A Penny's Worth

Entrepreneur, Aaron Stanton

Aaron Stanton is an entrepreneur who rose to prominence through CanGoogleHearMe.com which documented his quest to win the attention of Google (and founder of BookLamp.org)

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If your life were a novel, the opening pages would focus on a website you set up back in 2007 called CanGoogleHearMe.com which attracted world wide attention. Can you describe the beginning of your journey and how the idea to contact Google was conceived?
If 2007 were the first chapter, there would have to be a fairly extensive epilogue. The company behind BookLamp.org, Novel Projects, inc., was incorporated in 2003, back when I decided to act my idea to build a computer-based system for analyzing writing style on a massive scale. I was in college at the time, and I originally paid my roommate - who was a computer science major - $10 per hour to implement the system while I worked for $7 an hour as a technician at a nearby company. I just worked more hours than he did. This was before Google Book Search, and we finished a system that could take a book and break it into the different parts of speech. We had formulas, and applied them to a test book - Thinner, by Stephen King, I think. And it was pretty cool. The problem was that we knew at that point that we needed a database of 10,000 books, and nothing like that existed. A few months later, Google announced the Book Search program, and I found myself saying, "You know, Google should do this." And they didn't. I waited, and waited, and finally decided I had to either act or let the concept go.
A dreamer is the master in his mind but a servant to reality. Did you prepare yourself for the worst to avoid being disappointed?
Absolutely I prepared for the worst. I'm a great fan of contingency plans. In fact, CanGoogleHearMe.com was actually phase two of a three part contingency. Simply calling and e-mailing Google were the first options, but those didn't get me anywhere. When I got on the plane to do a cold call on the Google campus, Plan A was to simply walk in and ask for an appointment. I figured there was a chance they'd just set one up, and no big deal. The first day I was there, I walked into the first lobby I found (there's many of them), and presented a straight front. "My name is Aaron Stanton," I said. "I'm in town on business, I have a good idea that I want to discuss with Google. Would it be possible to set up a meeting"

The answer, it turned out, was no. So I immediately walked out of that office, walked down to the next office, and tried again using a different tactic. "My name is Aaron. I'm here because my father had a near fatal embolism, and it scared me into chasing my dreams. I've flown here from Boise, Idaho to meet with Google. Can you help me" I repeated that a few times before heading back to the car and filming what turned out to be the second video on CanGoogleHearMe.com.

So, asking was Plan A. CanGoogleHearMe.com was Plan B. It was not originally created to be viral outside of Google. I thought there was a good chance that someone at the front desk wouldn't have the power to help me, even if they wanted to. So, I created CanGoogleHearMe.com (CGHM) as a sort of business card. If someone asked me, "What can I do to help" I'd be able to point them to the website and say, "Just pass this link on to the person above you most likely to be receptive to it."

That was it. And it worked. Nearly half of the population of the Googleplex in California viewed the site the first night I was in Mountain View, before the site went viral to the rest of the world. People often think that Google was forced to respond to me, but that's not being fair to Google. My first supporters were Google employees that passed me up the chain of command until I found the right ear.

And finally, I had Plan C, if the CGHM approach failed. If I'd had no success after the end of the week or so, I was going to play my journalism card. I'd worked as a journalist for About.com and a game journalism site called GamesFirst Internet Magazine for several years. I'd worked freelance writing for companies like Apple, inc. So I called Entrepreneur magazine and asked them if they'd be interested in an article on how a little company gets in touch with a big company like Google. The idea was that, if I needed to, I'd call up Google's PR, tell them I was writing an article for Entrepreneur Magazine on speculation about small companies getting in touch with big companies, and that I needed a person to interview.

