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Home > Focus > An Interview with Chris Howard, CEO of Libboo

An Interview with Chris Howard, CEO of Libboo

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 31 January 2013

Chris Howard is CEO and co owner of Libboo [2], a high profile online publishing venture based in Cambridge Massachusetts. In this interview carried out in January 2013, Jonathan Hankins poses questions of responsibility and ethics surrounding the company's use and patenting requests for an innovative method of measuring how certain individuals may be able to exert influence over others.

The following is an unedited transcription of the conversation.

Jonathan Hankins.
Could you just tell me a little about the business first please?

Chris Howard.
Sure, the general problem we are trying to solve is that we believe that talent gets lost in crowded spaces. Essentially what we are trying to do is to create a model that helps talented content creators and authors to be seen by new audiences that they can't reach in today's day and age, because the only way that you can really reach them today is by spending a ton of money on advertising, or storefront space, or by buying your own books back or buying reviews. 99.99% of talent never gets seen. So our business essentially tries to help that 99.99% get seen by using influencers and advocates to push them into their audiences on their behalf. It doesn't involve money, it doesn't involve spending on real estate or anything like that, it is just about trying to find somebody who is passionate about getting you seen and putting the two people together.

J.H.
And how do you go about doing that?

C.H.
We have 2 major pieces of technology really, we run around 16.5 million calculations an hour to understand 2 numbers, the first number is how influential somebody is within their audience, and we have patent pending on this and it is in the public domain. Essentially the way we do it is we measure somebody's behaviour within their audience based upon a stimuli that we have some control over. Then we test for positive or negative affects. An example of this could be that if somebody within that audience follows an advocate on Facebook, does that advocate then thank that person, and then does that person reply to that initial message? And this sequence of events tells us that the advocate has some degree of influence over a follower. We currently model about 240 of these behaviours. Most of the data comes from our own website, so that is one of the reasons that we have a community, so that we can gather and have control over the data and because we need control over the stimuli. The second piece of technology is aimed at understanding why somebody does it in the first place (advocates). This is currently being filed for patent so I can't go into details about how it works, but essentially we can understand why an advocate is motivated to help a piece of content be seen. Again it is very similar to understanding stimuli, but the kinds of stimuli that we measure are our secret source.

J.H.
So there will be a patent on the process?

C.H.
There are 3 patents in all, there are 2 technology apparatus patents and 1 business method. We don't necessarily expect the business method to pass because business method patents rarely pass, but we are doing this as an exercise, to make sure that we can build the technology in a really concise and clean way, and that's communicable or commutable, because it is not easy. There is a lot of maths that goes into making sure that this works.

J.H.
And this comes from your background, can you tell me about your education and experience.

C.H.
I am a failed musician, between the ages of 18 and 25 I slowly made my way up as a music producer working for various labels and bands. I tried to become a producer and I hit the age of 26, and in music we all know that if you want a label deal you have to do it by then. So I quit music and went back to school. I did a PhD in computational physics, primarily specializing in how to mimic the real world, through algorithms and understanding molecular dynamics simulations. It was not what I was expecting, and I was amazed at how simple it was! It is the kind of thing that everybody expects to be really difficult, trying to model the real world on a computer you might imagine would be really hard, but it's not. It is actually so insanely simple. The thing that makes it hard is just the volume of information you have, but the techniques for doing it are simple. It is as basic as saying well if I move this block here from left to right what happens to the block next to it? Does it move left to right as well, or does it go up or down? These are very simple rules, and all simulations are just putting lots of these sequences together, and this is similar to what we do. We just measure one small change and see what happens to the surrounding environment. Does it have a positive, neutral or negative effect? I took 3.5 years at Reading University to do my PhD but my funding ran out half way through, so I had to get a full time job at the same time. I worked as an IT consultant for 2 different defence companies in the UK. My wife than had the opportunity of a job at MIT so we came over to the US and I quickly got a job at MIT as well, researching how to get kids into science. One of the things that MIT has a problem with, as does science in general is how do you attract influential students within more general audiences into science so that they can propagate science as a good thing and not just something nerdy that no-one wants to get into? How do we stop this brain drain? Well they think that it all begins with kids. So I was building models and simulations to try to identify who these influencers are, and encourage them at least to try to bring the kids towards science. I could take a list of Nobel Prize winners and based upon online activity I could tell you which ones had a positive influence over kids and which had negative. I then taught a year at Harvard, which brought me to the summer of 2011, when I realized that the website project that I had been doing for a few years was starting to look like it could be a business, so I left my various jobs to set up the company.

J.H.
Your computational physics and the MIT experience of looking for influential children seems to mirror what you do now.

C.H.
Yes, absolutely. The whole idea of trying to find people who can influence others in a positive way, I don't want to say adversely influence them, but somebody who can influence somebody to do something for the good of the person they care about, was essentially all I was trying to figure out. It is so transferable, and again it is just as simple as moving one thing, one space and looking at what happens to the world around it. It is strangely similar and so it just felt like a natural transition.

J.H.
How do you approach the ethical questions about your work and your creation? What are the ethical questions firstly as far as you are concerned?

