Jeff Stibel is a brain scientist and entrepreneur. He is the Vice Chairman of Dun & Bradstreet (NYSE: DNB). Stibel was previously Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp., which was merged into Dun & Bradstreet in 2015. Prior to Dun & Bradstreet Credibility, Stibel was President and CEO of Web.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: WWWW). Stibel currently sits on the boards of a number of private and public companies, as well as academic boards for Tufts University, Brown University and the University of Southern California. Stibel is the author of The New York Times Best Seller Breakpoint (Macmillan: 2013) and Wired for Thought (Harvard Business Press: 2009). He was the recipient of a Brain and Behavior Fellowship while studying for a PhD at Brown University.
In his own words:
“A Brief and Boring Bio” by Jeff Stibel
I study networks. More specifically, complex networks and how they are established, increase in sophistication, and ultimately grow collective intelligence. While my academic and research background is primarily focused on the brain (and its networks), my interests include other biological, technological, and economic networks. My primary interest is how the brain develops thought through networks of neurons and whether that same underlying principle can be applied elsewhere, such as to ant colonies, the Internet, and business models.
In high school, I was a terrible student, best at being not particularly good at anything. I spent more time trying to get out of studying than actually doing any work, the former of which I simply found more challenging and interesting than the latter. Turned out I was pretty good at that as well. When I arrived at college, things seemed far more interesting to me, so I engaged and did well in school from that point on.
I received degrees in psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science as an undergraduate at Tufts University under three truly great scholars: Sal Soraci, Richard Chechile, and Dan Dennett. My thesis was entitled “The Effects of Associativity, Interconnectivity and Generation on Memory.” I found no significant effects in the research and it was never published. As an aside, it is a shame that science journals don’t publish papers without statistical significance, as there are often errors in science because of false positives. Lack of statistical significance does not equate to lack of scientific significance. In this case, my thesis was lacking in both (and pretty darn boring) so it really shouldn’t have been published.
My passion at the time was philosophy but I was not a great thinker and had little experience. Dan Dennett gave me some sage advice that I continue to use to this day: to be a critical thinker, you need to have a strong background in science. I took his advice a bit more broadly to mean, if you want to be a good at something, actually do it. Anyway, I decided to focus on the brain then and there and moved on to graduate school at Brown University.
I enrolled in a PhD program at Brown in the department of cognitive and linguistic sciences (now called cognitive, linguistic, & psychological sciences), which was a cross between neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence. While at Brown, my focus for the Masters was decision-making and understanding how people think. Avi Ben-Zeev (psychology, now at UCSF), Steve Sloman (cognition), and Bill Heindel (cognitive neuroscience) were on my committee. My thesis was entitled “The Role of Explanatory-Based Feature Relations Among Artifact and Biological Kind Categorization” and was eventually published under the less assuming title of “The role of explanation in categorization decisions” in the International Journal of Psychology. Basically, the study demonstrated that we rely more on causal definitions for technology than we do for biology. People tend to assume that technology is there for a reason (i.e., has a cause) but biology “just exists” and there is no cause or reason for its existence. Clearly, the average person has not read Darwin’s great book. It is an irony that I have exploited a number of times, as once you find the causal reason for an evolutionary advantage in biology, it can be leveraged in technology and business.
For my PhD, I switched advisors to Jim Anderson, a computational neuroscientist, who studies how the brain relates to computer networks. By this time, I had begun to see similarities between the Internet and the brain and figured it was worth investigating. I pushed aside much of the PhD research I was working on at the time related to decision-making. (I tried to rush a publication of one particularly interesting piece of research but the write-up was bland and it was rightfully rejected. Steven Sloman picked up the work and wrote a nice article in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes that I was named a co-author on, entitled “Frequency Illusions and Other Fallacies.”)
Jim and I started a new lab together called the Applied Cognition Lab. Our lab was focused on applying principles of the brain to the Internet. We wanted to see just how far we could take the analogy between the Internet and the brain. We were joined by about a dozen other professors, post-doctoral students, and graduate students across a really interesting range of fields. It was all very exciting, especially as a graduate student, to be leading a bunch of scholars I had previously only read about.
It was roughly at this time that I realized how important the business world was to technology, so I applied for the Brain and Behavior Fellowship at Brown and used it to study business and economics at MIT and the Sloan School. I spent my limited time at MIT studying under Dan Ariely, who is a brilliant scientist and friend. We did some research together, but I wasn’t there long enough to do anything meaningful enough to publish.
It quickly became apparent that an academic setting was no place for an applied lab. So I left Brown and MIT to start a company. A few of the career academics in the lab also joined the company, including Jim Anderson, Steve Reiss (co-chair of the computer science department), Dan Ariely (as an advisor), and Paul Allopenna (post-doc but now a professor at Brown). We ended up building a semantic network (think “words and meanings”) and applying that to what, at the time, was a very difficult problem: Internet search. Along the way, we met Princeton professor George Miller, who has since passed, and he also joined our company. We called the business Simpli (same sound as simply, but only simpli.com was available) and we built a semantic search engine called Simplifind.