I would then use that person as my contact. And then write the article, of course. Everything falls apart the instant you stop being genuine in your approach - all of it was based on the belief that if you put legitimately good ideas in front of people, they'd respond positively. That's always been my goal.
Many people contact large companies but very few are contacted by them. Can you describe how Google made contact with you and what went through your mind when this happened?
The first e-mail from Google was very simple, and very gratifying. It was a fellow named David, and it simply read, "We can hear you :)" in the subject line. Certainly, the smiley face was important - up until that point I knew people from the Googleplex were viewing the site, but it could easily have been their security passing my photo around. The smiley face was the sign that I was being received in the spirit I intended - sort of quirky, non-threatening, all-in-good-fun. Passionate, but not arrogant. It was the first "official" communication from Google. I'd received several lunch invites by then, and plenty of good lucks from inside Google, by that point.
It's frequently reported that most people fear public speaking more than death. Can you describe what went through your mind when the boy from Idaho presented his fabled idea to Google?
Sadly, I can't really talk about the actual meetings. But in general it was a mix of nerves, and just relief. Nerves because there are few points in your life where you can sense a changing point as it's happening - a lot in my life was riding on my living up to my statement that "I had a good idea." That's a fair amount of pressure. And relief, because I was going to have a chance to say what I wanted to say, and would at least go home either rejected or accepted, but not ignored. Not unheard. I'm glad I prepared, I'm glad I spent as much time arranging my actual ideas as I did building CGHM, that's for sure.
The public reaction to the Segway (code named "Ginger"), was underwhelming partly due to the enormous hype which surrounded its unveiling. What were your feelings the night before your idea was to be unveiled and how was your idea received by a curious public?
I was a little nervous, I suppose, but not terribly so. We'd opened the doors to about 300 beta testers in the beginning, so I had an idea of how people would react. Also, you have to keep in mind that I actually never hyped the idea. I've had people ask me how people responded to my idea after I'd hyped it so much, and I almost always point out that I never really did. In fact, a regular challenge is for anyone to go back and find an interview or a writing where I refer to what we do as a "great" idea. Or revolutionary, etc. I was very consistent in how I referred to the idea. I said I believed I had a "genuinely good idea", and nothing more. My intention was to put a good idea in front of reasonable people, and see how they reacted.

And so, I wasn't really nervous, because even if no one liked it, I didn't feel I personally had over hyped it. I was always sincere in how expressed what we did.

And by that time, we'd put a lot of work into building something - just having it exist seemed like a reasonable ending to the story, if that's how life had fated it. If we put ourselves out there and no one liked it, that was OK. I'd followed through, and that mattered to me. In the end, there was no reason to be concerned at all. We had our first 10,000 registered users in the first 72 hours, were contacted by publishers and some other major players within days of going public. The positive response was extremely encouraging.

People wished we had a better database, of course, a wish that still exists (and will eventually come), but in concept I think it connected with enough people to make it worthwhile. The only people that seemed to really dislike it were a few commenters on Digg.com, but then, they generally hate pretty much everything. :)
Ultimately your story is driven by and centers around one idea. Can you describe your idea and how it was conceived?
The idea is to use computers to analyze novels for writing style. The concept is simply this: Readers judge a book by three elements: Characters, Plot, and Writing Style. We're great at reading and writing reviews based on the first two. If I ask you to describe a book, you'll describe who the characters are and what happens to them. What we're not really great at is writing style, but that's arguably as important. Both the Characters and the Plot have to filter through the writing style, at some point.

I use Romeo and Juliet as an example. Classic storyline, classic characters - fundamentally a plot similar to Twilight, in fact - but how many people are reading the Shakespeare version for fun, now days' Would Twilight be as popular if it were written in the style of Shakespeare' Probably not.

So we wanted to build a system that can judge a reader's writing style preference based on the books they've liked in the past, and include that in the recommendation system. Right now, we only look at Characters and Plot - we ultimately want to include Characters, Plot, and Writing Style.

