to have a really successful technology at the core of our business. We want to spend some on data analysis so we can analyze our data and provide more feedback for the users. We want to go back and say, “That’s our invention. That’s our problem that we solved that no one else solved before.”
Alastair: I want to get to the point where people are really connected with the people around them. For me, Hyphen Connect creates something that helps bring online into offline. We help people to meet and connect.
David: From a business point of view, it would be really cool if we could eventually acquire LinkedIn. Maybe 10 years down the line, I’d like to get notifications from Hyphen Connect where people are messaging me asking me to meet up. I want to use the app as a primary way of meeting people and bringing people out of the technological bubble.
Ma: We dream more about the way we interact with each other and how to revolutionize our connections. If that dream comes true, then people can use our app to expand their connections. We’d define that as a success.
What’s it like working with such a diverse team?
Guandao: Teamwork is like an organic being. It has consciousness and emotion. We want to be able to motivate every single person within the team to be their best. It’s a really subtle adjustment, and it’s all new to us at the beginning. We became really efficient even though we’re all full-time students.
Do you feel like the right time to start a business is while you’re at Cornell?
Alastair: I definitely think it’s the right time. There are a lot of interdisciplinary things you learn that are very important. It really teaches you how to manage your time, and my grades have actually improved.
Guandao: I think the key is efficiency. The trick is to think about where most of your time is spent. If you spend too much time reviewing before a prelim, that means you didn’t grasp the content in lecture. If you’re having trouble with a problem set, then you probably didn’t ask for enough help. Try to cut down the hours to optimize efficiencies and prioritize the things that you want to do the most. The important thing is to do the most important things first.
Ma: You lose the least right now when you fail. Use this stage of your life to try something new. Try something you believe in. Think thoroughly about it, find other people, and find something worth pursuing. While you’re doing it, if you find it more interesting, then you should put more time into it. If you wait, the opportunity may be gone soon.
David: I always thought graduating first would be more important. In a way, I still believe in that. I want to go to an established organization or company to further gain my knowledge. Why am I here working on a startup? You can learn a lot of things from textbooks, but there’s no textbook on entrepreneurship. The only way to do it is to get your hands dirty and actually do it yourself. We are aspiring entrepreneurs, and it’s a really good learning course. Someone can tell you how to get into it, but the content is something that you need to see for yourself.
Are there any resources you’ve taken advantage of at Cornell that have helped you develop the app?
Guandao: If you want to learn iOS, I would highly recommend a class I’m TAing, CS 2049: Intermediate iPhone Development. The class was taught by an entrepreneur from Cornell, and it was once taught by an entrepreneur in charge of Fly Labs, which was subsequently absorbed by Google. Last year they focused mostly on fast prototyping. We learned the principles of development and how to generate ideas.
Alastair: There’s a class I’m taking right now, CRP 5850: Cities, Place, Technology. It talks about how urban lifeforms interact with technology around them. It involves everything from mobile apps to geolocating systems, and looks at the trends of technology. It was once used as a buffer zone, but now there’s more interaction with technology.
If you had to give one reason for someone to download Hyphen Connect, what would it be?
Ma: Expand your connection more conveniently, in a casual setting.
David: Turning professional networks into a casual coffee chat, and meeting more people along the way.
Guandao: Want to see who the cool people are around you? Download the app.
Alastair: Turning online connections into offline connections.
What advice do you guys have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
David: Always have a plan, but know that nothing ever goes according to plan.
Ma: Coming up with a good idea isn’t hard, but it’s the latter stages that are more difficult. You need to carry out the idea, and that’s the test.
Alastair: Coordinate with each of your teammates, and believe in them. Also find a really good cook for your team meetings.
Guandao: Make an equal team. In that case, you can inspire everyone to take a lead and keep everyone at their best. From a technological view, it’s never too late to get into these things. Everything we do is learning on the fly.
If you’d like to learn more about Hyphen Connect, visit their website or download the app on the App Store.