inome, formerly Intelius, was founded in 2003 from the shared vision of its co-founders: Naveen Jain, Edward Petersen, Kevin Marcus, Niraj Shah, and Chandan Chauhan. Having known one another intimately over the years, each of the founders brought an armory of specialized talent and tremendous motivation to the table.
There was literally a table.
While still working at their respective former companies, the business associates met periodically at a restaurant in downtown Bellevue, Washington to inquire into one another’s lives and talk shop. There was no conference room in the restaurant, just a long back table where the founders conversed over dinner and drinks and began shaping ideas for the next big business venture, a business venture they planned to enter into together and transform into an extraordinary company. They proposed to do this in the most natural way possible: by pooling their collective energies to provide the most innovative of technology-enhanced information services to make a difference in people’s lives.
They had no reason to suspect they might not succeed. Naveen Jain, Edward Petersen, Kevin Marcus, Niraj Shah, and Chandan Chauhan were all successful businessmen before the conversation even started. Naveen Jain, the first and current President and CEO, is the common element between them, and their meeting together was no coincidence.
Coordinating Extraordinary Talent: Naveen Jain’s Role in the Founding of inome
Naveen Jain is the current President and CEO of inome and the motivator behind the vision of the company. Naveen is also the founder and former Chairman of InfoSpace and a former senior executive from Microsoft, where he was a recognized developer in the field of internet technology. Over the years, Naveen’s focus, charismatic personality, and practical business sense has won him numerous sharp-minded allies in his field of expertise. Among these allies are the other founders of inome.
Kevin Marcus began working with Naveen Jain before InfoSpace. As a young entrepreneur with savage technological skills, Kevin Marcus teamed up with Naveen Jain when Naveen was searching for a Chief Software Architect for his new start up: InfoSpace. Naveen Jain scouted out Kevin Marcus in a bar and wound up offering him an exciting opportunity. Seeing the potential in Naveen Jain’s vision, Kevin Marcus sold his car and walked to work for two years in order to become a founder of InfoSpace.
Edward Petersen became acquainted with Naveen Jain when his company was bought out by InfoSpace in the company’s early years. The relationship between Ed Peterson, and Naveen Jain is over a decade old. Petersen joined Jain in Naveen’s entrepreneurial vision when the company was young, and they worked together in the advancement of internet technology information products and services.
Niraj Shah met Naveen Jain at a social event. His current company, Active Voice, was trying to sell its latest technology, an instant messaging platform Niraj Shah developed along with five other Active Voice employees before instant messaging existed anywhere. Niraj pitched the concept to Naveen Jain, whose company InfoSpace was growing and looking to take on new acquisitions. At Active Vocie, Niraj worked under the CTO in the development of innovative technologies. These technologies, along with Niraj Shah and the five other Active Voice employees, were acquired by InfoSpace shortly after pitching their concept. Since then, Niraj Shah has helped Naveen Jain build out new technologies.
Chandan Chauhan is a long time friend and business associate of Naveen Jain’s. The pair worked together at Microsoft and became fast friends within the first week that Naveen Jain joined the company. Their families are closely acquainted and they live in the same neighborhood. Their natural friendship grew throughout the years until Chandan eventually joined Naveen Jain at InfoSpace and later became a founder of inome.
Better Than a Great Idea
In 2003, these long term business associates were ready for something new. Having worked together for a number of years and garnered individual success, the thought of going into business together was an exciting prospect. They met regularly for business lunches, and from those conversations, the idea of launching a fresh company and building it the right way from the ground up started to take form. The possibilities appealed enormously to the whole group.
Naveen Jain laughs as he explains how it all began. “Well, we were friends. We were friends first and colleagues second, so we were always going out. All of us could have retired from our previous successes. I went on vacation in December. I thought ‘I’m going to retire and I’m going to at least spend a month or two months in Hawaii’. Well, I went to Hawaii and spent about five days there before I went through my whole checklist. Walk with the wife on the beach? Did that. Watch the whales? Did that. Sit on the beach and watch the waves crash? Did that. Then I said, “All right, I’m done with this stuff! I need to go back to work.” So I called Kevin. I said, “Kevin, what are you doing?” He said, “Really nothing useful.” I said, “Why don’t you come out? Let’s meet next week. We’re going to build something of value.” So we got everyone together. We met at the back table. We all wanted to do something useful.”
