I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Todd Miller, founder of WebFeat, for this federated search luminary series. I recently published a preview of the interview. In this first installment, Todd shares wisdom that he gained early in his career; these early experiences would prepare him to start and grow WebFeat.

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.

1. You had success early in your career with Information Access Company. You also worked for Knight-Ridder, and hit another home run there. Tell me about those successes and how they prepared you to start WebFeat.

At the time I applied for the newly minted position of InfoTrac Product Manager at Information Access Company (IAC), I was working for a hardware technology company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I had not had any exposure to the library or information industries, so I was unaware that ProQuest (then UMI) was my neighbor. My principal goal was not so much to break into the library world as it was to escape the brutal Michigan winters. My plan was to make a constructive contribution to IAC, then transition back into Silicon Valley hi-tech. I did not have enough experience for the job. I was only 26 when I interviewed, and all the other product managers were at least 10 years older. Somehow, I managed to sell my way into the job, and I moved out west. Obviously, things did not work out as planned, as I’ve been involved with libraries now for over 20 years.

Those were the golden years at IAC. It was only a $10M a year company when I joined, but the company held great hopes for their new product, InfoTrac. InfoTrac was a computerized index to periodical literature — like a computerized version of HW Wilson’s Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Back then, it just offered citations to periodical literature, but later added abstracts and full text. At the time I was hired, InfoTrac was a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption, using a 12 inch analog laser disc for data, and requiring enough equipment to fit into a medium-sized storage locker (which we shipped along with the rest of the system.) It was big, expensive, complicated, hard to install, and finicky to maintain. In spite of all that, the company sold several hundred of these things, and it held great hope for the next generation of the product, which was to use a new technology called “compact disc.”

I was hired primarily to make and launch that next-generation CD product. CDs for data storage were new, and there were a variety of issues we had to contend with, including distortion of the disc and associated distortion in laser reflection due to the early CD manufacturing processes, microscopic dust that occluded the CD drive laser lens, as well as the little detail that computers at that time did not have CD drives. A key issue to success of the product would be the ability to ship a complete computer workstation with a CD drive and printer that were secure (from vandals, not viruses) and could be easily installed and maintained by library staff. I remember the day we tested the final product by dropping off a two hundred pound skid in our telesales department and asked the sales reps to assemble the product without assistance. The goal was to fire up InfoTrac within 30 minutes of the time the reps began putting it together. I clicked the stopwatch at 27 minutes when they booted InfoTrac for the first time.

Back then, many librarians dismissed InfoTrac as a “fast page turner” version of HW Wilson’s Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Much of this attitude was based on the fact that InfoTrac did not offer Boolean search capability. Instead, InfoTrac used a browse display to review results. I think the assumption was that the product was technologically inadequate, when the reality was that the product had been designed specifically for end users instead of information professionals. The skeptics had difficulty imagining why anyone would pay thousands of dollars a year for a hi-tech version of the trusted Wilson product that cost a fraction of that amount. This presented one of the many challenges we faced along the way. We had confidence that patrons would love InfoTrac if they had an opportunity to get their hands on it, but many librarians had no interest in buying a hi-tech, hi-cost Reader’s Guide.

The solution was a trial program, where we offered InfoTracs for use, free of charge. Nowadays, where subscription trials are automated and instantaneous through the web, this may not seem like a big deal. But back then, we were shipping a 200 pound skid of equipment for every trial. The logistics, cost and support of the program were enormous, and IAC was not a huge company at the time. But Bill Ziff and his officers had faith in InfoTrac and were willing to make the bet.

As we all know, the bet paid off, and it changed the industry in the process. InfoTrac was enormously successful, so much so that one of my biggest challenges in 1987 was filling the demand pipeline with thousands of InfoTrac workstations. The InfoTrac trial program had a remarkably high success rate. Once InfoTrac landed in a library, it was very difficult to extract. Believe it or not, IAC actually received letters from library patrons with small amounts of cash to be applied toward their library’s InfoTrac subscription. It was amazing!

