SourceAid: Citing Success
We've all heard that tired old saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention", but in the spring of 2003, Ron Silvia felt firsthand the frustration that may have caused Ben Franklin to pen those memorable words.
While rooming with Tom Fox as freshmen at Bentley College, Silvia, a self-professed "very conscientious student" who always finished assignments ahead of deadlines, found himself trying to figure out the bibliography for a paper and spending several hours late one night wrestling with the style book which he called "just mindboggling…I found myself banging my head on the desk. I turned to Tom and said ‘can we do something here?' He said, ‘sure, we can write a little program that we can use to do our bibliographies.'"
Very quickly Silvia (who is an ‘06 Bentley graduate with a BS in Management) and Fox (who transferred to WPI and graduated in 2006 with a BS in Management Information Systems and a minor in Computer Science) turned that "little program" into a certified hit with frustrated college students confused by style books that Silvia characterized as "absolutely overwhelming", at first distributing their program free to anyone who wanted it. Realizing almost immediately that there was money to be made, they incorporated within a few weeks as SourceAid, an e-learning company now specializing in comprehensive source citation guides and software. Three and a half years later, the Osterville, Mass.-based company is on a second edition of its popular research and citation handbook, Cite It Right, and marketing their flagship application called Citation Builder, an institutional edition software program that enables colleges and universities to offer an easy-to-use, web-based citation manager to all their students. Users with Internet access can automatically cite their research sources in any of the four major writing styles and build both bibliographic and note citations with proper formatting. In addition, SourceAid has created a classroom edition package that enables teachers to integrate proper citation into their class curricula.
"We've found there's such a need for products like these," commented Fox, chief information and technical officer for the company. "Citation Builder can take what used to be a five hour project and turn it into a ten minute process." What makes SourceAid's products so attractive is their ability to simplify and automate what is often a complex, confusing, and seemingly arbitrary process for students and professionals, enabling them to concentrate on writing rather than documenting. A major benefit is the almost effortless ability to cite accurately all sources used in academic papers, research documents, and other published pieces. As a result, plagiarism is reduced, original sources get proper credit, and in the case of published works, potential lawsuits and retractions can be avoided.
As a result of its building popularity, SourceAid now has eight people helping develop its guides and software. "It's fun, because we're watching things develop everyday," observed Silvia, SourceAid's president. But, like most start-ups, things haven't been easy and Fox and Silvia have had to invest their life savings and pay for printing out of their own pockets. Everyone is contributing long hours and plenty of sweat equity. "We're now in the search for funding to go to the next level," Silvia added. The modest success that SourceAid has achieved to date has been largely due to positive word-of-mouth among students and education professionals, several conference appearances, and the kind of dedicated product support that can only come from committed entrepreneurs. Among its current customers are colleges, several high schools across the country, and tens of thousands of students both here and abroad. "We have real customers that pay; we have real products. What we're trying to do is develop a real business out of this that works for everyone."
As part of their start-up strategy, SourceAid has looked to WPI's Collaborative for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CEI) as a source of inspiration and expertise. "I've been working with Associate Director Gina Betti for a couple of years. She has been so helpful to us, giving us the opportunity to speak at a few conferences where we could get exposure. The feedback has been very positive," stated Fox.
"The CEI has been very helpful with mentoring, critiquing our presentations, setting us up with some wonderful connections to people who we should be speaking with," added Silvia. "As we get ready for the next stage in funding, the CEI has been able to help us get prepared." Part of that is putting SourceAid in touch with "angel" investors - private individuals looking to invest their own funds in companies that interest them. According to Silvia, this fits the position in which SourceAid finds itself. "VCs (venture capitalists) generally require a revenue stream that we don't have yet, and we don't anticipate needing multiple rounds (of investments) like a lot of tech companies do. Our biggest thing right now is expanding through sales and distribution, getting to more conferences, and meeting with schools that we just don't have the funds for right now." Fox and Silvia see the next round of product development edging closer to the corporate world where SourceAid could help professionals accurately and responsibly cite sources for position papers, analysts' reports and forecasts, and other documents that use outside sources for background information and supporting data. Silvia also sees further development of their products to assist the highest levels of academia with sophisticated theses and documentation for advanced studies.
Silvia believes the CEI will play a critical role in SourceAid's continued growth. "We feel it can help us significantly in finding the necessary funding." Fox views it as a resource for meeting like-minded entrepreneurs and learning from others' experiences. "The WPI Venture Forum is a great networking opportunity for exchanging ideas with people who have ideas for the Next Big Thing," he commented. "And I think some of the speakers (at the meetings) are just so impressive. They have so much experience and are willing to share it."
For SourceAid, the Next Big Thing is to secure more funding, move closer to Boston to take advantage of a bigger talent pool, and continue to develop their citation products. As Silvia says, "It's funny, we have these guys coming to us, saying, ‘this is great, how did you guys do this? I've always wanted to start my own business'… they're 35, 40, 50 years old and we're just 22, 23. We've got the products and we've got the company. Now we just need the funding."