Looking to the Future
Patrick Spain: Taking Care of BusinessPatrick Spain has a degree in ancient Roman history and another degree in law, yet his most obvious passion is the rough-and-tumble world of business. Name a corporation -- let's say Mrs. Field's Cookies -- and Spain will tell you the CEO's name, the company's sales figures, and how Mrs. Field's competes against other cookie kingpins.
It makes sense, then, that this walking, talking, silver-haired reference book is the CEO of Hoover's Inc., one of the largest online bibles of business information in the United States. Just as Hoover's lays claim to a comprehensive database of companies and financial information, Spain's own job history is fairly wide-ranging as well. He's been an economic consultant, a real-estate developer, mergers and acquisitions executive, and an in-house counsel and vice president for a high tech company. He's also been involved in several entrepreneurial endeavors with longtime friend and former University of Chicago classmate, Gary Hoover, the founder of Bookstop, the bookstore chain that has since been sold to Barnes & Noble. When Hoover founded Hoover's (then the Reference Press) in 1990, he asked Spain to join him early on, and Spain became CEO three years later.
The 11-year-old publishing company, which has phased out nearly all of its print business, is based in Austin and, for a couple more months at least, makes its home just east of the freeway in the north central jumble of hotels and chain restaurants. Soon it will head west to the former home of Austin's most pleasantly aromatic institution -- the Butter Krust bakery. Since the company's beginning, many struggling writers have done time at the company -- if for no other reason than the guarantee of a steady paycheck and beer and munchies on Fridays. Hoover's relies heavily on its editorial department to track a slew of companies and industry trends, and to turn out pithy prose on whatever information they've mined. Writers seem to hold a special place in Spain's heart, even if, as he jokingly points out, they are inclined to whine. It was a writer from Hoover's editorial department who first introduced Spain to the World Wide Web, way back in 1994, just two months after the phenomenon became available for public consumption. "At lunchtime we went over to this guy's studio apartment in the UT area," Spain recalled, "and it was so dark all you could see was a blue screen flickering in the far corner of the room, and laundry and beer cans lined the way to the computer."
Spain was amazed. Particularly when the man with the computer turned to him and, referring to the Web, said, "And it's all free!" And Spain thought to himself: "How can one make money from this?" He knew then that three letters -- WWW -- would be the wave of the future and, from Spain's viewpoint, the future of Hoover's. "Our vision was to reach millions of people, and here was a way we could achieve that goal," Spain says. While Hoover's had previously posted free information on America Online, Spain liked the idea of Hoover's having its own presence on the Web. By 1995, Hoover's Online was introduced to what was already a growing Web-savvy public. "When you think about all the how-to health books available in bookstores now, it's obvious that people want to take control of information that is important to them," Spain said. "Here was a way that Hoover's could give business people control of all the information important to them."
How does Hoover's work? Suppose you have a job interview on Monday morning at Dell Computer -- wait, better make that Wal-Mart -- and you need an up-to-date crash course on the company. You can turn to hoovers.com and find a fair amount of useful information on Wal-Mart -- all for free. If you want to delve deeper into Wal-Mart's financial history and learn what industry analysts have to say about the No. 1 retailer, you'll need to take out a subscription. Subscriptions, after all, are Hoover's biggest source of revenue, so in that vein Hoover's markets itself primarily to business people who depend on the most current business information available.
Whenever Spain weighs the future of the Internet industry, as he will as a panelist at SXSW, he invariably looks back in time, to ancient history. As Spain's analysis goes, the industry today is at a crossroads, similar to the time when the Romans defeated the Greeks (or geeks in modern-day lingo). "Now, it's time for the Romans -- the free thinkers -- to come in and build the roads and the sewage systems," Spain says. In his view, these contemporary Romans -- yet to be identified -- will emerge to bring new order to the Internet. They're the ones, after all, who made the chariots run on time.
Patrick Spain is a panelist on "Internet Industry Trends 2001: Is Anyone Making Any Money," Sun., March 11, 11am.