staff, November 23, 2014

It?s not uncommon for college students to recall taking at least one course that was so profound and well-taught that it changed the way they view the world and opened their minds to new possibilities. For Northwestern alumnus Zachary Johnson, that class was on social network analysis.

[btn-post-package]Johnson, co-founder of Chicago-based social analytics provider Syndio Social, was introduced to the topic by Professor Noshir (?Nosh?) Contractor. The lessons learned helped Johnson leverage social media for a startup record label that was trying to get attention online for budding artists. The most notable result was a collaboration in 2009 that shot Mike Posner?s ?Cooler Than Me? to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 hit singles chart the following year.

?Working with Mike was a blast and the first example for me of the power of network analysis,? Johnson said. ?When I saw how effective deploying influencers and measuring networks could be with Mike?s work, I began to see the possibilities in other industries.?

Intrigued, Johnson sought ways to learn more from Contractor.

?I was his first undergraduate research assistant at Northwestern, and this gave me the opportunity to dig into the content and go far beyond the class he taught,? Johnson said. ?Once we started talking business, he stuck his neck out and used his relationships to bring us our first clients, Livestrong and P&G. Without Nosh?s willingness to take risks on me as a founder and on Syndio as a potential business, we would never be where we are today.?

Along the way, Johnson also received help from Michael Marasco of Northwestern?s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Marasco introduced key partners, provided workspace and advised on growth. Additionally, Northwestern trustees Bill White and Larry Levy served as mentors to Johnson, something they?ve done to support many other young entrepreneurs.

Syndio Social?s services are designed to accomplish goals in three areas, Johnson said. They are:

  • Solving people problems: This includes identifying change agents, innovators, high-potential employees and influencers in companies, many of which are globally and/or functionally dispersed.
  • Building capability through data: By tracking relational data over time and comparing it to key performance indicators, companies can discover what makes employees successful so they can recruit, train and retain for the future.
  • Benchmarking: This involves comparing aggregate data across clients to identify trends and make comparisons between peer organizations.

Even though it?s only existed for a few years, Johnson and his company have already been recognized in some high-profile ways. It was selected as one of Entrepreneur magazine?s ?Top 30 Startups to Watch? this year. Additionally, Johnson and other members of his team were part of a select group of young entrepreneurs honored at the White House in 2011.

?It was incredible,? he said. ?I met tons of brilliant entrepreneurs, and it was a huge pat on the back for a team that was working itself to the bone. It?s important to take time to celebrate accomplishments, and we were so honored to be able to celebrate in such grand fashion.?

While the industry is still young, Johnson expects the sophistication and usability of analytics to increase exponentially over the next few years. He also foresees a more crowded field, but he views that as a positive development

?Competition is exciting and helps us to prove legitimacy in the marketplace!? he said.

By Jorge Rivera