Founders Series: Zabrina Chew, Co-Founder and CEO of Soda
The founders series takes a deep dive into the journey of Antler portfolio company founders and sheds light on the space they are building in. This week, we spoke to Zabrina Chew, Co-Founder and CEO of Soda. Soda is a social discovery platform to help millennial professionals find and engage with relevant and trusted communities around them easily. Soda is building the future of discovery, co-creation, and collaboration, bringing its community together through streamlined content and small, intimate gatherings.
Why is Soda needed in today's world?
The seed for Soda was planted a long time ago. Once we leave school, a majority of us find it increasingly difficult to meet others who share the same approach to life. Similarly, my Co-Founder, Vasilisa, had a hard time building her network from scratch after moving to Singapore from Belarus. Her story is increasingly relatable in our highly globalized, digital and nomadic world. To solve those challenges, I built a platform to bring curated groups of young working professionals together in real life, while she built online communities of female developers and Russian speakers in Singapore.
Over time, as each of us transitioned through different life phases, with some people moving away or abroad, I realized this problem of finding relevant and trusted communities at the right moments in our lives was never going to go away. Add COVID-19 and Work From Home to the mix, and people have been starved of community and a sense of belonging.
Soda seeks to empower our community to embrace growth, lead grassroots movements, and inspire change, in the same way being surrounded by fellow founders at Antler has stimulated and supported us. We streamline the user journey as much as possible to bring people together in an organic, authentic way, through meaningful content and a focus on rich, real-time interactions.
Who is Soda targeted for and what can users expect when they sign on?
Soda is for mid-career/millennial working professionals with a growth mindset, seeking supportive communities to learn and evolve with. We have an exceptionally strong community starting in tech and entrepreneurship, as well as a good mix of locals, people who have moved to Singapore, and even returning Singaporeans.
We don't believe in the way networking is typically done, which is why Soda is built around intimate gatherings called "huddles". By creating or joining huddles, users can easily rally others around specific objectives or topics and connect in a more comfortable social setting in real life or online.
The Soda community is one that is built on shared knowledge and experiences, new perspectives, mentorship and peer support.
Tell us the story behind your name.
Soda stands for "social radar", but the word in itself also suggests something fun, lively, and refreshing. It's a drink often found at gatherings, so it really was the perfect name for us. We empower users to easily come together with the right people at the right time through a combination of discovery and outreach tools, to create impactful or memorable outcomes.
Tell us more about your proprietary matching algorithm. How does it optimize for interpersonal dynamics and what makes it unique?
The backbone of our proprietary matching algorithm is built from more than 1000 unique interactions. I spent about five years bringing groups of people together out of passion. We formed, threw out, re-formulated, refined, and then tested our hypotheses in real life group settings to see what worked and what didn't. Our matching algorithm is the outcome of that.
A lot of times what we see is surface-level matching. For Soda, we wanted to build deeper. Each person is a unique individual and a complex combination of factors - everything from identities, to interests, to affiliations - predicts how likely they are to get along with anyone else. It made sense to us that the matching algorithm should reflect that.
Can you share your co-founder story? Was it "love at first sight"? How do your respective backgrounds and working styles compliment each other when it comes to company-building?
I like to say that within the first 10 minutes of meeting someone, you'll know whether the both of you have chemistry. It was the same with Vasilisa.
Each of us had been speaking with various other potential co-founders before we met each other, but when we got on our first call, it was like we were long lost friends. It was open, honest, and funny. We connected right away about the importance of people and meaningful communities and spoke for three hours straight.
Vasilisa spent years in technology and academia, arming herself with a PhD in artificial intelligence and machine learning. I, on the other hand, came from a decade in gaming, start-ups, and curating thought leadership amongst Fortune 500 global C-suites. Our backgrounds are so different, yet so complementary.
Vasilisa brings technical expertise to Soda, while I lead the business strategy, operations and project management. Her ability to translate my vision into day-to-day technical instruction also gives me more space to dream and ideate. We collectively shape and continue to shape Soda together with our users.
We both believe wholeheartedly in authenticity, respect, open communication, and being people-first (not just for the platform but also our company), so we try to be as intentional as possible about baking that into our company culture.
What advice do you have for founders thinking about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship?
It's an unforgettable journey full of highs and lows. It's definitely not for everyone; I have friends who were amazing founders but eventually moved back to corporate because they were tired of how unpredictable it can be.
I think it takes a lot of guts to shake things up, put yourself out there, and essentially tell the world what you stand for. It takes a lot of drive and resilience to see things through, and "no"s are what you'll get used to having every day for breakfast.
For me, I'm the best version of myself when I'm inspired and driven by a sense of purpose, and that means doing what I strongly believe in. Even on our journey so far, I'd say I've been challenged, pushed, and thrown into the deep end more times than in the past five years combined. The learning is unrivalled, the friendships forged are incredible (forged in flames, you know?), and I don't regret any second of it.
What have been some of the milestones your company has achieved since its inception?
We have a fully functional iOS app that is currently running in open Beta, with Android soon to follow. Our community is growing by 27% every week and our waitlist continues to grow daily from user referrals, which is a great testament to what we have built so far.
We are part of the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) organization and the Global Ready Talent (GRT) Programme in Singapore, and have onboarded an amazing team of young talent whom we are actively mentoring. We are also grateful for our international team of rockstar developers and advisors who execute and contribute on various aspects of our product and platform.
Our next milestone will be the completion of our seed round fundraising which is happening very soon.
What is the vision for in 2021 and beyond?
Soda's mission is to empower people to connect in a powerful, personal way throughout their lives. We remain focused on developing features that will allow our users to navigate and continuously discover the people they already know, as well as form new communities along their growth trajectories. Beyond Singapore, we are looking to the Bay Area next.
We strive for a world where you're just "one huddle away" from belonging to a great community. A world where we grow together, not apart.
Zabrina and her co-founder Vasilisa were part of Antler Southeast Asia's 7th cohort. They launched Soda and pitched at our Demo Day this month.
This article was written by Maddie Gupta, Marketing Analyst at Antler Southeast Asia
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