Informally, they began to pitch ideas. As senior executives with extensive experience and successful track records in the fields of technology development, engineering and security, they knew they wanted to do something in the information space, but when they first began talking, they didn’t know exactly what.
Chandan Chauhan laughs about this process and attributes the eventual success to the organic brain power of Naveen Jain. “He wouldn’t allow anyone to be seduced by the sexiness of an idea,” Chandan explains. “It’s not the great idea that is important, but a great business. It has to be a viable product. It has to be a profitable product.”
So the question wasn’t “what can we do?” The founders knew there were a lot of things they could do. The question was how to use their skills to build a business that would be scalable, profitable, and satisfy the needs of consumers.
It’s easy to explain why. The market already existed for this “information commerce.” People were already using the internet to look for information, and offline, people were already hiring private investigators to gather intelligence from public records. inome wasn’t out to create a new idea. They wanted to create a business. They wanted to make information that is already out there easier, more affordable, and more consumable for the average person.
Naveen Jain explains it best. “If you want to be successful in business, you have to unlearn everything you learned in business school,” he says. “In business school they teach you to develop a unique idea and look for the untapped market, but that is not the way. Let’s face it. There are a lot of smart people out there, and many original ideas have been tried that have not succeeded. That wasn’t what we wanted to do. What we wanted to do was capture the existing market. The demand is there. All we had to do was become the supplier.”
Naveen Jain explains that at the time inome was formed, there were only two kinds of internet businesses: companies that monetized information through internet advertising, and retailers that sold products online through ecommerce. Ecommerce retailers are essentially catalogue companies with the same expenses as other catalogue companies–meaning that shipping and warehouse expenses cut significantly into their profit margin.
The founders of inome didn’t necessarily want to create something altogether new. Instead they thought about how to use the internet differently. Naveen explains how they conceived of the structure for their business model: “We wanted to be able to solve a specific problem for the customer and also have a business model that scales extremely well. We all got together and we thought about it. What if you were able to build a business where information is the good that you’re shipping? That way you don’t need to pay any shipping and handling, and you don’t need any warehousing. It is a frictionless business.”
With that idea in mind, inome began to take form. However, before they could move forward, the founders conversed extensively about what kind of products they should offer. The talk revolved around the needs of people today, the state of the modern, technological world, and how information might help people live safer, more productive lives.
“Our talk started with personal safety services,” Naveen Jain says. “We looked at the culture of our country and recognized that the underlying fabric of community in the last twenty or thirty years has broken down. Thirty years ago people lived in the same place. They grew up in the same place. They had friends and neighbors they had known for generations. If you needed a contractor, you asked your friend whose cousin is a contractor. You knew the families, you knew their back story–people could get answers from their neighbors.”
But not anymore. Times have changed. Everywhere, people are becoming more mobile, and although technology has created new ways of communicating, the community itself is fluid and fluctuating. There are legitimate concerns across the country about safety in a world where it is easy to cut deals with strangers but hard to get to know someone and establish trust.
“200,000 people move every day in this country,” Naveen Jain explains. “When you live in a society that is this transient, people become self-absorbed. Most of the time, we don’t even know who our neighbors are anymore.”
So what do you do when you need someone to watch your kids? How do you select a contractor to remodel your house? How do you establish trust? Hiring through internet job posts, dating online and chatting through instant messenger are all modern conveniences that carry a degree of unmeasured risk. When is requiring references paranoid and when is it practical?
“Our talk was about how people have good instincts,” Naveen Jain continues, “but that there ought to be a place you can go to confirm that instinct when you are making a decision that could potentially affect your safety or the safety of your loved ones.”
And that is precisely what inome set out to do. By leveraging the power of the internet to collect, manage, and distribute data from publicly available records, inome is able to offer people confidence and security in their dealings with other people.
