Notes On A Startup: WebNotes Goes Pro
When Ryan Damico was an undergraduate at MIT, he attended a training session at the university’s library. Ostensibly, the students were being taught how to properly organize sources for research papers. But it turned out to be a session on how to copy blocks of text from websites and paste them into Word documents, and how to record URLs by copying them into e-mails.
“It seemed like a backwards way of doing things,” Damico says. Instead, why not take notes directly on the Web page? This simple idea eventually became Damico’s startup, WebNotes.
Say you’re writing a research paper on Istanbul. You might find several websites of interest: the city’s Wikipedia page, its official website, and perhaps a news story on the construction of a new hotel. Instead of copying and pasting text from all of these websites, or printing them out to make notes and highlights, an online annotation tool like WebNotes lets you highlight important text directly on the computer screen. It’s an integration of the most user-friendly aspects of print with the vast resources of the Internet.
Taking notes online also has an extra advantage: the notes themselves can be archived, rearranged, and remixed. In a time where many industries and individuals are transitioning into a wholly digital realm, web annotation services like WebNotes help bridge the gap between page and pixel.
The story of WebNotes itself is a snapshot of Boston’s entrepreneurial culture. As an undergraduate, Damico would labor after classes on his pet project. Meanwhile, he completed a B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science, graduating from MIT in 2006. Damico took a job in the Tewksbury, MA headquarters of Avid, the video production giant. But the siren song of entrepreneurship was hard to ignore. After raising some funds from angel investors, Damico struck out on his own.
To grow his company, Damico looked close to home. He began by luring Bennett Rogers, MIT ’07, away from a position at Jump Trading. Peter Lai, MIT ’09, had been considering graduate school at Stanford, but decided his heart lay in the startup world. Matt Long, MIT ’08, rounded out the WebNotes team. Damico had worked with each of them before on class projects or, in Lai’s case, a microgravity project for NASA.
Last July, the group released a prototype at a meeting of the Web Innovators Group, a semi-monthly gathering of Boston Internet entrepreneurs. It was at the WebInno meeting that they picked up the last member of the current group, Alex King, who has a B.S. in business administration from Washington University.
“It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz,” King says. “Ryan was just walking along and grabbed us to go with him.”
Another few months of development resulted in an invite-only beta version that the team shared with a sampling of people representing the audiences they figured their service would attract: bloggers, students, professors, and consultants. The beta testers praised WebNotes for its simple tools—”a pencil, rather than a Swiss Army knife,” as one blogger put it—and ease of use.
“Other annotation tools get really cluttered,” says King. “We wanted to pare down the number of features to keep it clean, responsive, and secure.”
After fixing some minor bugs, mostly involving the placement of the virtual sticky notes, WebNotes was ready for primetime. In May 2009, Damico’s team released the service to the public. The basic version is free, and allows users tohighlight text and affix simulated sticky notes to Web pages. A paid version of the service, WebNotes Pro, costs $9.99 per month and adds the ability to upload and annotate PDF documents. Each user gets a page on the WebNotes website collecting all of their notes from websites and PDF documents, which can then be viewed on the Web page or compiled in a report (click on the two images below for larger screenshots).
Lai says he hopes WebNotes will occupy “the sweet spot” between existing Web annotation services like Diigo, which is geared towards social networking, and existing research tools like ThomsonReuter’s Endnote, which is handy for creating bibliographies and managing citations, but doesn’t offer any services beyond that. Though the ability to annotate PDF documents is already built into PDF viewer software such as Adobe Acrobat, WebNotes adds the ability to collect PDF annotations along with a user’s Web page notes. The aim is to capture professionals, whether in academia or the business world, by offering one central place to store and organize their research.
The service has attracted clients from all over the country. The City University of Seattle, a public school system in eastern Minnesota, and Tribune Interactive, an online advertising service, have all signed up for group accounts with WebNotes. The schools are using WebNotes both for administrative purposes such as grant writing and offering access to their students for their research projects.
Most of the startup’s marketing so far has been word of mouth. Over the next few months, Damico and his team will work out of their office (which is actually a converted Kendall Square apartment and the company’s largest expense) to process the influx of new users and figure out what the next addition to the WebNotes platform will be. A citation manager? Perhaps.
The WebNotes team has a clear vision for their service. “We really want to be the number one research tool,” says Damico. The company isn’t aiming at information sharing between users so much as information organization for individuals, he says.
As for the threat posed by similar services, “our biggest competitor,” says King, “is still just copy-paste.”