An Interview with David Seuss
The New York Hilton, despite its recent remodeling remains hostile to two people who want to talk for 40 to 45 mintues. As I waited from a group of Euro-sophisticates to finish their shouting match about Chelsea, I thought about Northern Light. When I learned about the company about a decade ago, it struck me as a modern-day Dialog Information Services without the legacy of the IBM mainframe and the brutally expensive online fees. I lost track of the company when it was bought by a Chicago-based Internet entrepreneur. In fact, I wasn't sure what Northern Light was. The company has a cool logo. I always liked the wind-powered sailing ship motif.
I met with David Seuss, former consultant turned search and online executive, in the lobby snack shop. With each of us sipping out $7.50 glasses of iced tea, I spoke with Mr. Seuss about the latest incarnation of Northern Light.
The full text of the interview appears below:
What's your background? Why content and search? There are easier ways to make a living.
My educational background that I have an industrial engineering degree from Georgia Tech and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. In addition to working in my formative years as an MIS analyst doing really innovative applications (in 1975 IBM was flying potential customers in IBM company planes to my manufacturing plant to observe our systems running on the radical new device of the day: minicomputers), after business school I was a consultant and manager at Boston Consulting Group which was all about business research and using it in formulating strategy. After BCG, I started a software company, grew it to $65MM in revenue, took it public, and sold it in 1994. In that year, I attempted to retire but was a miserable failure at retirement. I tried my hand at being a professional racecar driver for two years, and worked up to some pretty fast cars (200 mph), but by 1996 decided that I wanted something more fast-paced, an urge that took the form of an Internet business. And so I joined Northern Light as its CEO. At that time, as I like to say, there were 17 engineers and me in a basement.
As an individual, I really like search, research, and especially text analytics as fields of endeavor. I am comfortable with the structure and component architecture of software technology and can think of new ways for the technology to deliver value. Once a technical manager at Northern Light closed my office door, sat down, and told me in all earnestness, “By the standards that apply to CEOs, you’re pretty technical.” Sensing this was an attempt at a compliment, I responded with as much gravity as I could muster saying, “Maybe it’s the engineering degree.” My technical manager replied without cracking a smile, “I bet that’s it,” stood up and left, satisfied, and not at all aware of the humor in the conversation. Also, even more relevantly, my background at HBS, BCG, CEO of my public software company, and CEO of Northern Light gives me over 20 years of professional experience assessing product markets and technology trends, performing competitive analysis, executing product marketing plans, and developing corporate strategy. That sensitivity to the business purpose of strategic research is infused throughout Northern Light’s products and employees. We have 4 MBAs in the top 7 managers in the company. (The other three have advanced library, math, and engineering degrees.)
Running a search engine company focused on strategic research applications is perfect for me. I am a search guy. I love pouring the data over my head and feeling it trickle down the back of my neck. In 1988, eight years before I joined Northern Light, I developed a design concept for “consultant in a box” which would do the first level industry and company analysis that we used to do at BCG by processing market research documents, parsing them for meaning, and developing strategic hypotheses. If this sounds a bit like MI Analyst, well, that should not be surprising.
What was the inspiration for Northern Light before you sold to divine InterVentures?
Northern Light has always, from day one until the present, focused on providing access to high quality published material to professionals doing research relating to their employment. We have established and nurtured relationships with the published-content world for the entire 12-year history of the company and the uniqueness of our product line benefits greatly from these relationships and allows us to provide solutions that, frankly, no one else can.
Can you give me the elevator or two-minute overview of Northern Light since the divine InterVentures' buy back? What's different this time around?
Northern Light develops and operates custom research portals for large organizations that have substantial strategic and product research activities. We refer to this product line as SinglePoint. That means a single point of access for all a company’s research content.
SinglePoint launched in 1999 and it was the largest part of the company’s revenue when we were temporarily part of Divine . We are pretty much the same company today as we always were from the beginning, developing search technology optimized for searching published documents and research reports, and providing effective solutions for research portals for professional users. Since the Divine days, we do now have the wonderful advantage now of being employee-owned, which permits us to make much better business decisions that are based more on long-term customer satisfaction and less on short-term financial performance.
What are some of the features of SinglePoint?
That's my favorite subject.
Will you yell like the folks from London who just left?
Probably not. But I do talk quickly when I get excitied.
