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Around last April, LinkedIn co-founder Konstantin Guericke was approached by Yinon Weiss about supporting an interesting twist on the social media networking model that he helped introduce back in 2003. Weiss, who served for 10 years on active duty as a Marine Corps scout and sniper platoon commander as well as an Army Special Forces officer, met with Guericke to discuss RallyPoint, a professional network for active duty members of the military and veterans alike. Weiss founded the site back in 2012 alongside Aaron Kletzing, another veteran, when they were both students at Harvard Business School. In fact, the idea literally was formed on the back of a napkin in a Cambridge, Mass. restaurant.
The two men saw their project as filling a big void for military personnel – both veterans transitioning to civilian life and individuals serving on active duty often express frustration at not having guidance and networking in navigating life in and outside of the military. Flash forward three years, and the site has grown beyond networking. It is a social forum that has become an online community, sounding board, and professional guide for over 500,000 veterans and active duty men and women serving in the military.
The site’s growth has made it an indispensable resource for individuals hailing from a very specialized career who didn’t necessarily find the guidance and social connections they needed from sites like LinkedIn or Facebook. With the announcement last week that Guericke was joining RallyPoint’s board of directors the site has further established itself as a go-to social networking venue.
“One of the big problems for people from the military is that they don’t build a strong network,” Weiss told FoxNews.com. “It’s not really part of the culture of the military – you don’t have a resume, you don’t practice job interviews, you typically get assigned to places, and you don’t have much influence over that. So, when you transition to civilian life, it leads to intense frustration.”
Weiss said that when he and Kletzing developed the site, they looked to LinkedIn as an inspiration. With its ability to allow people to easily contact potential mentors and influencers in their chosen fields, the site that Guericke co-founded over a decade ago has created multiple imitators. For Weiss, the goal of RallyPoint was not to necessarily duplicate LinkedIn, but to instead create something that felt tailor-made for the greater military community.
The Boston-based site participated in the 2012 MassChallenge accelerator competition, winning one of the $100,000 prizes. RallyPoint has also raised $7 million in funds from the DBL Investors of San Francisco, and Weiss said he hopes that his social network will reach 1 million members by the end of next year. Currently, the site serves 10 percent of the entire military community (and 20 percent of active duty members).
Linking up with Guericke
The meteoric rise and early success of the site is something that attracted Guericke, who regularly sees his fair share of startup leaders approach him about lending his credibility to their organizations.
“I often hear from people that ‘oh LinkedIn is ugly,’ or ‘LinkedIn isn’t for young people.’ It’s all about cosmetic things and their ideas revolve around those cosmetics. Or sometimes people go for specific functional groups, or look at it from the sales and marketing perspective. Well, that doesn’t really work,” Guericke told FoxNews.com. “I’m more interested in ideas that address people who are not engaged that much on LinkedIn. The site might not serve their purposes, so they need something else.”
Guericke likened the military to doctors – another professional community who did not seem to readily use LinkedIn’s resources. This resulted in Guericke joining the board of directors of Doximity, the largest professional network for physicians, in 2012. With RallyPoint, he saw something similar — a platform that would provide a space where members of the military felt comfortable connecting over careers, life transitions, even airing their political views through the site’s various discussion boards.
“It’s not that easy for members of the military to develop careers after they serve,” Guericke added. “The truth is, most business professionals aren’t necessarily eager to mentor veterans who come to the table not familiar with how to navigate the job market, for instance. With RallyPoint, you have this automatic group of people who are very eager. They are retired service members who are ready to give back. RallyPoint serves three main groups – those who are active members, those transitioning to civilian life and careers, and those who are ready to seek out more schooling.”
Weiss said that having Guericke on board is incredible affirmation that RallyPoint is succeeding in its mission.
“It’s really a validation of what we are doing,” Weiss said. “In the long-term I want this to continue to expand. I want to reach out to members of the military who need to connect through all things military related – from military families, to answering questions of those considering entering the military. The military encompasses 15 million Americans. It includes members and family, kids and spouses. A lot of people have parents, uncles, and cousins. This really addresses a very large market.”
A Steel City vet
Ben Keen is one of the people whose experiences fit in directly with RallyPoint’s central mission. Keen is an active duty veteran who served in the Army from 1999 until he was honorably discharged 2008. His life in and outside the military has pretty much run the full extreme range – positive to negative – that many veterans and active duty members of the military experience. The highs include serving on several units such as the 101st Airborne Division and working directly under David Petraeus, while the lows include a brain injury and tackling the complications that come from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, Keen lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has worked his way up in information technology to be a network administrator for the East Central division of the AAA. He is also proud, however, of the work he has done as the founder and executive director of Steel City Vets, Pittsburgh’s first support group for veterans who served in combat actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
For Keen, RallyPoint has been indispensable in carrying out work for his support group. He said that the site has been a way for him to raise awareness among the military community about his group, as well as serve as an active member, both dispensing and seeking out advice from veterans and active duty members of the military nationwide.
“I had my own difficulty transitioning, and remember wanting to find ways to connect with other post-9/11 veterans. I started Steel City - that started as a small online group and is now a fully recognized charity. For me, RallyPoint was a great way to not just express my own thoughts and ideas, but to raise awareness about our organization here,” Keen told FoxNews.com.
Keen said that in the military, members are given a sponsor, or a non-commissioned officer with more seniority. That person can offer suggestions and advice, but Keen said RallyPoint takes that a step further. He said real peer-to-peer bonds are formed through the site. On message boards — which are only accessible to members of the military who join the site — Keen said members find a safe space to ask questions as simple as finding a hotel room in a new city or that are more serious. For many of the members who suffer from PTSD, RallyPoint offers a crucial support network that veterans might not necessarily find on a site like Facebook.
Keen said that with members who might potentially be suicidal or experience depression, RallyPoint posters very willingly offer their phone numbers, advice, and friendship to complete strangers. For Keen, who said he certainly hit his own low points once he returned to the U.S. seven years ago, RallyPoint is a reflection of the unique bond that exists between veterans and active duty members.
Weiss said that as time goes on, he hopes to see RallyPoint continue to grow. He said that the site is still very much “at the tip of the iceberg.”
“It really has the potential to have a transformative effect on the culture of the military,” he said.
Guericke said that Weiss and the other members of the RallyPoint team have the passion to make the network continue to grow.
“Yinon is one of those guys who is really passionate about what he is doing. He’s good at absorbing information and explaining it well,” Guericke said. “That’s an important piece, a good ingredient for success. They are a small team and have accomplished quite a bit. In fact, a lot of the features they built took us a lot longer to realize at LinkedIn. Somehow they made it work.”
For Keen, a lot of what makes it work is giving men and women a forum where they can “walk in someone else’s boots.”
“I’m working on an editorial now that I want to post on RallyPoint that is about figuring out how to bring your issues and successes and failures to the table. You can learn from me because you have walked a mile in my boots,” Keen said. “For veterans, all of their success can be leveraged by somebody else. We can learn from each other.”