Editor's note: Knotch is one of Inc.'s 2015 30 Under 30. This year's readers' choice winner is ThinkLite.   

When Knotch founder Anda Gansca was 18, she got a long-distance call that changed her life. Gansca, who grew up in the Transylvania region of Romania, had spent much of the past year taking English lessons six hours a day so she could apply to American colleges. She got into several and was planning on matriculating at one with a top philosophy program when she got the call, from an admissions officer in faraway California.

"This wonderful woman by the name of Erinn said, 'You have to come to Stanford because you're an entrepreneur, and this is the place for entrepreneurs,'" she recalls. Although she had written application essays about some of her youthful endeavors, such as an initiative she'd started in high school to promote critical thinking among her fellow students, Gansca was unfamiliar with the word entrepreneur. But she was intrigued by the overture. "It was the first time I'd ever received a call from the United States, so I was beyond excited that someone from the promised land was reaching out to me," she says. She accepted.

More than a feeling

The idea that gut feelings are as important to understanding as words and numbers is central to Knotch, the consumer engagement and data company Gansca founded with Stephanie Volftsun in 2012. (Volftsun was Knotch's CTO until January, when she stepped down to become an adviser.) A replacement for ad-tech tools like surveys and analytics engines, Knotch helps publishers and brands understand audiences and move them toward desired actions. It uses visual interfaces like color spectrums to gauge sentiment in a way that's more novel and intuitive than multiple-choice questionnaires, and then turns those responses into data that clients can use for real-time targeting. A piece of branded content sponsored by, say, Virgin Airlines might contain an embedded Knotch module that invites readers to share their feelings about adventure travel. In addition to capturing those responses, it also collects readership and social-sharing metrics. The key is approaching people in a way that feels like part of a social interaction, not an interrogation, Gansca says: "If you can create a genuine connection with someone, then you can get them to click a Buy button or go to your homepage."

Finding out how other people think has long been a preoccupation of Gansca's. During a semester abroad in Moscow, she co-founded the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum to foster an exchange of ideas between Russians and Americans. After graduating with honors--Gansca blew off her Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, thinking it was a sorority rush event--she was ready to fulfill her admissions officer's prophecy, only to discover how hard U.S. immigration law makes it for entrepreneurs. With the help of a lawyer, she managed to snag an E-2 visa at the last minute, but only after writing a 150-page business plan, flying back to Romania to lobby the embassy there, and investing her life's savings in Knotch. "I really had to fight for my right to run this company," she says.

Betting on the jockey

The fight is paying off. Knotch doesn't disclose revenue numbers, but it has raised $4 million to date, from Michael Birch, Dave Morin, and Greylock, among others.  And the company is in the midst of a beta test with a number of large brands and publishers, including Vice Media. When readers see a Knotch module embedded in an article on a site like Vice, they click on it about 15 percent of the time and engage with it (including hovering the mouse over it) 55 percent of the time. That compares with a one-tenth of a percent click-through rate on standard banner ads.

As a former executive at media conglomerates like Yahoo and News Corporation, Ross Levinsohn quickly recognized the value in what Knotch was doing when Gansca approached him at a Goldman Sachs conference in 2013. But it was Gansca's personality that compelled Levinsohn to invest in Knotch--and, more recently, to become its first outside director. "The vibe and energy coming off Anda was so positive and so unique in my mind that I said, 'I almost don't care what you're doing--I'm in,'" he said. "She's equally suited to go deep on a product or business discussion or paint a vision for a CEO of a tech or media company. I would bet on her as many times as she wants to go to the plate."