SinglePoint, is a custom, hosted, turnkey business research portal solution. We have a diverse set of enterprise clients at present for SinglePoint, and some of the ones that have revealed publically that they use Northern Light are HP, Cisco, SAP, Sprint, Verizon, and Unisys. In addition to clients in the IT industry, we have clients in pharmaceuticals, healthcare, automobile manufacturing, global energy-project construction, and overnight package delivery.
Is Northern Light a technology company or a search company?
That's a good question.
A salient differentiator of Northern Light is that we are a technology services provider in addition to be a technology developer.
Northern Light builds the application, establishes the content flows from external and internal sources, deploys and operates the user interface and supporting applications. We host and operate the portal, aggregating the content as it is published, building the database index daily, hourly, or more often using the new material produced by all the content providers, providing the network and hardware, serving the users’ search queries, operating the user account and authentication systems, delivering the documents to authenticated users, executing Search Alerts with each update to the index, providing all application maintenance and enhancements, and resolving content delivery problems that occur not infrequently when working with third parties who are experts at authoring important new content but not experts at electronic publishing. (If that is a run-on sentence, it is because we do so much.)
What's the value to the customer?
Much of the unique value or our offering is that we implement and operate the solution, including some things that are impossibly difficult and time consuming for internal IT departments to do. Paramount among these is the integration of third-party content into a solution, which often causes IT departments to run into a tall, wide, and thick brick wall. Northern Light is the cavalry coming over the hill to rescue the wagon train when third party content is required as part of the solution.
What does a customer license?
A typical SinglePoint portal has 12 external licensed research subscriptions from content suppliers like Gartner, Forrester, and IDC, as well as a business news feed and one or more internal primary research repositories. Northern Light can deploy a market research portal such as this in 90 days for a new client. SinglePoint is a hosted turnkey solution in which Northern Light provides content integration, search technology, text analytics (MI Analyst), Enterprise 2.0 collaboration (SinglePoint Connects), user interface, search alerts, document and user authentication, administration system, and hosting. The core advantages of SinglePoint are being able to search all content sources simultaneously with easy click through access to documents for authorized users.
What is the difference between Northern Light and such systems as Factiva and Thomson Reuters?
Factiva, Thomson Reuters, and EBSCO are business news aggregators that provide news content from newswires, newspapers and periodicals. To us, they are content sources that our clients might elect to put into a SinglePoint Market Research portal and we actually work with all of them for clients.
In addition, we have around 65 other content relationships with market research firms like Gartner, Forrester, IDC, Economist Intelligence Unit, Frost & Sullivan, Ovum, and Current Analysis to name just a few. We process all the equity analyst reports from Reuters as a content source. In addition, Northern Light integrates content from government research sources such as PubMed, USPTO, FedBizOps, and the Federal Procurement Data System. Northern Light provides clients with a business news feed harvest from 70 newswires and 3,000 Web news and industry authority blog sources. Northern Light is an experienced and expert provider of custom Web crawling and we can harvest any set of content from the Web a client requires which can be useful in applications like Internet surveillance of a competitor. Lastly, we often aggregate and provide search of internal company primary research repositories.
Our research portal clients may choose among all of the above for their portals. We tell our clients, you can have any content, in any format, on any computer, anywhere in the world, in the possession of any organization in your search index so long as you have legal right to it.
What are the core features of the Northern Light system?
That's a great question. If I start to sound like a consultant cut me off. I know these points by heart, and I like to talk about them. Here goes.
The core features of a Northern Light SinglePoint Market Research Portal would be these:
First, Northern Light's standard SinglePoint application including our research best practices package which contains a user interface with rich search options, saved search and alert system for user created saved searches delivered as personalized Home Page headlines, email alerts and RSS feeds and for administrator created Expert Searches. Expert Searches are available for browsing by users and are organized according to a client’s structure and business needs. Like user saved searches, Expert Searches can be subscribed to by users and are delivered as email alerts and RSS feeds. You get a portal administration system for a central administrator to view usage information, to grant user rights to material, to manage administrator roles, Expert Searches, user feedback and vendor details. We include our ASAP document submission system for uploading documents directly to the index with appropriate metadata and user access information. This system can be optionally extended to include unique client metadata and document flow details. There's a user account system for maintaining user information such as vendor logins (permitting individuals with working vendor passwords to enter them directly), email addresses, saved searches, home page and search form customization, and content permissions. We have the necessary security system for enforcing content access rights at the level of individual users and enterprise wide. We also use a document access authorization system for redirecting users to syndicated vendors’ websites for document access, automatically logging them in with individually saved or globally assigned logins. There's a reporting system for tracking vendor statistics, site activity, site usage, queries executed, as well as documents viewed by user and vendor allowing administrators to evaluate adoption metrics.
