Jim Fowler of Owler: Even as Tech and Data Grows in Importance, Crowdsourcing Is Still About People

Jim Fowler has been at the forefront of crowd sourcing for over a decade.  First, he was co-founder of the cloud-based contact management service Jigsaw, before selling it to Salesforce.com for $175 million.  Then, he was with InfoArmy, and finally today with Owler — a free, competitive intelligence service.

Fowler discusses how changing technology has impacted how crowd sourcing business models over the years, and how these models will only succeed if humans and the way they communicate are not automated out of the equation, but freed up to think and share more efficiently, improving their abilities to create even more value.

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Jim_Fowler (1)Small Business Trends: Before we jump on full bore with that maybe give us a little bit of your personal background leading up to what you were doing with Jigsaw.

Jim Fowler: After college I was a diving and salvage officer in the United States Navy doing salvage operations and paid back Uncle Sam for my college tuition. Then when I got out of the Navy I was an owner-operator of a small ski area up in Idaho until I hit age 30 and that was 1995. At that point in time I thought I’d better get serious and get a real job, so I ran away and joined the internet circus in 1995. Got into the internet technology business then and became a sales guy for a while before I founded Jigsaw in ’03.

Small Business Trends: Was that a need that you filled from your experiences of being a sales person?

Jim Fowler: Actually I had been on my 3rd stint as the VP of sales at that point and I was just frustrated with how much time my sales reps were spending trying to figure out who to contact at a target organization. Needing a phone number and an email to get them and talk to them, so Jigsaw was really founded out of a point of need.

We looked at how that market was working. It was lots and lots of players, no one really owned it and we came up with a crowd sourcing model for that. It was basically a gigantic business card exchange in the sky where you could go in and say, “Hey, I need to know who are the people at this company, and I have contact data for people at this other company so I’m going to trade it,” and that’s how it worked and it ended up creating a huge and really high quality database that in 2010, Salesforce ended up buying for $175 million dollars.

Small Business Trends: You used a crowd sourcing model and what modern technology was back then to create that business. Fast forward to 2012 after you had sold to Salesforce and you started up with InfoArmy, there were some similarities. You were still looking at the business information space, although I think it was a little bit more competitive intelligence information with InfoArmy.

Jim Fowler: Yep.

Small Business Trends: It was crowd sourced and it was the modern technology at the time, so talk a bit about the differences from what you did with Jigsaw and InfoArmy from a crowd sourcing perspective?

Jim Fowler: The commonalities have always been business information and crowd sourcing it.   InfoArmy was really about recruiting an army of global researchers who would do really in depth reports on companies and use the crowd that way. I funded it for our 1st round for 2 million, and then we raised another 17 million dollars in late ’12 because we got a lot of traction, but we found that that model really didn’t work. We ended up just changing the name of the company and pivoting, which was by the way a very painful process.

From the whole concept around this crowd sourcing model, it just has huge value because you end up getting the crowd, in exchange for getting a free product that has a lot of value to them they do a lot of work on the data, which creates a very valuable data set that large companies will pay a lot of money for. That’s exactly how Jigsaw worked and that’s exactly how the InfoArmy and Owler models work as well.

Small Business Trends: The model didn’t quite work the way you expected with InfoArmy. You’re still using the wisdom of the crowd approach and you’re still using modern technology, but how are you applying it now when it comes to Owler?

Jim Fowler: Owler’s just much more open, it’s completely free. What it does is it helps people keep on top of their competitive set. They get these weekly showdowns that show them how their company’s doing versus their competitors and they get daily snapshots which give them information about their companies, their competitive set, their customers, anyone they want to follow.

What happens is the users come in and interact with this data, that’s for instance some of these weekly showdowns will show revenue estimates and how the companies are doing revenue wise amongst many other factors and our users actually go in there and, with the wisdom of crowds give their estimates. When you combine it all you get a really high quality there, but we also do other things like news and alerts where we also use a combination of technology and people.

We get business news feeds from about 5,000 global sources, and technology handles most of that, but what happens is we have a team of people that actually make sure that it’s high quality. A lot of your listeners probably use Google Alerts, and that’s a pretty frustrating experience. Google is an amazing technology company, but technology can only take you so far down the road and there’s just a lot of noise with Google Alerts, you get tons of different emails.

What ours does is just brings it all together. If you’re following 50 companies, it’s just going to give you 1 email that shows what is all the news and alerts on those companies that’s really super high quality without all the noise, if you will.