Online reference checking isn’t an original business. The means to collect background information is available to everyone and has been for years, even before the internet. Law enforcement routinely uses such data to conduct investigations. What inome did was take the next logical step. inome set out to provide information in a format that is organized, relevant, and instantly available to the average user.
The idea behind inome was to provide information services in a manner that would be affordable for everyone. Rather than hire private investigators charging $500.00 to $1,000.00 for research on an individual or a situation, consumers can purchase an inome background report for just $49.95.
“Naveen said ‘if we can consolidate this business through our experience and maximize the scalability and sophistication of the Internet,” says Chandan Chauhan, harkening back to the development process when the founders gathered around the table to evaluate their ideas. “What will happen is we can basically create an information house where we will use the Internet and the power of the computer to provide critical information in real time to end users.’ ”
Ultimately, it’s not the idea, the business model, the scalability, or even the potential profits that is most important. Naveen Jain himself emphasizes the importance of providing a valuable service. “The most important thing is that you need to make sure that the people derive value from what you do. When you do the right things good things happen to you.”
The drive behind the founding of inome was to build a great company, the kind of company that satisfies parties at all levels. The founders wanted to create a company that was a juggernaut in its niche industry. They wanted to be the primary provider of valuable information for their customers, and of course they wanted to make themselves, their employees, their shareholders, and everyone else involved happy in the process.
“Our fundamental belief in starting inome was to do things that are good for our customers, that are good for our community, and that ultimately those will also be the right things for our share holders,” according to Naveen Jain. “Our part was to say “let’s start by making sure we are taking good care of our employees, that we are taking good care of our customers, that we are building products that serve the community we live in, and if we do all of that, it will also be the right thing to do for our share holders.”
A Solid Foundation – The Founding Team
Each of the inome founders cites the dynamic power of the founding team as the crux of the company’s stability and success.
“The one thing that is absolutely the best about this company, better than any other company out there, is our group of people, particularly the people that started this company,” says Kevin Marcus. “We get along really well. We are friends first; business people second. At the end of the day everybody just wants to do the right thing for the company. We really focus on making sure the business is going to be successful.”
That kind of alliance is rare in a company with such a grand vision, but all the founders say the same. Each of them knows the skills of the others and intuitively values the contributions of each individual member. In listening to them talk about each other, it is clear that mutual respect, trust, and confidence in one another’s abilities form the triangle of their partnership.
The team met just once on a daily basis and then retreated to crunch away at the project. According to Naveen Jain, inome was operational within a month, and conducting transactions within six weeks.
“What really contributes to the success of inome is the maturity of the core team,” Chandan Chauhan comments. “All of us had our own companies in the past. All of us were CEOs of our own companies. That brings a degree of levelheadedness and sophistication to a project like this because we all know what it is like. The next moment could be anything. It could be a huge moment or it could be a down moment. With a new company, you go through all kinds of emotions over a short period of time, but when you are on to your second and third company you have seen these problems before and you know it’s not the end of the world. You know that things will work out.”
You wouldn’t necessarily guess the immense success inome has enjoyed from the relaxed veneer of its leadership. For a group of highly auspicious ex-CEOs, the founders take business affairs in stride for the most part.
“It’s not like really going to work,” Ed Petersen adds. “It’s fun. If I wanted to go start my own company, I’d do it again. It’s not a big deal. But I’m more interested in working with the people I’m working with now and doing whatever needs to be done to get the company to where we all want it to go.”
According to Naveen Jain, the founders launched inome in the first week of January and began collecting money by the third week of February. Since then the company has enjoyed escalating success and a number of major moments.
However, inome did not kick off in the friendliest of times. inome was founded when many internet companies were going under as a result of saturation in the marketplace. In the wake of 9/11, it was a particularly gloomy era.
