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Ian Connor, an Australian native living in Boston, MA, studied Physics and Math at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. He then went on to pursue his law degree, which he obtained in 1997 and shortly thereafter started his first job in the legal world. That didn’t last long, however, as six months later as he discovered he enjoyed the database implementation portion of a legal advice he was working on a lot more than the actual legal work. The switch in his career path was swift, and a few jobs later, he decided to move to Boston to focus his energy on software development at companies like Iris Associates and later IBM. Eventually, he became addicted to the ‘Web’ and took a leave of absence from IBM to do his ‘own thing’. It was after that point that the idea of Pubget surfaced.
Pubget, the startup that Ian co-founded in 2007, stemmed primarily from co-founder Ramy Arnaout’s need for quick and easy access to scientific research. That need, along with a lot of hard work, led to the launch of a budding startup. In 2008, the Pubget search engine became active in institutions such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Massachusetts General Hospital. By 2011, Pubget was activated in over 200 institutions, and in January 2012, it was acquired by Copyright Clearance Center.
Needless to say, it was a long and exciting journey with a lot of learning experiences. I was curious about how his career shift, as well as his technology background, played a role in the startup’s success. On a very interesting phone interview while walking his dog, here’s what Ian had to say:
Let’s start at the very beginning; you studied law in college, but switched to software. I think I speak for all the fresh graduates out there when I ask, was it a tough decision? How did you know that what you wanted to pursue was not what you studied?
I finished my law degree. I’m not very good at quitting things; I want to finish them, which I think is healthy. But my family was very into IT. My mother was selling IT, my stepfather was a systems engineer and then became an IT consultant. Even my younger brother is a software tester for mobile phones. The whole family has IT genes in them. I, for whatever reason, thought I was going to be a lawyer. I think what happened was, in Australia different courses have different grade requirements. So you sit there with a really good grade, I graduated in the top 2 percent, and you think – all right, this is great. What do I do with this? So I look at the list and I see lawyer. I thought, wow, I can be a lawyer! And you convince yourself at age 17 that being a lawyer will be really good. But I really enjoyed science, math, the only humanity I ever did was Japanese, so really I probably shouldn’t have done law. I treated all law subjects like they were an algorithm class. When I got into the actual practice of law, it was all very one off. In software, you do something once, millions of people can use it – it’s satisfying. As a lawyer you write an advice once, for one client and it’s a one shot deal. You bill per hour and that’s literally all you get, that one hour…to me that’s not very rewarding. Also, I wanted to travel. It wasn’t a really hard decision; it just didn’t suit me.
Haha, okay. So how did the idea of Pubget surface?
I was looking for something that had a little bit more meaning. I was after something that, even if it didn’t make money, it would make me feel good and like I contributed. So I left a message for a doctor in the Boston area, who was struggling with this need to access research papers in a frequent and efficient manner. He’d written a Python script that kind of did it. I looked at the script and told him we should turn this into a website. We could make it available for everyone, we could make it easy – that was the start of Pubget. We wanted to see if we could attract people with this simple idea of getting research papers quickly, and we did.
Nice. So how were you able to grow the team from that point?
We started working in the MIT Student Center. When we got five thousand users, we realized that with relatively little effort, we were able to attract what is in the doctor and research world a significant number of users. So we thought, well we’ve got some business here, so rather than having a doctor and a computer guy thinking that they know how to run a business, let’s talk to somebody who will listen and get a Business guy in. That’s how we met the third co-founder, Ryan Jones, who had worked for FAST, a company that was acquired by Microsoft. It started as a $100,000 company and was acquired by Microsoft for $1 billion. So we thought, Aha! His job at FAST was to turn search into money. We ran searches, we needed money, so we thought: this guy is great! We tried to convince him to leave Microsoft to join us, and one of the things we realized was that we needed funding. Ryan raised the money, he got the first round from professional investors from the West Coast…that’s how we launched Pubget. We moved out from the MIT Student Center and got an office and started employing people full time and kept growing the customers from there.
