Hoovers aggregates and compiles financial and contact information for a majority of businesses. It was one of the first successful online subscription services.
Interview conducted by Nathan C. Kaiser on Saturday, May 19, 2001 in Austin, TX.
You’re welcome, glad to be here.
I find that I am running a very technology-driven company, despite my background. The turning moment in my life was when I flunked long division in 4th grade, and decided I was a word person and not a numbers person. I then began to focus on history. In high school and college I studied Greek and Latin. I stayed away from numbers, and whenever possible stayed away from biology, math, etc. At the University of Chicago I studied ancient Roman history and wrote my thesis on an obscure Roman emperor who reigned for just 18 months, but was very interesting because he was the second emperor after Constantine and tried to reconvert the Roman Empire back to Paganism from Christianity. This was not a popular thing, and he died in battle, perhaps killed by his own men.
I got out of college with no truly marketable skills, other than I really knew how to do research. I then began asking myself, “Where can a reasonably smart person with no marketable skills get a job?” And thought, “Ahhh, Washington, D.C.” I found a job working for a research company, doing social science research, and from there I began working for a consulting company. At the consulting firm, they weren’t sure that I had enough quantitative skills, so they assigned me to mapping the bankrupt railroad estates of Penn Central and the other railroads that became Conrail. I was sent down to the sub-basement and given one green marker and one red marker. The green marker was to map Penn Central and the red was for Erie Lackawana. They said, “Here are your pens; go map away.” And I said, “Well there’s a problem – I’m red/green color blind, and I can’t do this job.” So they sent me back upstairs and gave me a calculator. Turns out I was reasonably good at numbers and I did that for a while. I veered back again to words when I went to law school. Upon finishing law school I decided that I didn’t think I would like the practice of law as much as applying what I had learned in a business environment. I ended up going to work for a high-tech company, where I could use my legal skills to make the business more profitable and more successful. However, I found I wasn’t able to speak the language of a lot of the people there; it turns out they were all engineers. But in that job, I picked up some understanding of computer programming and finally got over my numbers phobia.
In the area of business information, it is vital that the information be up-to-date. It’s not good enough to know last year’s CEO or financials.
Our primary goal is to provide both valuable free and subscription business information for our large audience of businesspeople. Our users tend to be extremely well educated, wealthy, and in higher income brackets. These characteristics make our audience highly attractive to our advertisers.
So we find ourselves at a wonderful place in the middle, between these free entities with no viable business model and the high-priced subscription companies with an increasingly obsolete business model.
We see an evolution in the way that people get business information. The way that the Web distributes information is that it requires the businessperson to come to the information. Increasingly, we see customers wanting highly tailored information sent to them. My own vision of the future is a step beyond this. Applications and information will become one. Outlook, Word, etc., will be the primary interface with information.
The curse, of course, was that we have been grouped with the dot.coms, many of which never had a viable business model. The blessing is that we do have that money and we built our business with it, much more rapidly than we would have otherwise. So we are at a huge advantage to where we would have been, if we had not had access to the money.
The Internet is the single biggest technologically driven change since the introduction of commercial broadcast television in 1949. It has truly and deeply changed the way we communicate with each other. It has also changed how we do research. But it has not changed two key areas: education and entertainment.
The problem with education and entertainment is that there is a huge established way of doing both of these. So to use the Internet in these areas requires people to change behavior. This is much harder than getting people to adopt new behavior.
All the nay saying and cynicism that now abounds about the Internet is totally wrong-headed. The Internet is real, and is the single most important change in our lives in two generations.
You also have to keep your eye on the ball. We haven’t been totally surprised by the way things have developed. We hoarded our cash; we still have $30 million. We saw the advertising downturn coming and adjusted our business to accommodate it. We saw it six months before Yahoo!, who apparently didn’t see it coming or wasn’t prepared to admit that it was coming. If you have been around a while you know everything is cyclical. Some folks just thought everything would stay high-flying indefinitely.
In business, you need to be able to see six to 18 months out, but also be able to see 20 years out. I am good at the former. Gary is good at the latter. That is why we made a good team when we were starting the business.
English and history majors are my favorite majors, not because English and history prepare you for the job, but they do prepare you to be extremely flexible and capable concerning writing and research. Generally, I prefer openness to doing new and challenging things. I don’t care if they are right out of college or have 20 years of experience.