An affinity for starting up: From corporate residency MBA to career

- September 30, 2015

Dal grad John Gleeson (left) and CRMBA student Laura Park. (Danny Abriel photo)
Dal grad John Gleeson (left) and CRMBA student Laura Park. (Danny Abriel photo)

John Gleeson describes himself as a serial entrepreneur.

“I have been ever since I was a kid,” he says, “always selling things, buying things, starting small businesses.”

By the time he finished his undergraduate degree in communications at Carleton University, Gleeson was running a successful hockey school in Ottawa and was excited to begin MBA studies.

He was drawn to the Rowe School of Business partly because of location, he admits: as a surfer, he was looking for a place where he could do a second degree and continue his hobby. In fact, he took a break to travel around the globe on a surfing trip after his first year, and returned with a bit of a reputation.

“People started to hear, ‘Hey, there’s this MBA student who funded a trip around the world, he’s entrepreneurial, he’s figured out a way to accomplish all these goals,’” recalls Gleeson. His eagerness eventually led him to the Starting Lean entrepreneurship course. There, Gleeson met Tim Burke, a community mentor and CEO of a marketing and tech start-up called Affinio.

The Affinio story itself starts at Dal: Burke and Stephen Hankinson (who is now the company’s chief technology officer) met in a research and development lab at Dalhousie, and subsequently embarked on a business creating tools for cell phone users and retailers. Eventually, that partnership led to Affinio.

Having kept in touch with Gleeson after he graduated, Burke asked him if he’d like to be their first hire. Now based in New York, Gleeson is Affinio’s VP business development, continually building relationships with clients.

Wearing many hats

So what does Affinio do? “It’s an audience insights platform,” says Gleeson. “It’s all about understanding exactly the types of personas that exist in a particular social audience.”

Laura Park, a Rowe student who just finished her corporate residency at Affinio, explains that the challenge with social media listening tools is that only about 10 per cent of user actively engage. “The Affinio algorithm looks at the both the silent majority and the vocal minority, so we analyze the entire audience, and we’re looking at connections of and between users,” she says. The company has customers around the world: BBC Worldwide, for example, is one of the largest the compay has announced this year.

For Park, the experience of working with a startup was exciting. “It was really cool to see the brands they’d already worked with even though they had only been established for about a year. I joined at a great time because I got to be a part of helping them grow.”

Gleeson describes the startup environment as an “ambiguous” one, which means employees are often asked to do a wide variety of tasks. Park enjoyed wearing so many hats: “It was really cool because I got to work on a number of projects under the areas of sales, marketing, and analytics, and also got to be creative.”

A passion for the work

Both Park and Gleeson use the word “passion” when speaking about working with Affinio.

“I think the thing that I really love about it is taking a stab at a really, really large goal,” says Gleeson, who says he’d also love to give back to Dal by teaching at the university someday.

“We’re working with some of the biggest agencies, brands and media companies in the world. You know, here we are, a group of guys in Halifax who are changing the advertising content marketing landscape. That’s cool!”

Park will work with Affinio again this fall, completing a directed study with its marketing director. And the company is eager to hire another corporate residency MBA student if they can find a good fit.

“We’re really starting to pick up a ton of momentum and that’s exciting,” says Gleeson. While the future of a rapidly growing start-up is not always predictable, Gleeson believes that whatever happens with Affinio, “we’ll be in a really good place.”


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