Exchanging information for the many social media networks, emails and phone numbers can be quite a hassle, and having to look for people on each social network one by one gets tedious.
Recognizing this problem, in 2016, a group of Purdue University undergraduate students developed Socio, a social media application that revolutionized the way people connect by introducing the “digital handshake.”
The enormous success of the app wasn't lost on Forbes, which named the three co-founders, Yarkin Sakucoglu, Joe Watkins and Alihan Ozbayrak, to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2020 under the Enterprise Technology category.
And in July 2021, Cisco acquired Socio, now known as Webex Events, where the co-founders continue their roles. Sakucoglu serves as general manager, Watkins as chief customer officer, and Ozbayrak as chief technology officer.
Scott Dorsey, an entrepreneur and managing partner at High Alpha, said: “Yarkin, Joe and his founding team of Boilermakers demonstrated tremendous creativity and resilience as entrepreneurs. As an investor in Socio, I've witnessed first-hand how the team pivoted quickly into virtual and hybrid meeting technology to power the company through the unexpected pandemic and beyond. More successes like this, from faculty, students and alumni of Purdue University, will help the blossoming startup scene here in Indiana.”
Watkins recently shared with Purdue Engineering his path from student entrepreneur to successful executive.
You were a co-op student at Purdue. How did this benefit you, and what interested you about computer technology and entrepreneurship from an early age?
Looking back, I didn't know much about this until I was starting my freshmen year at Purdue. I didn't expect to get an internship or job opportunity until much later. However, the ability to do great work with a company that intends to hire you and invest in your growth and learning was just as, if not more, important than learning in a classroom. Each semester, I found the best person I could learn from and which classes I should take. It's where I began to find out the most important lesson of all: The people you surround yourself with matter. Always work to surround yourself with a great and diverse set of people.
In terms of computer technology and entrepreneurship, I always enjoyed working for myself. From a young age, I worked fixing computers, setting up networks, and other side jobs. The reason I studied computer engineering at Purdue was to learn more of the foundational knowledge behind the work I did on my own. Entrepreneurship was an exciting way to continue my own work-life independence and a faster way to learn business. Most of all, I hoped that I would meet other great people with a drive for business.
What was your role in developing the Socio app?
As one of the founders of Socio, I was involved in many aspects. The very first version of the Socio product was actually built in less than 48 hours at a Purdue hackathon at the Anvil. Early on, I programmed our web interface, called the Socio Platform, and for an even longer time, I helped program the Android application. Now, I don't program our product applications as we have very skilled engineers, but I still build scripts and programs to help me or my team automate or supplement their jobs.
What were the challenges you faced in going from development to implementation?
As engineers say, it's important to fail fast, learn from your mistakes, and be open-minded. In the beginning, the most difficult parts were the business aspects like accounting, operations and legal, where we had no experience, but our advisors helped. Then it was sales. In retrospect, these were not difficult problems, but just something that a bunch of Purdue students didn't know much about. After that, the main milestones or challenges were hiring, building the team, finding all of our customers, and pivoting to the event industry. We relocated the business to Indianapolis, created a hiring hub in Turkey, pivoted again due to COVID-19, and then navigated through the acquisition by Cisco. Looking forward, we are pivoting again from a COVID-19 world of virtual events to hybrid events, which will bring its own set of challenges.
How did being recognized as one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2020 help move Socio forward?
Receiving recognition is something that was always important to celebrate, but it never changed how we managed the business. The 30 under 30 award was amazing, and I do think it helped our founding team and early employees see how successful we were, giving us the confidence to continue to take big risks and big swings.
How did Cisco approach the team? Did you and the other co-founders move into new positions with Cisco at that time?
Cisco, like many other companies, approached Socio via email. The first contact was primarily with our CEO, Yarkin Sakucoglu, as he handled most of the initial contact from companies when we were raising capital. It started off with a conversation around Cisco wanting to invest or partake in another round of venture capital. However, as discussions continued, the conversation changed from wanting to invest in Socio to potentially acquiring the company. With the world changing, Cisco wanted to move fast. We received requests like this before, but Cisco seemed willing to make the business logistics work. It was a place where we were sure our employees would be taken care of, and a place where we could continue to build the best end-to-end event management platform for the future hybrid world.
Describe your job as chief customer officer.
In a startup, titles don't matter much as roles change over time. As a founder, I worked on many general business problems. Now as chief customer officer, I oversee all customer operations and am responsible for net revenue retention. Over 50 direct/indirect reports across five functions tie back to ensure everyone understands what our companies truly want and need.
What advice do you have for other Purdue students who want to take their startups to commercialization?
Do it! I don't mean just do a hackathon, take a class, do a project, or develop for months or years. Actually build something that has users or sell something to a complete stranger. I can't overstate how clear value becomes once you have proven that people are willing to pay for your product. You won't get everything right from the beginning, so jump in and get ready to learn a lot along the way.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I want to give a huge shoutout and thanks to everyone who made this possible. As I mentioned, people are more important than anything, so I want to thank and share the credit with my other co-founders, our friends and families who supported us through the ups and downs, our employees and team, our advisors, and our early customers. It would not have been possible without all of you.