Kevin Marcus recalls the uncertainty of those times with a smile. “Not a lot of people would try to start a company in that type of environment,” he admits. “People were running around going on about how the sky was falling and it’s the end of the economy as we know it. But the six of us get together, and we start this business, and we’re fairly successful fairly early on. You turn around and you say, ‘Wow. In that environment it’s amazing that anybody could have gotten anything started,’ and we’re looking at it saying, ‘It’s a great time. There’s not going to be a lot of competition coming after us.’ The environment when we started this company was very negative, very sour, but we kind of looked at it and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to take a little bit more optimistic view of where things are at and we’re going to go for it anyway.’ ”
In the beginning, inome had a lot of potential to be a lot of things to a lot of people. It still does. However, Naveen, the lead thinker in business development and scalability, emphasizes the importance of remaining focused on objectives.
“My belief has always been is that you have to have a big vision but when it comes to execution it has to be very narrow,” Naveen explains. “We want to make sure that we win with one product before going out and doing the next product. Once you succeed with the first idea, then you can say, ‘All right, let’s go look at the second phase.’ ”
inome’s first product was the comprehensive background check. In conducting preemptive research, the founders of inome discovered that there were a lot of companies already out there that were providing public records. However, most of them were small mom and pop kind of businesses. Naveen Jain saw an opening there. Using sophisticated database technology, the founders assembled a computerized system that would match information from a variety of database sources and compile it into a dossier for public consumption.
The purpose of the inome background check was always a factor of personal safety and transparency. The founders recognized a growing degree of vulnerability and disconnectedness between people in an increasingly mobile and computerized world. The inome background check solves that problem by providing references in a culture where increasingly transient people lack measures of accountability. Before inome, nobody was keeping track, but with inome, consumers have a line of defense against deception.
inome stresses that the information provided about individuals is publicly available. The benefit of using inome is the convenience of not having to manually dig up this information piece by piece, which would include hassles in retrieving records that exist outside the internet. What’s more, the information provided by inome aggregates at the speed of your internet connection and is delivered into consumer hands securely and electronically.
The founders recall with fondness the lurching beginning of their business, particularly regarding the first transaction.
The founders are intimate with the first transaction story.
Niraj Shah recalls the exact day. “It was February 26th. Basically twenty-three plus thirty-one days into this business we basically had already taken an idea, built the technology, put everything in place, and then a customer actually walked in. It’s kind of like when you open up a store and somebody walks into your store. You cut the tape and they pick up a Twinkie and they give you $0.30 for it and they walk away. That was important for me because I’d built the transactional parts. I built the store front.”
Chandan Chauhaun was responsible for getting the word out. “I started all the advertising campaigns, for example, across the search engines. We had to advertise our product, so I created all the Google, Yahoo and Overture campaigns and created the advertisements and a tracking system to compile the data on how much money we spent on a daily basis, how much money we made, which campaigns are working, etc.”
And then came the big day: the first transaction.
Kevin Marcus explains it in detail. “After we launched the original inome website we’re all sitting around watching. We built the system to be in real time from the beginning, so as soon as somebody would come in and buy something we would know literally right away. So we’re sitting there and we’re just watching, watching, watching. We don’t know if there’s really a business here or not. We’re trying to figure that out. We see some people coming in but nobody’s buying anything. We’re just thinking, ‘God, is there even a business here? Did we choose the wrong thing? Should we go back to the drawing board and figure something else out?’
“After a little while a transaction comes through. We’re all shouting, ‘Oh my god, we’ve finally got one!’ But then we find out that it’s Ed’s wife who had bought a report. We got really excited and then an e-mail comes from Ed saying, ‘Oh no, that was just me, guys. Don’t worry. It was just me.’
Ed remembers it too. “The first transaction is very funny. I had to leave early for whatever reason that day. Anyway, I went home and was showing Jen, my wife, the inome product as we had finally gotten it out mainstream and actually behind the firewall. Unbeknownst to me, Chandan, Niraj, Kevin, and Naveen were all sitting staring at the monitor back at work watching traffic come into the site. Traffic came in and they’re like, “a user! We’ve got a user!” They can see where people are clicking, where they’re going, and this person’s kind of wandering around the site looking at all the different products, which of course leads to more excitement because they’re really looking at things. Then the user begins typing under the search module and it’s my wife. They can see the address and they’re like, “Ah, I can’t believe it!”
