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How Peter Johnston is building Polywork, the world’s most powerful people search engine

How Peter Johnston is building Polywork, the world’s most powerful people search engine

Editor's note: This article was adapted from an episode of The Orbit Shift Podcast. Excerpts have been edited for clarity.

Founders often recognize a gap in the market and find creative ways to address those gaps. Peter Johnston is one such founder who believes that professional social networks are broken. With an entirely refreshing take, Peter’s startup Polywork aims to fix that. The idea is to showcase an individual’s experience, talent, and skills beyond just a list of companies that they’ve worked for.

In this episode of The Orbit Shift Podcast, he talks to us about the problem with professional networks; how the idea of Polywork came about from his Google 20% project; his future plans for monetization of the platform; the importance of design for product and growth; his approach to hiring and dealing with hiring missteps, and fundraising.

Q. Walk us through your journey into entrepreneurship and the origin story of Polywork.

Peter: I’ve always loved selling things and setting up businesses while I was growing up in Ireland. In 2012, I started working as a designer in the Google UK office in London. One of the exciting things about Google at that time was they gave you a 20% project. The 20% project I happened to take on was to advise startups through Google Campus, which was initiated to leverage Google resources and talent to connect to the startup community in London.

I loved how these founders came in every day to try and solve the world’s problems and make a business out of them. Around that time, I had been struggling with a problem that I had experienced in previous jobs as a designer. Which was about professionals and how we can identify their skill sets and what they can do.

I set out in 2014, to solve that problem with my first company Listable got sued for trademark infringement; an emphatic entry into the startup world. So shortly after, we changed the name to Kalo. And then I moved on to found Polywork.

Q. What’s the problem that Polywork is trying to solve and what does your business model look like?

Peter: The problem we’re trying to solve, is the exact same problem I was trying to solve back in 2014 when I left Google.

We worked with so many people at Google, whether it was our full-time colleagues in London, Amsterdam, Mountain View, or freelancers outside the business. I couldn’t keep up with the speed at which the company worked. So I always used to ask the question, where do we store information on the people and the businesses that we work with? And I would always be met with blank stares, or I would be directed to our HR system.

But I wasn’t looking for their address. I was looking for — who are they? What have they worked on before? What did they work with our team on? I was looking for the information with which I could evaluate them and make a decision on should we work with this person again.

That was my first exposure to the problem with professional identity and networks in the world. For example, we just met and I can connect with you on LinkedIn and you become a first-degree connection. This will send a false signal to my network that I know you well enough to potentially introduce you to somebody else, and I can endorse you for whatever I want. That renders the information potentially unreliable.

Another thing is that a lot of professional social networks focus predominantly on your school, your education, and your skills. I’m not sure that these are great proxies for potential talent. Even with skills, it doesn’t tell us what that person achieved. We have to work out what has that person achieved with these skills, did they have an impact on the business? Did their colleagues enjoy working with them?

Q. How are you looking to monetize Polywork?

Peter: One is through search. Our mission is to build the most powerful people search engine on the planet. What I hope we are building in the future is a search engine that will become a machine for people trying to find each other, whether it’s for full-time work or fractional work like speaking in events.

We’re also focusing on empowering people to create their own professional page, on their own custom domain. Over the course of the next year, we’ll introduce a lot of flexibility around what your website looks like on Polywork. And that will be something that we will charge a premium for.

The network will always be free and we never want to introduce friction to people connecting. But let’s say somebody wants to completely revamp their Polywork page and completely make it their own, that feature will have a premium fee.

Q. How do you think about design when it comes to product and growth?

Peter: I’m a designer by trade and the company is very design-focused. Three months ago we were just nine people and three of us were designers. The main reason for this is that the bar for storytelling, particularly visual storytelling in the professional space is very low. This is predominantly because the existing professional networks of the world focus on adhering to corporate guidelines and therefore they can sometimes come across as a little bland and a little void of personality.

I always mention this quote by Dantley Davis (the design chief at Twitter) who was one of our earliest advisors. He says ‘hire people for the other stuff they do.’ Assume that they’re good designers and get to know them, their personality, what makes them tick, what they care about. It’s the other things you do that get you noticed. And what we realized is that there’s no real way to express your personality on any existing professional network. We decided that if we were going to build a new professional network, we wanted to create an environment where people felt like it was the polar opposite of every type of professional network that exists today.

So we created the illustration style, which we call Polyworld internally.  We wanted to visually story tell in a way that’s different from other professional networks with bright colors and characters. Specifically, the characters were brought to life for two reasons. One is that I was always obsessed with playing Sims and Second Life as a kid. And a big part of Polywork is that you get a second, third and fourth professional life all at once. The world of work is so diverse today, and we wanted to reflect that.

Q. What’s your approach to hiring?

Peter: Our approach to hiring is pretty milestone-driven. The way I typically approach it is a combination of gut feeling and progress against OKRs. There are two phases of a business. One is when you’ve no idea what you’re going to build, and you’re nowhere close to product-market fit. This is the period of time where it’s really important not to hire ahead. It’s more important to sharpen the blade with a few people before you go chop a bunch of trees and spend a ton of money.

So in the pre-product market fit, it’s about keeping a small team and making sure that you have a minimum 18 months runway.

Then over time as you build more confidence you can shorten your runway and hire more people in the area where you’re starting to see a lot of growth and traction.

Q. What are some of the things that you look for in the candidates you’re hiring?

Peter: The biggest thing we look for is problem solving and grit. For us, it’s really about identifying people that are willing to wear many hats and work hard to solve the problems and be able to roll with the punches. That grit factor is huge. The reality is that month over month, in an early-stage startup, the first two to three years, you get insights that can sometimes change everything. And you need people that are flexible and gritty enough; who are willing to roll with that.

Q. What’s your approach to fundraising?

Peter: I love pitching and telling the story of Polywork. But I don’t enjoy the actual process of fundraising. All I want to do is build. My main job is to keep the lights on, then it’s to hire people. And to do both, I have to raise funding. And so I always approach it that way. As long as I put enough money in the bank, to keep us going for 18 months, then it’s job done.

Typically, my approach is if new money is offered, it’s a question of getting done quickly. It’s just about being efficient with your time. Go after people that know exactly what you’re building. It’s really about focusing on which specific investors will get what I’m doing. And minimizing the time investment.

Another thing is about the power of networks. Try to bring someone that will bring their friends with them in funding rounds and make introductions for you.

Q. How do you manage expectations with investors and other stakeholders?

Peter: If you’ve got the right investors that are familiar with early-stage stuff, they know there are going to be a million ups and downs. My best advice is to be as honest as possible, and talk to them as frequently as possible because that’s the only way they can help.

It can often be harder with employees. My last company didn’t work out. And it’s really tough to retain people when that happens. But it comes back to also picking people that have worked in startups before and have rolled with those punches before and are willing to take that risk. Ultimately it’s about being honest and upfront with people that really helps.