Kurt Heikkinen, the former CEO of recruiting and hiring technology company Modern Hire, recently launched Forj, a Milwaukee-based software-as-a-service tech company.
Forj developed a virtual event and tradeshow platform for professional membership groups and associations in a variety of industries and fields including health care, education and science.
One of Forj’s largest clients is the Canadian Federation for Humanities and Social Sciences, which held a 9-day conference that attracted more than 10,000 attendees and featured hundreds of sessions, Heikkinen said.
Heikkinen became the early-stage company's CEO in fall of 2020 shortly after leaving Modern Hire, which was formerly known as Montage. The platform has supported about 150 clients and more than 500,000 users since Forj was founded in July 2020, Heikkinen said.
Forj just raised $4.5 million in a round of funding led by Baird Capital, the Chicago-based investment arm of Milwaukee’s Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. Also participating in the round was GCI, a family-funded private-equity firm founded by the late Gary Comer, founder of Dodgeville, Wisconsin-based Lands' End.
“Baird and GCI, those were two entities that backed me at Montage over the years,” Heikkinen said. “So, it’s really exciting to have the trust and confidence of a group of investors who had success investing in Montage, they trust in me, and they see the massive opportunity that lies ahead.”
Forj was previously known as Virtual Event Place before Heikkinen and Forj chief marketing officer Kristen Wright acquired the company. Heikkinen and Wright rebranded Forj to reflect the startup’s broader vision of building online communities that connect professionals beyond conferences and events.
At its core, Forj is a customer relationship management platform and content management solution. However, Forj is tailoring its platform to leverage data science and artificial intelligence so that members can connect based on interests for a more personalized experience.
“We see a massive market opportunity,” Heikkinen said. “The research that we’ve done in this general category of online communities, it’s a billion-dollar plus software category. It’s a massive opportunity that’s on tap and we see a long growth trajectory ahead.”
What sets Forj apart from other virtual event software is its ability to support complexity and large user volume, Heikkinen said. The Forj platform is also highly adaptable, meaning virtual booths, networking rooms, conferences and tradeshows can all be branded and configured based on customer’s needs, he added.
Forj has 25 employees across four countries but plans to establish a physical headquarters in Milwaukee and hire up to 10 product and software engineers this year. The company will use the $4.5 million to expand its team and continue developing its platform.
Heikkinen led Modern Hire as CEO for 10 years. In 2019, Delafield-based Montage merged with Cleveland-based Shaker International and they were sold to a private equity firm and rebranded as Modern Hire, which is now headquartered in both cities.
“We’re excited to build another great success story here in Wisconsin and Milwaukee,” Heikkinen said. “Montage was a fantastic growth story and we intend to have a similar outcome here in the coming years.”