Williams took his idea to Houston, where he'd attended Rice University as an undergraduate. In March 1999, he met Rod Canion, the cofounder of Compaq Computer Corp., while presenting the idea to a local business group. Canion was so impressed that he became Questia.com's first investor. By last August, Questia.com had raised more than $130 million in financing. With Canion serving as chairman, the company now has more than 240 employees in Houston, New York City, and Los Angeles.
Questia.com launched the service to the public in January 2001, with 50,000 titles available. Working with 150 publishers, Williams said his goal is to get 250,000 books online by 2003. When complete, Questia.com will allow users to search the full text of books, follow linked footnotes to other books and documents, and use automated bibliography, footnote, and glossary tools. The service is aimed at college students and researchers who can pay a subscription fee to access the books and services any time of the day or night.
"It's really what the Internet was supposed to be," Williams said. "It will provide unlimited access to a virtual college library, with electronic versions of all the relevant books."
Soyouwanna Start a Dot-com?
Peter Stris '00 and classmate Brendan Maher hatched their idea for Soyouwanna.com while sitting in a parked car outside the Oxford Spa deli in north Cambridge in 1999.
"We had been talking about how we both weren't so sure we'd go into law, but that we'd maybe go into business," said Stris. "And one idea we had was to write a book called 'So You Wanna Get into Harvard Law School.'"
At the same time, a friend of theirs was trying to get a book published but didn't know how to get an agent. "We realized we weren't sure how to do these things," said Stris. "Between the three of us, we'd attended Harvard, Penn, and Stanford, yet we didn't know how to do lots of things. So we came up with the idea of a Web site to explain how to do stuff. We were so caught up in the concept that we went online that day and registered the domain name and started calling our techie friends to help us do this."
The pair worked on their new company from Maher's apartment while juggling school and the Ames competition, for which both had become finalists.
"I don't think I saw other students for a month," Maher said of the intense period prior to the launch of the site in March 2000.
Sporting a cartoon goose ("The Great Goosini") as a mascot, Soyouwanna.com (called SYW on the site) offers hundreds of humorous, step-by-step tutorials for doing "things they didn't teach you in school," from buying a cell phone to getting a sex-change operation. There's even a tutorial on how to get into law school. The site is aimed at 18- to 29-year-olds who are typically in transition and looking for a "guide to life." Not surprisingly, this group also spends $200 billion a year on goods and services, according to SYW. The site's high user traffic attracts advertising, Soyouwanna.com's primary revenue source.
While Williams, Maher, and Stris bypassed full-fledged legal careers to become Net entrepreneurs, Chaka Patterson '94 and Janice Ugaki '99 found their dot-com inspirations through direct experience in the legal field. The resulting innovations, they hope, may very well enhance the business of practicing law.
Patterson's Juritas.com, based in Chicago and launched last November, offers legal professionals a searchable database of cases, court briefs, proceedings, and rulings from federal courts in major U.S. cities. Among the currently prominent cases available on the site are A&M Records v. Napster, U.S. v. Microsoft, and Benford et al. v. Firestone. The site will eventually add cases from the balance of the federal courts as well as state courts, and also offer profiles of judges and attorneys. The idea came from Patterson's own frustrations when trying to research cases as a commercial litigator at Chicago's Bartlit, Beck, Herman, Palenchar & Scott.
"Whenever I had to draft a brief, I found myself starting from scratch an awful lot when it came to the research behind it," Patterson said. "But it was highly likely that someone had already done something on it. I thought it was silly to have to reinvent the wheel every time I did case research with all these public documents already out there.
"It was also difficult to get information on opposing lawyers and the judges," he said. "We'd constantly be calling around asking what someone was like in court. Through Juritas.com, a lawyer can access a database of litigators and judges to find out what their styles are."
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