Randy Adams on how startups are like small children that need nurturing
In this segment of Lessons Learned, Bambi Francisco interviewed Randy Adams, CEO of SearchMe, a site that turns browsing the Web into the same experience as flipping through a magazine. Adams, who raised $43 million in funding for SearchMe, founded six companies. Adams founded Emerald City Software, which was sold to Adobe, Appsoft (NeXT software), which was shut down, Internet Shopping Network, which was sold to Home Shopping Network, Navitel, which was sold to Spyglass, Inc. and AuctionDrop, which was sold to ECO International.
BF: Clearly, you've had a lot of experience as an entrepreneur. Please give us three pieces of advice.
RA: As an entrepreneur, you really want to innovate. That's how you build business. You have to create products and services. The first lesson I have learned is innovation occurs in very small groups. It's not something that happens in a group of 10,000 or 20,000, except for a few certain companies, such as Apple. But innovation does only happen with a couple of people. When I was running engineering with Adobe, we created Acrobat with three people. It took two years to get out the door, but we had to program it formally. If you think about Yahoo's founders who were Jerry Yang and David Filo. They were two guys. Google's founders - Larry and Sergey - were two guys. As a company grows, it becomes more difficult to change because you have critical mass and you have market share. So with a small company, with nothing to lose, you can create wonderful things that change the world. I like them when they're small. Once a company gets big, it's less exciting to me. The second lesson I've learned is that it's always better to execute and implement and fail than to not execute. This may sound obvious but it takes many people a long time to plan things. The market changes and the dynamics are different. Whenever you read one of those books called, "How To Become Successful in the Market Business," that somebody's opinion based on how to become successful according to their experience five years ago and the world is a different place now. You can't apply the same things. I always say, 'Rush forward blindly.' What we're saying is you just have to do it. Do it. If it isn't right, change it. It's alway easier to execute, get feedback and change it, then figure it out right the first time.
BF: There are a lot of companies out there who have key people who are going in several different directions. Have you ever gone down a path where you actually launched something that nobody wanted to launch and it turned out to be a success or failure? Do you have an example?
RA: SearchMe is a good example. When we started SearchMe, it was a vertical search engine which evolved into where we categorized the Web and proposed categories. Then I pushed very strongly to have the visual search engine that we're having right now and everybody inside hated it. In fact, I had to write the UI myself as a demo UI and take it in and show it to people. I had to convince our engineers. In our company, you don't have to agree with me. If you don't agree with me, we won't do it. It doesn't matter who you are in the company. If you have a good idea and we support it, we will do it. But I couldn't get anyone to support the whole idea of visual search. Gradually it started to take on and we started getting user feeback in a very positive way. People thought it was totally new and a better way to search.
BF: It's an example of just doing it.
RA: It's an example of just doing it. Even when we first brought it out, our relevance sucked. We were 40% of what Google is right now. It looked good but the results were not good. But we didn't go out with intentions to kill Google but with an attitude of wanting to try something new. Then we hired a relevance team away from Yahoo and they've been able to bring us within 5% of Google. So we just keep getting better and we push out a release every week and even pushed out two releases last week. So just keep doing it and you will get user feedback. A friend of mine who runs Imeem took him several years to get the formula right and then when you hit it, it hockeysticks.
BF: Yes, you have to keep trying. So what is your third lesson?
RA: Negativism is the worst thing. If you have a very small company of a few people and someone thinks an idea will never work, just ignore that person's bad attitude. I was in a staff meeting today and someone said, "We're going to take this off because it's just not working." Then I said, "That was really a dumb idea and I will take full responsibility for it." But a small company is like a small child. It is not self-sufficient. It needs a lot of nurturing.
BF: That's a great analogy. What about a failure or a set back?
RA: In 1992, I was running engineering for Adobe. Steve Jobs called me to tell me that the Next machine is doing great and that he needed software. He then asked me to start a software company. We'll provide the word processor and we'll help you.Why don't you do that and you'll be very successful. So I started a company called "Adsoft". I self-funded it and then Sequoia Capital invested as well. We brought out seven products and at the end of the year, Steve decided not to produce the hardware. And the market disappeared. So we had to close it down.
BF: Is your lesson not to listen to Steve Jobs?
RA: I listen to Steve Jobs. But my lesson is don't produce something that requires an infastructure that doesn't yet exist. You might be out there with a product that you're assuming market for, just isn't there. Companies cannot afford to take that risk.
BF: But they still have to take risks.
RA: They still have to take risks.
BF: That's the only way they can iterate, right?
BF: Randy, thank you very much.
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Searchme lets you see what you’re searching for. As you start typing, categories appear that relate to your query. Choose a category, and you’ll see pictures of web pages that answer your search. You can review these pages quickly to find just the information you’re looking for, before you click through.
We’re just getting started on our first step towards creating an entirely new way to search the Web. The quality of our results will vary as we make Searchme better and better. If you have comments or suggestions we’d love to hear from you. We love feedback.
Thanks for using Searchme!