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Antonia Hellman of Toucan: Five Things I Learned As a TwentySomething Founder

Take every opportunity to learn and know when to admit that other people can do things better than you.

My brother/co-founder, Ethan, and I have vowed since the beginning of Toucan that we would always admit what we don’t know. As college-students-turned-founders, that is quite a lot. We knew going into this experience that it would be unlike anything we had done before, and we had to embrace new challenges with open arms. Since we started in March, we have not gone a single day without finding ourselves in unfamiliar territory, which we navigate with a little bit of intuition and a little bit of advice. But because we admitted what we didn’t know, we found stellar co-founders, mentors, and advisors early on who could fill in any gaps. With their help, new and difficult situations become manageable. Starting a company is a never-ending educational experience, and I am incredibly lucky that I get to take it all in.

As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonia Hellman, CEO & Co-Founder of Toucan, the social-first video platform. She is a senior at Stanford University studying political science, economics, and management science & engineering. Prior to Toucan, her career experience has been in data science and political campaigning.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

My name is Antonia Hellman, and I am CEO of Toucan. I am currently a senior at Stanford University studying political science, economics, and management science & engineering. Prior to my work on Toucan, my career experience was largely in political campaigning and organization.

Just like everyone else, in March of 2020, my brother, Ethan, and I were sent home from school. Adapting to virtual life was difficult, but we eventually got the hang of attending online classes. The biggest problem we encountered was that the communities and groups that we were part of on campus started dissolving one by one. We were stuck resorting to traditional video conferencing tools to socialize, which made events that were supposed to be fun incredibly awkward. When Ethan and I had attended our share of uncomfortable social events, we sat down at our dining room table and started brainstorming how we could fix the problem. That’s where my entrepreneurial journey began.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?

Every Thursday, we host a company social hour. We invite members of our host community to come and mingle with our team, meet other fans of Toucan, chat with investors, and find mentors. It is all very casual.

One Thursday, we had a mysterious guest pop into our event. This happens often because many of our regulars invite a +1; however, nobody seemed to know him. His name was George, and he didn’t say much. But I quickly learned that he was starting a competing virtual events platform himself. Slightly surprised, I didn’t know how to act. So, impulsively, I removed him from the event, and he disappeared.

After discussing with some of our guests in a smaller group, we all agreed that we were curious about George’s story and actually wanted to get to know him better. So I unblocked him, and he was able to re-join our event. Despite the fact that I had booted him out of our party, we ended up having a nice conversation and hitting it off. Fast forward a few months, he decided not to pursue building his own platform, and he very kindly offered to assist us with understanding the virtual event landscape. This is all to say that, even though we may have gotten off on a slightly wrong foot, we ended up connecting and having a great relationship with a competitor in the space. If we hadn’t forged this friendship, we wouldn’t have him as an ally now.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Toucan’s mission is to connect people and communities in a natural, engaging, and fun way. Since day one, we have worked with social psychology advisors to ensure that the experience is conducive to making real, meaningful connections. We have had many companies host happy hours and networking events on Toucan. We have hosted conferences and baby showers. Real people and real communities choose Toucan because of the authentic social experience that it offers.

Although we are geared towards small and medium sized businesses and organizations, the natural essence of Toucan was never more clear to me than it was during my family reunion. I have a large family, and we always get together for the holidays. When we were unable to do that this past year, we all hopped on Toucan. On average, we had about five groups going with my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my cousins. Two of my cousins are very young, and they got the hang of the platform immediately. They then proceeded to play a game of tag — jumping from one group to another, trying to “catch” each other.

At first, I found it slightly disruptive. But then I realized that this is precisely how my cousins would act were we at my grandparents’ house like any normal year. They would be running around the house playing tag and having fun. And because of Toucan, we got that normal back.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are so many people who have helped me get to where I am today — and it’s only the beginning of the road. I have a spectacular team working alongside me, and I am so fortunate to work, learn, and grow with my mentors every single day.

But the one person who pushes me to be a better leader, co-worker, founder, friend, and sister is my brother, Ethan. Even though he is two years younger than I, I look up to him every day. He and I co-founded Toucan together at our dining room table last March, and he pushed us to take a leap and pursue our vision. Don’t get me wrong, I spent many years fighting and competing with him (mercilessly). But that stopped years ago. Co-founding Toucan together has brought us closer than ever before because we realized that we’re far stronger as a team. We actually never argue — which, if you asked our parents just a few years ago, they would have said was impossible. I’m endlessly grateful that I am going through my journey as a first-time founder with him by my side. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Yes, I work full time on Toucan! I am primarily responsible for customer acquisition and marketing for our company, so I am constantly trying to come up with innovative ways to connect with our community. My favorite part of building Toucan is interacting with our users, specifically our hosts, who always teach me something new about community engagement.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our team came up with Toucan in response to the unfortunate situation that we are all living through. Because there was no way to interact naturally with larger groups of people, communities became strained. As a result, many people around the world lost friends, support systems, and vital moments of social connection.

We believe strongly that mental health must be a priority — not just during the pandemic, but beyond. Socializing is an extremely important component of self-care. Toucan reminds people that they are not alone, which is what we all need to be reminded of nowadays.

During Covid, some of our most regular users are schools. Since the very beginning of our private beta back in July, we have worked with middle and high school teachers, university professors and administrators, in addition to student organization leaders to connect students. There are several educators who have integrated Toucan into their daily classroom life because it gives students an opportunity to interact and work in a more natural way. We have gotten so much positive feedback from students about how they wish all of their classes would use Toucan because it’s so much more enjoyable than traditional video conferencing tools. The Toucan team admires and idolizes teachers, especially during this difficult time. We are happy to do whatever we can to help.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

In high school, I read Persepolis, a graphic novel about one girl’s — the author’s — experience growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. When I was assigned the book to read, I was perplexed. I did not understand why my English teacher wanted us to read a comic book. We had just finished reading the Odyssey. This was a 180.

