Catching Up With Factual CEO Gil Elbaz
When you want to build an application that uses lots of data–say, a directory of auto-repair shops or hotels in the U.K.–one of the fundamental questions is this: Where does the data come from, and how do you get it into the application?
Gil Elbaz, the man who in 2003 sold a start-up called Applied Semantics (now known as AdSense) to Google, has what he thinks is the solution. His latest effort is Factual, and it attracted a $25 million round of funding from Andreessen Horowitz and Index Ventures with SV Angel and former Disney president Michael Ovitz participating. Ben Horowitz and Danny Rimer are joining Factual’s board of directors.
I caught up with Elbaz by phone yesterday to talk about the vision of Factual and his plans to grow the company.
NewEnterprise: So at a high level, what is Factual and what do you intend to do?
Gil Elbaz: We see this as an emerging category. We think of it as a data platform that offers data and data services to all sorts of developers, to build cooler, more innovative applications more quickly, especially when it comes to apps that are data-driven. Finding the right vendor for that data, and then integrating it, then managing and maintaining that data is costly and expensive. Developers can move that much more quickly by tapping into our knowledge base. We’re marketing certain verticals where our data is really good. We’re putting some extra marketing muscle behind our places database.
NE: Give me a use case. How might someone use the platform?
GE: Our places database is a good example where we’re getting quite a bit of traction. What we’ve done is built one of the most comprehensive databases of business listings and points of interest. This data is easy to browse, and it’s complete. It contains address and phone and contact info and latitude and longitude. If you want to a build a new service like Yelp or Foursquare, or something that relies on knowing what’s in close proximity, a mobile app can make a simple API call, send over the current GPS coordinate and fulfill the request very quickly. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do, but it’s making serious waves because it is very hard to get that data, especially if you’re going mobile. It’s very hard to get that good data for locations around the world.
NE: Do you have other datasets?
GE: We’re being market driven and being focused on that because that’s what our customers have been asking for. But we do have others. We have data from other vertical segments like health and entertainment. In the area of education we built a database of high schools that Newsweek magazine uses in their fairly important annual ranking of high schools. They not only use the data that we were able to generate and build, but they were also able to benefit from our crowdsourcing API, so that their users get not only a more engaging experience but the great partnership comes back into our central database, so the information can be improved. That’s a nice virtuous circle that makes us confident that our data is going to keep getting better because of these partnerships.
NE: I’m trying to come up with a metaphor, and the closest thing I can think of is data–information–as a utility supplier of data. If I want to build an application that contains a lot of data, I can come to you for the data I want to use so I don’t have to go out and gather it myself. Is that fair?
GE: I think that’s a pretty good metaphor. It’s really the access that’s important. When you use our pipe you’re going to know that you’re getting good data, that’s up to date and that we stand behind it, and that other people are participating to make it better, and update it, and that you can get it quickly. Looking ahead, there’s going to be times when it’s not strictly our data. Sometimes it will be data that has been uploaded from other people or from people in the community who want to take advantage of the data platform. So it’s really the pipes and the platform that we’re building that make this kind of data and sharing possible.
NE: You sold your first company to Google. The issue came up that you don’t need the funds. You could fund this on your own. Explain why you sought funding.
GE: I did fund the company for a little while. But I knew that our mission is very audacious and in order to become the ubiquitous data layer for the Internet, to be the obvious place that a developer would go to first to get data into their application, it’s a huge, tall order, and something that’s going to take a lot of technology and marketing effort and strategic guidance. The types of people that we brought in on our angel round and then the people we’re bringing onto the board have a lot of operational experience. Also, you never know when an idea is so big that you want to raise money down the line. If you want to do that it makes sense to build bridges with the financial community as early as possible, in case it does become a more capital-intensive business. This is a new category and we feel like we have a good understanding of it, and things can change quickly, and if it does, we want to be positioned with a good team who can help us navigate the different opportunities that will certainly arise.
NE: So now that you’ve landed the funding, what’s the first order of business?
GE: The challenge is always scaling correctly and quickly. I think we’re positioned well for this. We have a humming machine here. The management team is in place and we’ve been working on this for a few years now. And we have a great culture in place with people who are really passionate about making data available. However, hiring the engineering talent is taking up a huge amount of time. That’s the number one thing on my priority list for the short term.
NE: How do you find the best engineers? Is there a trick to it?
GE: I’d have to say that having worked at Google for three and-a-half years was the perfect place to learn what a deep and strong engineering culture was all about. I also got a lot of hiring experience at Google’s Santa Monica office. I don’t think there’s one trick. I think there are signals that a person is not just looking for a job, but for an opportunity to make extremely important intellectual contributions. And also I’m looking for people who want to make contributions not just to a project but to the world. You look for quick thinking and passion, and a history of doing things beyond what the job requires. I love it when I see people who have contributed to open-source projects on their own time. That demonstrates that they’re trying to contribute to society but also that they like working on important tools that make a difference.