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Polywork gets $3.5M to blend professional and social networking

·6-min read

Life is complicated and so -- increasingly -- is work-life. That's the premise underpinning Polywork, a new professional social network founded by Lystable/Kalo founder, Peter Johnson.

It's announcing a $3.5 million seed round today, led by by Caffeinated Capital's Ray Tonsing (who it notes was the first investor in Clubhouse, Airtable and Brex), with participation from the founders of YouTube (Steve Chen), Twitch (Kevin Lin), PayPal (Max Levchin), VSCO (Joel Flory), Behance (Scott Belsky), and Worklife VC (Brianne Kimmel) -- to name a few of its long list of angels.

As the list illustrates, Johnson, an ex-Googler (and TC battlefield alum), isn't short of contacts to tap up for his new startup -- having pulled so much VC into Lystable/Kalo.

Albeit we've also learned that his earlier startup, which was focused on tools to help companies manage freelancers and gig workers, is no longer active. Kalo/Lystable has hit the deadpool.

We're told the founders took the decision to pull the plug after being unable to convince investors to keep supporting the business -- which had, presumably, been severely impacted by the pandemic as companies laid off freelancers.

Although, in parallel, VC investment has been flowing into startups building marketplaces to help companies work with external talent (as the remote work boom is clearly driving more flexible ways of working) so it's not clear where exactly Kalo went wrong -- perhaps its focus on management tools was simply being overtaken by more fully featured marketplaces which are baking in the kind of admin support its SaaS offered.

Lystable/Kalo had raised close to $30M over its seven year run, per Crunchbase, including from some of the same investors putting money into Polywork. Though most of the latter's investors aren't the same and look to be coming more from the social/entertainment side.

So what is Johnson's new startup all about? It's still focused on the world of work. It's his "moonshot mission" -- which, we're told, has been fed by learnings gleaned from Lystable about creating a professional network.

But if you take a look at the site it's a lot more Twitter in look and feel than LinkedIn. So the social element is really being put front and center here.

A Polywork profile (Image credits: Polywork)

In short, Polywork sums to a Twitter-style social feed where professionals can post updates about what they're up to (in work and, if they like, in life too).

Users skills and interests (e.g. "UX design", "founder", "dinosaur enthusiast"); personality quirks ("introvert"); and achievements ("life partner") -- or indeed the opposite ("bad golfer", "failure") -- can be displayed as custom badges at the top of their profile -- again with the chance to blend personal and professional to offer a fuller portrait of who you are and what you offer.

In the feed itself, individual posts can be given related tags (e.g. "conducted user research", which files under "UX Design") -- to illustrate relevant activity. (Clicking on a specific badge shows the sliced view of that user's related tagged content.)

The result is an interface that feels gamified and informal -- where you're actively encouraged to inject your own personality -- but which is simultaneously intended for showing off work activity and achievements.

On the professional networking side, the approach allows users to get a quick visual overview of an individual -- perhaps fleshing out some of the dry details they already saw on their LinkedIn account -- and quickly navigate to individual examples of specific activity. Recruiters or others looking for professional ice-breakers will probably relish the chance to find more up-to-date material to work with, ahead of making a cold pitch.

Polywork also lets users send collaboration requests to others on the network -- aka, its version of LinkedIn's in-mail. But (thankfully) it looks like users have controls to set whether or not they're open to receiving such requests or not.

It's certainly true that home and work have never been so blended as now, given the pandemic-fuelled remote work boom.

At the same time professionals may well -- out of necessity -- be more focused on the range of skills and interests they have or can acquire, rather than viewing any single job title as defining them, as was true for earlier generations of workers. As the saying goes, there's no such thing as a 'job for life' anymore.

Career paths are complicated, multi-faceted -- and, for some, may be more a tapestry, than a linear trajectory.

Polywork's Millennial-friendly premise is thus to offer a place where people can present a more personal and well-rounded flavor of themselves as professionals and individuals -- encompassing not just their skills and work achievements but their passions, quirks and obsessions -- showing off a lot more than feels possible (or sensible) in the staid environs of LinkedIn.

That said, LinkedIn isn't the only place for professionals to express themselves of course; People are already doing that all the time over on social media sites like Twitter (or indeed Instagram for more visually minded professions).

Either social network is basically already an informal professional network in its own right -- without the need for badges or labels (hashtags do a fairly decent job).

So while Polywork's product design may look inviting, trying to reinvent the networking wheel is undoubtedly a massive challenge.

It's not only fighting for attention with boring professional networks like LinkedIn (which everyone loves to hate), it's treading directly into highly contested social media territory. Er, good luck with that!

Convincing people to duplicate their social networking activity -- or indeed ditch their existing hard-won social media networks -- looks like a big ask. So the risk is irrelevance, despite a pretty interface. (Sure LinkedIn is boring -- but, guys, the whole point is that it's low maintenance... )

Polywork's name and philosophy suggests it might be okay with being added to the existing mix of professional and social networks, i.e. rather than replacing either. But, well, a supplementary professional network sounds like a bit of a sideline.

Polywork launched in April but isn't disclosing user numbers yet -- and is currently operating a wait list for sign ups.

Commenting on the seed funding in a statement Caffeinated Capital's Tonsing said: “There’s a new generation that wants to work and live on their own terms, not destined for a single track identity. The pandemic accelerated this trend and humans are reevaluating who they are and what's most important to them in life. Polywork will usher in and facilitate this permanent shift in human behavior. We're excited to partner with Peter again!"

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