Where the idea came from is a long story, so I'll abbreviate it. When I was 16, I wrote a lot. I'd have my father edit for me by writing his interest levels at different points in the story at the top of each page, using a scale of 1 through 10. If there was a page with low interest - say, 5 or less - that's where I needed to rewrite. Trying to figure out a way to do that when I got to college - where my Dad wasn't around as much - was the original genesis of the project. I wanted to compare my own writing to the writing of people I considered to be my influences. It was a tool for helping writers first, then a recommendation tool.
People can recognize an attractive face but can't necessarily pinpoint what makes it attractive. Do you think the real benefit of your technology is in quantifying the abstract which in this case is stories?
I think you hit it on the head. Writing Style is important, and most people agree on that - most people won't claim that how something is written has nothing to do with what's inside a book. A good example is that most people have a preference between first vs. third person novels, or present and past tense, but they don't really think about these things when reading a book review online. These are writing style elements, and people are not great at first judging, and then conveying to someone else what their preferences are. They like it, or they don't and use vague terms like, "Well, it's too dense."

On the other hand, people already know what they like in the character and storyline, hence the usefulness of genre and human reviews. The advantage of our system, at least as I see it, is the ability to judge the "attractiveness" of a book in ways that humans agree with, but can't adequately describe. Like writing style. I think you made a very astute observation there.
A game plan is impotent if it's missing a talented team and good execution. How have you set about ensuring that your chances of success are high?
I recently decided that my one major skill is thinking creatively, strategically, and then conveying the idea successfully. This project's chances of success went up an amazing amount the first time I successfully conveyed the passion for the project from me to other key people that have actually carried it forward. I was extraordinarily lucky with the original programming team I found after the CGHM trip. I've since learned that I easily had a team of top notch engineers, each worth well over $100,000 a year, working with me full time in exchange for pizza and a good time. As we've gone out and actually hired programmers, I've since found that you're very hard pressed to find truly good candidates capable of doing what needs to be done purely for money.

I was amazingly lucky to first find, and then recruit, the people with the right skill sets to get the job done, even though we were working out of a living room at 3:00 a.m.

My most successful skill so far, I think, is simply that I've found the right people. Or, perhaps the right people found me. The point is, every major advancement of the project has - most times - been connected with the inclusion of a new person willing to run with the torch for a while. We now have a staff of 8 people on the project, and each of them has been invaluable. This long ago stopped being my project alone.
On the upside, pizza isn't considered taxable income, but most businesses don't recognize it as legal tender either. Can you talk a little about how your staff are being compensated now?
I don't really want to go to deep into funding structures, but the company is now partly Angel funded. Regardless, we generally survive on minimum salaries, meaning everyone looks at their costs of living and comes up with a number they think they need to survive. One of the advantages of finding the right people is not just skills, but willingness to believe in the project and it's long term potential. We're not in this to make it rich from our salaries, and never have been. Nor, I think, are we in this to be rich - a goal that may or may not ever become a reality. We're in this largely because we love what we do, we believe in the power and good of what we're doing, and we enjoy being in the trenches with each other.

I was rewatching the Lord of the Rings the other night, and a thought struck me. At the end of the series, the four hobits are sitting around the table in the Shire, drinking beer. You almost get this sense that they're like... well, now what' They'd gone through this huge adventure of hardship and troubles, and when they came out on the other side they were changed. The no longer had to stick together to survive, and yet they still sat together at the bar, still shared the experience even though now they had survived, were successful, and could live anywhere in the world. My point being is that starting a company - to me - is much the same. You take a few years of your life and go on an adventure. The adventure is not easy - you'll have few resources, fight amazing challenges, struggle to survive, sometimes be low on food and running for your lives, sometimes fighting heroically for your cause.

But when you pass through onto the other side, succeed or fail, you'll eventually reach a calm that follows, and you'll be sitting around a table with your friends - who have gone through it with you - and you'll look at each other and say, "We made it. What do we want to do now"

Somehow, that's a very appealing image to me.
One of the reasons that Google was so successful is that it was able to recognize creative and profitable ways to exploit its technology. How do you see this technology being applied both within the publishing industry and also outside of it, and do you think the publishing industry is ripe for it?
Simple answer, yes, I think the publishing industry is at a point where - for the first time - technology is starting to be something that adds to their control of content instead of just threatens it. For the publishing industry, technology has had a very different role than anywhere else. Traditionally, technology increases control. The adoption of e-mail did not harm business; it just allowed you to communicate faster than you could before. All in all, it was a net positive for business and industry, and didn't require a sacrifice on the part of the companies that adopted it. That's the traditional role of technology - substantial increases in efficiency with minimal downside.