Second, we include processing a client's internal research repositories.
Third, we can handle licensed secondary research from market research suppliers like Gartner, Forrester, IDC and over 60 others.
Fourth, as you know, we do business news from Factiva or our own sources. Our business news stream contains 18,000 stories a day from 70 up-to-the minute newswires (including Reuters, Knight Ridder, PR Newswire, Business Wire, M2, Xinhua, Kyoto, and Access Intelligence) and 3,000 online news sources including International Herald Tribune, Financial Times, Forbes, BusinessWeek, Fortune, The Economist, Agence France Presse, Gulf News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 75 stories per day from the Wall Street Journal. This collection covers every important business news story around the globe.
A very unique feature in Northern Light Business News is the search of 1,800 industry authority blogs. To be deemed an industry authority, a blogger must be an industry market research analyst, a journalist for a recognized trade publication, or an industry executive. These bloggers are the influencers and trend setters and clients should know what they are saying about the client’s company.
Fifth we provide what we call our "integrated content database". You get the content from all sources indexed, subject classified, and relevance ranked to a single consistent standard.
Sixth, we include a software tool called MI Analyst which applies text analytics optimized for market intelligence applications to search results. With MI Analyst, the search application extracts relevant references to companies, technologies, and markets from the full text of the reports, identifies the business strategy and marketing concepts in the reports, and facilitates navigation to those reports that are of most interest, not from a search relevance perspective, but from a meaning perspective.
Finally, maintenance and operation of the SinglePoint Market Research Portal. We deliver a customized solution without the hassle.
Can you describe a case example and highlight the benefits of the client's using Northern Light? Can you characterize the cost to an organization for 100 users?
We have Hewlett Packard as a customer. The payoff is in seven figures per year. On our Web site [insert link] we have a white paper that provides more data. The short answer is, "Our approach pays off."
As for price, well, consider the description of our SinglePoint service: a custom, hosted, turnkey solution. From a pricing viewpoint, the key work here is “custom.” Many aspects of the application are custom to each client. Content sources, metadata, taxonomies, document access rights, color palettes, entities for text analytics, and Web 2.0 features vary from client to client. So no two prices are ever exactly the same.
That said, Most of our installations are in the $100,000 range with some hitting $400,000 or more.
Most vendors describe their system as a platform or a framework? What's Northern Light? Platform, framework, something else?
Northern Light SinglePoint is a custom, hosted, turnkey solution for strategic research portal applications. If you are looking for a sort buzzword phrase to categorize us, Software As a Service probably comes closest.
Vendors assert that their systems can handle terabytes of text. Often that's true under specific conditions. What's the big data capability of Northern Light?
There is no inherent limit on database size imposed by our search technology. We have built search indexes of 175 million documents using the Northern Light Enterprise Search Engine running on what amounts to a home computer. If we needed a bigger database, we could have popped out to Best Buy and bought another home computer!
Right now, we have many client applications running with millions of research reports that average probably 25 pages each, which is a huge amount of content. It is quite an undertaking to operate search applications in the over-the-top Northern Light way with such large content sets. We don’t just index part of each document and move on like some of our competitors. Rather, we index every word of every page and every two-word pair, record the position of each word and phrase in the document, capture and apply missing metadata to each document, subject classify each document, and apply entity and meaning extraction for thousands of terms and tens of thousands of company names. We also create subsets of the documents that we can use for things like generating dynamic summaries on the fly. Lastly, we often have to capture business related information about each document such as what services it belongs to from which sources and who has rights to see it at our client.
Some vendors charge for connectors and content transformation tools. What's your position on this important precursor to search and retrieval?
