Rules are rules and we are not fans of following them here at SSRN. But one rule we do love is Pull the Goalie!
The 7th episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History said this was his first rule for life. We love the rule, especially since he (and we) heard about it from a paper by Clifford S. Asness and Aaron Brown; two awesome authors who share their papers on SSRN.
Gladwell’s episode reminded me of our journey here at SSRN. My own disagreeable index notwithstanding, the rule reminded me of SSRN’s early days and what we did when we found ourselves several goals down … we pulled the goalie.
It was the early 2000’s and my pager* went off while I was giving a workshop at Georgia State University. It was a 9-1-1 page from the office telling me that we were in trouble. Our business model at the time was to build a critical mass of content and sell access to it. Unfortunately, very unfortunately we thought at the time, a large UK media company was attempting to do the same thing and they lost 83% of their subscribers in the first 36 hours after they added an access fee.
We were a few months away from a critical mass of metadata. The few papers in our database were considered grey literature – grey as in worthless not as in the the new black. Our business model was dead. We were quickly running out of money and needed to do something drastic. Something disagreeable. We pulled the goalie and started giving everything away for free. No charge to access. No charge to submit. No charge to download. What were we thinking?
We knew that free submissions meant we would get more stuff but more stuff meant more junk and all of it needed to be reviewed for appropriateness and curated to make it manageable. We had no idea what that meant for revenue. A freemium model wasn’t possible because the term wouldn’t exist for another few years but we knew we needed to find a different business model to be successful – to simply survive.
Early on we decided against being a not-for-profit because we wanted to provide market driven value. Real value to real customers. Come to work on Monday, provide services during the week so that people pay us – value, so that we can pay our people on Friday – value. A pretty simple formula that made sense to my accounting mind except the model didn’t exist for online services, especially not in scholarly publishing.
We looked hard at where we could provide value and did the math. The business model we created is a multi-sided market; a freemium platform for research. A Platform Revolution for researchers. The objective was simple – increase researcher performance or as I like to say, help researchers create cool, new, innovative research faster. We allowed researchers to freely share their research. We allowed everyone in the world to freely read their research. We didn’t (and still don’t) take a copyright to the research. It is the researchers’ to share in the way that makes the most sense to them.
Later, we allowed schools, other research organizations, and conferences to share their research; the three legs (people, places and events) supporting the Tomorrow’s Research Today table.
Our mantra was Tomorrow’s Research Today. We added more comprehensive curation as the database grew and alerts to help people overcome information overabundance. Thousands of micro-communities were established or evolved organically as the content grew and researchers wanted to organize and showcase their research.
As we have matured, our platform has evolved. Our mantra is now:
SSRN is the research platform where
Research is shared.
Nothing has changed in our mission and it all came from pulling that goalie almost twenty years ago.
The other thing we heard in that episode was an unexpected, albeit incredibly welcome surprise. Gladwell talks about SSRN: “In my opinion, the greatest website on the internet.” He goes on to talk about law reviews: “Why would I wait two years for some dusty publication to put something out? I read them on SSRN because that’s where everyone posts their articles the minute they finish … SSRN is page 6 for dorks.” Our group of dorks at SSRN was thrilled, flattered, and a little bit choked up to receive such an awesome acknowledgement. Thank you Malcolm!
We’re tipping an entire hat-trick to Gladwell, Asness, and Brown. Thank you for using SSRN and for reminding us that the right choice is not always an agreeable one.
*Full Disclosure – I was going to include a picture of the pager I was carrying at the time until I Googled “pager popularity” to find an image and one of the top results was “What did a pager do?” #ouch
NOTE: I just did a podcast with ITX’s Product Momentum about Gamification and we got deep into SSRN’s history discussing why we made many of the decisions we did over the past twenty years. Check it here for an interesting conversation about building SSRN.