Questia Media acquired by Gale / Cengage Learning
I co-founded Questia Media in 1998 with Troy Williams and Justus Baird. We started the company in a studio apartment on the south side of Houston, Texas.
All three of us had been students at Rice University in the mid 90’s, had gone on to other things, and then come back to Houston to found Questia in late ’98.
I haven’t been involved in the company in a long time, but it is nice to finally see it sold to a strategic acquirer that provides online tools for education, rather than the string of financial investors who have been involved in most of the company’s history.
We started the company with a vision to “democratize access to knowledge” by making access to a high quality academic library universal. This is literally how we described what we were doing. It was our reason for existence and we worked around the clock.
It wasn’t a picnic, but we had a high-minded mission that we thought we could realistically achieve, and it was exciting.
There are a lot of stories involved in getting the company off the ground, but I’ll leave those for the book.
The short version is that we started off in a small apartment in south Houston with an old phone, a kitchen table and some computers bought out of my checking account. We used our credit cards for living expenses.
Troy started negotiating deals with publishers to get access to digitally re-publish their out-of-print books, I started writing the software to display and index the books while Justus started acquiring the books and hiring staff.
Within the first year of starting the company, we had caught the attention of Rod Canion, the founder of Compaq Computers, and his roving management team of ex-Compaq executives.
Canion and Co. made initial investments in the company to begin hiring staff. I picked up the initial investment check from his house one afternoon and we were off.
We rented an old house near Rice University, started hiring young dotCom folks, and the company exploded from there.
Olympia Ammon, one of our first employees and VP Publisher Relations, put up posters graphing the number of publishers who had signed deals with us.
I put up posters graphing the prototype software modules we’d finished developing. I kept a black marker handy to track our progress and wrote a lot of prototype code myself.
Eventually, I had a technical staff that involved about 60 people, half dedicated to internal digitization workflow and half dedicated to the online service.
Randy Dragon, the VP Technical Operations for Disney, was recruited to follow me as Chief Technical Officer when I left the company a couple of years later.
Over several years, the company raised around $160MM in capital to continue digitizing content. It now provides access to 76,000 books, millions of articles, and citation and writing tools for tens of thousands of subscribers.
The company has survived two recessions, the eventual exit of all of the original founders, and many rounds of cut-backs and new capitalizations in order to continue developing the digital library.
While this wasn’t the IPO that everyone had in mind, it does help to guarantee that more than a decade of effort and investment aimed at building the world’s largest, most authoritative, and most copyright-compliant academic digital library is safeguarded and continued.
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