Ashlee Ammons is an extrovert. Conversation comes easily and she is a regular public speaker. But at a conference in New York three years ago, she ducked outside and ate by herself rather than engage with other audience members.
"They say, 'go up to someone with the same colored dot on their name tag as you,''" Ammons said. "That's very awkward."
Meeting new people at conferences and events can at times feel unnatural, even when the primary purpose of attending is to network. To ease the process, Ammons and Kerry Schrader, a mother-daughter team in Franklin, developed an app called Mixtroz.
"They tend to cling to people they came with like a safety blanket, or you are the person who ends up alone and you have to clumsily insert yourself into a conversation," Ammons said. "We just really believe the networking and connecting process can be more graceful than that."
At events utilizing Mixtroz, attendees fill out a "virtual name tag" when they arrive, providing contact information, a selfie and a response to 10 customizable questions. During a break or lunch, a conference host could organize smaller groups based on responses so attendees can more easily interact. Attendees are more engaged and have a better conference experience.
Networking has always been more difficult for some than others. In an era of having a smartphone to turn to at any moment, building connections through casual conversation becomes increasingly challenging, but its value is still paramount. Personal connections are often how people discover new jobs, gain career opportunities or find new hires. In 2016, 70 percent of people in a LinkedIn global survey were hired at a company where they had a connection.
Ammons’ first internship after college at LeBron James' marketing firm was the result of a connection she made at a college fundraiser for children’s hospitals. While volunteering, she talked to an upperclassmen at length, who later introduced her to her future employer through email.
"We were forced to talk to one other," Ammons said. "Had I had a smartphone, had I had Twitter, Instagram, I don't know what the depth of our conversation would have been."
When someone is able to find a common thread — a sports team, a hometown, a career niche — with another person, the willingness to engage increases significantly, Ammons said.
“If that guy has on a Cleveland Cavaliers hat, that's my friend,” said Ammons, a Cleveland native. "That's what Mixtroz does. It brings your commonalities or things you could have a dynamic conversation about to the forefront."
The Mixtroz app provides event hosts with a data set on attendees and allows them to sponsor advertisements on the app. HCA, Entrepreneurs' Organization Nashville Chapter, Nashville Entrepreneur Center, International Live Events Association, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Middle Tennessee State University are among customers.
Schrader, a former human resources executive at Alcoa, and Ammons launched the company in early 2015 and initially bootstrapped the app. They have raised $200,000 from friends and family and are seeking to raise an additional $600,000 from investors. They have participated in Chattanooga's GigTank 365 and Collision Conference and they have been selected to pitch at Creative Startups in Albuquerque.