My first company was called Infonautics. I co-founded it in 1991 when I was an undergraduate at Penn. This was back in the dark ages of online services -- when people used 1200 or 2400 baud modems. Our initial product (called Homework Helper) was one of the first consumer "search engines" -- we created an online library of over 2,000 magazines, books and newspapers focused on kids -- and made it available online (via services like Prodigy). We spent four years negotiating the rights to high quality content. Not surprisingly, publishers didn't even have digital versions. We ended up sending a lot of stuff overseas to be scanned/keyed in.
And then the web browser was invented and consumers started going online in droves. While we decided to leverage the Internet for distribution, we did not include web content in our index.
The first time I saw WebCrawler, in 1994, I remember thinking, "Wow - indexing the web instead of licensing data directly...neat idea! Too bad we didn't think of that. We really missed that boat."
Then, we saw Yahoo. And while we contemplated adding "web content" to our proprietary database, we concluded that it was too late -- and that the search game was "won" by Yahoo and WebCrawler. And we would differentiate ourselves based on the quality of our proprietary content.
Then Ask Jeeves launched with the ability to actually give you an answer to your question.
Then Goto.com (later Overture) launched with a really novel business model.
Then, finally, in 1998 (seven years after Infonautics was founded), came Google. Boy, they must have been nuts to go up against such a strong array of well-funded competitors?
The two lessons I learned from this experience can be best summarized by Yogi Berra quotes:
If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Infonautics was in the right place in the right time -- but made some wrong decisions. (Or, as Yogi said "We made too many wrong mistakes"). We were so locked into our initial strategy and vision that we were unwilling to "pivot" in response to changes in the market. We had all of the necessary ingredients (funding, search technology, data center, hardware, engineering team, and consumer interface) but were unwilling to change the recipe. Some of the most successful companies have been "pivots". PayPal started out as a service to beam money through Palm Pilots, while YouTube was originally a video dating site. The truth is that early stage ventures are all about experimentation and iteration. As soon as it's written, every business plan is wrong. Good entrepreneurs recognize this, and tend to build agile teams that can quickly respond to early market information in order to identify a real business model and minimize risk.
It ain't over till it's over.
Boy, do I wish Yogi could have been on the Board of Directors of Infonautics. We made a huge mistake by calling "game over" too early - we had already conceded the game during the first inning. (In fact, some could say that we called "game over" while they were still singing the National Anthem). When you are in the middle of the game, you don't have the benefit of being able to look at the scoreboard to tell you what inning it is in - but I've learned that successful entrepreneurs typically resist the natural tendency to assume it's later than it really is. And while Infonautics was successful enough to go public in April of 1996, the company struggled until it's ultimate demise.
An interesting thought: Is the "search game" over today? Or are we simply in the seventh inning of the ballgame watching what appears to be a blowout by Google? Ten years from now, will someone be blogging about how silly we were to surrender the search game to Google by saying "game over" in search? Perhaps, in the words of Yogi Berra, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."