Where Einstein Meets Edison

Student to Founder Series: Interview with TechStars entrepreneur Leon Noel

Student to Founder Series: Interview with TechStars entrepreneur Leon Noel

Oct 11, 2010

“I was an undergraduate researcher at Yale before dropping out to start SocialSci. On a daily basis, I would stand in the middle of campus and beg students to take part in my studies. It was a long, complicated, and often futile task that begged for better solution,” says Leon Noel, who dropped out of Yale to co-found SocialSci.  Leon and his co-founder, Harley Trung, joined TechStars and a few months into it successfully raised further investment.  Let’s hear their story in this installment of our Student to Founder series. 

MITER: Leon, in your own words, tell us about SocialSci and what gets you excited about building this startup?  How did you identify the problem and the opportunity, and what were the first steps you took to bring SocialSci to life?  

LN: At SocialSci, we realized that researchers waste not only time, but also precious grant money trying to find participants for their scientific surveys. SocialSci delivers those participants in seconds and for significantly less money by bringing those same surveys online.

Instead of finishing my degree, I wanted to dedicate my time to solving a huge problem in academic research. The thought of rapidly increasing the turn around time on academic research and lowering its overall cost was what pushed me to work late into the night.

My first steps were mapping out my idea on a sheet of paper and asking my friends and researchers what they thought of the idea. Over about a month, I went from random sketches to mockups to an overall outline of what I thought SocialSci should contain.

MITER: Tell us about your co-founders and how you found each other and decided to launch a startup together?  In what ways do you complement each others’ skills and, based on your experience, what are the best practices for finding and working with co-founders?

LN: My Co-Founder Harley Trung and I met freshman year of college randomly before going to a formal dance (our dates were roommates). We knew of each other, but really did not stay in contact until our junior year of college. Once I had the idea for SocialSci, I wanted the strongest Ruby on Rails developer I could find and Harley was hands down the best at Yale. He was recommended by several friends in the CS department and could be found working in the CS lab (called the Zoo) until late into the night. I told him about SocialSci and it immediately clicked with him. He understood the problem and thought SocialSci would make an excellent solution. From that point on we spent our weekends working on SocialSci. Eventually weekends bleed into weekdays and weekdays turned into months. Soon Harley and I were never far apart and constantly working on SocialSci. We applied to TechStars (lived in a small apartment on air mattresses together and now share an apartment in Davis). Co-founders clicking is one of the most important things for a startup and it has definitely contributed to SocialSci getting as far as we have done.   Clicking, to me, means not killing each other and complimenting each others style. Both Harley and I are rather calm and get along well. I have seen other companies were the founders scream at each other daily, but that is just how they handle stress and are always friends at the end of the day. Startups are STRESSFUL and clicking means helping each other get through that stress.

MITER: How did participation in TechStars help and influence SocialSci?

LN: Participating in TechStars has been hands down the best thing SocialSci has done as a company. As first time entrepreneurs, we learned a wealth of information on how to run and launch a company. Also, TS plugged us into the Boston startup community in a way that should have taken us years to acheive. The constant mentorship helped us push past obstacles SocialSci faced and having the overall TS “brotherhood” to fall back on has constantly payed off. Its great being able to ask a question like how to handle payroll and getting 20 immediate replies from other TS companies also in the thick of it. Another great benefit of TS is the constant investor exposure. Throughout the entire program you are constantly meeting with investors. This helped SocialSci close our round rather quickly.  What made us attractive to investors is that we solved a real problem and showed constant growth and traction, plain and simple.  Our investors are Launch Capital, SOS Ventures, David Cohen, Will Herman, Jerry Uster, and Daniel Saul.

MITER: It must have been exciting to be around other entrepreneurs as part of TechStars.  In what ways are the experiences of different entrepreneurs similar?  What are the common challenges?

LN: There are key things to a business that will always exist from payroll solutions to insurance providers. It takes a lot of time to figure out all these things for your company. The beauty of TS is that you are thrown into a family of Mentors, older companies, and fresh startups that have seen everything before. Being able to ping this network is amazing.

There are common struggles: everything from product design to hiring employees.

MITER: You’ve gone through TechStars and then successfully raised seed investment, which gave the startup a nice success trajectory.  How were you able to build and sustain that momentum?

LN: Not sleeping.