Jeff Stibel is a founding partner of Bryant Stibel and Stibel & Company. He has served on the boards of a number of non-profit, private, and public companies, including as Chairman of BrainGate, LegalZoom and The Search Agency. Stibel was previously President & CEO of Web.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: WWWW) and The Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corporation, and later served as D&B’s (NYSE: DNB) Vice Chairman.
Stibel is also a USA Today columnist and author of The New York Times bestseller Breakpoint (Macmillan: 2013) and Wired for Thought (Harvard Business Press: 2009).
Stibel received his undergraduate degree in psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science from Tufts University, and his graduate degree from Brown University, where he was the recipient of a Brain and Behavior Fellowship while studying for a PhD. Stibel also spent time as a visiting fellow at MIT and received an honorary doctorate from Pepperdine University.
The Accidental Entrepreneur
While in college, I started my first two businesses with a couple of friends. Both failed miserably but all of my partners went on to create amazing businesses.
Around the same time, the philosopher Dan Dennett gave me some sage advice: to be a critical thinker, you need to have a strong background in science. He likely didn’t think anything of the conversation, but it had such a profound impact on me that I named my daughter after him years later.
Small Gestures Sometimes Lead to Transformational Turning Points
That’s when the light bulb went off – and I decided to focus on the brain, moving on to a PhD program at Brown University.
How a Brain Scientist Broke Into the Internet
During graduate school, I had begun to see similarities between the internet and the brain. I decided the business world was the right place to explore the similarities and spent some time at MIT studying behavioral economics and business under Dan Ariely as a Visiting Fellow (At least that’s what it was called years later after the program head, my advisor, and I couldn’t remember the exact name).
I also started an applied cognition lab with my PhD advisor, computational neuroscientist, Jim Anderson. We were joined by about a dozen other professors, post-doctoral students, and graduate students across a range of intriguing fields. It was one of the first times that I’d attempt to bring big brains together for a higher purpose. One thing became quickly apparent: An academic setting was no place for an applied lab.
Simpli, A Success
That’s when I left my PhD program to start a company. My advisors from MIT and Brown joined, as did the late Princeton psychologist George Miller. My longtime business partner Pete Delgrosso joined as well and named the company Simpli.com because even as early as 1998, he couldn’t find us any better domains. We built a semantic network (think “words and meanings”) and applied that to what, at the time, was a very difficult problem: internet search.
We had our ups and downs, but Simpli eventually became a great success, getting acquired by a public company just before the bubble bust in 2000.
A Tangled Web
By that time, I had gotten married and we had our first child. Age may give us wisdom, but there is a huge advantage to starting a company before you have real responsibilities. That said, I still had the entrepreneurial itch, so we sat down over dinner with some friends and colleagues and agreed to start another business, Web.com.
But this time, we didn’t do it from scratch. We created a “startup with assets” by acquiring a number of website businesses to build what’s ultimately become one of the largest web services providers in the world. We had fun building Web.com and running a public company, but after many years we were eager to start something new. When we finally left Web.com, the company was in great hands under the leadership of David Brown and eventually sold for over $2 billion.
Minds and Machines
The slow transition with Web.com gave me the freedom to finally “finish” my doctoral thesis about the parallels between the internet and the brain. Since I technically wasn’t in school anymore, I wrote a book instead called Wired for Thought, which was published by Harvard Business Press.
I also had a unique opportunity about this time to become part of a business that truly matched my passions. At Brown, a neuroscientist by the name of John Donoghue invented a technology called BrainGate that allowed animals to control electrical devices with their thoughts (and only required a bit of brain surgery). I was fortunate to be able to acquire BrainGate when it was a public company, and our team continues to quietly build the technology in hopes that it will one day be of great value to humanity.
When I think about the things that guided me to this point, it seems fitting that our next business was called Credibility and was focused on helping other businesses establish their credit worthiness and credibility. We bought the small business credit bureau of Dun & Bradstreet (think “startup with assets”) and eventually merged it with D&B, which ultimately sold for around $7 billion. After our merger, I went from CEO to Vice Chairman, a cathartic process that helped me step back from the day-to-day.
Hitting a Breaking Point
During my time with Dun & Bradstreet, I wrote my second book entitled Breakpoint (Macmillan; 2013), which was about the digital revolution. It was largely a success and made it onto the New York Times Bestsellers list but I realized that not many people actually read books anymore.
As the world grows increasingly digital, our ability to process large amounts of information is drastically impaired. It’s not all bad, but it is different. I decided to put books on hold and instead write a bi-monthly column for USA Today about the brain, business, and technology.
The Next New Thing
It’s worth noting that at each of the companies I have been a part of, the team has almost entirely been the same as it is today. Even Kobe and I had quietly been working together for years before we announced that he was joining our team. We are a merry band but when you see us in action, it’s a different story: we argue, heckle, talk over each other, and pay little respect to social norms. But that’s what makes us good at what we do—there is no head of the table, no risk of saying the wrong thing, and only the best ideas bubble to the surface.
Most people think great teams are composed of great individuals. We think differently about team building. Our team is a group of unique individuals with some greatness, some quirks, and even a few warts. But ultimately, we know what makes a great team and most notably, how to work (and play) with other great teams.
A Glass Completely Full
I am an unabashed optimist and believe that great people should be doing great things. But even the greatest of people need help achieving big goals. Surrounding yourself with the right partners can ensure not just that your goals are achieved, but that the goals of today pale in comparison to the achievements of tomorrow. I have always been frustrated that I couldn’t find someone to be an active participant in my business, helping me lead the way, while letting me lead. Our goal is to fill that gap. We created the Office of the Chairman as a way for our entire team to get deeply involved while letting the company’s leaders lead. Whether through Bryant Stibel or our other businesses, our goals are to work with others to help them succeed. We work with entire executive teams, sitting alongside them, nudging where necessary, with the ultimate goal of trying to make others more successful than we have been ourselves.