Loren Harrell graduated as part of one of the Computer Science Department’s first classes in 1972. Since then, he’s had a successful career with various companies, but he may be best known for his entrepreneurial efforts starting several companies including SoftPro, the leading provider of real estate closing and title insurance software. Now, more than 35 years after his graduation from NC State, he’s working on a new entrepreneurial venture with a fellow CSC alum – his son.
Harrell is now CEO and Co-Founder of MemberHub.com, a service designed to provide organizations with membership management and collaboration tools that allow them to work more effectively. The business is designed to work with both large organizations and small groups, making it easier to share information, keep an up-to-date database and build an efficient online community.
Harrell started MemberHub in October 2007 with his son Matt (BS, 2000). “Our skills really complement one another,” Harrell says. “Between the two of us, we make decisions together, and develop product and marketing strategies. It’s an amazing collaboration, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”
MemberHub is Harrell’s most recent computer science venture. While he was at NC State, he worked 30 hours a week programming at GTE in Durham. “On campus there were a lot of late nights because we had to use punch cards. Those cards were fed into a main frame system in Nelson Hall and the jobs would be submitted to TUCC in RTP for processing,” Harrell says.
“The jobs would sit there in a queue for hours waiting to be executed, and you would ultimately get a printout of the program you had typed up, and you’d make corrections to the punch cards…then you’d do the process all over again! It seemed like we spent all our time just waiting for jobs to come in.”
Of course, just doing the job with 1970s-era technology was a unique challenge in and of itself. Computers of that time were enormous and had a lot of flashing lights on them, at least the IBM 360 we had at Nelson Hall,” Harrell says. “Sometimes, we felt that the computers were down more than they were up! With today’s desktop computers, you have hundreds of times the capability – speed, memory and storage capacity – of that huge computer in Nelson Hall.”
After graduating from NC State, Harrell found ways to apply what he’d learned in the classroom to a business setting. He worked at companies like GTE, GE and SAS for most of the next decade, then went out into his first entrepreneurial venture, a company that resold microcomputers and developed new programs such as database systems for attorneys’ offices. That venture proved unsuccessful, but it taught Harrell a great deal about building a business. “I learned what it was like to be a sales rep as well as an engineer,” he says.”I also learned what it was like to develop a plan and struggle with not having any capital at all – basically, how to do everything the hard way!”
While working on his first venture, Harrell noticed that many attorneys’ offices needed software for preparing real estate closing documents. He had already started working on an application for an attorney he knew, and when his first venture folded, he decided to take matters into his own hands. “I got in my car and started driving all over a three-state area and sold the product myself,” he recalls.
Those were the humble beginnings of SoftPro, which would eventually grow to a $4 million-a-year company that served more than 60,000 users. In 2001, Harrell sold SoftPro to a company owned by Fidelity National Financial. He stayed on for a while, but admits that “the Fortune 100 environment just wasn’t for me.”
In the meantime, Matt Harrell had graduated from NC State and taken a job as an engineer at SoftPro. “We really wanted to find a project to work on together,” Harrell says. Matt had the idea to develop a communication tool to keep organization members connected, and Harrell wanted to develop a membership management system that reflected the modern Internet age. The result after two years of brainstorming was MemberHub.com.
Harrell says that the idea for MemberHub came from working with such organizations that had many small groups or “hubs” of people, such as colleges, clubs, associations, and non-profits. The company offers organizations not only the chance to build online communities using message boards and calendars, but it also allows them to effectively manage individual members and groups within an organization. Organizations can tag specific pieces of information that recur among different group members. MemberHub also helps improve communication within these groups through the likes of email and text messaging, a file repository, notifications and reminders.
“The cool thing was that we could do a membership-management function and put it on the Internet.” “This would not only allow the organization to manage its members, but allow the members to conduct the business of and with the organization, and create a place for members to come together and communicate with one another,” Harrell says.
Harrell says that MemberHub allows organizations to employ the communication and branding of a social media site in a way that’s specific to their company. “What’s going on right now with social media is that people are trying to find what the business implications of this might be,” Harrell says. “It’s virgin territory for all of us.”
“Organizations are attempting to use the likes of Facebook, Google groups Yahoo groups, and the social networking sites to stay in touch, and it doesn’t always work, because those sites don’t have the same functionality needed by an existing organization or business. And it’s typically open, not private. So MemberHub has a private network feel.”
Harrell advises current students in the Computer Science Department that “the entrepreneurial thing is not necessarily for everyone.” “There are many different types of people, and some are successful in an entrepreneurial type of setting,” Harrell says. “Different things motivate different people to become entrepreneurs. Probably the most important thing is to have relationships with people who can connect you with other people and help you out.”
For now, Harrell continues to build his new venture side-by side with his son. “What’s really made this fun has been building this company from the ground floor with Matt,” Harrell says. “It’s been a tremendous experience being able to work with my son and hone our entrepreneurial skills together,”