Two essentials for any startup are finding talent and tracking your competitors. Jeff Spillers is using the Net to do both. Spillers is vice president of business development at WebThreads, a Vienna, Virginia-based company that produces software for following users' paths, or threads, as they move through a Web site. Just over a year ago, Web-Threads was nothing more than an email conversation between Spillers and the software's inventor, Yermo Lamers. Now it's a company of 12 that expects to double within the next six months. Here's how WebThreads leveraged the Internet to build an Internet tool.
Is it true that you met your partner over the Internet?
Yes. Yermo Lamers was working for a company where he had built an Internet service provider called RadixNet. I was their first customer. I had a technical question and wrote in to their head tech guy, who was Yermo. We began to communicate by email. Eventually, Yermo described to me a piece of software [WebThreads] he had developed that would address some of the issues we were looking at. I searched for somebody out there to get the answer to a question, and that led me to WebThreads.
When he emailed you, did he describe WebThreads in general terms to protect his idea, or did he lay it all out?
He spared no details. The first thing I told him when I finally got to see him in person was, "Please don't tell anybody else about this, and please take it off your Web site until I can figure out what to do with it." He had it all on the Web!
The so-called gurus say you should never describe your idea or product in too much detail on the Net, for the obvious reason that someone might steal it.
We did exactly the opposite of everything we were supposed to do. It's part intentional, and part not knowing any better. When we first started talking about WebThreads, we were just talking innocently about an idea. It was only after we met face-to-face that it occurred to us that we'd better keep a lock on this for a little while.
Who are your competitors, and how have you used the Net to find them?
Companies like NetCount, I/PRO, Net.Genesis — Web tracking companies. We used every search mechanism with every combination of phrases imaginable to turn over every rock and dig out our competitors. Then we used this information to draw a matrix of what features our competitors had. This did two things: it told us who we were up against, and it told us what the marketplace was like.
What do you look for when you go to a competitor's Web site?
Indications that they are moving in a particular direction, indications that a big announcement is coming, heightened activity in particular sections, hiring. We look at what types of jobs they are hiring for, how many ads they have. Anything you want to know about a company, you can find out from its Web site.
It might not be unusual to track the competition on the Net, but it is unusual to find a partner on the Net and to discuss your intellectual property openly. I guess the rule here is to be willing to break the rules.
That's the whole point of the Net. The Internet in and of itself has changed the dynamics of how we do business. We've simply taken full advantage of every opportunity that the Internet has presented us. We continue to do that every day.
Coordinates: Jeff Spillers, (email@example.com)
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 96 issue of Fast Company magazine.