But from the very first page, I was completely sucked in. The non-traditional method of storytelling completely surprised me. I imagined myself in the panels, and I found myself relating to sketches of characters. The story was so raw, and the fact that it was a graphic novel added so much depth. I regretted that I ever approached the reading assignment with an ounce of disdain.

Reading Persepolis not only put me in another girl’s shoes with a vastly different childhood experience than my own, but it also taught me the importance of thinking outside the box. From a reader’s perspective, I learned how important it is to give things that are different a chance. And I also gained tremendous respect for the author, Marjane Satrapi. It must have taken tremendous courage to make the decision to write her life story as a graphic novel, understanding the preconceptions that people have about such works. But if she had not written it how she did, it would not have touched me like it did. Sometimes, the courage of one’s convictions leads to exceptional art — even if it is against the grain.

Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each

1 . We spend a lot of time learning on the fly which is a challenge by its very nature. Life as a founder moves fast, and sometimes I have to remind myself to step back and appreciate how far we’ve come.

Every day brings something new. This is a wonderful and entertaining characteristic of twenty-something founder-hood. But it can also get overwhelming. Sometimes, it is hard to keep up on all of the lessons learned, big and small. On the flip side, because this process is new for me, every milestone we reach is extra sweet. When we launched our private beta, when we hit our first thousand users — then our first ten thousand, then our first twenty-five thousand -, when we closed our fundraising round… All of those markers of success brought me so much excitement. The rush of meeting a goal is absolutely addictive, and this is just the beginning.

2. Take every opportunity to learn and know when to admit that other people can do things better than you.

My brother/co-founder, Ethan, and I have vowed since the beginning of Toucan that we would always admit what we don’t know. As college-students-turned-founders, that is quite a lot. We knew going into this experience that it would be unlike anything we had done before, and we had to embrace new challenges with open arms. Since we started in March, we have not gone a single day without finding ourselves in unfamiliar territory, which we navigate with a little bit of intuition and a little bit of advice. But because we admitted what we didn’t know, we found stellar co-founders, mentors, and advisors early on who could fill in any gaps. With their help, new and difficult situations become manageable. Starting a company is a never-ending educational experience, and I am incredibly lucky that I get to take it all in.

3. Building a strong network from scratch takes time, but it’s one of the most essential assets you can have.

Prior to Toucan, I had a limited professional network. I had not held a real job, so my LinkedIn connections were largely limited to my friends from school, very few of which had started a company. But throughout the process of building Toucan, I have been introduced to and spoken with countless VCs, mentors, community leaders, educators, and young founders, who have offered to help me along my journey. I have encountered kindness and openness in places and industries that I did not expect to, and I am grateful for the network of people and organizations I have developed. It is a tremendous resource that I no longer take for granted.

4. There is no playbook for being a 20-something founder. I’ve had to take skills learned as a student, and apply those to a very real and focused career path.

Before I started Toucan, my career experience was in political campaigning. I worked on several congressional and state campaigns, particularly in 2018. My extracurricular work at Stanford has largely been around public service work, as I co-founded StanfordVotes my sophomore year, the first centralized student-led initiative to increase voter turnout among members of the Stanford community. The work I did in those positions involved knocking on doors and approaching people, engaging them in conversation, listening to their thoughts and concerns, and providing them with information about how I — or my candidate — could help them. Additionally, as director of StanfordVotes, I managed over 100 volunteers and organized fun activities to try to get more people involved in the democratic process.

As Toucan took form, I stepped into the customer acquisition and marketing role. Interestingly, I found that my day-to-day responsibilities looked very similar to what I did on the campaign trail. I approached strangers, I listened to their stories about how they were struggling in this virtual world, and I told them about how Toucan could change their lives for the better. Aside from those conversations, I engage our vast Toucan community — keeping them up to date with newsletters, planning social events, managing social media, and more. To this day, I am fascinated by how much there is to learn and how much can be applied from one distinct field of work to another. Everyday, I bridge my experiences with civic engagement work with my responsibilities as a young startup founder, and this has made me a far more effective communicator and leader.

5. There aren’t many people that can relate to your situation. This can be good, but, at times, isolating.

There aren’t that many college students who start companies, which has always made me feel special; however, it also means that there aren’t many people out there who are going through the same experiences and learning the same things as I do. I work with many experienced professionals, and I meet folks who were around my age when they started their first company. And, though everyone is well-meaning with their advice, it isn’t the same as having friends that can directly relate to my situation. Additionally, launching a company takes time. Lots of it. And since my company is entirely distributed, that means that I spend a lot of time inside. I enjoy what I do and am passionate about what I am building, but that means that there is very little downtime. I have to be extremely deliberate about taking time for myself and for reconnecting with friends. This is all just to say that the life of a twenty-something founder can be lonely at times.

What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?

Treat every interview, every pitch, every phone call like it could be your big break. I cannot tell you the number of times when I have gone into a meeting expecting very little and come out with mentors, co-founders, funding, or powerful advice. Treat every interaction as a learning experience; you never know what you’ll get out of them.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Serena Williams. As a lifelong tennis player and fan, I have grown up wanting to be her. I admire her strength, her athleticism, her versatility, and all-around excellence. She is truly a champion on and off the court. And now that she is a VC at Serena Ventures, she is using her platform and resources to elevate diverse founders. I admire her for being a beacon for change, inclusion, acceptance, and empowerment of those who have traditionally not had a seat at the table.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Connect with me on Twitter (@antonia_hellman), and follow the Toucan Twitter (@ToucanEvents)

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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