We live in divisive and polarizing times, with social media feeds riven with trolls, take-downs and at best a toxic comparisonitis and superficiality. Yet we all have a craving for deeper connection and our technology is failing us.
I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business we meet an inspiring entrepreneur who is reinventing social media to encourage meaningful connection.
Rachael Jackson is founder and CEO of Tribal App, a relationship building platform – or what Rachael calls a “meaning network” with a mission to reconnect people to what matters in life: deeper, more meaningful relationships, and a greater sense of hope, help and purpose.
Rachael shares today how she raised $2 million for Tribal, now in its early stages with 2,500 regular users – and how her time as an Apache helicopter pilot in the US Army taught her the power of true connection and community powered by storytelling can create resilient relationships, companies and organizations.
I can’t wait to introduce you to Rachael! First…
Rachael Jackson says the men and women of the US military are willing to take a bullet for each other …not for country … rather because of the deep bonds formed by shared experience and storytelling. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, a former Army Captain and Apache helicopter pilot, with a degree in engineering physics and nuclear engineering, Rachael found her true passion in entrepreneurship and helping connect people to more meaningful lives – and each other.
Rachael founded the Tribal app to connect people in meaningful relationships and build stronger, more inclusive, and resilient teams through empowering resources and stories of hope, guidance and purpose.
Today we talk about the limitations of social networks, how the algorithms are primed to reward conflict and encourage division and fear. And Rachael shares how she’s architected Tribal differently to encourage an appreciation of diversity and trusted connection. Plus, how she raised that $2m, and much more. Speaking of connection, you’ll want to join the conversation …so …
Take out your phone right now and download the Podopolo app too as you listen to this episode, so you can join the conversation with me and Rachael. What’s your take on social media? What would improve it? And what do you think is the best way to create tight trusted communities around content?
You’re going to love this interview because Rachael also shares her journey in raising money for Tribal, and why why investors invest in the founder, the person, the team – more than the idea – plus what made her become an Apache helicopter pilot anyway. We talk “warrior spirit” – that is, a laser-focus on the mission, a refusal to back down, all tempered with humility and good values – and why that warrior spirit has much to do with her entrepreneurial success.
Let’s put on our wings with the inspiring Rachael Jackson.
Melinda Wittstock: Rachel, welcome to Wings.
Rachael Jackson: Thanks for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: I’m excited about TRIBAL. Tell me about it.
Rachael Jackson: Well, TRIBAL is a relationship building platform. We call it the meaning network, and it’s our goal to reconnect people to what matters in life, deeper, more meaningful relationships, into a greater sense of hope, help and purpose.
Melinda Wittstock: Now, that sounds like something that’s really needed in our very polarized, divisive culture. What was it that… Well, what was the spark, really, that led you to found it?
Rachael Jackson: Well, it’s been in the works for about 10 years now, believe it or not. But what I started realizing… And I’ll tell you more about how I felt called to start this. But what I started realizing is that I honestly believe leaders, impact leaders, leaders who want to move people to good actions and to meaningful impacts in their families, in their organizations, in their neighborhoods, in their communities and beyond are really struggling to connect with and reach the people that they need to reach. Social networks aren’t really designed to give those kinds of leaders a meaningful, effective platform.
Some excel in social networks. I’m not saying that social networks are all bad or unnecessary, but it’s just very hard to move people to action because of just the nature of technology and what it is. There’s a definite need to figure out how to inspire people to want to move to action and then actually get up and move. That’s what we started, realizing the big problem was. And then there’s more to it, of course, but big problems require some big solutions.
Melinda Wittstock: What’s interesting on social networks, people kind of show up with their kind of highlight reel, sort of their alter ego does this dance, but it’s not necessarily authentic. And then it’s so polarizing. The algorithms reward conflict, and so you see on Facebook, you see a lot of just this… I don’t know. I mean [crosstalk 00:02:29].
