Featured Founder: Michael Freed of Maka Social
Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed Michael Freed of Maka Social, which helps millions of organizations with an interest in improving social interaction by helping people beat shyness to easily meet people in the real world and develop meaningful connections.
What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?
I was a stand-up comic running a company to book shows for comedic entertainers while holding down a day job in Fintech. The company was showing signs of becoming successful enough to quit that day job, but an audiobook came along and changed everything. I listened to Bill Nye read his book, Unstoppable, and was inspired to do something more with my life than entertainment. I wanted to be part of the solution to one of humanity’s big problems, the ones that really mattered.
At the time, I thought that was going back to school to become an electrical engineer and go to work for a company like Tesla. Working full time and studying full time lead to a lot of lonely nights. I had a rare night off and was sitting in a bar by myself. I’m an extrovert who had spent way too much time in isolation, so I was starved for human interaction. But I’m also shy, which makes it hard to talk to strangers so I’m sitting here at the bar, surrounded by people, unsuccessfully trying to fill my need for human interaction on Facebook while surrounded by people.
Building an app to help people with social anxiety break the ice with people around them sounded like a worthwhile idea. It wasn’t until I built a business model for the idea and saw the growth potential and learned that about 1 in 4 people are shy extroverts that I realized I was on to something.
What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day?
The pain points vary by segment. For example, our first phase is helping shy wedding guests mingle with less anxiety and stress so that they can enjoy the party as much as the more confident guests. We’re also giving the brides an affordable tool to ensure their guests have a good time and no one feels left out.
I feel like we have a much broader calling though, one that spans all of our potential markets. 30% of Americans are living with chronic loneliness despite living in a world where we are surrounded by people. This is a leading cause of depression and anxiety and is a stress state that does as much physical damage as smoking 10 cigarettes a day.
Social anxiety his affecting over half of American adults, especially young adults, and a lack of constant contact in crowded environments is the leading contributor. By addressing the symptoms of social anxiety and making first contacts more powerful, we can make these opportunities more numerous, less stressful, and increase the chances of a first encounter leading to further planned engagement.
Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?
We started a company based on helping people converse face-to-face in person just before Covid made it impossible to converse face-to-face and in person. Covid limited our opportunities for customer discovery, early testing, and even networking. We lost the developer who was supposed to be part of the startup team very early on, and it took over a year to replace him because networking was shut down. We survived by mostly going dormant and waiting it out while doing a great deal of secondary research.
Where do you see your company headed next?
We just launched our first commercially viable product, and we are going to be working hard to test and improve our marketing plan with the wedding industry over the next few months. This market is designed to bring in some early revenue. Our next phase is going to be the college campuses and military bases which are both exciting to us.
Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.
When you consider your startup costs, don’t forget to value your time. Time is not equal to money because a dollar earned tomorrow is nearly the same as tomorrow’s dollars, but there is no substitute for today’s hours. You’ll never get those back.
On a less philosophical note, there is no substitute for getting out and talking to customers. I wish we had the chance to do more of that in the beginning.
Why Tampa Bay?
I failed at adulting when I was about 22 and had to move back in with my mother who was a Tampa resident. That brought me here, but I love that Tampa is big enough that there is always something to do but small enough that it doesn’t feel crowded or hectic. I also love how multicultural this city is. There are food and entertainment options from every corner of the world.