When it comes to networking, there is no shortage of ways to connect with other professionals to talk shop. LinkedIn has become the most popular professional networking platform, with over 100 million users using the site to post their work experience, look for jobs, and connect with prospective employers. Facebook, too, has its own professional social network in BranchOut, or you can try startups like Identified or just go for some good old fashioned meetups.
Yet, when it comes to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, there traditionally haven’t been many substantial resources for gay professionals to network and make business connections, especially with other gay professionals. So, in mid-2010, Bill Stewart and Richard Klein co-founded dot429 to help address this problem. Tagging itself the “Gay LinkedIn,” the San Francisco startup set out to build a platform that would offer gay professionals a more robust alternative option to networking on LinkedIn.
While discrimination and intolerance remain entrenched across the planet, dot429 Founder and CEO Richard Klein tells us that the LGBT movement has been on the brink of a new era, as it transitions “from acceptance to cultural leadership.” Klein said that, as a result, gay professionals are increasingly looking for richer ways to help connect their careers and their lives, and both the community and the country at large are at a point where a network facilitating this kind of connectivity has the chance to make an impact.
And in that sense, dot429 is aiming to be more than just the “gay LinkedIn,” as its service has become a hybrid: Part social network, part LinkedIn, part events company and publishing platform. Klein says that there is a need — not just for the LGBT community — to capture the networking happening on LinkedIn and connect it with offline environments, which is why dot429 is playing host to “produced, polished, and professional” live events intended to connect content and people both through work and in their offline lives. It’s a similar idea to the one that inspired Meetup.com, and many others.
Klein also sees a lot of opportunity for in the market for a startup like dot429, owing in part to the virtual absence of any large national competitors. While there are strong local groups, and organizations like Startout (a non-profit focused on LGBT entrepreneurs) as well as the U.K.’s Jake, which targets professional gay men, many of these are offline-focused. But, Klein says that, in the end, he sees these groups as collaborators, rather than competitors, working behind one cause.
With its mission and market opportunity, dot429 was able to raise $500K in seed funding in 2010, and is in the process of raising a multi-million series A round. The startup’s community has also been growing fast, and today stands at over 60,000 people, something that has not gone unnoticed by brands, as dot429 has struck partnerships with prominent brands like FIAT, Saks Fifth Avenue, Infinity, and General Motors — to name a few.
These partnerships have become an increasingly important source of revenue for dot429, and Klein says that the startup is in the process of bringing on whole slew of others. In terms of monetization, the CEO says that the team is also considering introducing a premium membership which, among other things, will provide comped entrance to its live events and a benefit card
While there’s always been opportunity for startups that serve niche audiences, their businesses have to offer a value proposition, or a unique advantage, that serves that niche better than the mainstream option (or network or app). And thus, Klein says that the goal with dot429 has been to create something more sophisticated than what’s already out there, as in bringing the next generation of social networking to the LGBT community.
Beyond connecting online and offline networking, Klein says that the startup will introduce a mentoring section later this year to match mentors with mentees, along with an online collaboration tool. The startup is also undergoing a major editorial redesign (the site has both video and eMagazine components), and has brought on “an editor from a pulitzer prize winning paper who has written for the New York Times and New York Observer” to lead the editorial department.
dot429 is hoping that by combining content with networking connections, it can fill a void in the marketplace at the right time, while leveraging technology to deliver its content and services more efficiently and effectively — to a community that is increasingly active online, on blogs, and social networks. Klein is also quick to point out that dot429 is not exclusive to the LGBT community, as it has a number of “straight allies” (over 10 percent), who have joined the group to show their support for equality.
Fabulis, once a social networking site for gay men, pivoted into Fab.com and began focusing on online flash sales of design items, showing that gay men weren’t necessarily overly enthusiastic about having their own social network — they were content to use Facebook and already-existant options. Kleing believes that having a separate forum for this type of community-specific networking is important and in high demand, however.
Bringing this networking online (and eventually to mobile) has the potential to be even more powerful, and dot429’s growth seems to be corroborating this.
For more, check out dot429 at home here.