As a college sophomore in 2015, Terren Klein learned very quickly the value of public-opinion polls.

In solidarity with other campus-based Black Lives Matter protests around the country, students demonstrated at Dartmouth College's Baker-Berry Library. While the protest lasted just one day, it was all students at the New Hampshire institution could talk about for the rest of the quarter.

Like many of his peers, Klein wanted to make sense of the commotion, which he thought was getting distorted on social media. The most polarized opinions surfaced there, by its nature, while the middle ground--that is, the view held by a majority of people--was getting lost. 

 "I think people went away with crazy misrepresentations of how divided their campus was," Klein says.

So Klein, a government major, set out to create a platform that both fosters conversations but also ensures they are grounded in data. So rather than just thinking you know how people around you feel about certain issues--for instance, gun control and sexual assault--you'll have actual data.

Plan of Action

Today, that platform--which Klein and fellow Dartmouth undergrad Robin Jayaswal founded in the fall of 2016--is available at 39 college campuses. It has collected more than 13 million responses and boasts 10,000 active daily users. The company is also part of Y Combinator's summer 2018 batch. The Mountain View, California-based accelerator is known for launching heavyweights like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit, to name a few. As the August 23 demo day looms, Klein hopes he can sell investors on the uniqueness of Pulse.

"We think there's this thirst for reliable data on the level of communities, and there's not really a platform out there that's doing that," says Klein, who graduated in the spring of 2017.

Here's how it works: Users submit questions, which are voted on by members of the community, but the Pulse team gets the final say on which are chosen. To ensure samples are representative (so a survey requesting opinions of the Greek system doesn't only contain affiliated students, for example), Pulse offers users points that can be exchanged for rewards like free Sennheiser headphones and an iPhone X. Users can break down results by category, but only if enough people in that subgroup have taken the survey to protect users' anonymity. Margins of error are always published.

While the startup hasn't settled on a revenue model yet, the founders are considering charging colleges, companies, and politicians to use the app to conduct surveys on college students. They've already done a trial run for consulting firm McKinsey & Company. 

Promising Premise

Pulse isn't the first app to try to tap into student opinion. Yik Yak and Whatsgoodly have both emerged in the past five years as platforms for students to share opinions and poll one another anonymously. And there are giants in the space like SurveyMonkey.

Pulse doesn't want to be the clearinghouse for campus rumors or become a white-label survey product, however. Instead, it aims to provide its users with reliable data about their community. Users can, for instance, learn what percentage of students at their school would date a Trump supporter. And a comment section allows students to discuss the results. 

The company's premise certainly has potential, says Jeffrey Carr, clinical professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at New York University's Stern School of Business. Carr says that the Googles and Facebooks only provide companies and organizations with "transactional" data--what people are doing and when--and give little answer to why, a void Pulse can potentially fill. 

"They know what website you're on. They're observing your behaviors," Carr says."[What's needed] is explanations of why people are doing these things. What's in people's hearts and minds?"

So far, that theory is bearing out. Pulse has seen a 2,000 percent increase in daily active users since joining Y Combinator in June, despite school not being in session. Carr says that while user growth is encouraging, Pulse's biggest challenge in monetizing will be proving its survey data is reliable without undermining its users' trust. 

"The whole business model of a lot of these big social media companies is gather as much data as you possibly can on these individuals to sell them stuff or predict behaviors," Klein says. "I want to gather as much data as I possibly can to actually help them make better decisions."

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Published on: Aug 22, 2018