Bob Goodson, President of NetBase Quid, an analytic software company, recently sat down with Martin Reeves to discuss the role of imagination in business, drawing on his background as a successful entrepreneur and before that as a medieval scholar.
A lot of business leaders are talking about the way COVID is changing society and markets right now and about how that will require them to reimagine their businesses. I want to ask you first of all, drawing on your background in medieval studies as well as your experience as an entrepreneur, what actually is imagination?
Well, I actually did my undergraduate dissertation on an obscure type of poetry called cento…
That is the poetry which uses borrowed pieces of the poetry from others?
Yes, exactly. So this form of poetry actually gets to the heart of what creativity is. For most of human history, creativity has been about the unique recombination of existing ideas. Up until the invention of copyright law that is.
Didn’t the Romantic movement hijack the idea of creativity by emphasizing the role of the solitary temperamental genius, essentially proposing a new very antisocial definition of innovation?
Yes. With the rise of early forms of Capitalism, this new idea started to dominate. I think that for only about 250 to 300 years of human history, we have thought about creativity as being something that springs forth from the individual. But fundamentally, imagination is all about the recombination of existing things and the study of classics for hundreds of years was about knowing the body of literature — you knew every line, you could memorize it. That’s why memorization was such a big part of education.
Of course there is so much human knowledge now that memorizing everything before creating new combinations is not possible anymore. But is that what your Quid technology, which analyzes semantic knowledge, makes possible again?
Yes, all the world’s propositional knowledge is now available to us on about a seven second recall. You know, from the moment you think, “I want to know something,” to the moment you have access to it. If you use mobile devices, it’s between five and seven seconds to get the fact you’re looking for, I’ve timed it.
So where did the idea for Quid come from?
I think the main breakthrough for me was when I was at grad school; by that point, I was studying medieval literature and philosophy (1100 to 1500), as well as language theory. It was very narrow, but I loved it because I felt like I was pushing the boundary of what was known.
Anyway, I had lunch every day in the graduate common room, and usually there’d be four or five people sitting around the table. And opposite me would be a physicist and then to my right would be a psychologist and then there’d be a historian across the table. We’d end up talking about these different domains. I started to ask questions like “Can you point me to a map of everything that’s known in physics? So that I can just see it all, and which bits I want to delve into.” Then they started talking, and I started drawing maps. I drew a map of physics. I drew one for chemistry. I drew one for world history. And then a computer scientist who saw me doing this over a number of weeks, said, “Look, I think computers could be used to do this automatically.” That’s where the idea came from.
This was in 2002 and more and more content was just becoming digital. It sounds crazy that in 2002, I was still using a library to read all my books, but that’s how fast things have moved: it’s only 18 years ago! It became clear to me that everything was going to get digitized. And so the concept was that within a few years, we’re going to have enough content digitized that we could train a computer to automatically give us the bird’s eye view of all knowledge. I didn’t think of it as a business initially.
How did an academic idea become a business idea?
About six months later, Max Levchin, the co-founder of PayPal came to give a talk at the University. I went along to see it. And then I met him at a dinner afterwards, and I told him the concept, and he said that he and Peter Thiel had the same idea at the same time they thought up PayPal. They chose the latter because it was more feasible at the time. Anyway, they obviously still had an affinity for the idea, and after working on some other projects like Yelp with them, they eventually helped me get the Quid idea funded.
What was the process for you to inspire others with this idea sufficiently that they came to work for you and funded you? What caused them to see it as more than a pipe dream?
I think Yelp helped significantly, because then I had the credibility of someone who knew what it was to start something and make it work. And there had been an explosion in social media and other forms of written content, with a real commercial need to understand the significance of the information streams it generated.
Commercial need and track record?
And how did you test the idea for feasibility and develop it?
I think of development gates that you need to cross between a concept and getting something to be a reality. And I felt I generally took that approach. Getting the initial outside funding was a major early gate.
What were the other stages before funding?