It has to be, because no company would gamble on a big technology that huts them as much as it helps them.

In publishing, the first generation of technology tools directly challenged the publisher's ability to control their own content. Adoption of large scale scanning projects meant potentially opening yourself up to a Napsterization of the industry. New technology was equally threatening and exciting.

Now, though, we're seeing the first wave of technologies that can help publishers without the dangers of first generation tools. Full text search ability that doesn't require exposing copyrighted material to users. Social networks that improve book buying ability, without giving away their bread and butter.

The subject of how our technology can be applied inside the industry is a long one that's consumed many hours of my life here at Novel Projects, so I'll simply say that we see it having potential in nearly every aspect of publishing, from the writing, to the editing and selling of a book.

And yes, I think the publishing industry is very well prepared to begin accepting the right technologies that empower the publisher instead of just ensnare or scare them.
An interesting concept only becomes popular if it's useful. What has reader feedback been like on the appropriateness of BookLamp's recommendations (and how accurately does it compare with your father's assessments)?
Reader feedback and customer feedback are different things, since we focus on a number of different types of customers. We've had overwhelmingly positive response from users to the concept, and we've also developed very sophisticated tools for validating our recommendations internally.

We have yet to really release enough tools to the general reader to give them any chance to have meaningful feedback. The technology demonstration that's currently at BookLamp.org is still too limited for that. Internally, though, we're much father along, with access to far larger databases.
Some people swear by unusual combinations like cheese and peanut butter sandwiches or chillied mangos. Have you come across any surprising but appropriate book matches?
Haha. As with all these questions, this is a cocktail discussion unto itself. We discover interesting connections all the time, some very appropriate. For example, Stephen King tends to match Richard Bachman, which is a pen name that Stephen King wrote under a few years back. If you gather a bunch of old texts from Project Gutenberg, such as The Wizard of Oz, Great Expectations, and Pride and Prejudice, they tend to match against other old text in the database, such as Alice in Wonderland.

Old books have a very distinctive density and pacing usage that's very different than most modern trade fiction. Star Trek books tend to all fall within an easy pacing and density range that is very different than the average non-Star Trek book. You find those sorts of issues all the time.

And then there are books like Island of the Sequined Love Nun... but that's another story. :)
Have you thought about analyzing the classics by Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle or even the Bible to see what might show up?
Funny you should ask - I talk about that in the earlier question. In fact, we work with a researcher out of Stanford University that specifically studies the change of writing style over time. We don't normally go back as far as some of those, such as Plato, but we do have an interest in historical trends, for sure.
If a dream were a graphic novel, reality would more often be a textbook. What have you found to be the most difficult or laborious part of starting a business and how do you think entrepreneurship can be better fostered?
Probably one of the most difficult things for me is to keep in mind that working in the trenches warps your sense of time. Everything seems to take more time than you want when you're knee deep, head down, working hard. But every once in a while, someone will come along, hear what you've been doing, and say something like, "Wow, you guys are really flying, eh"

When you look at a company from the outside, when things are going well, they seem to happen fast. You have the "overnight successes", where they seem to just burst out and fly from the start. But if you read actual accounts of those companies, they almost universally report that, at least during the actual building of the company, they themselves would not have described it so dramatically. In the trenches, EVERY battle is hard won, and takes hours and hours of work, preparation, uncertainty, etc. Most overnight successes have many years of work building up to them - I don't think you'll ever find a successful entrepreneur that simply says, "Yes, it all just fell at my feet overnight. I didn't have to work for it at all. It was just that easy."

Keeping in mind that difference in perspective is very important. It's helpful to every once in a while look back at the people that are walking in your footsteps to see how far you've come. And second, make sure you enjoy the people you're working with (I say this a lot), because what that translates to is that you'll spend hours and hours working on tasks that have no clear successful outcome.

