Let’s say you founded a tech startup, it was wildly successful, and you sold it to Salesforce for $175 million. What would you do with your share of the proceeds? For Jim Fowler, it was a no-brainer: He took $1 million of it and started a new company.
The startup Fowler sold to Salesforce was Jigsaw, a crowdsourced data services provider. The new company was InfoArmy, a crowdsourced research outfit designed to offer corporate customers competitive intelligence. Unfortunately, InfoArmy was beaten on the business battlefield.
In a recent interview, Fowler described his surrender. “I’m not going to lie: 2013 was sucky for me,” he said. “Jigsaw was one of those rare cases where everything just kind of worked—it kept growing and growing. It was your classic Silicon Valley story. I’d never had to go through a pivot before, and it was painful.”
“Pivot” appears to be a euphemism for blowing something up and starting all over again. What arose from the dust was Owler, a San Mateo, Calif.-based reinvention of InfoArmy with a different business model. Fowler described the way it all went down this way:
After we sold Jigsaw, I took $1 million of my winnings on that, and so did my stepfather, who was an angel investor in Jigsaw, and we founded InfoArmy. We executed on that model exactly. Our whole goal was to create a new standard for a business profile. … We recruited a global army of researchers to build reports that contained part of this data. Our deal with them was we would revenue-share with them on these reports—every time one of their reports sold, they’d get half the revenue. We did a great job of recruiting an army—that worked great. The problem was when we went to sell it, the quality of the data, especially around things like revenue and competitors, just wasn’t strong enough. People looked at it and said, ‘It’s OK, but I won’t buy another one of these reports.’ What we realized was we needed to get more crowd involved. In other words, if you have two researchers building a report, that’s a very different thing from getting 10 people to come in. So the InfoArmy compilation model failed, and we decided to rebrand the company. During that time, before that happened, we raised $17.3 million, so the good news was we had plenty of time to pivot off of that compilation model to our current one, which is working very well. And we still have plenty of money in the bank to figure this whole thing out.
The first thing they figured out, which took about nine months, Fowler said, was that they were going to have to go all the way back to the drawing board:
We originally thought that we could make a few tweaks, but we basically ended up having to start from scratch, which was frustrating. I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to lie: 2013 was sucky for me. Jigsaw was one of those rare cases where everything just kind of worked—it kept growing and growing. It was your classic Silicon Valley story. I’d never had to go through a pivot before, and it was painful. Mid-2014 was when we really started getting a bead on putting it all together. The good news is we’ve been very careful with our cash—we still have $12 million in the bank, so at our current burn rate we have four years of cash.
Fowler went on to explain that the risk they faced wasn’t in monetizing the idea, “because everyone knows this data has value.” He said the risk lay in compiling it in a way that offers the highest quality:
But where we really make our money is selling all the data off of the API—the structured data that comes out of these reports. … It’s much more of a crowdsourcing model than it was before—it’s a different way of doing a crowd. Now it’s completely free—what we really want to become is what LinkedIn is for a professional profile, Owler is for a company profile—that’s how the individual business professional would look at it. Of course, we’ll make all of our money selling the structured data off of an API, eventually—we’re not doing that yet. Right now we’re putting out data in the form of competitive intelligence reports, news, special reports to users such that they interact with this data that they can’t get anywhere else.
We’re now two years into the re-launch, so I asked Fowler in what areas he’s not as far along as he would have hoped to be at this point. He said he wasn’t sure he had a good answer to that, but he gave it a shot:
Of course we would rather have more users than we have. But I don’t think I was ever at a point at Jigsaw, or any other company I’ve ever been with, that I couldn’t answer that question with, ‘I wish we had more users,’ or ‘I wish we had more revenue.’ One place where we could be further along is in optimizing for mobile. Forty percent of our emails are read on mobile—I think we could have done a better job of optimizing on mobile than we have up to this point. Other than that, I think there’s just kind of a natural rate of growth for businesses, and it’s never good enough. We want to become something that every single business professional not only has heard of, but uses, exactly like LinkedIn is. We want to become for a business profile what LinkedIn is for a professional profile, and we have a long way to go before we get there. But we’re on the road.
Finally, noting that he had sold Jigsaw to Salesforce, I asked Fowler what sort of company would be a logical buyer of Owler when he gets to that point. His response:
I’m not going to speculate on that at all—that’s bad luck. What I will tell you is we’re creating a data set that has extreme value. We know this. … Jigsaw was a big success—10 employees became millionaires when we sold Jigsaw. I was super proud of that. My goal with this one, from the beginning, has been to create a big, meaningful company. So my hope is that we don’t sell this one. I would love for this company to go public—to create a brand and a company that’s truly disruptive. I want us to be the Uber of the data business. I’m hopeful that we don’t sell it.
Postscript: I just had to ask Fowler whether “Owler” is a play off his name. Turns out, it is.
“When we said we were going to change our name from InfoArmy, because that was very specific to recruiting an army of researchers, and we weren’t going to be doing that anymore,” Fowler said,” one of our marketers came in and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect name for the company: Owler.’ Of course I laughed and said, ‘No, Janet, forget it.’ But we ended up going with it because of the wise owl, and you can spell it. So yes, I am Fowler from Owler. It takes most people a while to connect it.”
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.