People Make the Difference: Steering a Start-up to Success

By Joseph Esposito, from The Scholarly Kitchen

The Charleston conference was its usual lively self this year. At the request of Katina Strauch, the conference organizer, I put together a panel on start-ups, a topic of longtime interest to Katina, who is, after all, an entrepreneur herself, though her conference is now so well-established, really something of an institution in the library world, that it is difficult to imagine a time when it did not yet exist. I was fortunate in obtaining the participation of a trio of start-up CEOs, all working in scholarly communications. My fellow Scholarly Kitchen Chef Phill Jones introduced me to Jonathan Breeze, CEO of Symplectic; I prevailed on Sam Molyneux, CEO of Meta (formerly Sciencescape), to appear (I am on the Meta board of directors); and my friend Peter Brantley introduced me to Dan Whaley, who founded and heads up the not-for-profit start-up Hypothes.is. Dan previously cofounded an online travel company, which went public and was later sold to SABRE, so he has both for-profit and not-for profit experience. The question I put to these gentlemen was what can you tell people to assist them in creating and running their own start-ups; and there is the related question: How can someone know if a start-up is not the right path for them?

I should mention that I have worked with a number of start-ups over the years and continue to be fascinated by the process by which something is made from nothing. My experience is that start-ups and large organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, have a very different physics. Allow me to extend the metaphor with tongue in cheek: established organizations (academic libraries, university presses, Elsevier, ACS, BMJ, Sage) are Newtonian, whereas start-ups live in the world of relativity and the uncertainty principle. There is no question which of these categories is sexier, but most of the time the Newtonians handle matters quite well, thank you. The art of the game is knowing which metaphor applies to your particular situation.

All three of the organizations represented by these panelists share many things. For one, they are all computationally complex and intensive. We are not talking about standard-issue content-management systems here or (yawn) building an XML workflow. This invites an obvious question: Is the sheer computational complexity beyond the ability of even the largest and most sophisticated established (Newtonian) publishing entities, making a start-up a necessary choice to pursue these upstart companies’ goals? That is not a rhetorical question; the answer is a resounding YES! For some ideas the creators turn to start-ups because there is in fact no other option.

Another common element was the astounding ambitions of all three organizations. It’s fair to say that if all three prove to be successful (which is improbable, alas, since most start-ups fail), the world of scholarly communications would be transformed. Symplectic would make it possible to manage the entire global research enterprise from a dashboard that draws on a huge amount of dynamic data. Hypothes.is aims to facilitate and capture all the world’s conversation in an annotation system that sits atop the entire World Wide Web. Meta—the name tells the whole story—has set out to use data analytics of scientific literature to facilitate research and discovery. There are many organizations today that do some part of all these things, but a common element of our panelists is that they think very big.

The common element that particularly caught my attention, though, is something that I have had occasion to ponder many times. All three CEOs pounded on the issue of recruiting and retaining the best people. It is an obsession of the leadership of start-ups. One bad hire can stop a company in its tracks. The loss of an outstanding employee can derail the entire enterprise, not least because it can demoralize the other A-players that have remained on board. I once heard the CEO of a start-up talk about a key member of his team who had decided to leave the company. The decision had nothing to do with the company itself (she was getting married and moving out of the country), but the CEO talked about this as though he had lost his own child. To create a successful start-up, people make the difference.

This prompts me to share an observation that I have made over the years about the place of people in an organization. In my experience for-profit companies put a greater emphasis on the importance of their people than do not-for-profits, and start-ups place a greater emphasis than do established companies. I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with altruism or social progressivism. Indeed, it is jaw-dropping to see the ruthlessness of some companies, start-ups in particular, when priorities change or programs are unsuccessful: if Amy or Chuck are not major contributors to the company’s success, off with their heads! But when the question is how to fill a job or jump-start a new program, it is commercial outfits that immediately ask, “Do we have the best people?” A good measure of an uncompetitive human resource policy is internal promotion: the more you have, the weaker the organization, as outside recruitment enables a company to draw on the expertise of other companies. This is an aspect of the collaborative nature of the economy, where rival companies head-hunt each other to the benefit of all.

One thing that our panelists, all civilized to a fault, did not say was that the successful entrepreneur will stop at nothing to make his or her organization succeed. Not everybody has the stomach for this. Before you contemplate your own start-up, consider what you will have to do to succeed and whom you will have to eat for breakfast.