Thursday, July 10, 2008

When I Started a SemWeb Company, Part One

In 2004 I started a Semantic Web company that I named Human Element. The company's technology was based on open source from Simile & DSpace. It didn't work out, but when I folded it after six months, I didn't personally fold because of some very clear cut objectives and timeframes I set for myself. If you've ever thought about starting a venture, or pitching a new line of business within an existing venture (I've done that too, and more successfully), my experience may be helpful.
I knew the problem well enough to get started, and I knew how the technology could solve it. Earlier in my career I spent a number of years as a salesman (and it's unbelievable how helpful that experience is to this day). It may seem corny, but I'm the sort that has to actually write out a cold-call script until I memorize it. Here's a verbatim copy the problem description I used:
  • A community of users with an intense (or high) reliance on data, analysis, and synthesis, combined with an equally strong need and motivation to collaborate between people and/or teams.
And here's a paraphrased version of the solution:
  • DSpace allows end users to publish and share data in any electronic format, such as text, spreadsheets, raw data files, images, etc. The Simile project allows end users to create integrated views of disparate data types. These views allow end users to identify relationships in the data and their behavior that might not otherwise be apparent. 
I pitched my idea into the life sciences industry and dug up all my leads from W3C discussion lists, conference speaker lists, and networking through my friends. The industry was easy to pick because I knew it had the problem I was describing, there was already activity in adopting SW technology, and since a lot of the companies were posting big profits, I thought (mistakenly) it'd be relatively easy to get some cash out of these players. Note that everyone I spoke with was relieved to hear and appreciated my plain English approach.
Milestone #1, speaking in plain English, accomplished.
The technology had already been built. It wasn't plug 'n play ready, but that level of stability & usability wasn't difficult to envision. As a business person, every day I thank my lucky stars for open source and here's why:
  • It's free, which means I don't have to raise investment capital and get locked into commitments to investors. That flexibility is a huge plus. (By the way, my basic approach was BSD=good, GPL=bad, in case you were wondering.)
  • I'll accept the social contract intrinsic to open source any day of the week. Returning improvements to the code in return for the huge head start provided by an existing, free body of code is an incredibly easy decision to make. Any point decisions related to proprietary connectors, implementation tools, interacting with the open source community, etc. were going to be my CTO's job.
  • I'm not technical, so having a body of code already developed eliminates sales objections like "does your product exist anywhere but your own mind?" This factor contributed directly to my 100% track record in getting agreements to demo meetings (when the time came that I actually had a demo.)
Milestone #2, technology that's actually up & running, with a group of people actively maintaining it, accomplished.
I got to know the open source community leaders and enlisted their support. This was pretty important me - I remember when even a hint of commercialism on the Web resulted in flames, excoriation, and eternal damnation, so I felt I had to be able to state unequivocally that I made my intentions known and that I was committed to working with the community. Since the origins of these projects were academic, I spoke to the Principal Investigators, who at the time were David Karger, Eric Miller, and MacKenzie Smith. I got the clear impression they'd have been delighted if I hit a home run with my idea. 
Milestone #3, support and input of the open source leaders, accomplished.
Part Two coming soon, when I'll discuss the money thing and later, recruiting a technical partner, and realizing I had to fold my venture. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Riccardo said...

very interesting, I'll be waiting for part 2