Rachael Jackson: There’s a book called Contagious, where it talks about what goes viral, and social networks are really this human experiment, where we allow people to publish anything and give them a platform, whether they deserve it or not, whether they should be listened to or not, and they use… basically let human nature dictate what rises to the top. What you see, and this book, Contagious, describes it… What goes is anything on the far ends of the emotional spectrum, whether that’s very inspirational and funny, to the very bitterness and dividing and kind of ugly stuff.
What I realized is that that ugly stuff seems to really overpower the inspiring stuff. What ends up happening is you kind of have this voyeuristic attitude of people just kind of coming out and checking out the worst of humanity. You can see like, people are, “I’m just here for the comments.” It’s like we forgot how to treat people with respect and allow diversity of thought and to celebrate and cheer each other on. You can find that in places, but just the nature of social networks is not meant to let that which connects us to hope, health and purpose, and to meaningful relationships come to the top.
We really believe leaders are literally almost at war for the hearts and minds of their people, and we have to figure out how to give them a platform where they can break away from the noise and have a place to check in rather than check out. So that’s what TRIBAL is, is a place to have leaders have their people check in and get connected and feel good when they leave.
Melinda Wittstock: So how is it architected, I guess, from a technological standpoint, differently from a social network, to be able to achieve that?
Rachael Jackson: You would experience some similar features. However, we are… As opposed to social networks, we believe in leadership. So we are leader-led. We believe in the power of local networks being the most powerful network. So we have a hyper-local focus and an organizational focus. And then, social networks, it’s pretty much a platform of free speech, supposedly. They’re protected by government protections and whatnot in order to facilitate free speech.
However, for TRIBAL, it’s more of a storytelling platform. Our niche is storytelling. We would rather have high quality content than a vast amount of content. We focus in on the meaningful, what it takes to have a flourishing life and flourishing individuals that then lead to flourishing organizations. So our topics that we stick to are topics that cover relationships, health and wellness, professional, good news, purpose, spiritual financial topics, and really allow people to connect deeply over shared stories and shared passions that are community-based, where hopefully, you can reach out and have coffee with somebody that you’re talking [crosstalk 00:06:00].
Melinda Wittstock: As a podcaster and a recovering journalist myself, I know the power of story. Story is universal, and often, the more personal it is, the more universal it is. But we all connect around story. I’ve always believed that the best content actually is conversations, so long as you can make sure that that conversation is elevated. So everything you’re doing really resonates with me, and all the companies I’ve done, I’ve had some element of that in-
Rachael Jackson: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: … media and tech, including the podcasting network that I now have, is how can we connect people meaningfully around story? So this really resonates with me. So you recently raised $2 million, congratulations on that. That’s-
Rachael Jackson: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: … not easy to do. Tell me a little bit about what it took to be able to close that round.
Rachael Jackson: Well, actually, it’s not one round that we closed, but a series of rounds. So it honestly… Let me see. We started raising money about four and a half, five years ago, believe it or not. It was a first concept that we had that was more of a B2C idea, where we would have a platform that would directly go to the people and invite them to join. Honestly, we couldn’t get much traction. I think with that first proof of concept, we only raised about $40,000. But it takes sticking to your vision and to your mission and to your con on your life. You have to figure out okay, if that way is not working, what is going to work? Where are we pivoting to?
Melinda Wittstock: The product market fit.
Rachael Jackson: The product market fit. It has to start with… If you have to raise money, then it has to start with, what do investors think people are… is actually going to work and actually going to raise money and actually provide value? What we pivoted to was this concept of, okay, how can we benefit organizations that have money to pay for this? And we went to corporate America, and we realized, in all honesty, no organization is in a better position to positively impact and to bridge divides and to move us to a better place in our world than corporate America. We started thinking, “Okay, what can we do to solve corporate America’s problems, or a problem for corporate America?”
We know that business leaders, they have this need to build strong cultures, to build a sense of meaningful work, to help their people feel known and cared for and cared about, and not just in a gamified or inauthentic way, where it’s like… It’s quite obvious that a lot of the employee engagement tools, or whatever it is, are there in order to get more engagement. You have actually want to connect with and grow and inspire people.