Caring for Customers
After the first transaction, business started to pick up for inome. The founders joke about their start-up days.
Kevin Marcus points out how they used to keep track of revenue. “We used to write on these glass window panes. We have them down on the sixteenth floor as well. We’d write on the panes our guess of what the daily revenue would be. Then throughout the day we’d keep marking it up to show where we were going. For the longest time we had it there, but then we turned around and looked at it and it was like, “God, we thought we only had $1,000.00 in a day,” and here we are today far more successful than that. It’s just funny to look back and sort of get some perspective.”
Of course, the milestones were not all about revenue. The success of inome was built on the viability of its product and services. It was about creating something of value to consumers. Part of the process was assessing consumer satisfaction. It was also about providing customer service. But in inome’s early years, there was no customer service department. The founders fielded customer calls personally.
“That was the best part,” Chandan Chauhan says, “because that put us in close contact with our customers. I think that was a very critical thing because we knew how our customers were perceiving the products that we were making and based on that feedback we were able to fine tune our products. We had the firsthand knowledge of what our customers wanted and we were able to take that and refine our products or come up with a new product. That was a very critical piece which contributed quite a bit to the success of inome.”
There is a funny story about Chandan Chauhan’s customer service record that the founders all remember.
Kevin Marcus relates the story with laughter. “Chandan had mentioned to a lady that his name was Chad because Chandan was a little bit difficult for people to understand. But this poor lady thinks she hears Jack. Later she calls up and says, ‘Hey I’d like to talk to Jack,’ and we’re like, ‘Hmm? There’s no Jack here.’ She gets very, very angry. ‘I was just talking to Jack. He told me to call back.’ Finally we hear this voice shout out of the office down the hall, ‘I’m Jack!’ And it’s Chandan.”
Niraj Shah agrees that the personal contact with customers has had a profound impact on the way inome does business. “We understood our customers quite well,” he says. “Naveen would take a call. I would take a call. There was a gal that used to call that I helped at one point. It was about her son being lost, kidnapped–a custody issue–and she wanted to find out his whereabouts. She would call me and I was more helpful I think than she probably had anticipated. It became kind of regular that she started calling for me. I took a lot of calls. We all ended up building a relationship with these customers. They’d come back and they’d ask for you.”
As a result of working with their customers personally, inome doesn’t take customer service for granted today.
“We’re actually one of the few companies in our industry, in fact the only company in our industry, that has a customer service department,” Naveen Jain says. “We talk to all of our customers live and that’s our best feedback mechanism. Many companies put their customer service representatives in some low cost place or even outsource it altogether to save money, but our customer service department is in a Class A building downtown.”
Expanding the Product Line
From listening so intently to their customers, the inome founders have managed to expand their company’s services. Naveen Jain stresses the importance of listening to what customers wanted next. “We started thinking about how we can protect people who are not coming in touch with each other. Despite distance in physical proximity, there are phones and email and social networking. How can we build products around that?”
inome soon offered a new service: ID Watch. ID Watch addresses growing consumer concern about ID theft and the need for a solid ID theft prevention service. Unlike credit report checks, ID Watch tracks consumer information and alerts the consumer to potentially suspicious events related to their private information. These events include sudden changes in address and various kinds of transactions that can be indicators of ID Theft. Unlike any other ID protection service out there, inome’s ID Watch service delivers alerts in real time.
Naveen Jain explains further. “People always tell you that the best way to protect against identity theft is to look at your credit report often. What they don’t tell you is that looking at your credit report is the same as looking at your house after it’s already been burglarized.”
The inome founders wanted to create a more proactive approach to the problem of identity theft. “Fortunately, every criminal, no matter how smart they are, always, always leaves fingerprints behind,” Naveen Jain continues. “What if we are able to detect those fingerprints? A person has to establish an identity in your name in order to steal from you. We can detect that. We can tell you it is happening before it happens, and we can tell you in real time. That is ID Watch.”
ID Watch has become an award-winning product that has won praise from both the tech industry and on the consumer service front. The critical acclaim for ID Watch brought positive recognition to inome, and makes future prospects even more exciting.
inome in the Future
When it comes to the future, the founders of inome aren’t most concerned about what product will be next.
