Zachary JohnsonCo-Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Syndio Social
“If you're a young entrepreneur, it's really easy to defer to people because they're older or have more experience and you just naturally don't know as much. But there's something to be said for the crazy person who starts the thing.”
Zachary Johnson recognized social network analysis as a valuable currency early on. He began his career by cultivating the fanbases of recording artists like Big Sean through identifying and utilizing influencers. Now, he has commercialized his craft and taken it to some of the largest companies in the world. His startup, Syndio Social, takes robust organizations like Procter & Gamble, analyzes its employees' talents and interpersonal dynamics, and uses that data to transform existing leaders into agile managers.
Still based in Chicago, Syndio can now count Exelon, The University of Alabama, and Trustmark Companies among satisfied clients.
Can you talk a little bit about your background at Northwestern?
I graduated in 2010. I actually started in film but then switched to communications my sophomore year. I was doing work in music, actually, with pop and hip-pop artists—helping them build up their fanbases using influencers—when I met Noshir Contractor, who's a professor at Northwestern. We wound up joining forces to start a company commercializing network analysis and helping large companies manage their employees. I started that when I was an undergrad, and then when I graduated I could get a job, or I could try to make my own. So we just kept going with it and that's how we grew our business.
What led to the conception of Syndio?
I saw how powerful influencers were for helping artists build music and it was like, "Wait a second, could we apply this to other domains?" I was doing research in the lab with all these organizations and understanding how their people work together and it was like, "Huh, it's crazy these organizations don't just do this because it's valuable." They had to turn to academia to do it. I saw an opportunity and I was just surprised that it wasn't the norm. We decided to start going and selling it and seeing who needed help with it. It started with a couple of non-profits and turned into working with some of the largest companies in the world to help them mass-measure and understand how their employees work together. So it's cool. We just saw a gap in the world where I thought things should look a little different, and we just decided to roll up our sleeves and get started. When people started buying, we thought maybe we're onto something.
What have you learned about entrepreneurship since leading your own startup?
There's a lot of tactical stuff. I could go start another business now pretty easily compared to when I started, when I had no idea how to do anything. And there's the growing-out stuff: How do you meet people? How do you let people go? How do you treat people right? How do you make the right decisions? How do you deal with the wrong decisions you make? And you learn a lot about your market, your customers and their problems. You learn a lot about why do companies have the problems they do. What makes customers buy? What is the cycle like for your customer? You learn so much about them you might even know about them than they do.
How has the Farley Center influenced your journey?
I wound up doing the first business plan through the Farley Center. That was a lot of fun. I did an independent study. It was cool because the Center was really young. We were one of the first companies to come out of it. It helped me access some professors and people who had more knowledge about entrepreneurship, and that's what made me realize that this was going to be possible. It was a first step in what has been a journey with many, many steps.
Where do you see Syndio progressing in the future?
We're going to be the best company in the world at what we do, and we're going to make what we do the standard practice at every large organization. We're going to help large organizations manage talent, make sure that business leaders are given the tools they need to actually manage people with confidence and be able to do it quickly, effectively and really well done. The outcome is to build a business on how people manage people. It's going to take us a while to get there, but I think that's the main goal.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don't be too hard on yourself, I kind of have to remind myself of that, too. It's really hard stuff—try to trust your gut. You're going to know your business better than anybody else, and sometimes people are going to try to push you in a direction, and you just have to go with the thing that you think is the right thing to do and get you the outcome you want. Especially if you're a young entrepreneur, it's really easy to defer to people because they're older or have more experience and you just naturally don't know as much. But there's something to be said for the crazy person who starts the thing. And the ones I know who have been really successful are the ones who sometimes, even when everyone tells them they're crazy, they keep doing the same thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.