In building a platform for businesses and showing that we could solve problems that they were having, we were able to start raising money. I remember I had been turned down by yet another investor, who was a friend of ours. He was like, “I’m just not a risk-taker. I’m more of a growth investor.” I remember my husband said, “Well, don’t you think you should give up?” I got pretty upset, and he didn’t understand why I was upset at first. And then I said, at this stage, which was in the beginning stage, investors invest in the people they believe in. They invest because they believe in the person, the founder.
The next day, I’m talking to my team and I’m just like, “Well, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” and my husband texts me and he says, “I will invest.” And I said, “In what?” He said, “In you. I will invest in you.” He pulled out $25,000 from his retirement account, which allowed us to build a prototype. Once we got the prototype built, then everybody I had been talking to was like, “Oh, wow, I see it. I see it now.” We did a friends and family round, and then we did an angel round and then we did what I call super angel round. And then we did a debt round. So now we’re working on closing some big deals, where hopefully we can start to fund ourselves a bit before we go on to any other additional rounds.
Melinda Wittstock: Well, congratulations on that. It is a long haul. I think so many people read about venture capital, and you read about all the companies that are getting funded with all this big money, and it makes it seem, to a lot of founders, that it’s somehow easy to do. It’s really hard to raise money.
Rachael Jackson: I heard something one time that encouraged me, where it said, it takes an average of 10 years to be an overnight success. So you don’t really see all the backend, the sweat, the tears, the prayers. You don’t hear all that a lot of times, you just hear about the rounds closing or… But there are usually a lot of sleepless nights that go into getting there.
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly right. You mentioned a couple of things though, that are important, at the end of the day, the investor is investing in the founder and in the team and your ability to pivot and handle things that you can’t control, because so much of entrepreneurship is like stuff coming at you-
Rachael Jackson: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: … that you can’t control, like coronavirus or… Right?
Rachael Jackson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Melinda Wittstock: Just these-
Rachael Jackson: Adapt and overcome.
Melinda Wittstock: … things. You have to be constantly pivoting, but you have to know where you’re going. I like to use the metaphor of sailings. I grew up as a kid doing a lot of sailing. You to know where you’re going, but you can’t get there in a straight line. It’s actually impossible, because you have to navigate with the winds, you have to kind of zigzag-
Rachael Jackson: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: … your way there. What was it, do you think, about your character, if you will, or your vision, or just who you are as a person, Rachel, that an investor says, “Yeah, you, I want to invest in you, because I know you’ll figure it out”?
Rachael Jackson: Well, I guess, probably my story that I had to tell. I had bought some credibility earlier on with some investors, and… It was a lot of relationship building too. But believe it or not, I… Well, I served in the army, and I had this credibility that came with being a West Point graduate and an Apache pilot, and-
Melinda Wittstock: That’s amazing. That’s just so badass, let me just say. Just a minor detail.
Rachael Jackson: I tell people that I’m like… I feel very blessed and fortunate to have that story, and I realized that it bought me some credibility and opened doors. I want everybody to realize that it honestly is your story, your vision, your passion, that will buy you the credibility and open the doors when you connect with the right people who value what you’ve been through, what you’ve done. But I’m very thankful for that story that I had, which honestly, if you knew my background, there was almost no chance that I would have ended up with that story, had my mom not called the army recruiter. So I was definitely one of those prodigal teenagers. I’m very thankful that she did that.
Melinda Wittstock: So, what was the context of that? Why did she call the army recruiter?
Rachael Jackson: Well, I guess you could say I was rather prodigal, I was very rebellious, very headstrong, very determined, but I was headed in a very wrong direction with that strong will of mine. When I was a junior in high school, she grounded me for six months. About three months into that grounding… which I really deserved. I did deserve that. She would not let me go to prom, and so I basically left home, I moved out of my house. It broke her heart, really. My mom has passed on now, but it really did break her heart when I did that. She wasn’t really strong enough to deal with me and to guide me and develop me as a person. But at the encouragement of our church members, our church family, she called the army recruiter. It’s funny, because she told me later, she was like, “I thought that you’d be like those World War II secretaries, just typing.”
