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There Is No Ceiling to BriefMe

With news stories breaking online so quickly, staying informed in the digital age is a challenge. For one news junkie, it became too much.

“The Huffington Post publishes 1,200 articles a day just themselves, so trying to read through all that content plus every other source is just mind-boggling,” said Max Campion ’13, political enthusiast and co-founder of BriefMe. “That’s where we’re trying to come in.”

On March 3, BriefMe launched on the Apple App Store as a news ranking application, showing users the top ten news stories in six different categories—World, Business, Politics, Sports, Technology and Entertainment—as well as the overall top ten news stories on the Internet at any one moment, as determined by popularity via social media engagement.

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BriefMe, a social-ranking news app for the iOS and Android, has a simple user interface designed to aggregate and display the top stories of the day. Photos courtesy BriefMe.

How It Works

The app uses an algorithm created by Hari Ganesan, BriefMe’s co-founder. The algorithm sorts through various social media channels and analyzes how web users are engaging with certain news stories, from world news and politics to sports and entertainment. It then determines which news items are most popular, by relevance, and creates a list of the top ten stories in each category at any moment in time—creating hyperlinks to various news outlets from The New York Times to Mashable.

“We really had to go into pretty heavy research to figure this stuff out,” he said.

But the heavy research paid off when they hit a breakthrough.

Once they passed a significant threshold in their algorithm, the app reached a new level of success—temporarily earning the number one spot on Apple’s top free news app chart in the first week after its release and subsequent recognition by Apple as one of the best apps of March.

We’re aggregating the stories of the day… quick and dirty, and getting you all the facts.

“One of our favorite statistics is the number of articles read on the app,” Campion said. “We look at those numbers and they’re just astronomically high, so we’re just so excited about people feeling like they’re reading news now.”

Campion, who graduated with a degree in Government from Harvard, came up with the idea for the app as an upperclassman in college; he wondered how, with the explosion of the Apple App Store, it was still possible that no one else had already created an app that ranks news sources and compiles the most popular ones for its users. He quickly found an ally in Ganesan, who graduated with a degree in computer science from Yale in 2013.

“[BriefMe is] really fulfilling a need that no one really has provided yet: no one has really tried to tackle the issue that it’s just hard to figure out what’s going on in the world,” Ganesan said. “So Max came at me with this thing he had been working on. He said that he wanted to take it to the next level, and I was really interested from the start.”

Ganesan said what made creating the algorithm for BriefMe especially difficult was accounting for how people’s levels of engagement with news stories changes over time and also in something he calls “topic clustering,” which is the process of deciding which stories from different news outlets should be grouped together and separated from other topics.

But according to Campion, the moment the team got the algorithm up and running was a particularly special one for them.

“That was pretty satisfying to get to a position we felt comfortable with, and it’s just gotten stronger from that point on. It’s just definitely one of those things about building out an algorithm, where you’re so frustrated with it forever and then it comes into place and it all makes sense,” Campion said. “I’m in no way a developer, but it was a full team effort, and the algorithm’s actually gotten better over time.”

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Three of the BriefMe team (left to right): Hari Ganesan, Max Campion and Rachel Moranis. Photo courtesy BriefMe.

Looking Forward

Currently, the two moguls run their business out of Harvard Innovation Laboratory (iLab), which sits next to the Harvard Business School and across the river from the undergraduate campus. The iLab provides a communal working space for many startups in their beginning stages. Campion said that working in the iLab benefits everyone because teams who are going through similar obstacles at the same time help each other out.

Ganesan said that being in the iLab has also helped the team gain important connections.

“We have this relationship with Google where they basically gave us a bunch of money to spend on our servers. It’s a program they have for startups and incubators specifically. But we wouldn’t have heard about it if it weren’t for the iLab staff,” he said.

Although Campion said he has plans to expand BriefMe to mobile Android systems as well, creating a website that people can access on their computers was never—and still is not—a part of his vision for the company.

“We’ve really built an app for mobile usage: not just the device, but also in the sense of being mobile, for the person who’s on the go and looking to stay informed at the same time. This is not aggregating long-form nuanced journalism. It’s aggregating the stories of the day, which are headline-style stories, quick and dirty, and getting you all the facts,” he said.

Campion and Ganesan said that it is still too soon to tell whether or not their concept will turn out to be successful in the long run, but for now, they are looking to expand their business. The entire BriefMe team currently consists of five members total, including Campion and Ganesan, and they are also looking to start hiring summer interns.

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The Harvard Innovation Lab, which provides guidance and a working space for BriefMe’s operations.

“There is no ceiling”

Ganesan and Campion said that being in a start-up while still at a young age has proven itself valuable because they spend so much time and effort on their project that, according to Ganesan, they would not be able to pull it off if they were ten years older.

“My best advice [for people interested in startups] is just to be incredibly relentless and persistent because everyday you have to do things to lift up your company, your mission, whatever it is,” Campion said. “It’s fun because there’s so much that you can do. There’s no ceiling to how fast you can grow, but you have to be unbelievably relentless and persistent to do so.”

“Yeah, the interest can’t be half fast. It’s not an optional thing to live and breathe it,” Ganesan said. He laughed, and quipped, “We would have already failed by now.”

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Left: BriefMe has expanded to the newly released Apple Watch, bringing trending news straight to the wrist. Right: BriefMe earned the number one spot on Apple’s top free news app chart in the first week after its release and subsequent recognition by Apple as one of the best apps of March.




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