Self-starters are a source of inspiration to us all; they are willing to take risks most are unwilling to take. But how easy is it to go at it alone? In Self-StartersE&talks to young start-ups and entrepreneurs to hear about their experiences and to introduce their businesses to a larger audience.

The public policy sector is a field that rewards connections and networking. As such, it can be challenging to enter and navigate, especially for newcomers and young professionals. 89 Connect wants to change that. The online platform brings together public policy professionals and invites them to network, debate current issues, and connect with the institutions they care about. Affiliated with the 89 Initiative, a pan-European think tank, 89 Connect also works together with other partner organisations, among them media outlets, to contribute to discussions in and about Europe – and we are happy to announce that this article launches our own cooperation with the platform. To learn more about them, E&M called up 89 Connect’s project manager, Maria Ludovica Bozzo.

E&M: Hi Maria, great to speak with you! In short, what is 89 Connect?
89 Connect logo

Maria: Hi! 89 Connect is the world’s first social network for young professionals in the policy sector. We help them connect, as the name says, with each other, but also with key players and organisations. We hope that this helps their career and improves their professional skills. But we also want to get young people involved in policy discussions.

E&M: You’re not a computer scientist or web developer by training – how did you end up working for a digital start-up?

Maria: My background is quite unusual. I have degrees in philosophy, management, communications, cooperation and development! I also used to work for an international energy policy organisation. But I’ve always been interested in politics. And now, thanks to all that experience, I’m used to communicating with all kinds of people. Honestly, I could even call the pope, if I had to.

E&M: If you’re handling communication and management, who programmed the website?

Maria: For the more technical side of things, we’re working together with Rebrand Studio. They build and designed our website, but I do the day-to-day maintenance of the platform.

E&M: And why a start-up in the policy sector?

Maria: I want to be where things get done, where change is happening. I think that, with 89 Connect, we can really make an impact. I know working at a start-up can be risky, but I chose to bet on something that I believe in.

E&M: How do you identify a good start-up, a good project that is worth betting on?

Maria: The most important thing is the idea. You have to meet a need, to identify a void that your product can fill. And we did that: young professionals in the public policy sector struggle to get a foot in the door. We know that there are a lot of social networks and people already are on so many platforms, it’s difficult to get them excited for another. But we are only aiming for a little slice of the market, we’ve tailored it exactly to the needs of public policy people.

E&M: What is the next step, once you got a good idea?

Maria: You can have the best idea in the world, but if no one knows about it, you end up failing. So, promotion and marketing are really important. Once you have your product, you have to sell it. The people are also important, their passion, their enthusiasm, that they really believe in it. But, of course, you also need a little bit of realism. You have to be aware of your strengths, your weaknesses, and your competitors.

E&M: What does your typical day look like?

Maria: First thing, I open my laptop, I check my emails, the 89 Connect website, Twitter, Slack, WhatsApp, Skype. Then, at least once a day, I have a call with our collaborators and partners. Besides that, my days are all pretty different. I promote the project, manage our team of influencers, implement the social media strategy, and write lots and lots of emails… but there are always things that come up unexpectedly.

E&M: Albeit logged into a slew of messing services, you spend your days in an office by yourself. The rest of your team and the 89 Initiative is spread out across Europe. What’s that like, working in a virtual office?

Maria: There are pros and cons, of course. Some days can be a little bit alienating, because you are all by yourself, even if you are connected with all kinds of people online. And it can be difficult to disconnect, with messages coming in at all hours of the day. But, on most days, it’s fantastic because you can concretely see what you’re doing and achieving, all the little steps and successes of the project. That’s probably also because our team is quite small, so everyone can see the impact they’re making. With Michael [director of the 89 Initiative], for example, I have a call almost daily, so we might not run into each other like we would do in a physical office, but we still keep in touch.

A rare instance when the 89 Connect team got together offline: Maria (second from the left) and 89 Initiative director Michael (second from the right) with members of the Rebrand Studio team |  Photo courtesy of 89 Connect
E&M: What’s the part of your job you like the most?

Maria: One thing I love is that it’s international, I love that we cover different parts of Europe – for now, and of the world – hopefully in the future. This means I get to interact with people and organisations from all parts of Europe. I think that we are enriched by our differences, by our different approaches and different cultures. This makes my life richer.

E&M: These are turbulent times, and we would be remiss not to ask about this: How has COVID-19 affected 89 Connect?

Maria: We are a digital platform and I work remotely, so our operations have remained largely unaffected. But we had been planning a big launch event in London for early April, that had to be postponed, of course. All across Europe, smaller events with our influencers are currently on hold.  Living in Italy, I’ve also been personally affected by lockdowns and concerns about family. But we are making sure to stay connected and check in on each other online.

E&M : COVID-19-induced uncertainty aside, what plans do you have for the future of 89 Connect?

Maria: As soon as we get enough funding, we hope to make an app. That would be a gamechanger. Of course, in the long-term, we are also thinking about how to monetise parts of our service, because we don’t want to depend on outside funding forever. And there are many more exciting partnerships, like the one we have with E&M, in coming up! So, stay tuned.

Cover photo: Marten Bjork (Unsplash), Unsplash licence

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