How did you tackle the whole funding aspect?
Ryan put it together. In the West Coast they know if you have a good team you can change and adapt the market. Like us, we started with an important need and a problem, we got into much smaller problems, and we turned those niches into products. The ability to shake things up, the fact that we weren’t a big gamble, it meant we didn’t really need that much funding. The inertia of the industry is going in a particular direction – if you want to decide that cars are no longer the way, well you’ve got a lot of people who like cars, people who sell tires, that sort of thing. You’re going to have a lot of fighting along the way. There’s a survival period where people won’t take you seriously until you convince them that your way is better. That needs a lot more funding than going into an existing market and making some improvements.
The inertia of the market?
We walked completely blindly and naively into a 200 year old industry and we were shaking things up. So, there was huge inertia in the industry. Academic publishing has been around for a very long time, and it’s going to be around for a very long time, and there are people trying to change it around in various ways…but that’s going to take years. You’ve got professors that have tenure and all these factors and everyone’s doing their own thing and all these sub-specialties. It’s very complicated; to reach 10 million people and tell them we could be more efficient if we changed publishing in these ways…well some people will listen, some people will say they’re too busy and they have to focus on their job. To get their attention, to change it, it’s a lot of work. You could take that approach, the other approach is to identify smaller areas, areas that don’t have to be trivial, but ones that the majority of the industry agrees can be done more efficiently. In our case it was logistics and holding. There were other players in the market, but we came up with a better way to do logistics and holdings, and everyone kind of agreed it was better. There was no dispute, the inertia wasn’t working against us, it’s less controversial, easier to sell, and it still gets everybody moving in the right direction without a big fire sale where you throw everyone in chaos. That’s how we worked in an industry with inertia.
Apart from the actual market inertia, was one of your biggest challenges?
To get the scale that you need, it does help to have backers. You can go down the VC route and pay a big round of financing to make the next leap, or you can get acquired by a bigger company that has similar visions and goals. Bigger companies have an existing sales force and they have the scale that you need to get the business relationships in place. That’s really where the key is; it comes down to that. It’s almost like the technology is the easy part, it’s putting things together really, and doing it in an effective way. There’s a little bit of trickiness to it, but the hard bit is on the business side. Making cold calls, going out visiting customers, convincing them that the solutions that they currently have can be done in a better way. The things that a business developer does everyday, to me that’s the magic that makes a startup work. Obviously you have to have good IT and good technology, but you have to have the business in line and have the need in the market. That’s more important than just the pure technology.
You successfully launched Pubget at institutions like Harvard, MIT, and MGH, to name a few…how were you able to achieve this?
We worked at the libraries with existing subscription. We left the library intact, left the publishing industry intact, and we just ended up focusing on making it better for the user and dong it in a way that nobody could argue it was bad.
Did you have to change your business model at any point?
We pivoted the business slightly away from the original idea, which was purely research-focused. We found that pharmaceutical companies and libraries were the ones who were able to make the purchases. So we started focusing on tools that that market needed. Now there’s a lot of back end tools, logistics tools, a lot of it is not actually research, it’s a lot of behind the covers stuff. We do a lot of APIs for people so they don’t have to go through that. A lot of it is big data. We deal with ten to forty thousand new articles a day, 30 million records that we index. Keeping all that information in RAM is a lot of work. It’s one of the values that we brought, and we were able to let other people build sites based on our back end. You know, white label, that kind of thing. It was a key learning point, which is don’t force the user to come to you, go wherever the users are. If your goal is to help as many people as possible, get your product as widely accepted as possible and don’t be restricted by your own ego to build a destination site. What you really want to do is say: you know what, fine, people come to my site, that’s great. But if they’ve got an idea and they want to build their own site and they’re happy to use your technology to build it, then let them. It’s much better to do that than to try to force people into one direction.
So what is your biggest contribution to Pubget?