“The products change,” Chandan Chauhan explains. “What is important is the fundamental thinking underneath it. You are starting a company. You are starting a business and people get derailed from that thinking. The fundamentals always have to be about the reason we started a company. Products are just like the seasons. They come and go. We aim to always have the right product for the right season.”
So what is most important about the future for inome? It’s clearly not about what products are hot. It’s also not all about bringing in more revenue, expansion, or racking up awards.
“The biggest challenge you face is not about growing the business,” Naveen Jain says. “That’s the easiest problem to solve. The toughest problem to solve is how to maintain the culture of the company that brought you to success. How do you continue to hire people who actually believe in what you’re doing? How do you bring people in who still feel a part of this family even though this family has grown so large? When people feel connected to what they are doing, they take pride in it and do a good job. That is what we want to maintain. That is what we want to help grow.”
The culture at inome is conducive to employee ownership on every level. The founders are open books. Everyone in the office knows it, and employees walk around freely. “My door is always open,” Naveen Jain says. “Anybody can come and ask anything. Three of our founders are on the engineering floor. We put founders on every floor to say ‘Look, as an owner of the company, I am telling you to talk to me and I’ll fix your problems.’”
The founders are not concerned about the future. In fact, they are excited.
“If you think about inome,” Naveen Jain continues, “what’s in the future is lots and lots of services that are going to fundamentally change the way you make decisions about your life, whether it’s decisions about people, decisions about businesses you may be contracting, or decisions about the assets you have or plan to acquire.”
Fundamentally, inome is about community and connectivity.
“There are so many people in the world,” Naveen Jain says, “But we only know each other through facets. Some people know you on a personal level. Some people know you on a professional level. Some people know you on a social level. Whether it’s personal, public, professional or social, having information about people allows you to do business with them. Knowing that this person has three kids, is this old, or has the following interests allows you to feel close to the person. When you feel like you know someone, you want to help them with what they need. This enables you to do a better business deal.”
It is information that drives industry. All the founders feel the same about that. “That’s the beauty of it,” Chandan Chauhan agrees. “If you see it in context, we are barely scratching the surface of this business. The future is huge. The potential is enormous here.”
“I think that the universe that this company plays in is very large,” Ed chimes in. “I also think we’re providing some very good services for consumers and businesses. If you look at the elevator pitch of the company–which is to provide both businesses and consumers with intelligent information so they can make better decisions about the people, the businesses and the assets that affect their daily lives–you know we’re executing on that.”
Ultimately, though, inome isn’t a success story with a beginning and an end. The story is still going. Naveen Jain educates at length about the necessity of focus. “You can’t conquer the world all once. Our focus has always been to make sure that you win whatever you touch. We tackle one thing at a time, conquer that, and then move on to the next thing.” Naveen Jain and the other founders are on the same page with that business strategy.
“It’s not that we’re done here and now it’s just time to sit back and enjoy,” Niraj Shah comments. “That’s the challenge. You always got to be pressing forward. You’ve always got to be pushing ahead.”
“I like the way the company’s positioned,” Ed Petersen adds. “Our goal is to build a brand, a trusted brand for the services. For our niche, we have certainly done a good job, but now we’re trying to be that gold standard, and I think we’re certainly en route to that goal.”
The Transition to inome
In June of 2012, Intelius announced a company transition in which inome Inc. would be the new corporate umbrella for the properties that previously were housed under Intelius. Naveen explained in a June 10th interview that inome — which stands for “information genome” — is much more than a simple name change. It represents an entirely new business. As part of the change, Intelius will become a division of inome as will the company’s US Search, Zabasearch, Talentwise and Live Family units. Some of the management from the units will run those divisions, while other executives will join inome, said Jain. For Example, Chief Corporate Officer Bill Kerr will become president of Talentwise.
Jain said that Intelius is largely identified with online background checks, and because of that it was harder for the company to tout its other offerings, such as the Talentwise service. Under the new entity, Jain said that the company may launch new units or brands in the identity management arena.