How did four Exeter undergraduates go from meeting each other over a drink to becoming the team that won $50k from Microsoft for coming up with the next world-dominating app? Alex Carden, Features Editor, finds out.
The trouble with Aaron Sorkin’s TV, as anyone who has ever watched The West Wing or The Newsroom will know, is that real life never lives up to the fast-talking, uber-competent, slick efficiency you see on the screen. It can leave one feeling a bit depressed, when you don’t have the energy or the time to even approach the higher, faster form of life that it feels like you should be aiming for. Now of course, The West Wing and The Newsroom are both fictional, both written in a hyper-real style. But even The Social Network, based on real events, still seems to exist in a realm of superhumans; of an elite doing things that most of us couldn’t even dream of.
But when I sat down with Ed Noel, and started to interview him about the story behind the headlines you might have seen about four Exeter students winning an entrepreneur competition in Russia, the story he told sounded as if it could have come straight out of The Social Network, superhumans and all. The guy who sat across from me was a regular third-year, like me, who, when we finished up, was busy worrying about his coursework, but the story of him and his mates spanned Exeter, London, St Petersburg, Atlanta and back again, into a world of Red Bull and patent law, of millionaires and actors and Exeter University.
The story started in February of this year, no more than five metres from where I’m interviewing Ed, in Exeter’s own A and V hub, at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Hackathon, a 48-hour challenge to create an app, and a business around it. Unlike the other teams, from Exeter and the other south-west universities involved in SETsquared, a partnership designed to promote entrepreneurial talent, Ed and his teammates went along separately, and for fairly low-key reasons, dragged along by friends, or rocking up because they were bored and had nothing else to do. They were also from very different backgrounds, in a competition dominated mainly by coders and software developers; Ed is a Mechanical Engineer, Rob Parker is a Maths and Computer Scientist, John Neumann studies History and is originally from France, and Alex Bochenski, from Hong Kong, was the only business student. They met, appropriately, because they all sat at the table nearest the bar. And while the other teams began planning immediately, they had a few drinks, and fell into a team together.
Although they dismissed it at the time, an augur of their future success came in the form of a program called ‘Saberr’, a team analysis tool based on psychological testing, developed by a Southampton student a few years older than the guys. The software tracks your responses to 42 questions (such as ‘would you sleep with someone you just met on a night out?’ – clearly aimed at Exeter students in particular) and measures them against your team-mates to produce a picture of how well your team will work together. To their surprise, the four of them, randomly thrown together by the placement of the bar, scored very highly indeed on the test.
At the time though, their pressing concern was to come up with a winning idea. The competition was certainly worth winning: the possibility of $50k if victorious in the international finals. But at 2am, midway through the competition, surrounded by crumpled Red Bull cans, dark outside, and trying to decide between an app for managing junior league football teams or one for a calendar function that turned out to be already offered by Outlook, it must have seemed quite a long way off. Trying to keep their spirits up, they tried to play music through a laptop speaker. And when that wasn’t loud enough, they started to try and play the sound through all their laptops, and all stopped and looked at one another. Idea.
And thus, SoundSYNK, an app to enable one track to be played simultaneously through several phones, was born. Next up was prototyping. I asked when they did this, assuming it would take a few months to work on the app in between university life. “No no,” Ed said, “it was the next morning, after some snatched sleep, that the prototype, website, and business plan had to be done, to be ready for the end of the competition a few hours later”. So they just got on with it, and got it all done, in a few short hours before presenting it to the panel of entrepreneurs judging the competition. And won.
Whilst many of us would be content to take our win and rest on our laurels, the guys headed straight for more funding, and to patent lawyers to get the legal side of things sorted out. The attitude of the judges (all entrepreneurs themselves) to the app had been unanimous; that their idea was a good one and they should run with it. Ignite, the Guild’s entrepreneur support unit, gave them £1000, which was crucial for the legal and material preparation for the second round, and another confidence booster. A couple of other competitions, which the team won again despite stiff competition from other Exeter and international teams, sometimes up to 200 of them, provided further funding to get their scheme off the ground, and prepare it for the national Imagine Cup final. There, again, they were incredibly successful, coming first and with another Exeter team coming in second.
Ed is quick to give the credit of the continuing success of their team to more than just their idea. Indeed speaking about it now, he’s quite quick to dismiss it. They’ve had hundreds ever since working together, have even taken another one, an image-sharing app, and run with it until it’s nearly ready to launch alongside SoundSYNK (which has since been renamed) early next year. He maintains that in fact the idea was very much second to the team, and it was more important how much the four of them clicked, as well as the different skills they brought to the table, whereas most of their opponents were teams of only developers, with less
business understanding. This and their ability to work together so effectively, as Saberr had predicted (indeed Saberr also predicted accurately the winners and runners up of every competition the guys went to), that really got people interested in the project. Interest in the team came from a combination of support from the University, the Ignite and Innovation Centre and through Setsquared. It was both finance and education based. Mentors at the Innovation Centre played devil’s advocate with their business plan until it was watertight, and SETsquared sent Rob and Jon to MIT, in the US, for a crash course in how to start a company. When Ed skyped them while they were over in the US, they said the guys in the dorm next to them were billionaires. This was the kind of world they were about to plunge into.