Melinda Wittstock: She thinks like, you’re going to be an Apache pilot.
Rachael Jackson: In the movies. Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: Well, someone with a strong will. I can see how that would be a good move.
Rachael Jackson: But I’m very thankful. When I went into the army, I enlisted, and I just… I thrived, I loved it. I responded to the discipline and to the comradery and the challenge. I loved it. I ended up applying to West Point and getting a command referral to go to the prep school. And then when you graduate from a prep school, you get an automatic appointment to West Point. So I tell people I got in the back door. But I’m very grateful, because had my mom not called the army recruiter, had she not been in prayer for me daily, I would not be in this position. So I’m very grateful.
Melinda Wittstock: What about the army and your experience there makes you a great entrepreneur?
Rachael Jackson: I think it’s having a warrior spirit, honestly, the heart of a warrior.
Melinda Wittstock: Describe that. What does that mean to you?
Rachael Jackson: Well, to me, a true warrior, a warrior for good, has a bigger vision, bigger mission that they want to accomplish, and nothing can stand in their way to accomplish it. I do so, and I believe that it’s very important to make sure you temper that with values and character and humility and leadership and all that kind of stuff. But in the grand scheme of things, you’re going to come up against any kind of obstacles. In battle, in war, you never know what the enemy is going to throw at you. You never know. So you have to practice, you have to prepare, you have to make yourself strong physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and you really have to just make sure you’re staying very mission-focused and mission-oriented and never drifting away from what the overall mission is going to accomplish. To me, it’s this spirit, it’s this heart of working my very best to make myself the best I can be. To overcome obstacles is this idea of adapt or die, adapt and overcome.
Melinda Wittstock: That is at the heart of entrepreneurship.
Rachael Jackson: It is. It is.
Melinda Wittstock: Right there. I love that, this warrior spirit. But also too, you had to work as a team, and the entrepreneurs who succeed are really good at creating a great team and a team that can really… where everybody’s at their best and everybody can work almost in… Actually, best case scenario, in an actual flow state where there’s sort of an between all the people. I’ve read a number of things, say just even about Navy SEALs, being able to operate in this kind of almost like hive minds, where everybody is doing their own thing, but as one. When you apply that kind of thinking to entrepreneurship, like the best teams, really at their core, have this mission alignment, but a diversity, but like everybody’s on the same page, there’s amazing communication, everybody’s playing at their highest game. But the founder and the CEO of the company has to enable that to happen. So I’m curious how this all kind of impacts how you lead and grow your team.
Rachael Jackson: Well, it’s funny, because TRIBAL, the platform is… We intend to help other leaders do that. Because to build empathy, to have this culture where you have teamwork, where you’re working for a bigger mission, where you’re working together, where you’re taking care of each other, where you would die for each other, then that’s not… that doesn’t translate a hundred percent to a non-military world, but the reason why soldiers jump on grenades is not for their country, it is for each other. They do it because they love their brothers and sisters.
Take that rhetorically or whatever it is, we go to the ends of the earth, we go beyond our duties, our responsibilities when we know and love each other and really value working with each other. TRIBAL is a platform that wants to help leaders build that kind of culture, where we help people connect in empathy with each other, because we believe in the value of story, you share stories, people who are willing to give a little bit and offer wisdom and hope, health and purpose in any kind of story. That’s how you build… That’s how you get to know each other, that’s how you build trust.
Actually, when leaders show a little bit of vulnerability and share some of their story, the return of their investment on that in trust is exponential. It’s amazing how just a little vulnerability can result in trust. How I’ve enabled that… I wish I could say I’ve done a great job. I think all leaders, if we’re honest, there’s always room for improvement.