I was the CTO and I managed and wrote a lot of the tech, and I was growing the team as well. I was trying to hire people smarter than me every step of the way without being afraid of it. There are people that say ‘I won’t hire people smarter than me in case they make my position irrelevant’. If you’re a good manager, you want that; you want people smarter than you, you want to be irrelevant. Let’s say you go to them and tell them: Here’s a problem that needs to be solved and I think it needs these ten steps to solve it. If they come back and do it in three steps because they ignored you and they’re smarter than you, then you win. Your ego doesn’t win because they proved you wrong, but the company wins. As a founder, that’s your primary concern. I’ve been proved wrong several times during the startup. If I took it personally every time…forget it, you need to focus on whether or not it was the right thing to do.
You sold the company at the beginning of this year to CCC. How did you base your decision to stay on?
They left us completely autonomous. You know, a life in a big company is only as good as your manger. If you worked at IBM, you can talk to two employees, one will think they’re a bunch of idiots, and the other will think it’s a really respectable work environment and life is great. The difference is going to be the manager. I definitely did my due diligence when we got bought by CCC, to see who my manager would be. As a result, I have a very happy life. It didn’t really come down to the details. It’s not really the company; it’s the manager you get within the company that’s important if you’re going to stay on. If the company just wants the tech, that’s fine. Maybe they put you as a consultant for the company, which is another way of saying thanks for building it this far but we’ve got it from here. If you’re going to be on full time, it means they see you as part of the company and they want you there.
Do you think there is a particular time when a startup should be sold?
[Laughs] One of our advisors said every time he had an opportunity for an early exist and didn’t take it he regretted it. It depends on your risk capacity: if it’s a good bid, it’s going to make you financially happy, you like the manager, you like the team, and you can still work there and feel like you’re making a difference…then that’s an easy yes. There’s a spectrum. I would advise people to go and talk to people who’ve done it before who they know and trust to share the details with them. They might be able to guide them about where they are on the spectrum, because sometimes you can’t see it yourself.
Do you think there are certain characteristics entrepreneurs should embody to be successful?
The ability to know where you’re going and not be stuck on your original idea is key. Keep it simple and don’t get hung up, and definitely don’t try to solve every problem at once. Try to boil it down to one or two things that you’re going to do.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
The most important thing is, don’t over-engineer. You don’t know the space until you get into it, so you don’t want to make code that will do everything for everyone. Once you make it too configurable, you’ve lost direction. What you really want to do is focus on the minimum feature set that you need to shift. From the tech side you need to work for the people in the business and say ‘do you really need that? What can we do instead of that that will still prove or disprove that your business is still valid?’ The simplest technology will be the easiest to adapt. If you can do something in four lines of code instead of forty and it tests the business hypothesis that there is a need is in the market then you should do the four lines, even if it doesn’t completely satisfy the need. What will happen is the business will test the market and come back with changes, guaranteed. Even if you’re in the right direction, what you think is the right direction is not going to be the right direction. So you really want to keep the code as simple as possible so when the business comes back and tells you how the market responded you can adapt. Small iterations in a fast market are much better than trying to keep it right, because there is no right way.
Also, don’t be afraid to talk to people. I know people who are like, ‘If I tell him he’ll take my idea’. The idea is nothing; it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the implementation. Doing the work, the cold calls, that’s the hard bit. Coming up with the initial idea…I mean, there are so many people with ideas. If you don’t go spread your ideas to know if it’s good or bad, you’re going to get no feedback. You might be sitting on a really good idea or you might be sitting on an idea that needs to be changed in some ways…or you might have a bad idea and you’re just wasting your time.
If you could do anything differently, would you?
I’ve debated with some our investors about that. If you ask: ‘Had I known what I knew at the time, would I have still done it that way now? I think my answer is yes, obviously now I know more, I would do it differently. But I think as long as you can honestly say to yourself you will learn from your mistakes and you’re not trying to repeat mistakes, then that’s all you should hope for. The worst thing you can do is not do anything because you’re worried about mistakes. I don’t have anything specific apart from: don’t be afraid to do it.