Todd Miller: Federated search luminary (Part III) | Federated Search BlogFederated Search

Today is the third of four parts of this interview. Today’s discussion includes what has made WebFeat so successful, managing a huge connector base, and the selling of WebFeat to ProQuest.

Todd is the second luminary that I recognize in this blog. You can find future and past luminary interviews in the luminary category. I invite you to nominate people who deserve to hold the federated search luminary distinction.

7. How did WebFeat become so successful in the library market? How did it differentiate itself and win so much of that business?

In addition to some extraordinary hard work by a number of very dedicated individuals, I would attribute much of WebFeat’s success to the following:

  • WebFeat Express. WebFeat Express (WFX) was the first truly customer-configurable federated search engine. WFX made it possible for clients to configure their own WebFeat systems in a very short period of time — often in under an hour. As I discussed previously, WFX dramatically drove down the cost of federated search, broadening its access beyond the largest libraries and placing it within reach of smaller libraries. It also gave libraries the control they were looking for. In the process, WFX enabled us to completely change our business model into a pull-through marketing-driven model in which we could invite clients to configure their own trial systems automatically with minimal involvement of support staff. This enabled us to place very large numbers of trial systems with a minimum of expense and effort. In short, WebFeat Express was one of those “win-win” solutions that realized enormous benefit for both the client and the vendor.

  • Networks. I saw the major library networks and state libraries as being essential to our success. Accordingly, we not only prioritized networks in terms of sales and marketing, we also developed products specifically designed to support the particular needs of networks. Chief among these was WebFeat Enterprise Edition. Enterprise was a multi-library version of WebFeat Express, enabling clients to quickly configure WebFeat systems for many libraries, while also enabling them to group like libraries by library type. This feature was particularly useful for multi-type library systems that offered the same resources for member public libraries, but different resources for academic libraries, K-12, etc.

  • 100% virtual office. WebFeat was very unusual in that it was a 100% virtual office. We may have been the world’s first successful 100% virtual global company. There are tremendous advantages to this model, including efficiency, productivity, and the ability to cast an international net for human resource recruitment. WebFeat was by far the most efficient and productive company I’ve ever worked for. With a relatively small workforce, we were able to produce output greater than much larger companies I have worked with. This enabled us to roll out new products at a rate that I would describe as astonishing.

8. WebFeat has a very large collection of connectors. From my experience in developing and maintaining connectors, I know it is tons of work. How does WebFeat manage to build, monitor, and maintain so many connectors?

I need to provide a very general answer to this question in order to be mindful of my obligations regarding confidentiality. Basically, over time, we evolved the process of developing connectors from a custom model to more of an assembly line model. This involved dramatically decreasing the amount of resource-specific code written in favor of greater reliance on common libraries. Increasingly, the connector development and update process was more about capturing resource-specific variables and plugging them into the common tools that spanned all resources and translators. This enabled us to dramatically decrease the time required to develop translators, as well as to maintain a library of translators that supported thousands of resources. I always believed that the success of connector development and updates was essential to the success of the product and the library administrator’s experience. We invested heavily in evolving connector development throughout my time with WebFeat.

9. What was your biggest accomplishment at WebFeat, the one you’re most proud of?

If I were forced to choose one, I think it’s simply the accomplishment of launching a bootstrap advanced technology company from scratch with virtually no start-up capital and growing it into a global company with majority market share. In these days where venture capital is the norm, it’s difficult to have full appreciation for how difficult it is to do that without having experienced it yourself.

10. So, why did you sell WebFeat to ProQuest?

It was for the same reason that most entrepreneurs sell their companies. I’ve generated a considerable amount of wealth for others over the course of my career with products like InfoTrac. It was time for me to ensure financial security for my family. That being said, it was important to me to find a good home for the company that would enable our clients to be well cared for. I feel that WebFeat found that home with ProQuest and Serials Solutions.

11. With WebFeat acquired by ProQuest and now with CARE assets being sold to LibLime, what is the state of the OpenTranslators partnership between CARE, WebFeat, and Index Data that I blogged about a while ago?

That’s a great question. Since I’m now out of that loop, I’m probably not the best person to answer. I would be curious to get Carl Grant’s view.

12. If you could turn back the clock, what would you have changed or improved about WebFeat’s federated search products?

It’s hard to know how much more we could have accomplished, particularly with the resources we had at our disposal. Looking back, I think we took full advantage of the technologies that were available to us, and we did it with a remarkably small development team. Having said this, my perennial goal was a 100% automated federated search engine, something which administrators (or end users) could easily configure and launch in a matter of minutes. We were approaching the point where that was beginning to look like reality. WebFeat Express was a breakthrough that brought us much closer to realizing that goal.

On Monday I will publish the fourth and final installment in this series.

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 29th, 2008 at 6:48 am and is filed under luminary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or TrackBack URI from your own site.

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