David Tennent was really looking forward to starting his new job as a digital director for Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania. Besides the chief of staff, Tennent hadn’t met anyone in the office yet, and after a year of setting up awkward coffee meetings over LinkedIn as an entry-level staffer for another Republican, Tennent was hoping to make a few new work friends. For young professionals like him in a company town like D.C. — where the newcomers who barely know a soul when they first arrive tend to outnumber the natives who never left — you build your social circle beer by beer and happy hour by happy hour. March 18, 2020, couldn’t come soon enough.
Tennent did go into the office that day, to pick up a laptop, but he didn’t return until months later — and even then, only sporadically.
“I didn’t meet any of my co-workers,” he said. “That was a weird environment to be in, and it was hard.”
Tennent realized he wasn’t the only Hill staffer COVID-19 robbed of the usual social and professional networking opportunities. In time, over Zooms and cautious socially distanced meetups, he made friends in the office, but he wasn’t meeting their friends the way he normally would have, like at a lobbyist reception or a house party. He was still getting coffee with other staffers, sometimes cold emailing them, but it wasn’t the same.
“I just felt like there’s a better way to do this,” he said. After a lot of brainstorming, he landed on an idea for that better way: an app exclusively for Hill staffers like him called CNCT.
You can think of CNCT (pronounced “connect”) as kind of a Facebook-meets-LinkedIn, only Tennent hopes that, unlike the latter, it’s not stuffy and that, unlike the former, people under 30 will actually use it.
After more than a year of work, Tennent debuted a preliminary version of CNCT before friends and colleagues at a soft launch party last week.
I asked Tennent to give me his elevator pitch.
“CNCT is a social and professional networking app centered around groups, events and coffee meetups,” he said. “It’s meant to help you find business connections and social connections based on your profile attributes that make you who you are.”
Only people with house.gov or senate.gov email addresses will be able to CNCT at the start — Tennent hopes to expand to federal agencies and other large workplaces in time. One interesting feature lets users schedule coffee meetings through the app, then add notes and a private rating afterward. Based on those ratings, the app will suggest other people to sit down with over a cup of joe.
After hearing him describe it, I told Tennent that CNCT reminded me of how Facebook worked when it first started — limited to just colleges, people creating lots of groups, useful for figuring out the name of a classmate or a crush. Tennent couldn’t tell me how accurate the analogy was, though — he was just starting elementary school when The Facebook was still just for undergrads.
Tennent is bootstrapping his company, meaning all the money that he’s sunk into it is his own. Unlike a lot of startup founders or his colleagues on the Hill, he doesn’t come from money. He’s paid the contractors programming his app out of the money he saved from not going out during the pandemic. Tennent hopes to monetize the app through targeted marketing and event revenues.
Tennent recently gave Reschenthaler his notice so he can dedicate himself full time to his startup. He knows it’s all a gamble — he’s appealing to a tiny niche of a market that’s already saturated with social media platforms, and an app inspired by pandemic problems might not catch on in a post-COVID world when cocktail receptions and meet-and-greets abound again. But he feels he has to give it a shot.
“I never wanted to be stuck doing a job for the rest of my life,” he said. “I want to create my own future and see where it goes.”
Last week’s soft launch was a humble affair, held in a common room of an upscale Navy Yard apartment complex. There were a few handles of hard liquor and some soda; they were poured into red solo cups and mixed with the handle of a ladle, which was there to scoop up ice. A Bluetooth speaker was pumping out a jam that I, as a geriatric millennial, had to Shazam to identify (“Drifter,” by Morgin Madison and Dominique) as about two dozen 20-somethings trickled in.
If not for a CNCT-branded photo backdrop and some CNCT goodie bags, it looked just like a small party — the kind of gathering that’s been a staple of young staffer social lives from time immemorial. But staffers say increased polarization had been stunting such mixers for years before the COVID pandemic crushed them.
Tennent hopes his app will help break down partisan divides on the Hill. He majored in film at the University of Pittsburgh, so he’s used to having more liberal friends, but in D.C., social groups often fall down party lines. “In our current political climate, it’s just become so polarized, and we’ve kind of lost sight that we are more similar than we are different,” he said. “I think something like CNCT could help people realize some of those things that they have in common that are outside of politics.”
The soft launch party doubled as the start of CNCT’s beta testing. Everyone there created CNCT accounts. They entered in basic information like their hometown, employer and alma mater, listed some interests outside of work, and uploaded a profile picture.
Tennent asked his newly CNCT-ed friends to note any hiccups they had with the app on slips of paper distributed across the room, but with their tongues loosened by drink, some shouted them out instead.
“David, you forgot Arizona!” said one. Another muttered about an error message when he tried to enter his phone number.
“Oh yeah — skip the phone number,” Tennent said, with a sheepish grin. “I knew I forgot something.”
Tennent hopes he can work out all these bugs in time for a full launch in mid-March, when any Hill staffer will be able to download the app.
After setting up his account at the soft launch, David D’Antonio sent friend requests to a handful of fellow attendees he had never met before, and all quickly accepted. A minute or two later, Fred Davis looked up from his phone and quickly glanced around the room before seeing D’Antonio just a few feet away. Davis extended his hand. “Hey, guess we’re friends now! I’m Fred,” he said.