“It’s about dynamics, emotions and relationships”

Three German friends took the normally staid world of science by storm when they created Mendeley, an academic social network that allows research papers to be read, cited and organised. Thanks to their collection of online tools, it is now easy to mine the canon of science for new insights. After just five years, academic-publishing giant Elsevier acquired the company in 2013 for a rumoured $100 million.

Technologist: Where did the idea come from?

Victor Henning: Paul and I were business school friends. We then both embarked on PhDs, and we wanted a way to browse a map of how scientific ideas related to each other. We thought that if you could trace ideas that are evolving in separate disciplines, research would be easier. We quickly found that copyright constraints on all the data made that impossible. So our big idea was to flip that on its head and visualise the data that people had already stored on their computers.

T. And what about the name?

V. H. From the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. When he built the Periodic Table of the Elements he confidently left blanks where he thought there had to be an element that hadn’t been discovered yet. We thought we could do a similar thing with our categorisation and recommendation engine. Based on the papers in your library, we can predict the blank spots in your knowledge and give you recommendations of what you should read next.

T. Amazon’s Werner Vogels says you’ve changed the face of science.

V. H. What’s exciting is that Mendeley is starting to be used to evaluate research grants, university performance and individual performance. So in a way we’ve changed the evaluation criteria for scientific success. The current gold standard is citations – how many people use your work in theirs – but citations take two to three years to accumulate. We’ve sped up and democratised the process: all the statistics are available for free.

T. So you’ve made science fun.

Jan Reichelt: Somebody said that, thanks to Mendeley, scientific research is the most fun you can have with your pants on. That’s pretty unusual feedback from scientists: it shows we’ve stimulated a grassroots attitude and emotional change in the subject.

T. What were your biggest obstacles as a start-up?

J. R. Building a company is nothing but removing obstacles. The first thing is getting funding: without the money there’s not even a beginning. So fundraising and constant investor management is one of the biggest barriers. But when you remove that, you have to spend the money hiring the right people, then build growth and traction, then the money runs out and you need to fundraise again…

V. H. I always felt the hardest thing to get right was building the team. We were fairly inexperienced, and we had to scale our system up for millions of users who were uploading millions of documents. Building a real-time engine to make sense of all that data meant getting the right expertise. And as the company grew the challenges associated with the team also grew. You can’t manage everyone directly, so you’re giving up a lot of influence to ambitious and talented people – it can be hard to keep everything together. I’d say building a team and staying in control of it is the hardest part.

T. What has surprised you the most on this journey?

V. H. The thing that really took me by surprise was how difficult it is to keep a handle on your emotions. A start-up is such a rollercoaster ride: at one moment you’re on top of the world because things are going your way, but at any moment you can get hit sideways – maybe one of your best guys gets recruited away by Facebook, or a fundraising round falls apart at the last minute. But you always have to present to the team that you are confident, upbeat and optimistic. So you have to internalise all of those obstacles and problems and find a way to deal with that yourself.

T. Has the acquisition by elsevier changed your business?

J. R. When the offer came, our strategies were very much aligned. So it hasn’t changed how we operate, but it’s given us the chance to have a broader impact on the market. As a start-up your influence is somewhat limited, but now we have the opportunity to think much bigger.

T. So what’s your advice for anyone on the same path?

Paul Föckler: In 2011, Victor sent us all an article about start-ups called “How to not Die”. It said that as long as you manage to survive you will somehow succeed. So, you should know that there will be hard times: work through them and you will succeed.

J. R. Some good advice is that it’s useful to have a professional optimist like Paul on your team! In truth, I’d encourage people to just get started. If you knew in advance how hard it would be, you probably wouldn’t do it. It’s a lifestyle decision: make sure you can live with this for the next 10 years. Another critical aspect is that a founding team must stick together through
times of conflict.

V. H. It’s certainly helpful that we were friends for a long time before we started Mendeley. Of course we had lots of fights and shouting matches and screaming, but the next day we’d apologise and didn’t hold any grudges. I’ve seen so many start-ups fail because the founders couldn’t do that. The team you hire immediately notice if the founders don’t work together well. That really pulls companies apart.

J. R. One thing that really surprised me is that while it’s important to think about business plans and product development and sales forecasts and so on, half of the important ingredients can’t be written down or planned. It’s about dynamics, emotions, relationships: these are much more important than the thing you think the start-up is about. If you can’t get the right team with the right attitude with the right culture with the right spirit, and a founding team that can control their emotions and build relationships with investors, business plans are not going to save you.