Antonia Hellman on building Toucan, Zoom's newest competitor

antonia hellman

bande member Antonia Hellman (pronounced differently depending on which of her parents you ask) is a current Stanford student and the CEO and co-founder of Toucan, which “brings the natural and social interactions of real life to online events and gatherings.”  Since launching in 2020, the platform currently has over 37,000 users  and over $1 million in funding. This bande member spotlight interview took place on Toucan.

An Early Entrepreneur

When Antonia Hellman and her brother Ethan first looked into patenting their product, they were 13 and 11 years old, respectively. Their family was waiting for food to arrive at a restaurant in Mexico, and in their boredom, they grabbed the salt and pepper shakers on the patterned table and took turns trying to knock each other’s shakers and get their own as close to the middle of the table as possible. She described it as "dinnertime curling,” and they called it "Yes." While she and Ethan could have left the game in the restaurant, their dad encouraged them to build their own prototype at home 

We flew home at the end of our vacation and built a prototype of this game, and we still have it,” Antonia said. “It's a square plywood board with concentric circles with saltshakers, and we actually looked into patenting it. We were trying to figure out how to get it into stores, not because we thought that it would be our big break or that anybody would really love playing this game, but because it was such a good learning opportunity. How do we trademark this? How do we get it to Target? How would we theoretically do this if we want it to? 

To date, the Hellman siblings are the only ones who own the Dinnertime Curling game, but it was a critical learning opportunity and set the stage for Antonia’s entrepreneurial future. Her big break came only a few years later, in March 2020, when the world shut down.  

The "New Normal" for Socializing

Like all college students, Antonia and Ethan were sent home from school with an indefinite return date. While they eventually got used to virtual classes, they started seeing their previously close-knit communities starting to deteriorate.  

"When you actually want to get to know somebody better, when you want to have a social event, you need to have flexibility and dynamism, and you need to give people agency over their own social experience."

So, our dorms, our clubs, our sports teams, those relationships, which were so valuable at school because they determine what classes you take, what you major in, what jobs you go after — those relationships started to disintegrate because all these social events were all put on Zoom,” she said. “When you get 20, 50, 100 people on one Zoom, the microphones get muted, the cameras turn off, conversation completely dies. Nobody wants to say anything because you don't have the same degree of familiarity with everybody you're talking to. You would never, at a party, pick up a bull horn and shout all your thoughts to people. You would want to talk one-on-one to a friend or, you know, talk to two friends. 

Their Zoom social events became increasingly infrequent, and eventually stopped altogether. So Antonia and Ethan, who both attend Stanford, sat down at their kitchen table, and founded Toucan. The idea was just a sketch on a sticky note, Ethan said in an interview with Stanford Daily, but “within 24 hours of talking to [the future head of product design], he quit his job and came to help us build this company.” Zoom’s newest competitor, Toucan “brings the natural and social interactions of real life to online events and gatherings.”   

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When you attend a Toucan eventwhether it’s a happy hour, career fair, or baby shower, you come in as a bubble and have the opportunity to join any conversation. It’s just like walking into a room — if you see your best friends having a conversation in the corner, you can pop in and start chatting with them. And if you see someone you’ve met once or twice talking in another group, you can send them a wave, or walk over. At all times, you’re able to see all the conversations that are happening in a room: Each circle has “speech rings,” so you can see who is talking when, and which conversations are really engaging.  

"We realized that Zoom is really good for one to many events. So if you have an agenda or a speaker or a presentation, that's what you use it for,” Antonia said. “But when you actually want to get to know somebody better, when you want to have a social event, you need to have flexibility and dynamism, and you need to give people agency over their own social experience. 

“I take inspiration from some of the things that bande does to engage the community, and I try and bring that to my own.” 

When founding Toucan, Antonia and Ethan consulted their scientific advisor, a social psychologist, to make sure people were feeling good, and that it stimulated a cocktail party environment. While Toucan was originally meant to be for parties, the team found that their primary customer base has taken quite a pivot.  

The Future of Toucan

People weren't using Toucan to party because when you go to a party, you're not looking to have a deep, meaningful conversation with somebody,” she said. “What we found was that a lot of small and medium-sized businesses, organizations and communities came together on Toucan because they were geographically distributed. And it's just a fantastic way to get people together without making them travel anywhere or commute. In addition to that, we have a lot of teachers that bring their students because it allows them to have a more authentic interaction and allows for flexible group work. Different clubs, fraternities  and  sororities  have really enjoyed using Toucan as well, because it brings communities together in a really simple, natural way. 

Since launching their private beta last June, Toucan has amassed over 37,000 users and raised over $1 million in funding. With many people desperate to find better ways to connect to friends, family, and coworkers during the pandemic, selling Toucan as a unique combination of “social psychology, design, and data” has been relatively easy, Antonia said. And because the platform is free, if one person invites 10 people to an event, those people can then host their own events, and it grows exponentially on its own. 

Toucan launched officially out of public beta last week, and the team is currently working on some exciting new features, like giving users their own private URL so they can have one space to host events. They’re also constantly iterating on creating more social features to make Toucan feel more like a community. 

That's actually one thing that I really admire about bande is that the community is so strong. To be quite honest, the only friends I've made in the past year have been people that I do bande classes with. I mean, aside from my coworkers, because I don't see anybody else,” she said. “I take inspiration from some of the things that bande does to engage the community, and I try and bring that to my own. 

When Antonia isn’t busy studying or working on Toucan, you can find her in Andrea’s cardio dance classes every morning.