© The Financial Times Ltd 2014 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
A group of RallyPoint members are concerned. Civilians have recently become more active on the so-called “LinkedIn for the US military”, sparking furious debate in an online forum.
“RP [RallyPoint] should be a place where we shouldn’t need to defend or explain ourselves to civilians who don’t understand,” writes one. “I would hate to see this site for the military taken over by civilians,” adds another.
As a civilian it is hard not to feel you are intruding on this online space that has clearly filled a niche for US military and veterans. Launched to the public 18 months ago by two Harvard MBAs, it now has 300,000 members. As it happens there are just a few thousand civilian members. About two-thirds of the total are active servicemen and women and one-third are veterans.
To gain an idea of its traction, Aaron Kletzing, chief operating officer and co-founder, points out that one in seven individuals in the army is a member of RallyPoint. “And the army is the largest branch of the military,” he adds.
RallyPoint groups individuals from the same part of the military together, making it easier to connect. As with LinkedIn, there is a careers section, but on RallyPoint the homepage is a feed of recent updates mainly from the discussions part of the website. Here members ask for advice and feedback on a vast array of topics, and attract many replies. They range from questions such as: “Why can’t an enlisted soldier date an officer?” to a post asking whether the second amendment to the US Bill of Rights enshrining the right to bear arms is outdated.
“We get a lot of feedback from members. They are very engaged,” says Yinon Weiss, chief executive and co-founder.
Mr Kletzing and Mr Weiss’s paths first crossed in 2008 when they were in the army and serving in Iraq. They were in different units. “Mine was quite a regular unit. Yinon’s was . . . a special forces team,” says Mr Kletzing. The units were assigned to the same operation.
Both men left the army and their paths diverged. Mr Weiss joined the MBA programme at Harvard Business School but Mr Kletzing was stricken with cancer which he thinks was caused by exposure to hazardous waste while in Iraq. In 2010, however, he was given the all-clear and by 2011 was visiting HBS with other veterans and bumped into Mr Weiss again.
“We didn’t recognise each other right away,” says Mr Weiss, who was graduating that year and helping host the veterans’ admissions weekend. The two men began chatting and recalled that they had both served in Iraq and been on the same operation.
“Aaron is the only person I’ve ever met who has worked in the same place as me [in the army],” says Mr Weiss. That coincidence helped to forge a friendship that also gave birth to the business.
RallyPoint was Mr Kletzing’s idea. A couple of months into his first semester at HBS he talked to Mr Weiss about his vision for an online social media network solely for the US military. Mr Weiss liked the idea but had already begun work for WiTricity, a start-up technology company.
The answer was for the two men to give evenings over to putting together a business plan and building a prototype of the planned website. They posted their technical requirements on Elance, a popular global place that connects freelancers with clients, and selected a company from among those who bid for the work.
Mr Weiss says the site was technically a failure, but was functional enough to give them something to show people.
Meanwhile the plan, which was placed second in the Harvard Business School Business Plan Competition, meant they could also produce a convincing business case for their venture. They approached angel investors and by April 2012 had raised $550,000.
Mr Weiss took the decision to resign from his job and Mr Kletzing postponed the final year of his MBA programme so that they could work together on the venture. They began searching for a company that would build a website that worked. This time they used personal recommendations. They made a wise choice and within 90 days RallyPoint had developed a closed beta site that was launched in August 2012.
“Initially we invited our friends and immediate network and asked them to invite people they knew,” says Mr Weiss. Feedback was positive and the site was launched to the public in November 2012.
RallyPoint’s business model, explains Mr Weiss, is similar to LinkedIn’s in that it is essentially selling advertisers access to people. The pair have recently been in discussion with universities seeking to market courses to veterans, and with Walmart, the US retailer.
Marketing has been Mr Kletzing’s role. He says they have an effective system that they can deploy across the web and test what is working in real time. This includes use of Twitter and search-engine marketing.
“We’ve experimented with just about everything,” says Mr Kletzing. He says the company is very data driven and they tend to go with what is working.
One of the things that is working is the company’s development. RallyPoint now has a vice-president of engineering, board members and a team of advisers. It has been back to investors, raising a further $1m from angels in December 2012 and $5.3m in venture capital in October 2013 which is when RallyPoint’s userbase passed the 100,000 mark.
With its membership growing the website appears to be continuing to meet the need first identified by Mr Kletzing in 2011. “That same passion is still what drives us,” he says.
Networking and finding jobs are two things that military personnel could arguably do just as well on other online sites. However, it is hard to imagine finding so many poignant discussions on important topics for serving and former military personnel taking place elsewhere on the web.
“Do you ever miss combat?” asks one post, adding: “It’s not that I miss getting shot at, blown up and being away from family. I miss the closeness with my guys.”
In another, a veteran asks if anyone else has considered leaving the US. “I don’t fit in anywhere,” he writes, adding that he is disappointed with the direction the US has taken. “Does thinking this make me unpatriotic, or worse?” he asks.
Yet another anonymous soldier seeks feedback about female soldiers in combat. “I have experienced both good and bad in combat situations,” the writer says. “Let’s hear your thoughts and/or stories.”
Despite possible security risks of having so many military personnel in one space, Aaron Kletzing, chief operating officer, says that in the 18 months the site has been live they have had to take down content only once or twice. Members tend to point out to each other if they mention something that could be of interest to an enemy – for example, a person’s future date of deployment from Afghanistan.
“LinkedIn is not particularly compelling for those who have a military uniform,” says Mr Kletzing. In contrast, RallyPoint offers a window to a community that appears to have enthusiastically embraced it.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.