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Axel Hansen and Jonah Varon

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"Are You The Next Facebook?" Building a Web Company as Harvard Undergrads

Posted: 05/25/11 11:00 AM ET

"Wow, so are you guys, like, the next Mark Zuckerberg?"

We get that a lot. It's a hard question to answer. No, of course we're not, and no, we're not building the next Facebook. Yes, we're Harvard sophomores, and yes, we think we have a web project that has the potential to take off.

We started Newsle.com last spring with a simple idea: we wanted to find out what our friends were up to. Facebook is great for social news, but try finding out the 5 most important things a friend has done -- things that made it into a newspaper, newsletter, or blog. You can't find that on Facebook. But as of last month, you can find it on Newsle.

This year, we prioritized Newsle over academics. Our grades suffered. Our social life suffered. We would start coding after dinner, work through the night, go to sleep at 8am, and end up missing our classes. Or we would skip class to meet with people around Boston and pitch Newsle to them.

Newsle tracks your Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts in the news, so you won't miss an important article or blog post about them. Your friends make news more often than you think; we increasingly leave online traces of our offline lives, especially when we do something big. With Newsle you can also follow famous people you're interested in: actors, politicians, musicians, Steve Jobs, etc. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, you don't follow what people are saying about themselves -- you follow what they're doing.

From the beginning, we realized that our biggest challenge was differentiating between different people with the same name. If your friend is named John Smith, you can't just Google "John Smith" to find news about him. To address this, we developed an algorithm that uses additional data about people, such as where they work, where they went to school, and where they live, to disambiguate between your friend John Smith and John Smith, the 17th century explorer.

But balancing Newsle and academic work was a challenge. Compared to writing code for Newsle, many classes felt like a waste of time.

Peter Thiel's "20 under 20" program gives people under 20 years old $100,000 to work on their own ideas instead of going to college. Thiel believes that a college education isn't always worth the money, and he has been criticized for encouraging students to drop out. While we think his argument has some merit, our experience was more complicated. As students, we had access to business and computer science professors and got their advice on Newsle. We got some money from a student entrepreneurship competition, and we didn't have to worry about food or housing. We even applied algorithms we'd learned in computer science classes!

On April 18, we launched Newsle to the public. Now, a month later, we're tracking news about 2 million people, and have monthly revenue of minus $1000, thanks to our Amazon hosting bill. We're moving to San Francisco this summer to work on it full-time. The next Facebook? No. But we're hoping Newsle is the next big thing.

Axel Hansen and Jonah Varon are sophomores at Harvard studying computer science.