05/19/2011 1 Comment
Ijad Madisch is Co-Founder and CEO of ResearchGate, the largest scientific network online with over 900,000 members. He studied both medicine and computer science at the University of Hannover, Germany where the focus of his doctoral thesis was in the field of virology; specifically, the molecular typing, evolution and gene therapy vector design of adenoviruses. He spent close to two years as a researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital, a division of Harvard Medical School in Boston where he came up with the idea for ResearchGate in 2005.
What is your elevator pitch?
ResearchGate is a scientific social networking platform which enables over 800,000 researchers and scientists to communicate, collaborate, and educate without geographic or financial boundaries.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
When I was a research fellow at Harvard, I realize how inefficient the scientific process was at the time. I realized that most of the scientific research being conducted by multiple scientists was taking place in a vacuum without data being shared. Additionally, it was difficult to find people with a specific skill set when a problem arose. I knew there had to be a better way. A faster, more efficient way of conducting research.
Why did you decide to start a business?
Finding a better way to conduct scientific research was a huge task but I knew that I could do it. I knew this idea could change the world of science and could end up changing the whole world. I wanted to make something big; I wanted to change the world. I knew that this idea could have a greater impact on the global scientific community more than my then current narrowly focused research fields.
What were the first steps you took to start your venture?
The first step was to talk to my friends (and fellow co-founders), Soeren Hofmayer and Horst Fickenscher, about the idea. Between us, we had enough knowledge to get the site up and running and, after speaking with them, we decided to pursue the idea in the little spare time we had and see how the scientific community would respond and get their feedback. We knew early on that user were not just the key to growing the site with regard to numbers but the feedback we received from them was essential in our ability to tailor the site to the community and make improvements based on the needs of the community.
How did you find your first customers?
Our first customers were ourselves and our scientific networks. If it didn’t work for us, if it didn’t help us in our research, how could we expect others to use it. After using the site for our own work we knew we could present this new method of scientific research to others at universities, conferences, etc. The site was received well at every step of the way and so we not only attracted users at the events but they told their friends about it and they told their friends and so on.
How do you continue to find customers and grow?
We have been able to maintain that kind of referral or viral growth because, as I previously stated, we continue to listen to our users and improve the site based on the needs of the community. Just as in any research collaboration, there must be a symbiotic relationship. Our users continue to contribute to our growth by using the site, referring others, and citing ResearchGate in papers and we must reciprocate by continuing to provide the best tools and listening to users for ways to improve the site and expand the capabilities of the site in order to improve functionality and collaboration.
What was the biggest challenge in starting your business and growing your business?
The biggest challenges we faced in growing the company were visibility, expansion, and continuously upgrading the site. Early on, this was particularly challenging as I was a full time research fellow and was trying to grow the site in my free time. Our users have been a tremendous asset in gaining visibility and we continue to do our best to maintain the trust that they have instilled in us by listening, updating, and improving the site based on their usage and needs. Of course, as the site has grown, the need for a more robust support staff is needed and I have been fortunate to build an amazing staff that understands not only the concept of the site but embraces the primary founding principle that we must listen to our users. Additionally, we continue to work hard to maintain our stance as a free service to the scientific and research community without the hassle of ads being plastered all over the site. Some may see this as a challenge as it limits a revenue stream prominent on other sites which is why I have included it, but, for me, this is essential in meeting the needs of our users.
What do you think are the essential elements to successfully growing a customer base for an innovative product?
Always be listening to your customers, be ready to react, and never settle. Your customers will tell you what they need, where you can improve, and what is already working. By being ready to react to that feedback, and making that part of your company culture, you can address any issues and make improvements quickly and efficiently. This not only improves customer experience and satisfaction but also leads to referrals and growth of your customer base. Finally, along those same lines, never settle. Just because something is working doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon. You can’t rely on your customers to catch everything so you must proactively look for ways that improve the current customer experience but also ensure that they will always have a great experience. However, be sure to improve the experience rather than change it.