Agora is an online community platform to have conversations that matter with people who matter. The mission is to use technology to offer a seamless way for people to engage their communities. As an idea sharing platform, Agora empowers communities and teams to crowdsource ideas bottom-up. Using analytics and AI, it helps decision makers separate signals from noise, creating a place for people to have conversations that matter, with people who matter. We got into a conversation with Elsa Sze, the founder and CEO of Agora.
1) How did you develop the idea for Agora?
I’ve had a passion for democracy all my life. I grew up in Hong Kong without a voice. So it has become my personal mission to give voice to those who have none. Still, Becoming an entrepreneur was a total accident for me. When I was working in the Obama campaign in 2012, I drove an old woman — who risked her life — just to go to vote on election day. What struck me wasn’t just her sheer determination, but the unfortunate fact that most of us are like Rochelle — election day was the only day we actually have a voice. It shouldn’t be that way. When technology has brought us closer than ever together in our social, work, and learning lives, it can do the same for our civic lives, too — by giving everyone a voice outside of election day.
2) How did you make the decision to take the plunge and start your own company?
After I had developed the idea of Agora in my graduate thesis at Harvard, I realized no one was doing anything like that anywhere in the world. So I decided to take the leap and create it. A lot of people had this jaded attitude at first because they didn’t believe the broken system could be fixed. But this attitude only energized me to want to do this even more. To paraphrase Robert Kennedy—some people view the world as it is and ask why, but some others fight to create a world as it should be, and never stop asking why not. I’m in that latter camp.
3) What is the scrappiest, most startup-y thing you’ve had to do to date?
Over the summer, we were making changes to the product and to our website every single day. In startup fashion, we wanted to get as much feedback as possible, so we ran tests 3-5 times per week. My team and I went out onto the streets of Cambridge in the middle of the summer offering people free ice cream sandwiches to try our beta, go through our landing page, and answer our obscure questions. It was definitely scrappy, but got us to a great product!
4) How did you fund the business? What do you spend most of your funds on? Knowing what you know now about how to raise and spend funds, what would you have done differently?
The very first “funding” we ever received was a check from winning a hackathon. It was a tiny amount of money, but it has meant so much to me because that was the first time I was able to convince someone else to imagine a future that had only existed in my head thus far. And for the seed round that we raised earlier this year— it began when CRV invited us to informally hang out at their office space. That gave us a tremendous opportunity to get to know each other before they decided to lead the investment round. By the way, we still haven’t left their office yet! Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Getting to know VCs personally is a valuable way to get crucial advice and funding that keeps my mission alive.
5) What has been your greatest WFIO (we’re f*****, it’s over) moment so far?
Honestly, this election. I actually took a week off of work to volunteer at a Hillary Clinton field office in Florida. I, like so many other optimistic progressives, was sure that all of our hard work would pay off. So when Trump won, I was scared. As an immigrant, as an entrepreneur, as someone who loves this country, I was scared and shocked. But, after taking a day with my team to process what had happened, we realized that our mission had become even more important.
6) What are you most excited about in the next year (either within the company or industry/technology wide)?
We’ve got fundraising coming up, so I’m really excited about continuing and expanding our mission. Now that the election is over, we’re trying to break more into the post-election space. We want to be the platform on which people can rely to give solutions, not rants, and unite people in this divisive time. Our mission is to democratize people not on election day every four years, but every day. People need us now more than ever.
7) If you could give an aspiring entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t ask for permission. When you have an idea that is truly visionary and disruptive, most people don’t recognize it right away— otherwise it would have existed already. I sucked at pitching Agora at first because I kept trying to fit Agora into what I thought other people wanted to hear. Had I continued to seek permission on everything I do, Agora would never have existed. Sometimes, I don’t even ask for forgiveness 😉