Before fundraising, I did actually go and pitch Max [Levchin], and then I went to meet Peter Thiel. They both gave a lot of feedback, and then the idea evolved. Every diverse person that has joined the team along the way has contributed to the evolution of the concept in making it a reality. It helped that I’m not tied to the idea that everything needs to come from a single individual, because that’s completely counter to my idea of creativity. An idea is like a pebble, a rough stone that’s thrown into the ocean, and every time a wave hits it, every time it bumps into another stone, a little bit of it chips off until you have this beautiful, smooth pebble.
One very important juncture in the innovation process is when an idea acquires a category name and that name is accepted by others — when a thing becomes a thing. When did Quid become a thing?
That is such a great question. I thought so much about this. Because we did come up with a thing that wasn’t a pre-existing thing. You know, the product. It’s not just a version of something else. And I really struggled with giving it a name, a category name. And honestly, I’m still working on it. I think we’re going to crack it this year. But we’re about 12 years in.
But essentially, it’s a new type of analytic software. At the start, we liked the term Open Source Intelligence and used that because OSI has a really interesting history going back to the Second World War. That didn’t fly. The other thing I named it was “External BI” because BI had always been internal, and this was about creating external BI. That didn’t really fly either. One of the things I’ve learned is if you come up with a completely new category, it’s hard, it’s heavy lifting.
But back to this question of when does it become a thing? I think that naming a business is a really important moment. I tell the many people I have mentored, “Name it today. Because the moment you name something it becomes real to others, it becomes a subjective reality.”
Well, the Latin root is “the true essence of a thing” or that which a thing is. As in quid pro quo or things of equal value. And I first came across this in medieval scholastic philosophy because the scholastic philosophers were seeking a term for the true essence of a thing without the baggage of words grounded in theology such as ‘soul.’
By the way, I read this really interesting thing yesterday — an article on umwelt, which is a German concept for the unique perception of the world of a given organism. An umwelt is a unique perspective on the world based on what that organism has available to perceive the world. Ticks for example can detect light but they don’t have any eyes. For instance, it knows it’s hanging on a piece of grass. And then when an animal brushes past it, it can detect the smell and movement, and it can make a choice to jump or hang on where it is. A business is no different. Businesses need to sense what’s around them. You have to think about the worldview of the people you are trying to sell to — they may not see what you see…
You got this company off the ground. Your employees are joining a successful company. Do you worry that what you had to shape they might take for granted as the way things are done? That they might stop exploring?
I think the reason that I don’t have to worry about that is because of the way I originally built the organization, which was designed to have innovation at its core. The first 50 people came from… Well, included 40 different nationalities, we happened to have an exact split 50/50 male female, many different academic and societal backgrounds, and so on. So if anything, sometimes I have the opposite problem — people are reinventing everything all of the time!
It’s only when we have contact with “otherness” — anomaly, accident and analogy that we see the possibility of things being otherwise.
Exactly. That’s what we try to maintain at NetBase Quid — the thing which we treasure most is curiosity.
Changing gear, the product of your company — the software which maps language and shows what consumers or producers are thinking and doing, is also an aid to creativity, right? Tell me about that.
I think that first of all, there is a huge appetite in organizations for solutions to support creativity, particularly around coming up with insights, seeing connections that matter to the organization that no one’s seen before. That’s a kind of currency in organizations, isn’t it? If you are a source of ideas, then that is a currency that can be incredibly powerful for your own career and for the organization as a whole.
And visualization is really core to the appeal of the product, and it’s something we pursued quite consciously. We told ourselves it needed to look completely different to anything anyone had ever seen before. It comes back to the diagrams that I drew in grad school, those were intuitive, you could see unexpected connections, and I just loved those. I read a lot about mind mapping when I was a teenager, and I really got into that as a way of unpacking knowledge and ideas.
Last question. We are in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Some companies are talking about the need to reimagine their businesses. Are you seeing new types of opportunity in the crisis for your customers and for yourselves?
My next call is actually with a senior exec in a large company who wants a better way of seeing the landscape of M&A opportunities in a predictive manner. There are definitely some powerful ways of using analytic software to detect emerging trends and new opportunities before they are apparent to all. We are in a great era for reimagination and those who support imagination.
Thanks very much for your time and insights Bob. It’s been fascinating.
My pleasure. I look forward to going deeper on these topics with you soon.