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  • Writer's pictureJulian Fainzaig

Propel: A Community for Builders

Propel is targeting professionals who are midway through their careers and want to be founders or executives, primarily focusing on helping future builders by making them more effective in their jobs right now and helping to accelerate their careers so that they can meet their ultimate goals faster. This includes a comprehensive offer of events, mentorship, and learning opportunities.

A community for builders

Ranging from early employees at unicorn startups to investors at top VC funds – including chiefs of staff, product managers, data scientists, engineers, and more – what members of Propel all have in common is that they are all looking to start, join, or help build startups. Propel’s goal is to help them become more effective in their current roles and accelerate their career paths by working on three pillars: Network, Learning and Accountability. They do so by building a cohort-based network of complementary individuals and offering them advice from over 50 CEOs and Executives-in-Residence that act as guides and mentors, along with several six-week-long courses called “Learning Tracks” for those looking to learn specific skills.

I got the chance to sit down with Co-Founder Tom Guthrie to learn more about his journey – and how community-building is deeply rooted in who he is.

Co-Founders Tom Guthrie, Emily Pik, and Scott Amenta have known each other for quite a while: Tom joined Capsule as Chief of Staff in 2017, and eventually convinced Emily to join as well; in time she became Director of People.

“They’re both really talented community builders,” Tom told me. “Emily was a national champion athlete and was already managing about 75 people when she was 24 years old. Working with her [at Capsule], I could see that she cared deeply about helping people in their careers. Scott was a leader in the Chief of Staff community in NYC [note: He is the founder of the Chief of Staff Network], and he was really helpful to me as I was getting situated. I stayed in touch with them, but they were both doing their own community-building things. Eventually, it just made sense for us to start working together: we all have complementary skills, and we all share the goal of helping people become the best versions of themselves; so early this year we began formally working together and started building what would become Propel.”

Co-Founder Tom Guthrie

Unconventional beginnings and the value of community

Tom has a compelling background himself: his dad was a minister and his first job at the age of 10 was as a preacher when the family went around New England preaching together. “It was an incredible experience; it opened my eyes to the power of community, going to these small churches, meeting these folks who had been part of these churches for decades and seeing how attached they were to these communities that they had built together”.

Over the next few years his family became less involved with religion, and Tom went on to college at Georgetown – where he graduated with a BS in Foreign Service – he “caught the start-up bug” as he calls it: “I was always on the lookout for that same feeling that I saw in those small churches: the community, the people that cared about each other, and the opportunity to come together to serve a similar goal.”

What makes Propel different

Propel is targeting professionals who are midway through their careers and want to be founders or executives, primarily focusing on helping future builders by making them more effective in their jobs right now and helping to accelerate their careers so that they can meet their ultimate goals faster. This includes a comprehensive offer of events, mentorship, and learning opportunities, “but really the power is just the people that are involved. Our role is to bring the right people in and then create the framework for them to provide value to each other,” Tom explained. “So far, it’s working well: people like it, people are staying, and that makes us excited to keep building.”

“Is that what makes you defensible?” I asked.

“Yeah. I think of communities as powerful and defensible businesses. They essentially have these network effects where, if you can scale them effectively, each additional member can add more value to every current member. And, because of the relationships you build with other members, you don’t want to leave. [You] want to maintain those relationships and see them gain more value over time. I see it as a healthier, more effective version of other social networking platforms like Facebook or Instagram. You’re tied to those places because you kind of have to be, but you’d actually have meaningful conversations, build relationships and advance your career, because there’s something like Propel.”

While Tom expected part of the growth in users to come from referrals, this ended up happening at a larger scale than he initially predicted: “What initially got us excited was seeing maybe 90% of growth coming from referrals from other members. To me that says that we’re building something that people are excited to tell their friends about, and that’s a great signal for us”.

A typical Propel onboarding session

How COVID-19 has impacted online communities

The need for connection is a basic human need, and the pandemic has in many ways taken that away from a lot of people. It robbed their ability to connect with their loved ones, make new friends, or make new professional connections. As Tom, Emily, and Scott were planning to launch Propel before the pandemic hit, they were planning to organize in-person events as well.

“When that became impossible, we shifted everything online. We were a little bit anxious to see if people would respond in the same way that they do to in-person events” Tom confides. “But that basic human need to connect with other folks grew,” he adds. “We’ve seen users build incredible relationships, with Propel serving as a central point in lots of people’s lives during this really difficult time. That’s true for a lot of online communities as well: If you can’t connect in person, at least you can connect virtually; and for people who are creating thoughtful spaces for that to happen, I don’t think that ends when hopefully everything goes back to normal. You can build relationships with people around the country or around the world, and they’ll only get more powerful over time.”

Where they are and the road ahead

Although not currently fundraising, Tom says he’s “always looking to connect with folks who love and understand the community space. There are a lot of opportunities in this space and we’re eager to expand and serve more people.” He’s also worked as a VC and is presently a Managing Director at Dorm Room Fund. He’s been on the other side of the table and knows the difference a valuable investor can make: “For any start-up, it’s important to find people who really believe in your mission and are closely aligned with what you’re trying to do, hopefully adding value in specific ways”.

Propel hasn’t gone through an incubator or accelerator either, but they’re actually partnering with them in an unexpected way. “They see us as a great source of talent. We’ve seen folks launch products and companies from within the community, [and] we’re developing a lot of reasons to make that happen. So if you’re interested in starting a company in the next few months, it’s a great place to be surrounded by other enthusiastic and creative people, and you get access to those people and the resources to help you launch more effectively”.

To conclude, I asked Tom what 2021 has in store for Propel. “We have lots of exciting things in the works, lots of new products and features that we think will help people start new companies more effectively. And we’re always looking for new members, so we onboard a new class every month.” Propel currently has over 200 members and 50+ advisors.

If you’re interested in joining Propel, or simply want to learn more about them, you can do so by visiting their website here.

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