For entrepreneurial success, make your innovation open to all

02 Oct 2014 | Viewpoint
Jan Reichelt, co-founder of Mendeley, reflects on how his start-up brought relief to academics and shook up science publishing. The secret was in making a common cause with fellow researchers, he says

Mendeley, a start-up formed in 2008 and acquired by publishing giant Elsevier last year, was born out of the everyday drudgery academics know well.

Specifically, this is the pain of organising papers and documents, and creating citations for research. In the time before Mendeley, writing a paper with another academic was an act of bravery or frustration, with no known platforms to help smooth the collaboration.

Jan Reichelt and his two friends, Paul Föckler and Victor Henning, three PhD students from Germany, were spurred to change all this by creating an open access platform where researchers could publish and share their work. With Mendeley, researchers can manage and index their papers, in the same way as iTunes makes it possible organise music.

“Education is a slow moving industry – so we changed it ourselves,” Reichelt told a crowd of would-be entrepreneurs at the European Young Innovators Forum’s Unconvention conference in Brussels last week.

“We saw more impact through making it a movement, so we stood for open science, speeding up science and doing good,” Reichelt said.

Disruptive technology

Mendeley’s success was reminiscent of how Napster and had shaken up the music industry a few years earlier. The company won start-up awards, including a Science|Business ACES (Academic Enterprise) award.

“Before we came along, the most common way to share papers was to receive a recommendation at a conference,” said Reichelt. With Mendeley, researchers could search, find, read, and share papers that had previously been trapped behind a paywall.

Researchers had long felt stifled by publishing giants and the money they charge for their product. At one point, Henning had to purchase a copy of a journal containing his own article because the publisher’s policy did not include providing authors with a free copy of their work.

Mendeley was sold to Elsevier for an undisclosed sum on Reichelt’s 34th birthday in 2013. While obviously a great birthday present, many in research circles considered this a betrayal and there was concern this would be a threat to the open access model.

These fears have not been realised, Reichelt claimed. All Mendeley’s data remains under creative commons licensing and the platform has grown to become the world’s biggest research collaboration platform.

Mistakes, we made a few

Reichelt told the audience about some of his biggest mistakes and the lessons he learned.

The hardest part in building the company was keeping a lid on emotions. “You come in one morning to see that you’ve hit 20 per cent in user growth – oh no, wait, it’s all spam,” he said.

Having staff members quitting was also up there in terms of setbacks.  

Indeed, recruiting the right people was a headache. “I can’t stress how important experience is. We hired people who were too junior, meaning we had to do some stuff three or four times over,” Reichelt said.

“We listened too much to investors too,” said Reichelt. One recommendation  was to open a base in New York. Reichelt re-located and found his energy sapped in trying to keep up with events at the headquarters in London. “You should of course hear [investors] out but don’t believe they know better than you.”

However, investors come into their own in other ways. “If you can’t find the right people to help you with a problem you’re having, do try and leverage your investor’s network,” was Reichelt’s advice.

Amongst his tips for growing a company, Reichfelt advised steering clear of public relations agencies. “Don’t go to PR agencies anytime soon. You need to be the PR. In my experience, PR companies don’t live and breathe your product,” he said.

It is also important to be realistic about your capabilities. “We always tried to do too much. In my own experience, executing one thing is hard enough,” Reichfelt said.

Starting a business is entirely different from getting good grades, said Reichelt. At university, he would always sit at the back of the lecture theatre with Henning and Föckler, far away from the lecturers. “It meant we had time to discuss and plan things.”

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