The Social Network: From the outside looking in

November 1, 2010: 11:47 AM ET

The legal saga continues for Divya Narendra, the Harvard grad who teamed up with the Winklevoss brothers and sued Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook's provenance. Here's Narendra's take on The Social Network and lessons learned from the lawsuit.

Interview by Andrea Carter, Poets & Quants

For six years, Divya Narendra has been in a fiery legal dispute with Mark Zuckerberg, alleging that he stole his concept for ConnectU and capitalized off of it with a little known social networking site called Facebook.

In 2008, he and his partners, twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, signed a $65 million settlement agreement containing a mix of cash and Facebook stock. The settlement is still in dispute, Narendra says, due to a lack of disclosure regarding Facebook's stock valuation.

Divya Narendra at the premiere of The Social Network in New York

Now, with The Social Network in movie theaters, the saga continues on the big screen.

Still, the New York City native insists that he is not bitter. He is keeping himself busy with a new Internet venture for investment professionals called SumZero while pursuing a JD-MBA at Northwestern Law School and the Kellogg School of Management.

Here's what he had to say about Facebook and Zuckerberg, The Social Network, and his next steps.

How did you come up with the idea for your social networking site while at Harvard?

During my junior year, I realized that there was no online platform for Harvard students to connect with one another regarding academics, student life, and campus news and events. That's when I came up with the idea for ConnectU, an online community that could benefit students and alumni at Harvard as well students at other colleges in the Boston area. Thinking long-term, I knew ConnectU could also be used by students at colleges across the country.

This was during the 2002-2003 timeframe so the idea was partly inspired by sites such as Friendster and MySpace. The problem with these sites, however, was the lack of quality control and membership screening, resulting in a proliferation of fake profiles. The key realization that I had was the need to build an online community for Harvard where you could screen users by their email addresses. By requiring a "Harvard.edu" email, we could ensure that those who registered had an actual affiliation to the institution.

Upon coming up with the idea, I asked two of my friends to join me, Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss. The twins were very excited and we got to work immediately.

When did Zuckerberg join the project?

Together, we had a good mix of technical skills and entrepreneurial spirit, but none of us had programming expertise. We asked around campus to see who at Harvard knew how to web program. Mark Zuckerberg was brought on board to fill the missing link. Little did we know, while he was supposedly developing ConnectU, he was using our concept as the foundation for a competing venture of his own. Three months later, we were stunned to read about thefacebook.com in The Harvard Crimson.

After graduation in 2004, we filed a lawsuit and the litigation proceedings have been ongoing for the past six years.

What did you think of The Social Network?

This part of the whole experience has been completely surreal. I first saw the film in Chicago, then in New York City for the premiere.

Initially, I was surprised by the actor [Max Minghella] they chose to portray me because he didn't look anything like me. But I thought the film was entertaining and had a lot of funny one-liners. The writers also did a good job of telling the story from multiple perspectives.

What's keeping you busy these days?

After leaving Harvard, I went to New York City to work in the mergers and acquisitions group at Credit Suisse (CS). There, I gained an interest in value investing and, in 2006, I returned to Boston to work at a hedge fund called Sowood Capital Management where I analyzed investment opportunities across the capital structure.

This is where the idea for my new company, SumZero, was born. While I was at Sowood it occurred to me that there was no trusted online platform that existed for hedge fund managers to trade ideas about equities, credit, and other types of securities.

Inspired by Wikipedia, I wanted to create a universal, encyclopedic database for investment ideas. However, unlike Wikipedia, content contributors would be limited to hedge fund, mutual fund, and private equity analysts. Typically, you don't see this group exchanging ideas out in the open because the information is so proprietary.

In 2008, I launched SumZero and today we have 4,300 analysts and portfolio managers from all over the world sharing ideas on the site.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

When I was 21, I never expected to be embroiled in litigation with a fellow college classmate. I was just another student excited about a start-up idea looking forward to bringing it to the market.

Today, I'm more conservative in developing relationships with potential partners. I'm also more disciplined. For young entrepreneurs, I would recommend thinking about ideas that can have a far reaching impact on the world, but also thinking about what can go wrong given the inherent risks of business.

But when I think about it, had I known how to program, I wouldn't have had the need to contact Mark in the first place [laughs].

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