Small Business Trends: This is really interesting because now we’re 2015, getting ready to go to 2016 and the technology available is just amazing in a lot of instances, but what you’re saying, at least it sounds like is, you’re using that amazing technology that’s at your disposal to enhance what humans do in the business model. Not to try to take over or cut out what humans do.

Jim Fowler: Yeah, let’s take a quick example. We have another product that’s also free called Special Reports. A lot of people are interested when a company receives funding, or a company gets acquired. Right now, the way that most people have seen that data come out is they’ll just see a headline that says, “So and so got bought,” or maybe “So and so got bought got X dollars,” or , “So and so received this much money.” Then they’ve got to click it and try to read this article to get all the data they want.

What we do is go in and create a special report that gives a quick one sentence description of the company. We’re pulling data from the prop file on Owler.com, what their funding history is, who funded them, who their competitors are and how much revenue their competitors are doing estimated by out community. It just gives a full picture, plus all the news articles that talk about that funding or that acquisition so that you can just see it in 1 place.

If you just used technology to try to do this, you would get a lot of noise in there because really it’s a lot harder than it looks to figure out that the article is actually about Apple. Apple gets mentioned in millions of articles. To know that it’s actually about Apple is … To just do it with technology is really hard. What technology can do is say, “We think this is an article about Apple and we think it’s an Apple acquisition and we think this is the company that they did and we think this is it,” but what you need to do is create a task that gets prioritized very highly that a human looks at really quick. Checks out all the data and goes, “Ah, that’s right. We’re good,” and then sends it on to the people.

Otherwise you get a lot of noise, what I’m getting at is that technology can get you way down the road, but you need humans to get you all the way down the road if you want high quality data.

Small Business Trends: You’ve made a number of different changes, from when you started with Jigsaw to where you are with Owler in terms of tweaking the model, leveraging the technology, but at the heart of it all it’s still been about leveraging the intelligence that actual humans have. How, if at all, has the model changed for the more traditional business data services like Dunn and Bradstreet? Have they morphed to take advantage of what’s available today or is it still pretty much the same business model?

Jim Fowler: It’s pretty much the same business model. They always go out there and talk about, well we’ve got this technology and that technology. There are some good technologists there certainly, but the reality is is they just don’t innovate. Many of the big guys have tried crowd sourcing models and completely failed and I think it’s just because it’s not in their DNA.

If you don’t start from the very beginning with the crowd in mind and what they want and make sure that they’re equal partners in your business model, then it is destined for failure. I’ve spoken on stage about this many many times, but what crowd models do do for you, it’s what I call the Tom Sawyer effect. You’re getting people to paint your picket fence. In this case, they’re getting more value back than they’re giving to you, in Jigsaw’s case it was free.

By the way, people had a pay option in Jigsaw, so each of these models is a little bit different. At Jigsaw you could go in and either trade data you have for data you needed or you could just pay for the data you wanted. At Owler, what we do is it’s so many people are use it, we get a lot and we’re getting more and more interaction on it. We’re getting such value we can just keep it free and open  … We want millions and millions of business professionals using Owler everyday for free as part of their workflow. Everyday, this is how they do it, this is how they keep track of their competitors, their own company, their customers, their prospects, etc.

Every single one of these crowd sourcing models provide value to the crowd because once you get that, they’re doing the work for you. You’re just providing a platform for them to do it, that’s why these models are so valuable. Companies like D&B, they have to either build their own technology to do that which only will get them so far. Then they have to actually pay people to do it all the time and when you do that at scale it just doesn’t work. It’s too expensive, and that’s why D&B is so expensive comparatively.

Small Business Trends: I think my final question around this is you’ve been looking at leveraging the wisdom of the crowd for over a decade, through Jigsaw to InfoArmy to what you’re doing with Owler. How has the crowd changed? What’s been the most significant change you’ve seen in the actual crowd, the people? Not the technology, but just the people.

Jim Fowler: I think they change in the same way that we all have. We all are just overloaded with information.  Getting people’s time and getting them to pay attention is much more difficult now than it was back in the beginning of Jigsaw for sure. Getting journalists and analysts to talk and write about you is different because there’s so much going on. In fact a lot of the big publications don’t even exist or don’t write about it anymore.

It’s become much more flat, if you will. More players in it, so that’s interesting, but I just think the biggest thing is just people … There’s so much stuff flying around out there now that really making sure you have a crisp clear message so that they understand the value is even more important than it ever was and that’s just been the big change. People are more sophisticated, they’re more … They know how to use data and I see that trend continuing.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.