Melinda Wittstock: Always. [crosstalk 00:20:17]. Always. It’s always. I don’t know any entrepreneur. I’m a serial entrepreneur, [crosstalk 00:20:23] my kids thought I ran the Cheerio’s company or something like that. But this is business number five, and each one is slightly different, but it surely tests you. Like, if you want therapy, just become an entrepreneur. Right?
Rachael Jackson: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: Because there is so much beyond your control. But it does make you a better person if you’re curious, if you’re willing to learn, if you’re open to that, and not… The vulnerability that you’re talking about is really a strength, and leveraging that as a strength, I think, is so important. But Rachel, I can really hear… As you tell your story, I’m connecting the dots, because it makes total sense to me now what TRIBAL actually is and does, because it’s so infused in your own story. So back a few minutes ago, when you were talking about the investors invested in you because of that story, it all makes sense.
Rachael Jackson: The story is the key. Stories, they unlock a whole lot, the power of story. I think in today’s world, we’ve lost the respect for story that we need. I think there’s 600 million blogs, with a new one created every half second. You’ve got social media using stories as five seconds highlight reels, whatever it is, you’ve got people sharing things that they honestly have no right to share. Sometimes you have oversharing and then you have like fake sharing. You have the wrong intentions behind sharing.
So is your heart motive to be famous or to be rich or to be adored or whatever? Then that’s not going to lead to true community. But a story, when done well, when you respect the power of story, when you choose to be what I call a story warrior and you have the courage to step up and share something a little bit vulnerable, but maybe something that can give people hope and have a purpose, then what you do is you actually start to break down the barriers; the barriers that divide us, the barriers that keep people from realizing that they’re not alone in their story, that there are resources that many have invested in to help them in their story
More than that, there’s purpose in their story. They can turn around and they can give back or they can pay it forward, no matter what they’ve been through, no matter what you’ve been through. I think in today’s culture, it’s so important that we figure out how to do that, we respect the power of story, we come back to what story is all about, and that we learn how to leverage it and use it to move people and inspire people to great things. I believe that’s how we overcome a lot of things that we’re going through right now, is through strong leaders, who person-by-person, story-by-story, start to change their communities, their neighborhoods, their organizations. City-by-city, I think that’s how we start to bridge what divides us.
Melinda Wittstock: The fact of the matter is, we all have way more in common, the same kind of human needs. Like, everybody wants good… Everyone wants to be safe, everybody wants access to good healthcare, people want to have… So many of these divisions, to me, where I sit, I think so many of them are artificial, where people have really been manipulated into these positions, and then attachment to an idea or a political party, or something like that, where anyone says anything bad about that thing, they’re so attached that it becomes some sort of existential threat to their being. So then they react rather than being able to actually have a conversation. It’s become really toxic.
Rachael Jackson: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: It doesn’t really make any sense.
Rachael Jackson: Well, I stand by this idea that I think we hate each other far less than we might believe, based on just the prevalence of what the media outlets would have you believe. Honestly, I wish more people understood what makes money and how money-
Melinda Wittstock: It’s a business model.
Rachael Jackson: It’s a business. It is.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay. So the recovering journalist in me, ex Times of London, BBC, ABC News, it’s a business model. Fear keeps people tuning in again and keeps them on a pretty low vibration, and it keeps the ratings going. So this whole-
Rachael Jackson: Exactly.
Melinda Wittstock: … endless election cycle, or like one of the reasons why… Whatever you think about Donald Trump takes up so much oxygen, and it’s just this constant thing and it keeps people from really just, I don’t know, connecting or being… It’s toxic.
Rachael Jackson: It is. It is toxic.
Melinda Wittstock: So tell me a little bit about… So TRIBAL, is it like a mobile app? Is it a website? Is it both? How does it work?
