Factual CEO and founder Gil Elbaz is one of the iconic founding fathers of LA’s digital startup world. In 1998, when he co-founded Applied Semantics with Adam Weissman Santa Monica’s digital community barely existed. Then, when the company was acquired by Google in 2003, Elbaz and his team of 40 were whisked into the very beginnings of Google’s LA presence. While there, Elbaz worked on the Adsense technology as Engineering Director for about four years.
Now at Factual, Elbaz is leading a team of over 75 to build the company into the leading open data platform for app developers. And Factual already is the number one data platform worldwide with over 70 million places plotted. Factual provides the location data for companies such as Apple, Yelp, Bing and Samsung, truly making it “the hub of the data ecosystem.”
Built In LA chatted with Elbaz to gain his insight on current Big Data trends, as well as hear his Google-influenced advice for other founders:
What was the transition to Google like for you and the Applied Semantics team?
To be honest, it was challenging. We were the first big acquisition. Blogger was a terrific acquisition, but that was only six people. We were over 40 people. It was very challenging for both sides. Certainly, what works for a company that has strong a culture as Google is to reach out. We learned a great deal about how they worked, and worked hard to fit into that. Sometimes an acquiring company doesn’t want you to fit in, they want you to shake things up and do things differently, but in our case they wanted us to see if we could fit in in order to optimize the chances of having a big impact in the organization. So we learned, for example, that their hiring practices were different than what we were used to. It was a great learning experience.
Speaking of Google’s hiring practices, in what ways has Google affected your own hiring methods at Factual?
A broader topic that Google does very well is data-drive decisions - and that manifested itself in their hiring practices. For hiring, one of the key tenants was getting independent viewpoints on somebody, avoiding groupthink at all costs. They didn’t want discussing a candidate in a room or in the hallways before each person put their concrete viewpoints into the hiring system. All too often, the person that is most perceptive may not be the person with the loudest voice, may not be the most confident person and that’s where groupthink can go wrong.
My general philosophy here has certainly been, like at Google, to hire people who are very passionate and are interested in the job for reasons that are just beyond the paycheck. Looking for people who are excited about what we are doing and helping to develop it because ultimately it’s about the team when it comes to doing anything great.
What is the Factual team currently working on?
So there’s two main points to our product plan. One is to continue doing exactly what we are doing. To build this location platform that is second to none. We are the one company that you can rely on now for global location data for a high level of quality. We’ve built up a really tremendous customer set that’s leveraging data about all the places in the world, but we can’t get lazy about that so we improve the quality of the data every single month. And we want to keep doing that, so that by the end of 2014 our reputation is absolutely perfect as a company you can rely on.
Not only are we going to keep working on the product side, but we are going to start marketing that a little harder. It’s time to do that and toot our own horn a little bit more.
We will make sure our data is top-notch in all 50 countries where we work and that people know about it. Not everybody knows that we are the location data behind so many significant mobile apps, many of the largest ones.
Also, we launched some new personalization and contact products for the mobile world a few months ago. We are positioned now to get real traction into 2014 and we think that’s a way to add much, much more value to the whole global ecosystem by helping people leverage location like they haven’t been able to before to make their companies and products better.
“Big Data” is such a hot buzzword, but what are some companies (besides Factual) that are actually living up to the hype and doing interesting things with data?
An example of a company that’s doing really interesting things with data might be Ranker, which (full disclosure) I’ve invested in. They’re one of the most trafficked sites. It feels a little bit like a silly site that has top lists of “20 most interesting celebrities,” but under the covers they are building a really interesting database of tastes. They’re building up a very interesting data set.
The hype around big data certainly helped focus people’s attention. No matter what vertical, the conversation shifts to aggregating data and using that data to make better decisions in just about anything. To me, it’s no surprise there’s a lot of interest in learning the whole new stack of tools to wield data at a tremendous scale.
You are an investor in the LA startup community as a founding partner of seed-stage fund TenOneTen. What do you look for in potential investments?
In Silicon Valley, there’s a certain level of support for irrational confidence in changing the world, you see that a little bit less in the LA investor community. If somebody has a plan that on paper seems a little ridiculous, there’s a little more practicality in LA. I’m reasonably practical at TenOneTen, but I’m certainly attracted to the dreamer that has an idea that just might work.
Any last words of advice for LA’s digital entrepreneurs?
As a leader it is important to demonstrate your commitment to excellence and success no matter how long it’s going to take. It’s a very strong position to come from and you see a lot of headlines about how few startups succeed, but I feel like that’s kind of unfair. Some startups get acquired because founders want to get acquired early: it’s a choice. More companies could get really large if it’s really what the entrepreneur wants.
I don’t think entrepreneurs should be afraid of that journey. The way I describe that is as a 10-year journey. If you’re ready for that 10-year journey, success is actually a lot easier than the press would have you think. It’s just another reason for optimism if you’re ready for that level of dedication. At Factual, we’ve been here six years already and things are starting to jell and take off.