Spring 2018 AFRL Commercialization Academy Series: Pulse
Terren Klein is the cofounder of Pulse, a survey platform on a mission to provide a reliable source of student opinion on college campuses. Launched at Dartmouth College in October 2016, Pulse has an active user base of 92% of the student body and regularly achieves response rates 10 to 15 times higher than competitor survey platforms. After cornering the college market, Pulse plans to welcome all types of communities onto the platform, including high school, geographic, and even interest-based communities.
What is your background building startups?
Pulse is our first startup, so this is our first foray into the startup world and tech industry. I graduated from Dartmouth College last year with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government. My cofounder, Robin Jayaswal, is graduating in June 2018 from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science. We’ve participated in several of the programs offered by the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network.
My background is in government, political theory, statistics, and public opinion polling, so my avenue to Pulse is the polling industry.
Why did you create Pulse?
After my college sophomore year internship at a national polling firm in Washington, D.C., I had a few takeaways. One was that public opinion can be super interesting. Second, a lot of organizations are willing to pay exorbitant amounts for it. I was also exposed to the process of collecting data and I saw that there were a lot of inefficiencies.
In my junior year, I had a job with the Dartmouth office responsible for surveying the student body. I found the same takeaways to be even truer at the university level, and the data was even more interesting because it was about my community.
What polling inefficiencies did you observe at the university level?
Every organization on campus is trying to survey the student body, but they’re all getting increasingly lower response rates while paying more and more for it each year. And so, having understood the pains of taking a survey as a student and being exposed to the process of polling at a national and student level, I thought I was in a unique position to solve an interesting business problem. In the spring of my junior year, I got to work on building a team. I even dedicated my thesis to researching survey methodology.
When did you realize that Pulse could be used for more than surveying?
It wasn’t until 60% of the Dartmouth College student body signed up to use Pulse in the first month and a half of launching that Robin and I started to understand the potential universal appeal of Pulse beyond just a survey platform. By sharing access to reliable community opinion, we learned that we’re feeding students’ desires to compare their own beliefs to those of their community and, in turn, understand what those around them really think about topics they care about. Pulse is accomplishing this in a way that no other survey or social media platform is doing.
It was expected that there would be demand from university administrators, media groups, and corporations. Even politicians use the platform to understand what college students want to know about. But we underestimated our ability to generate so much organic demand among students to the point that they would write in constantly asking us to conduct surveys on different topics or ask when the next survey is coming out. That’s when I knew College Pulse had the potential to be a lot more than just a much better solution to surveying people.
How do you determine what questions to ask users of the platform?
Most of the content is user-inspired. Users can suggest questions that they’d like to see run in their community, anything from getting students’ feedback on a recent campus event, gun control, relationships, to politics. Then our team of content creators forms them into surveys.
Traditional survey platforms have very boring market research surveys that no one is interested in taking in the first place and then yield bad results from an unengaged audience. On the other hand, we take the approach of providing our survey takers with the most interesting data possible on topics they care about. In the process of doing that, we’re collecting information that everyone wants to know about.
Many people are concerned about personal data protection today. How do you ensure that your users’ data is secure?
Our goal is not to get data and then sell it to different companies. In fact, in our terms and conditions we specifically state that no personal data will ever be shared with a third party. That’s not our mission. Our mission is to provide a public and interactive database of what communities around the world think about topics they care about. The topics they care about are one of the most important aspects of the platform, as well as constantly figuring out how we’re asking the survey questions, what are the most relevant topics, and how do we craft the best questions around those.
What schools are covered by Pulse?
Currently, we’re at 13 universities. We launched at all eight Ivy League schools in January 2018. We expanded to a few more schools in the past couple weeks, including Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Washington University and Brandeis-Tufts University. On the horizon, is the entire UC system. Our goal is to be at 25 universities by the end of the school year in 2019. Our initial market is universities in the United States.
How did you hear about the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
I was introduced to Wasabi Ventures Academy Program Director, Michele Pesula-Kuegler, and the AFRL Commercialization Academy through Josh Cyr, Director of Education and Acceleration at Alpha Loft. We participated in Alpha Loft’s program, Accelerate NH, in the spring of 2017. Josh had only great things to say about the program and Michele. Then I met with Michele to learn more and I thought it made a lot of sense for our team to apply to the program.
We pitched at Accelerate NH’s demo day and was one of three teams selected by the. Millworks Fund Series II to receive $100,000 investment. We’ve been using this investment and additional revenue to continue to build the platform.
What motivated you to participate in the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
Developing Pulse in a university setting and having done my government project on survey methodology, I’ve always been interested in looking into social norm interventions, opinion change, or survey methodology to expand the platform. So, I was really interested in taking government and university IP technologies and trying to figure out how to integrate them into our platform to improve it. I really believe in what the AFRL Commercialization Academy is doing, because these technologies are often overlooked and trying to bring life into them through commercial applications is a great mission.
What are you looking forward to the most at the Spring 2018 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day on May 31, 2018?
I always love the opportunity to pitch Pulse in front of a new audience. I enjoy meeting new people who haven’t seen it before and getting their feedback. I’m looking forward to hearing the other startups in the cohort present their pitches. We’ve been hearing them practice their pitches during the cohort sessions, but it’s completely different pitching in person.
Who would you like to collaborate with or meet at Demo Day, or in the future, that could further your company’s mission?
I would love to connect with any company that’s interested in in expanding their reach to the college market. We partner with companies ranging from Sennheiser and Game Fly to bike companies. As a form of advertising for them, they offer rewards on our platform as survey incentives for our students.
Instead of receiving merchandise, students can also use their Pulse Points to donate to charities that are important to them. This is funded by different corporations and individuals that are interested in either getting their brands associated with charitable giving and/or motivating philanthropic giving among college students. That’s one positive externality of our rewards program. In the long term, we’re getting students in the habit of giving, and this will carry on throughout the rest of their lives.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to work on Pulse in my free time. Honestly, I wake up and work on Pulse. Then I go to bed.
I do have some outlets, though. I enjoy throwing and catching just about anything. I try to have at least one football or baseball catch outdoors at least once a day. I also enjoy doing improv comedy, which I did throughout college. I think it’s a great way to practice thinking on my feet and be a better presenter, entrepreneur, and thinker in general.
And I love cooking. I like cooking team dinners or for just any event. I like getting a bunch of weird ingredients together and figuring out what to make. But the amount of free time I have is nowhere close to what it was before the fall of 2016 when Pulse launched.
What are some of your team’s most recent accomplishments?
We were accepted into Y Combinator, so we’ll be spending our summer this year in Mountain View, CA. This year, we’re also going to hire our first full-time employee, and my cofounder Robin is graduating from Dartmouth, so it’s a very exciting time for us.
If you could describe what sets Pulse apart from similar platforms in one sentence, what would it be?
We uncover the truth about what your community thinks.
Discover what the college market thinks about topics you care about! Meet Pulse at the Spring 2018 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day on Thursday, May 31, 2018. Watch them pitch to compete for the chance to win either the Judges’ Vote of $15,000 or the live Audience Vote of $5,000 at Griffiss Institute, 725 Daedalian Drive, Rome, New York!