Rachael Jackson: So right now, it’s mobile; iOS and Android. We do have a website, tribalapp.com, where anybody can join our tribe, but we really want leaders to start their own tribes. But you can join our tribe to start experiencing TRIBAL. In a couple of months, we will have the web app version, as well. So we’re working on that currently. We have what you would know as a minimum viable product or go-to-market product. That’s where we’re at right now.
Melinda Wittstock: I’m just going to say, I know what that’s about, because that’s where I feel I am with my podcast network, Podopolo, as well. It’s like a minimum viable product, it’s in both app stores. It’s a little bit off from the complete vision-
Rachael Jackson: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: … but it’s awesome to have it there. It has a lot in common with what you’re doing, except it’s just really around podcasting.
Rachael Jackson: Right. It is like, you got to find your early adopters that will help you build it out to reach your product market fit, and then-
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly. When you have the confidence to co-create with your customers. It means for women, actually, because women have… Like, there should be an AA for perfectionists. Because I think what happens is women kind of launched too late. Like, they’re so busy perfecting it privately that the market passes them by. So you’ve got to get out there. I think the person who says it best, and forgive me, everyone on this podcast, [inaudible 00:27:11] me say this so many times, I always quote Reid Hoffman, who is one of the founders of LinkedIn. Not a little bit embarrassed about your product, you’ve launched too late.
Rachael Jackson: I also like to say, don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough.
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly. Good enough is like, your good enough is better than most people’s… Like, say your B minus is better than most people’s A pluses. You know what I mean?
Rachael Jackson: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: So-
Rachael Jackson: You’re not going to be able to make everybody happy, and people are going to bash you at first or bash your product. You can’t take it personally, you have to take it constructively. You have to figure out, “Okay, what can I do to improve?” I had been told no, so many times, I have been misunderstood, it’s not clear. I’m like, “Wow, people are… they’re not getting it.” Well, it’s not their fault, it’s my fault. I have to go back and figure out, “Okay, how do I make it better?” But then at some point… It’s not like I’m telling millions that are telling me no. Right now, it’s just five or 10 a week, where I get constructive feedback-
Melinda Wittstock: For something like what you’re doing, and this is so similar for me, as well, it’s just getting that user experience right-
Rachael Jackson: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: … and really intuitive, so it’s… There was a great book on user experience, way, way back called, Don’t Make Me Think.
Rachael Jackson: Oh yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: So people aren’t stressing about all the things, they are actually getting to the real value of an app right from the get-go. That is easier said than done. That takes some time to really get that right. But I love what you’re doing. What’s the next kind of step for you? Where do you see this going, and what’s your big ultimate vision for it?
Rachael Jackson: Well, so we are currently actually working on a military deal, a step to hopefully do a pilot in the army. The army and military isn’t exactly where SaaS platforms go to thrive, but it is where my heart is and where… So that’s kind of a simultaneous frontal attack, I guess. I put terms in the military term. But we are also pursuing corporate deals. We’re working on sales and scaling sales, and we’re starting to reach that ability to scale sales.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s great. Who are your customers? What’s the business model?
Rachael Jackson: Our target market would be companies about a hundred to a thousand people. We look for values-based culture leaders who believe in the power of story and relationships. Honestly, I find a lot of military leaders, former military leaders for sports teams, former service academy grads are kind of like… they resonate with our values easily, and so that’s like kind of… it’s kind of our entry point into the market. Our early adopters are those who share our values.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. That makes sense. You really do need to double down on what you know and have that really narrow core avatar, and then-
Rachael Jackson: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: … always a build beyond that. This is so exciting. So Rachel, how can people get your app and find you, work with you? [crosstalk 00:30:55]. What’s the best way?
Rachael Jackson: You can go to tribalapp.com to check out the app, you can connect with me on LinkedIn, Rachel Jackson. If you want to be on the app, like I said, anybody can join our TRIBAL for all, just… And then if you want your company to look at perhaps using the app in your company, then just send us their way or them our way.
Melinda Wittstock: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us. I loved our conversation.
Rachael Jackson: Thank you so much for having me, Melinda. It was a pleasure.