Northern Light does charge for each content source. However, consider what adding a content source to a SinglePoint application means. We technically integrate with the content source’s publishing system so that as the reports are published by the market research firm they are published automatically to us. We also technically integrate with the content firm’s user authentication system so that we can log the user to receive a document requested as a result of the search process. We maintain all the business rules for who can see what. And we operate the system daily, collecting the content, processing it into the search application, QA’ing and troubleshooting each step of the process. We are providing a content integration factory, not just connectors and leaving you on your own to flail. We do the whole job for our client, every step on every day for every content load, and do not, as is typical in the enterprise search business, just circle the client three times overhead, drop a tool on their head, and say “cya” as the search engine company flies off to the bank with the client’s check. We are the “buck stops here search application company” for our clients and it better work exactly right and deliver the promised benefits as we are on the hook to fix it, and fix it before the sun sets today.
How does your focus on business information fit into the rapidly changing world of "free" business information from Web logs and other grassroots media? Strategy?
First of all, we are often dealing with a set of content that will probably never be free on the Web, at least in our lifetimes. The content created by Gartner, Forrester, IDC, and dozens more technology analyst firms is sold for tens of billions of dollars every year and there is no perceivable crack in their business model. Northern Light integrates content from clients from 65 of these kinds of firms right now. We handle 500,000 new reports a year from them, worth over $2 billion if you bought every report at the average one-off report price. Northern Light is a trusted, vetted repository of premium research content based on a decade of precisely, competently, and respectfully processing and securing the content the market research firms provide to us. To our knowledge, Northern Light this the only third party permitted by the market research community to index this content, their crown jewels. So the core of our business is insulated from any negative impact from the trend toward more and more free business information on the Web.
As for the trend in some other content sets, like business news, toward free Web access, consider that content may be free, but time is not. Northern Light’s skills at aggregating, indexing, and analyzing content are quite valuable when the content comes from the Web as there is just so much of it and it is from widely fragmented sources. In application areas like business news, industry commentary, Internet surveillance of competitors, and reputation management we are finding clients that need research portals incorporating free content from the Web. Yea! Custom Web crawling is a service that we offer. Actually, we have recently concluded that the quality of Web sources is higher now than the quality of available licensed newswires for business and industry news. And overall, we are euphoric about the trend toward free business information on the Web as it puts so much more pressure on the ability to collect it and use the content in a useful portal, which is where Northern Light excels.
Also, in some industry segments, there is another free source of content that we are seeing broad-based client interest: government databases. These are often aggregations of complex documents useful for business and product research. For example, PubMed in the life sciences arena, and the USPTO and the European equivalent. While the content is not difficult to find (there is only one location typically) or difficult to aggregate in some gross and simple way, the complexity and scale of the content repository defeats the ability all but the most sophisticated search applications to make sense of the content. Keyword search alone of these content sets is sure to fail. Northern Light’s skills at indexing, classifying, exploiting metadata, and applying text analytics in the context of a user-friendly search portal like SinglePoint are relevant strengths that we bring to the table when dealing with this category of content. Once again, we see business opportunities coming our way even though the content is free.
Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, we are seeing an upsurge in clients that want a hosted research portal for their internal content. It turns out that many companies have scattered, poorly documented and understood collections of research materials on network drives, content management systems, laptop computers, and in the possession of consulting organizations like ad agencies. These clients want a central research portal to concentrate and make findable all the valuable market and product research they have created, commissioned, or purchased. The ROI on these applications is huge when one considers the loss of time from flailing away at questions like, “didn’t we study that two years ago – who kept a copy of the report,” “I seem to remember Bill had that report –does anyone know what happened to his laptop when he left the firm,” and “I wonder if anyone in our company has ever researched this question?” We actually got one new client, a $10 billion organization, that had lost 1/3 of its market research when a laptop was knocked off a table. Northern Light’s ability to get a portal up and running with a well developed market research feature set in 90 days, to provide solutions for aggregating and concentrating the internal research materials, and to deal with taxonomies, metadata, and text analytics in the process provides us with an unbeatable value proposition. We are seeing this demand for SinglePoint portals for internal research even though the content is “free” from the viewpoint of our client not having to subscribe to it from outside parties.
In the last year, what are the new features that you have added to Northern Light?
Northern Light has been pioneering the automated analysis and discovery of meaning from large stores of market intelligence documents. 18 months ago we announced MI Analyst for the information technology industry as the commercial embodiment of that work. MI Analyst runs as a module in SinglePoint Market Research Portal applications. More recently, we have released a new version of MI Analyst and also released a pharmaceutical version of it.