In subsequent years, IAC grew exponentially, primarily on the shoulders of InfoTrac. Then Bill Ziff retired, the parent company’s priorities changed, and I moved on to the next challenge. Knight-Ridder is another very interesting story, which I’ll save for another time.

How did these early experiences prepare me for WebFeat? I was extremely fortunate that IAC was my landing site for the library world. My boss was a brilliant man named Dick Carney. His team of product managers were exceptional as well, and I must have seemed a rube to them at the time. I think that I was too young and inexperienced to know what was supposed to be either impossible or politically incorrect, so I was constantly pushing envelopes and buttons in the early days and years at IAC. These are some of my takeaways from IAC and other experiences that prepared me for the road ahead:

  • Achieve a balance between long term and short term objectives. I prefer to operate in a strategic space, but it’s hard to be strategic when you’re focused on making payroll. Even in the early days of WebFeat, when I was struggling to make ends meet, I was still working within the context of a greater plan. This is not to say that I had a formal business plan tome for WebFeat (I never did). I think you just need to have a general sense of where you’re headed, how you’re going to get there, and some key reality checks on the math.

  • I don’t use formal business plans. Early in my career, I wrote what may have been the world’s best business plan. I spent years on it. I conducted a top flight primary market research study to assess market viability. I talked with experts in the field. I developed an excruciatingly detailed financial model that enabled me to perform a variety of case scenarios. I refined my plan over and over again. In the end, I was unable to get my business funded. This also jaded me a bit on venture capital. I watched friends burn through tremendous amounts of venture money in the dot.bomb era, which I found puzzling. In some cases, the businesses were bad ideas, but others were solid ideas that should have flown for a fraction of the amount of money invested had they been well executed. I think my principal takeaway from all of this is that life goes on while you’re making a plan and shopping it. I can’t get back the time I invested in my awesome business plan, and I have nothing to show for it. These days, I tend to short-hand plans. I’ll do adequate research and acid test financial modeling, but that’s about all the rigor I apply before I go out the door. You have to balance opportunity cost against the value of a perfect (and perishable) plan.

  • Silver bullets are real. In every major business in which I’ve been involved, I have always found a silver bullet. They’ve been all over the map in terms of type, size, shape, etc. For example, much of InfoTrac’s success relied upon resolving the logistical challenges described above, though the principal challenge with KR SourceOne patents was changing well-entrenched buying behavior patterns. Sometimes it’s marketing, sometimes product definition, sometimes operations — it depends. Of course, the success of the magic bullet assumes that the rest of your organization is firing on all cylinders. This is invariably a big assumption.

  • In high growth businesses, there can be only two roles: 1) sales, and 2) sales support. That’s it. Every member of the organization needs to clearly understand how they contribute either directly or indirectly to the top line. I fully realize and appreciate this industry’s distrust of slick white shoes sales organizations, so some clarification is in order. Sales executes management’s goals and objectives. If those goals are honorable, the methods by which sales are achieved should be as well, which is to say that sales should be about connecting customers with useful products and services. It should not be about deceiving the client. In an aggressive sales organization, where quotas are everything, there can be an inherent and unfortunate conflict between making your numbers and making your numbers in an honest and constructive way. The very best sales people and managers will take the long term view and focus on building a relationship as opposed to forcing a product or service which is a bad fit.

  • Sometimes, you have to do someone a favor and fire them. I realize that this will seem shocking to some. When I first became a manager, I was terrified of the notion of letting someone go. I still hate it, but I recognize that it’s ultimately in no one’s best interests to force a bad fit in an organization. This includes the person getting the bad news. It’s unfair to the top performers, and invariably the entire organization suffers. This is not to say that management should not do its best to foster an organization where the odds of success are as high as possible — this is in everyone’s best interests.

  • Liquidity, not ego. I really try to keep my eye on the ball, focus on company goals and objectives, and avoid distractions.

Stay tuned for Part II on Wednesday.

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