(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center recently completed its latest edition of “The Works 2020,” and we are spotlighting several of the participants in a series of articles. Today’s feature is an update on Alex Abell and Lunchpool.)
Alex Abell is a big fan of connecting people as we described in this article from a December 2019 edition of teknovation.biz. Then, when the coronavirus pandemic hit a few months later, the relatively new resident of Knoxville expanded on his original concept of connections of co-workers over lunch to a vehicle to stay connected during the “shelter at home” days (see our second article here).
Today, he’s continuing to evolve the overall concept with inquiries from individuals organizing about 700 events who see Lunchpool, powered by the Remo platform, as a way to continue offering them at a time when large group gatherings are not possible. Many Knoxville area organizations – Innov865 Alliance, Knoxville Technology Council (KTEC), Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, and East Tennessee Economic Council – have hosted events utilizing Lunchpool.
Abell describes the Lunchpool model with a term we had not heard previously – “Experience-as-a-Service,” clearly a descriptive play on the now commonly used phrase of “Software-as-a-Service” (SaaS). “We’re seeing a fundamental shift where people are becoming increasingly tired and untrusting of social media platforms. Organizations that only deliver content and don’t actually help their audiences connect are seeing this struggle for attention and interest. My team is exploring innovative ways to take our new virtual event offering to the next level by developing an all-new ‘social experience platform’ to help usher in what we’re calling the ‘Internet of Experiences’ (IoX).”
The engaging and well-read Georgia native says his vision is as clear today as it was when the Lunchpool concept was developed. “We want to fulfil the human hunger for connection. We want to serve as a Network Weaver, bridging gaps and building collaboration between the various groups and networks that exist in communities.”
That specific term was a new one for us, so we found this definition: “A Network Weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier (more inclusive, bridging divides). Network Weavers do this by connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, helping people identify their passions, and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing groups.”
Ironically, Abell was in Tampa when Techstars, the national organization conducting an assessment of the Knoxville region’s innovation ecosystem (see recent teknovation.biz article here), did a similar undertaking there. In fact, he worked part-time as the Start-up Digest Curator for the effort.
“I’m convinced that Knoxville is where Tampa was five years ago,” Abell says, but he hopes the outcome is different. “Tampa became a much more competitive environment in terms of resources available for start-ups and entrepreneurs,” while he hopes the result here will foster more collaboration and Lunchpool can be part of the underlying enabling infrastructure.
Like everyone else in the COVID-19 era, Abell has been riding somewhat of a rollercoaster as he responds to the hundreds of weekly inquiries and also “produces” the scheduled events. He and Pooja Pendharkar, his Tampa Bay Co-Founder, went their separate ways a couple of months ago over different philosophies regarding the business.
That left Abell to handle sales, marketing and execution as the number of weekly events continued to spike, just like the coronavirus that was helping drive that growth. “That’s a big ball of stress for a team of one,” he explained.
Since the beginning of June, the Lunchpool team has grown its headcount to a team of five, with the first hire being an upcoming graduate from UTK. Abell and team are focused on streamlining operations and building out their capabilities to, in his words, provide “turnkey virtual experiences tailored to you.” Abell plans to hire another five team members in the next two months, sourcing primarily from local talent.
Some of their customer targets are obvious: universities, non-profits, corporations, government agencies, and non-government organizations. Others, however, are less obvious until you consider the challenges of providing as close to a real networking or traditional event format as is possible. Falling into that category are sorority and fraternity bid days.