Why this Penn undergrad is spending his summer building a web startup - Technical.ly Philly


Jul. 8, 2014 8:29 am

Why this Penn undergrad is spending his summer building a web startup

Benton Turner, 19, is building a collaborative writing platform called Escalate.us. In the first of an ongoing series, he tells us why, and how it's been going.
Escalate.us cofounders Jonathan Sun of Kenyon College, Diana Liao of Princeton University and Benton Turner of the University of Pennsylvania.

Escalate.us cofounders Jonathan Sun of Kenyon College, Diana Liao of Princeton University and Benton Turner of the University of Pennsylvania.

(Photo courtesy of Escalate.us)

This is the first piece in an ongoing series following the path of one college startup, as told by cofounder Benton Turner, a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. His collaborative writing platform, Escalate.us, is pre-launch.

I was 16 when I met Jonathan Sun, the first of my two cofounders, at a creative writing course at Columbia two summers ago. Shortly afterward, we started a publication called Escalating Registers, which published personal essays from high school and college students across the country.

There we learned firsthand how to do things like source writers, leverage social media and operate a management system where submissions are allocated and published by editors.

But as a traditional publication for personal essays, we quickly reached a maximum audience size and had difficulty scaling further, while more technically sophisticated platforms for personal essays like Medium and Svbtle experienced exponential growth.

These new platforms allow anyone — new and experienced writers — to create accounts and upload their writing, allowing user recommendations to determine whether or not their content gets featured on sections of the platform. Thus, not only do these platforms provide a better designed podium for personal writing, but they also enable a much more efficient, democratized publishing procedure for personal essays.

We decided we could do better. That’s why we started building Escalate.us, our pre-launch effort for collaborative writing and sharing.


Jonathan, who is now at Kenyon College, convinced his high school friend Diana Liao (a founding member and tech chair of the Princeton Open Source Club) to join our team and program the functionalities of the platform, while Jonathan and I focus on product design, community and entry strategy.

Then this February, we received a small grant from the Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund, an entrepreneurship grant backed by Penn alumni. Since receiving the grant, we have been building and designing Escalate through the school year and now into the summer.


Now that exams are over, we are living and working full-time in the Radian Apartments at 39th and Walnut Streets — the same building that houses a number of student entrepreneurs. Meeting with other serious young founders — whether for solving technical problems, discussing design or brainstorming product direction — is as easy as walking down the hall and knocking on a door.

As student cofounders, we have many resources available to us.

  • We have professors and students to give us feedback.
  • We have entrepreneurial programs like the Weiss Tech House that provide free capital, office space and mentorship to ambitious student startups.
  • We have access to networks like the Kairos Society and nvigor, which connect student founders to collaborate.

While we do not generally have as much experience as older, graduated adults, we are bristling with creativity and in most cases don’t have preventative conflicts with paying jobs.

Currently, we are building our main features, which are editing tools that would allow users to write and accept feedback, which we’ve split into several modules of code. The build process has been fairly efficient so far, because we are programming with Node.js, which has vast libraries of open-source modules. Additionally, because Node.js is so popular, we can consult most developers and entrepreneurs about some more complicated ideas and implementations within the language.

But we know there are far greater challenges than just building out a product. We need to add users, act on feedback, and present good stories relevant to our age demographic. We also need make product choices and be sure we’re providing real, lasting value over other collaborative writing tools.

We look forward to doing just that.


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