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New Web-Based Business Service from MeansBusiness Taps Concepts in Books Database
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Posted On December 6, 1999


A Boston-based start-up, MeansBusiness, Inc., has launched a new Internet service that provides access to the conceptual knowledge found in books on business management from the major business publishers. The titles chosen for inclusion are described as "the best of the best books that have shaped or are shaping contemporary business thinking." The audience for the service is expected to be professionals and senior executives in the consulting, academic, corporate, and other knowledge-based communities.

The key to this access to concepts resides in the taxonomy of more than 12,000 business ideas, theories, and methodologies from hundreds of books by leading authors that the company has developed over the last 2 years. The concepts are hand-selected by expert editors, chapter by chapter, in three- to seven-paragraph excerpts quoted in the authors' own words. According to MeansBusiness, this is the first business concept ontology based on authoritative content. It has reportedly been heralded as better organized and more complete than databases that are compiled and maintained by the largest consulting firms.

The company has broken down the subject area of business management into nine discrete categories, each category then having nine separate and distinct sub-categories on a second tier. A third hierarchical tier leads users to a series of "Concept Suites" that contain numerous extracts from the knowledge base of hundreds of books. Each Concept Suite thus provides an overview of the prevailing thought from a multi-source perspective. The three-tiered approach provides 900 key concept categories. Users can choose to browse and drill down through the categories, or type in a question to do a natural language search of the database. There is also an extensive network of context-sensitive cross-reference links to related material.

The concept extracts are stored in an interactive database, accessible through a customized search engine designed to search concepts (inference from words and word relationships), not keywords. The engine chosen by the system developers is Inquiry, which was developed by a researcher team that spun off from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The search engine is particularly well suited for the homogeneous data set.

Browsing and searching in the service is free. A single Concept Suite can be purchased for $15 with a credit card. An introductory price of $9 will run through the end of this month. If a user wants all of the extracts in a single book, a "Concept Book Summary" can be viewed and ordered by clicking on an icon representing that book. A Concept Book Summary is priced at $15. Should a user wish to purchase a book, MeansBusiness provides a link to that book's page at either Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com, depending on the publisher's arrangement. Subscriptions that allow unlimited use cost $700 per year, per user.

Users may set up a personal library with folders to store the results of searches. Every suite that a user purchases is permanently stored and can be re-accessed at any time, and it can be annotated for later reference. Beginning next month, as new data are entered that are relevant to a suite stored in a library, the user will be notified by e-mail.

MeansBusiness has signed long-term agreements with major publishers of business management titles. The company's publishing partners are AMACOM, Berrett-Koehler, Bloomberg Press, Butterworth-Heinemann, Harper-Collins, Harvard Business School Press, John Wiley & Sons, Jossey-Bass, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press, Warner Books, and Simon & Schuster. Two other major publishers have signed and will be announced soon. It is certainly impressive that this Internet upstart managed to convince such an august group of publishers to participate.

All of the publishers and authors share in a revenue pool created by MeansBusiness. Every 6 months, publishers receive payments and a detailed accounting of the actual use of chapters of books. Authors usually then receive half of this amount. Both authors and publishers benefit from this additional revenue stream, the data on usage, plus the broadened exposure and marketing of their books.

The launch of the service experienced several delays as its developers grappled with page display problems with browsers, especially on the Mac platform. The site requires use of Version 4.5 or higher of either Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer for proper JavaScript functioning. Pages on the site contain heavy graphics and lots of content (but, thankfully, no advertising!), so a 28.8 modem connection is really too slow for satisfactory use. The company assumes that most users of the service would be in corporate settings with fast connections.

The MeansBusiness team is led by seasoned entrepreneurs with expertise in information aggregation, syndication, customization, and desktop delivery. The team has a broad background in electronic publishing, search engine technology, information management, database design, and the Internet, as well as in publishing, library science, and business literature. Founder and CEO David Wilcox is a Harvard Business School graduate and former Dataware and Lotus executive. While researching a book on creating business opportunities, Wilcox recognized that business professionals don't need yet another book, but rather they need access to the critical business concepts already published. Thus, the idea for the company was born.

MeansBusiness employs about 25 full-time people and another 15 to 20 part time editors and analysts (some of whom are MBA students at Harvard, Boston University, or MIT). The company is already looking for a larger office space. According to a company representative, the current capacity for entering new books is at the rate of 200 titles per month. In addition, the company is working with leading authors and experts on the structure, expansion, and direction of the MeansBusiness database.

The bold start-up has ambitious expansion plans and seems to be well funded for growth. The company promises a major announcement in the next few weeks of at least two syndication agreements with large news organizations known for providing business information in print, broadcast, and on the Internet. Other syndication agreements are being actively explored. Additionally, over the next year, the company plans to launch similar sites for career development, personal and business finance, personal development, and information technology.

Wilcox said: "We believe that MeansBusiness will substantially enhance the performance of knowledge workers who are constantly reading books to find ideas that solve their complex business problems. Because our users have this wealth of information at their desktop, we are certain that more information will result in better results faster and increased book sales. At MeansBusiness, our tagline is, ‘Smarter is the new faster,' and we believe our unique approach to delivering concept content to the desktop makes a lot of smart people much smarter very quickly."

Dale Kutnick, president at Meta Group, a market research group in Stamford, Connecticut, said, "They have a damn good idea and are clearly going one up on what people have done already."

Adrian Zackheim, editor in chief at Harper Information, which includes Harper Business Press, said, "The Internet is teeming with innovation, but what MeansBusiness has done stands out as unprecedented because it is very creative and has a clear utility to users."

MeansBusiness is an example of how an entrepreneur with a vision and a problem to solve can spot an untapped opportunity to provide real answers over the Internet to professional users—and move quickly to garner partnerships and support, and develop it. This Internet newbie may prove to be a real hit, since it aggregates and makes accessible key business content in manageable chunks for busy users often overwhelmed by the avalanche of information on the Net.

For more information, call 617/956-9921, or visit http://www.meansbusiness.com.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

Email Paula J. Hane
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