Before they headed to Russia came a period of intensive redeveloping of the app, of pivoting it from a ‘gimmick’ to a music-sharing system with far more of a social network feel. Despite how much he’s credited the support they received and the randomness of their success so far, it’s clear that Ed really knows his stuff. Coming out of what has the faint notes of a well-polished but very knowledgeable pitch, with discussions of inherent virality and pricing models, is a brief sentence on how Instagram and Twitter got huge, with a ‘tipping point’ when they reached a critical mass of users and really started to take off. I have to stop him. “Are you comparing your app with Instagram and Twitter?” I ask, “Oh yeah” he says, blandly. They’re looking for a million users by the end of year one, and thirty million by year two. This isn’t a boast, but part of a discussion of viral strategy. I’m stunned. I had imagined that this was an amusing project which had taken them further down this one competition than they’d expected. But actually, they are out to make the next big thing. This is not an idle distraction from University, or CV-fodder. These guys are out to change the world, Zuckerberg-style. I don’t use that particular phrase in front of Ed – frankly I’m still reeling a little. I’m not sure whether he’d appreciate it or not.
The judges in Russia were from the web giants that these four students were regarding as their competitors; Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and a couple of others had all sent senior guys to judge. “Walking around the giant venue”, Ed says, “was like a weird techy Disneyland; people dressed up in Imagine Cup gear, with a massive party going on while simultaneously hundreds of people hunched over their laptops coding away. It made us feel thick just walking around.” So they stopped walking, and crashed on beanbags after finding a drink. It seems, like their beginning, appropriate. When it came to presentation in front of the judges, it was their solid business savvy, thanks to drilling from the Innovation Centre, that played so well with judges that were more business that software-focused, as well as a confident polish and a fast tongue that Ed says “is the mark of a great many Exeter graduates”. Regardless of how laid-back they were about the whole affair, they still say that when they saw Matt Smith, who was giving away the prize (Doctor Who to anyone who doesn’t know), grin and do a silent fist-pump when he read the envelope, and realised that he was cheering a British team winning, and that they were the only British team there, they were really unable to believe it.
From there, it starts to get really Social Network-y. After handing over the cheque for $50k, Microsoft flew the guys to Atlanta, gave them enough spending money to deck themselves out in the latest Hollister gear, and invited them on stage in front of fifteen thousand Microsoft employees. It was when the wall of sound hit them that the guys really began to feel like rockstars. When you raise your arms and fifteen thousand cheering people cheer even louder, you’ve gone beyond being four Exeter students and seriously entered the big leagues.
The world they entered then, after coming offstage and being in the centre of a giant party in Atlanta’s Olympic park, where more people were interested in them than Pitbull performing on stage, begins to resemble a completely different level of human interaction. Maybe they didn’t see it that way, but to hear Ed describe it, it sounds like the world of professional entrepreneurs is an extraordinary one. They met guys who had made and lost small fortunes, who had received multi-million dollar offers for their companies and rejected them, only to watch their company collapse in front of them. Guys who were doing this because they refused to grow up, and didn’t want to work for anyone, who didn’t really care about the money and who bought peanut machines with their first million, because why not? They don’t have to be geniuses, in the conventional sense; many are dyslexic, like Ed himself. They don’t have to be genius coders either, who can always be brought in later. But they do need confidence; they need to go for it, and they need to lose the fear of failure, and sometimes, given Ed’s example of a woman he met who gained investment from confidence alone, is enough. For entrepreneurs, failure is something to laugh about, even show off about, but above all something to recover from nearly instantly and start again. If one in ten companies succeed, they say, then start ten companies. And when they suffer a setback, it’s their team that helps them get back up, not a new idea. The example they used was the firm behind ‘Angry Birds’, who made 49 failed apps, and kept going, before they hit the jackpot and became possibly the world’s favourite game. The offices they moved to after Atlanta in London, again courtesy of Microsoft, no strings attached, were open plan, with 20 companies sharing the same space, sharing problems and solutions and ideas, and then going to parties in Shoreditch full of more of these business jet-setters to talk about it some more. The contacts they made, senior personnel in some of the world’s largest companies, they could ring, whenever, to have a chat about problems they were stuck on.
It’s the lack of contacts, not a lack of talent, which keeps young entrepreneurs back. And Ed is keen to share his success and his contacts in particular with others in Exeter. He’s already campaigning for a space for Exeter entrepreneurs on campus, where the shared atmosphere from Atlanta and Shoreditch can be replicated. If they make any money, or perhaps when they make money, he says a lot of it is already earmarked for Ignite and the Innovation centre, who can use it to help the next generation and create a cycle of talent and money that will keep feeding back into the university. Exeter, he says is perhaps one of the best universities for start-ups (although not because of the Business school, which he says is mainly for established business, and has a lot to learn about entrepreneurship, nor for the Career Zone). He talks, convincingly, of the belief shared by some companies in the area, that Exeter is well-positioned to become a European Silicon Valley thanks to its laid back atmosphere, and high quality of life, and that all that remains is for the University to be convinced of this. That is if Exeter wishes to be be the place in Europe for start-ups five years down the line.
The four of them still have a way to go before they launch, and a lot of technical details, which Ed can’t discuss, to work out before they do. We’ll have to watch and wait to see whether or not they are successful. But if they aren’t now, the impression I get is that they will keep picking themselves up, keep spurring each other on, and using their network in this new elite, this class of hyper-competent and energised and almost unbelievable young people, who don’t want to work for anyone else, who are doing what they love, and changing the face of business while they do it.
Alex Carden, Features Editorbookmark me