When on your adventure with others, they are your family, in a way. You live, eat, and breath with them. I've probably eaten more meals with my business partners in the last year than I have with my family. I normally eat breakfast and lunch at work, sometimes dinner. :)
Your meetings involved people not only from Google, but Yahoo, Microsoft and Amazon.com. Among all the people you've met, who stands out the most?
Everyone stands out for their own reasons, but they are all very different companies, with very different styles. This could be an essay unto itself - from the fact that Amazon builds their own desks (or at least used to) to reinforce the concept that efficiency is king, to Google's very opposite approach of feeding everyone as much food as they want, they are all very different.

I can say this without hesitation, though. With very few exceptions, I've been impressed with every major company that has interacted with us in a significant way, though not always in the same way. Every company has things that they see better than others. What I've taken away from most of them is simply that they're full of people that are overwhelmingly intelligent, passionate about what they do, reasonable, and worth knowing.

People that don't fall in those categories probably don't talk to people like me, anyway. :) So they probably exist, but I don't know them.
When you look back on this venture in 10 years' time, what do you hope to see?
Stage 1 of a bigger plan. :)
You've celebrated milestones with a $1 sundae from McDonalds. How would you celebrate something like a successful IPO?
If it were a really big milestone, such as a IPO' Probably a family BBQ, to be honest, which seems somewhat underwhelming, I know. :)

The exact form of the celebration is somewhat irrelevant. My family has always had the philosophy that you celebrate the wins in life, and you acknowledge them often. Always find the joy of discovering a lucky penny, for example, even when a lucky penny is no longer significant to you. $1 sundaes are much the same.

But yes, for a big event, a family gathering where everyone that's supported us can show up and feel like they've made a difference for someone else. That would make me happy. I honestly feel that I owe success to certain people - I'd like nothing more than to justify their faith in someone else (namely, me), and prove them right.

If at the end of the day, I'd like all the people that helped me, including people that have simply sent good luck e-mails, to be able to sit back with a feeling that they participated in a success story. We need success stories. We need to feel like we can influence extraordinary events, and I'd very much like to make sure that the people who have influenced MY success story (if I'm ever so lucky as to call it that) know how valuable their role in it was for me.
In many ways your story is about turning a pipe dream into a reality. Can you describe what's it's like to have stopped pipe dreaming and what the best cure is for inertia?
The day there was functional code for my idea was fairly extraordinary. Think about it. You've been envisioning this system for years. You know in your heart that it will work, but others are not so sure. "Will it really do what you think it will" they ask, and with good reason. You tell people about it, and they say things like, "That's pretty cool, if it works." It's this thing that could positively effect so many people - it could help writers connect with publishers, it could help readers discover new books.

And then one day you have a tool that you can feed your own book into, and it will recommend a publisher to send it to. It will tell you if you write more like Stephen King or Piers Anthony. And suddenly, instead of saying, "Cool, if it works," when they see it, people just say, "Cool."

If you can get any sense of what that's like, it's tremendously validating.

And regarding getting over lack of inertia... it's a bit cliche, but simply overcoming the fear of doing something wrong goes a long way. Simply do the next thing in your power that you think has the highest likelihood of bringing you closer to your goal. You'll never be more certain than that.
If you had had been born at the turn of the century, long before computers and Internets, what would you have done with your life?
I'd have probably been a writer, or if I'd been creative enough to discover the field, I would have probably worked in the automation and development side of industry. That would likely mean railroads, I'd guess, maybe car manufacturing. There were some groundbreaking studies during that time that established the human cost of forcing people to work too much, too long of hours - they established that it was in a business's best interest in terms of turnover, product quality, and total cost to limit employee hours to reasonable times. Hence, the five day work week instead of the 6 day work week.

I think I'd have been drawn to that sort of work - though it would have been hard without modern statistical standards. :) It's hard to say. I may have not had the education that I do now, or the opportunities for easy travel and communication - I may have just been a street sweeper, or something equally rewarding'
Favorites. Movie? Book? Word? Food? Drink? Color?
I have so many favorites of every kind it would be difficult for me to pick one individually, so I don't have a particularly interesting answers...there are probably eighty different books I could name and eighty different movies I could name and so forth.
What is the best piece of advice you've received, and what was the source of that advice?
I don't remember the source of this advice, but my own advice would be the concept of "when all else fails, trust the world". Every single day in the morning I wake up and ask myself whether or not today is better than yesterday and whether or not this month is better than last month and this year is better than last year and the year before that. And if ultimately I keep answering "yes" to each one of those questions I'm doing something fairly okay with my life because I'm not failing at least at this point.

