Jacob O. Wobbrock, Ph.D. is a technology professor and entrepreneur focused on interactive solutions that improve the user and customer experience. AnswerDash is a startup company he co-founded that came out of research at the University of Washington Information School.
From September 2012 - May 2015, he was the founding CEO of AnswerDash, a VC-backed SaaS company that enables online businesses to provide instant context-sensitive answers to their website visitors, reducing their customer support costs, increasing their sales, and giving them insights into their customers’ needs.
Q: What are some challenges you faced when developing your venture?
What aren’t challenges when commercializing university research? We had a prototype system built to explore the possibility of a new means of providing website self-service, and it was just that: a prototype. It ran fine but lacked the robustness, scalability, security, and refinement of a commercial product. The gap between research projects and commercial products is a big one, and that’s because the goals of research and the goals of commercialization are different. Research is seeking to explore a possible future by building early-stage prototypes and trying to figure out what’s important, what’s not, and where the interesting problems lie. Commercialization better already have answers to such early-stage questions or whatever’s being commercialized is not going to get very far. So we had a lot of product work to do. Our first customer pitches were based on videos of our research prototype. The key was, however, that customers, even seeing a rough prototype, could imagine the rest, and were so excited to have it that we knew we were onto something.
Q: Was there any point when you thought it was over? That you were going to fail?
Nope! I’m an optimist, and I figured whatever challenges we faced we could overcome through smarts, grit, and rapid iteration. We had a strong team inspired by the technology and vision right from the start, and together I knew we could find our way through the forest when it became a little dark.
Q: As an entrepreneur how important has flexibility been in developing your venture?
Startups of all kinds must be flexible, able to bend without breaking when conditions require it. Nobody has all the answers, including and perhaps especially the founders, and a team that can react quickly, stay hungry, and move together as a unit can outperform any “lone genius” convinced of his own correctness. A key to flexibility is to be able to admit your own mistakes and mistake-prone-tendencies, and to patch up your own shortcomings with the best skills from those around you. It prevents rigidity because you can’t be rigid if you’re aware you don’t have all the answers.
Nobody gets very far doing all the work alone. Professor-founders like myself often are used to being high-performing individual contributors in their research and teaching work, and so it can be hard to learn to delegate and trust others. I grew a lot in this capacity and I knew I had to. I’m sure I still have a long way to go.
Q: What was was your spark, where did it come from?
Research! Most people who have never seen behind the scenes in a top-tier research university probably aren’t aware of what really goes on there. But professors at such places, if they are worth their salt, are hard at work “making knowledge.” The stuff that’s in the textbooks that every undergraduate reads had to come from somewhere. It came from years, even decades, of careful research, which includes asking provocative questions and having the skills to pursue answers that can, ideally, generalize. In our case, the question was, “How can we make user interfaces more understandable and easier to use?” and the idea for embedding answers right into an interface emerged as a possible answer. From there, we saw that we could use a search-based approach, which made our solution new and flexible, and that Q&A was a good form for this information to take. It could grow over time, be rich with multimedia, and produce analytics of interest. More possibilities emerged. It was like we’d passed through a small cave entrance and wound up in a huge cavern of possibilities.
Innovation of any kind requires a certain kind of rebelliousness, if rebelliousness can be taken to mean, “questioning the way we do things now and imagining better possible futures.” This might not be smoking in junior high beneath the bleachers but it is an innovator’s rebelliousness, to be sure.
I co-founded AnswerDash with a colleague and fellow professor, Andy Ko, and with our Ph.D. advisee at the time, Parmit Chilana, now a professor in her own right. I consider them both to be my friends, and I think they would say the same. I also hired people into AnswerDash that were my friends in the early days. Friendship in this context is a double-edged sword. Some founders swear by it, others swear against it. The benefits are obvious, but so are the downsides, and both are real. AnswerDash had good luck with friendships in this way, but the more important friendships at AnswerDash have been those developed by AnswerDashers themselves, those who didn’t know each other beforehand but by pursuing the AnswerDash vision together, they became friends.