Just recently, we announced the release of SinglePoint Connects™, which are a set of Enterprise 2.0 options for SinglePoint applications that bring the benefits of social computing to bear on research portal applications. For example, tagging and bookmarking, identifying internal experts and collaboration partners, and sharing research and expertise.
The consolidation in business intelligence and search is underway. How will these buy outs affect Northern Light?
Northern Light is in such a well-defined niche that I don’t see much impact on us one way or another from business intelligence and search industry consolidation trends. We are the only enterprise solutions provider focused on research portal search applications as our only business. We are the only search engine technology that has all the relevant technical skills in one organization for content aggregation, search, classification, taxonomies, and text analytics with meaning extraction. We are the only portal provider with an extensive network of integration points with scores of external research providers. We are the only hosted solution provider with a content aggregation factory that can pull content from any source whether it be published, news, Web, or internal. We are the only provider of strategic research portals that understands the business purpose of strategic research.
There are many providers of business intelligence software tools for the do-it-yourself portal crowd. Let the battle for consolidation rage out there in the software tools business, Northern Light will just quietly work away at our specialty enjoying the benefits of our special qualities.
You know, we will never be the Toyota of the enterprise portal business, a market share leader with a lowest common denominator product that appeals to the broadest segment of customer interest. Northern Light is too high-end and specialized for that. We are more like Porsche: a boutique that is the most capable provider in a well-defined segment. If you want what we do, we are the highest performance solution on the planet. If you don’t want what we do, well, then you don’t need us at all. Northern Light’s clients are the largest, most sophisticated, most research-driven organizations, global leaders at creating and exploiting intellectual property, and they are using their Northern Light SinglePoint portals to guide their corporate strategies and to invent the future we are all going to live in.
As you look forward, what are the major trends in search that you see for 2008 and early 2009?
It is not enough to search, categorize, navigate with facets, and extract entity references and sentiment scores anymore. Search engines have to evolve to have an in-depth understanding of the searched body of knowledge and associated ways of knowing. Beyond search, we have to move to meaning extraction.
Mobile search gets a great deal of coverage in the media, yet not much is happening. What's Northern Light's applicability to mobile search?
We have smart phone enabled our business news content and believe that this is a potentially useful enterprise search solution in the mobile computing space. News stories are short enough to make the small-screen medium humane.
Are you planning an initial public offering or will you be seeking additional investment capital in 2008?
Ha ha! Public offering? No, Steve, no, a thousand times no!! I have been the CEO of a NASDAQ listed public company and it is not a life I would wish on my worst enemy. As for investment, Northern Light is employee-owned and operated, profitable, cash-flow positive, and growing nicely. We have no need for outside investment. And besides, our Board of Director meetings are so delightful right now. After the usual business review in which the Board exhorts management to increase revenue and decrease costs, we open a chardonnay and officially review it for the Board Meeting Minutes. You just can’t have fun like that with outside investors.
I know you can't reveal secrets, but what are some of the enhancements that you will release in the coming months?
We have substantial work going on in new content domains such as government procurement opportunities and data sources, deeper pharmaceutical content, and ever expanding Web business and industry news.
There is no question that Microsoft has decided that SharePoint will be a ubiquitous presence as a generic portal platform in enterprise computing. Once Microsoft decides to take over an enterprise computing market space, resistance is futile, and besides, what we do is independent of the portal UI platform, so having more and deeper points of integration with SharePoint for our clients cannot be a bad idea.
We are keenly aware of the benefits of social computing for strategic research, and we will have a lot work going on with clients right now to see which our ideas for social computing based on enterprise search are actually good ones.
Lastly, from a technology viewpoint, Northern Light intends to take meaning extraction to new and profound levels.
Northern Light has moved from search to a richer approach to information access. You can still run a key word query, but the company--like Attivio--has shifted toward business intelligence. With the enterprise search market undergoing some significant shifts in the aftermath of the $1.2 billion buy out of the trouble Fast Search & Transfer, Northern Light has an opportunity to capture customers disenchanted with the massive, custom-built search platform solutions. Northern Light takes a lighter-weight, more approachable angle on inforamtion access. You can use the system as a resource for business information, or you can obtain a wide range of business intelligence functions. Take a look at this version of Northern Light.
Stephen E. Arnold
June 2, 2008