C.H.
Well I have never been asked that question before. We ask ourselves about the ethics, not every day but we keep in our minds, the biggest question is are we trying to make people do things that they don't want to do? That is the biggest question on our minds, and then you add that to the question are we making people do things they don't want to do just for our benefit as a company? And this is an important question for us. We deliberately very early on took the ethos with our very first investor that (in our investor's words) "we were going to build a company from the heart and not from the head". The investor is bill Warner, a very famous guy in technology, he is the founder of Avid and Wildfire, and we believe that if we can make something that helps us feel good first, we can turn it into a business later. So we are at a stage as a company at the moment where we are not focusing on money, we are just focusing on solving a problem to make our community benefit. And that has caused a ton of friction with so many people and companies and investors. We've walked away from deals, had money on the table that we haven't taken. So for us we approach the ethical problem with the question, are we doing this just for us or trying to help? We do this by speaking to our community every 5 seconds, we are completely transparent about what we are going to do and we let them decide.

J.H.
And have you had any formal training in ethics during the time that you were doing your PhD or at work? How is ethics treated in computational physics?

C.H.
Ethics is not treated in computational physics at all. (laughter). I have had no formal training at all, I don't read business books and have never been trained in business.

J.H.
I am not talking about business ethics I am talking about ethics in general, philosophical ethics.

C.H.
No, no training at all, for me I think you just have to be a good person.

J.H.
Is this typical of innovators like yourself and people who are pushing the boundaries of technology would you say?

C.H.
To be trained in ethics? Most of the founders I know are driven by the passion of seeing their creation, not all, but they want to see it used. This is not the same thing as being driven to want to make something good, so I think that our attitude is fairly unique. It is certainly not common. We have 6 values as a company, transparency, be bold, be ambitious, be empowering, being human and forward thinking. Everything needs to be passed as helping the community we are serving, but most founders tend to just build something because they want to something in the hands of their consumer that they have created. Most people I know make good products for good reasons but there are some which are not.

J.H.
After you have patented your 'mechanism', do you not think that it might get into people's hands who will use it to do things that it 'is' designed to do, but who will do it for other purposes?

C.H.
Yes, but what we do is actually fairly simple. As I said there is so much data that it is hard to push through a system, there is just so much of it. There are always going to be companies that will try to exploit the vulnerabilities of somebody's willingness to help, and the piece of technology that we are creating, arguably could help them find those people. By producing a patent it becomes public and then they can use it if they wish to. The frustrating thing in this world is that there are so many smart people out there who are not driven in the way that we are who are perfectly capable of doing what we do, without us actually putting out this patent. So I would like to use it in a responsible way and to demonstrate the good it can do, because somebody is just going to go out and demonstrate the bad it can do as well. It is the same with any piece of technology, or objects of any sort. It is how you use it and what motivates the way you use it.

J.H.
How do you feel about the responsibility that this gives you as the patent owner?

C.H.
I do not see it as being responsible for the actions of others.

J.H.
You have created a tool though, if it were a gun would you be responsible for somebody shooting someone with it?

C.H.
This is all just opinion but the piece of technology that we are creating just really, on its own and used as a stand alone tool is not that powerful. It is a way to translate a lot of data into a single number and that is what the patent is about. We are understanding how much influence people have within their communities and what makes people want to do things on behalf of someone else. These are the 2 things we are doing and there are other ways to figure it out. We have competitors too. But regarding the responsibility of producing this tool whereby somebody can use it to do bad stuff, I would take it upon myself if I knew it was happening to stop it. I do not foresee the tool being as powerful as that, to directly be the cause of something negative to happen to that extent. It is not that we have built a gun, we have maybe built the stock of a gun but there are a lot of other parts that need to go into the system for it to be used badly. But as I say there are a lot of smart people in this world who don't have the ethics we do.

J.H.
Is there anything you would like to add to the discussion before we close?

C.H.
Firstly thank you. I have never been asked questions like that before. I have never been asked if the tool I am building is responsible, and it is a really interesting question. I think that every company should be asked this question because I had never really thought about it in the way that you framed it. We always think "are we doing good things?", and ask if we are doing things for the benefit of the people we are trying to help, but we never really consider if we are building things that other people can mis-use. Within the technology that we have and the way we deploy it, we have a lot of mechanisms to detect foul play. We deliberately built the system so that it is self policing, but that is just within our product. I should add that we are only patenting half of the core technology itself, we are deliberately keeping the other half a trade secret. We are patenting the mechanism, but we are keeping the trade secret of how we use it. Just because it is strategically better for us to do so. It wasn't because of the ethical implications, although in hindsight it does help us on that front.

In an informal conversation following on from this discussion Chris stated that in the absence of any formal ethical codes for start up businesses, the choice of investors draws the ethical guidelines. He described how he places his business on a line between a profit making enterprise and a social enterprise, explaining that the business only accepts investment from people who share and understand these choices and values. Having had 2 million dollars of investment offered he turned down 800 000 of it in the belief that the investors did not share his values and goals.

On behalf of the Bassetti Foundation and myself I would like to thank Chris and all at Libboo for their time and cooperation and wish them well in their new venture.





Photos of the meeting are also available on Flickr [3].

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(photo on the top: Book [4] by martiSunshine [5] from Flickr)

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://www.libboo.com/
  3. 3] http://www.flickr.com/photos/fondazionebassetti/sets/72157632641786188/
  4. 4] http://www.flickr.com/photos/muffin9101985/3185622240
  5. 5] http://www.martinadoppio.com/
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cc - photo by martiSunshine from Flickr
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