Forj: Forging connections

By Anna Lardinois

Startup Storyteller

Serial entrepreneur and Software as a Service (SaaS) expert Kurt Heikkinen is once again at the helm of a local technology company making waves in the modern workplace.

Forj, a virtual event platform and member experience platform, was launched in response to the pandemic. When meetings, conferences and other in person events were halted, Forj provided a way for professional organizations to stay connected. As the pandemic wanes, and in-person events slowly return, Forj sees itself as a remedy for a pressing post-pandemic problem –disconnectedness.

Reflecting on the current work environment, Heikkinen says, “the workforce is virtual, and there are individuals looking for a sense of belonging or connectedness within a community that they feel has been lost, perhaps because they used to find that from going into an office.”

The CEO is confident that with Forj, “professional associations and professional member groups, through the right technology and experience, can create that sense of belonging. That professional belonging, not just on a social level, but at an intellectual level, which is what so many of our clients are looking to create within their membership community.”

The platform is more robust than the tools that were widely used when offices moved to the virtual environment. Designed specifically for private, professional communities, the virtual event platform capabilities are expanding into a member experience platform.

“What it allows these individuals to do is have a community for ‘always on’ engagement, so that it’s not just about a once-a-year opportunity to connect, but it’s a platform that’s purpose built for their community,” he said. “It’s branded for their community. It’s private. It allows those individuals to engage with each other and discuss sensitive subject matter and advance the fields of practice in a way that something that is like social media can’t do for them … because social platforms are not purpose-built for the connections that those organizations in those communities want to have.”

Heikkinen sees opportunities for Forj to improve the quality of large-scale face-to-face events.

“What we’re seeing today is this shift back to in person,” he said. “But our clients are seeing about 60% attendance in relation to what they saw in the years prior to the pandemic. And they’re actually seeing the 40% in the non-in-person attendees grow from that incremental 40% to about two or three times that because now they can reach a broader community. More accessible means on a global basis, where the inconvenience of cost or time or geography has been eliminated. So, we’re really embracing that reality.”

While Forj can provide a full menu of event services, where they believe they really excel is the education aspect that is part of many large gatherings.

“Our clients are finding that the learning component can be achieved as well, or even more effectively through virtual,” Heikkinen said. “And so, the purpose of the in-person meeting is taking on more of a social element, say an awards banquet or the opportunity for more face-to-face networking, where the learning is remaining focused on a virtual delivery model.”

“There are conferences where there are thousands or hundreds of sessions. You can’t possibly attend all of those sessions,” he said. “There’s usually competition for your time. There are concurrent session tracks, so if you’re an attendee of an in-person session. You still want to find ways to consume that content to connect with others that you otherwise didn’t meet while you were there. So, the virtual component provides that opportunity for even the in-person attendees to have a better experience because that content remains available after the event.

“It’s recorded and we transcribe that content and tag it,” said Heikkinen. “So instead of an attendee having to go back and watch a full hour session, they can be served up the sessions that are related to their interests. And the moments in time during those sessions that are tagged based on the topic, areas that they’ve either explicitly expressed interest in, or we’ve learned behaviorally through AI that they’ve expressed interest in.”

Forj users are already seeing the benefits of the new platform. Heikkinen states, “our clients are really finding significant gains in member attraction and member retention.”

The software company has a global marketplace, but their focus remains in Milwaukee.

“Something that’s really important to me and to the rest of my leadership team is demonstrating that innovation and entrepreneurialism, the leveraging of venture capital funding, and the building of a great technology company can happen here,” Heikkinen said. “The state of Wisconsin and city of Milwaukee has historically been underfunded in this regard, and this is one of my passions. At my prior company, Montage (now Modern Hire), we had a great success story over a decade, and we left a really strong legacy culturally and in terms of a showcase for how to attract venture capital funding and build a business. And I think that’s one of the interesting goals that we have.”

“Kristen Wright, our Chief Marketing Officer and Mark Unak, our Chief Technology Officer, are Milwaukee area based. While we’re a virtual business and we’re delivering experiences for clients around the globe, we do have an interest in demonstrating that entrepreneurialism and the building of great tech companies can happen here, and it can be done through leveraging venture capital interest in the region … We benefit from having a nucleus of product and technology leadership in Milwaukee and will continue to invest here.”

Forj is achieving its goal of showcasing what is possible in Milwaukee. Since its founding in 2020, the software company has raised $6 million in capital, all from Midwestern investors. The company plans another round of funding in 2023 to support the company’s impressive growth.

To follow the growth of Forj, connect with them here.

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