And most of the positive things in my life I can attribute to the fact that at some point in my life I had to decide to trust somebody or not trust somebody and I decided to trust them and the net gain of trusting somebody to not screw you over, to not steal whatever you're trying to do and claim it for themselves, has been overwhelming. I've never found myself regretting this, in years of saying, when all else fails, entrust, entrust wisely, but in general give people the benefit of the doubt.

There are a number of people who are local to the area and used to work at Amazon and Google and these kinds of companies who we basically bounce ideas off of regularly and I used to always have this question "At what point do you decide to stick yourself out there and trust that this big company isn't just going to take this idea and run with it; at what point is it more dangerous to talk to them than just to keep quiet". And generally speaking you try to be as careful as you can, but generally putting yourself in front of people and assuming their intentions are good has had positive effects on my life so far.
What is the best piece of advice you've given, and who was the recipient?
This has to do with a number of ideas that I used to jot down that are kind of business philosophies. One of my favorite ones has to do with the possibility of taking reasonable chances which was covered in my post "What are the chances of becoming successful in Hollywood" and generally speaking I would say that if you take that concept that in general, taking a chance in life you risk either dying by fire or dying by ice and that in general people die by ice far more than they die by fire.

The dying by fire is that you go ahead and take the chance and you go down in a big ball of flame and it's highly embarrassing and it's a disaster, everyone knows about it. The dying by ice is that you never take the chance and you wake up and do your little stuff and you go to sleep at night and your idea or your concept or your company or whatever it is peters out, it never gains traction, it never really goes anywhere and it dies without anybody ever knowing that it existed.

And in life, generally the risk of dying by ice is far greater than the risk of dying by fire, that you take the chance, you go out there and do whatever you think you need to do in order to succeed and hope for the best and that you'll make it farther that way than being really cautious.
What would we find Aaron Stanton doing if his long lost uncle left him an estate worth $10 billion?
Well I would still be doing the exact same thing I was doing right now but just better funded! Right now the company we have, everybody who works on it is doing so probably because they think it's a good idea and worth doing, but largely because we all enjoy working with each other and because we believe in the outcome, because we wake up and say "how can we save the publishing industry today?" which is incredibly audacious for twelve people in Boise, Idaho. But I think that if we had 10 billion dollars we'd say, wow, saving the publishing industry might be a little easier now.
When you're on the cusp of death looking back on your life, what do you hope to see?
An impact that reaches beyond my immediate family. A positive impact that is not just beneficial to people who I meet with. When you get to the grain with questions like this, I hope the sum of my life has contributed positively to others' lives. If this project were successful, if this made millions of dollars, saved he publishing industry and all that stuff what I'd hopefully end up being is probably what I've wanted to be since twelve which is I'd want to go on to be a fiction author - science fiction, fantasy, whatever happened to be interesting.
Would you rather a time machine or a teleporting machine? (Why?)
A teleporting machine, because besides all of the complications which come about from not being able to predict your changes if you were to go back in time, the first thing that pops to mind is that the number one reason that grain tends to go bad in silos at times is transportation. A lot of times especially when we're talking about subsidized farming and part of the reason that subsidized farming exists is that you'll sometimes overprice grain or under price grain based on market values and there have been times when you take the barge out to the ocean and dump the grain into the ocean because it will go bad before you can ship it across to Africa. If you could instantaneously rebalance and redistribute excess materials like food to areas that need them you would solve a lot of problems in the world. Of course there would also be a whole series of interesting unforseen consequences to the world.
Straw Polls at strawpolling.com
Aaron Stanton's responses to straw polls at strawpolling.com / See how they compare to the consensus.
Would you rather be stuck in a booby trapped elevator with MacGyver or Batman?