It was at this time that my focus shifted from science to business. Running Simpli was incredibly fun and rewarding. We had our ups and downs, but Simpli eventually became a huge success. We sold the business just before a market crash (the dot com debacle of 2000) and helped the team repurchase it after the crash and sold it once more after the market peaked again, each time to public companies. I realized the importance of timing and market psychology very quickly. It is a lesson that more people should heed: when people are running away in fear, resist temptation to follow; when everyone is cheering, question why. It is a hard thing to do, and I am always nervous at first, but it usually pays off.
Around this time, I married my wife Cheryl. We met after college, were together through graduate school, and she stuck with me through the crazy ride of my first startup and many more since.
After Simpli, I joined a team to start a company called United Online that purchased a bunch of Internet service providers (ISPs). It was an innovative group and the company was a high flyer for a number of years. But someone else was running the company so my interests shifted a bit during that time. I did some original research, the most notable of which was to finish some work I had originally started at Brown with Avi Ben-Zeev and Itiel Dror (University of Southampton; now at Kings College London). The research was eventually published in Theory and Decision under the grand title of “The collapsing choice theory: Dissociating choice and judgment in decision making.” The reality is far less grand: we studied elements of game theory and demonstrated that short-term memory limitations trick us into making poor decisions. It was a reasonably well-received article with a boring title and we could have done better. I also wrote a few articles in business, economics, and technology, and did some new research as well. All of my articles and research related back to the brain or network theory in some respect.
My entrepreneurship interest was high at this time and I helped start a handful of new companies. I was still at United, so we had CEOs running those companies and I joined as a board member. Many of those companies did very well under the leadership of some great CEOs.
My passion for running a company was eating at me so I decided to leave and build a new venture. This was not the easiest thing to do as, by that time, I had far more responsibilities than when I left to start my first company. Cheryl and I had just had our first child and were starting to settle into the community. Elders may have wisdom, but there is a huge advantage to starting a company when you are young. That said, we sat down over dinner with some friends and colleagues and agreed to do it.
I left with my core team and we built a company called Web.com. We did something then that has worked well for us many times since. Rather than starting something from scratch, we created a “startup with assets” by acquiring a number of web services businesses to build what is now one of the largest providers in the world (Web.com also owns companies such as Networks Solutions, Register.com, and Website Pros).
We had fun building Web.com but were eager to head back to Southern California and start the next chapter of our lives. By that time, Cheryl and I had our second child and it was important to us personally to be settled in one location and start building roots. Between graduate school and startups, we hadn’t spent more than a few years in any one location and we both agreed that once our children were school age, we would do our best to never move again.
Before officially leaving Web.com, I had a two-year transition, which gave me the freedom to finally “finish” my doctoral thesis. Since I wasn’t in school anymore, I turned it into a book called Wired for Thought, which was published by Harvard Business Press. The book went a bit further in my thinking about the similarities between the Internet and the brain, arguing that the brain is not only an analog for the Internet, but that the Internet was actually becoming a literal brain. I still believe this and have seen even stronger evidence in the years since. Wired for Thought has so far been translated into five languages, each with their own unique titles (some of these are quite strange—in Korea, the title was changed to “What Comes After Google?”).
At about this time, I had a unique opportunity to buy a business I had been following since graduate school. At Brown, a neuroscientist named John Donoghue invented a technology called BrainGate that allows animals to control electrical devices through thoughts. It sounds like science fiction but the idea is pretty simple. Neurons in the brain communicate through chemical and electrical charges so, in theory, a simple microchip could be implanted into the brain and send those signals to an electrical device. This is the same concept behind a TV remote control: you push a button and a microchip in the remote sends the signal to the TV. Donoghue implanted rhesus monkeys with a computer chip that successfully sent neuronal signals to a computer, enabling it to interpret the language of the mind. With that proof case, Donoghue was able to raise money, start a company, and eventually take it public under the assumption that human brain implants would quickly follow. Unfortunately, the FDA is not fast moving and by the time the company had a few human patients successfully implanted, the company ran out of money. I was able to buy BrainGate, and our team continues to hold on to the technology with the hope that it will one day be of value to humanity. I have helped start a few brain science companies and my general rule is to never run them (I am too impatient and FDA regulated medical devices have a slow and laborious path) so my involvement is typically limited to Board Chairman.
After finishing my first book and leaving Web.com, I started another company with my team called Credibility Solutions, which ultimately merged (think startup with assets) to form Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corporation. We needed significant funding for this new venture and partnered with Great Hill Partners, who turned out to be fantastic to work with.
My team and Great Hill encouraged me to write a second book while running Dun & Bradstreet Credibility. Interestingly, writing is a great way to force oneself to step back and gain perspective. It moves the mind from being tactical to strategic, which is just what we needed at the time. I focused my efforts on something I wrote about in my previous book and in a few pieces I wrote for Harvard Business Review. The general thesis is that the world is becoming increasingly digital and, in doing so, is also becoming more networked. Businesses, economies, technologies, and people are engaged in a networking revolution, but the rules of that revolution have yet to be identified. It struck me that we all had something to learn from nature, so I dug into evolutionary biology, looking for parallels to what was happening in our world. In addition to the brain (of course), I found many interesting examples in nature – ants, sea squirts, termites, deer – all of which had similar paths and were quite applicable. Comparing ants to Facebook was an especially fun challenge. The central thesis of the book is that all successful networks go through three phases: hypergrowth, a breakpoint or peak, and an equilibrium period. The book, entitled “Breakpoint” in the U.S., was published in July of 2013 by Macmillan.