Creating Your Own Career: Abby Blachly by Jennifer Moyer
posted July 10, 2013 8:13 AM
LibraryThing has become a household name in the library world since Katherine Dunn interviewed Abby Blachly in 2008. In five years, the company has quadrupled in size, created a new division, and developed a host of new products used by hundreds libraries worldwide. LibraryThing's social book cataloguing application has more than 1.6 million users around the globe. Yet success didn't come easy for the start-up.
"I know [founder] Tim Spalding puts in 120% to get something done. I knew I could trust him with my paycheck," says Abby Blachly after she quit her paying job to help Spalding build the company. "We worked 24 hours a day for the first four months and lived in the office. The company was our sole focus. We didn't have time to worry about anything else," says Blachly. Beyond her library training, Blachly had to manage budgets and tax files for workers in several states, and manage people and projects across time zones. "It was scary to not know if we would succeed."
Spalding and Blachly recognized the need for the right partners from the beginning. "Avoid taking the first check that is handed to you no matter how enticing it looks," advises Blachly when approached by investors. "Tim investigated each company thoroughly to determine the right fit. The research paid off as we have excellent partnerships with AbeBooks and Bowker," she says.
Blachly also attributes the company's success to building the right team. Although three staff members work daily in the Portland, Maine, office, the company offers a flexible, virtual work environment and pays 100% of health-care premiums to attract the best staff from around the world. "We get about 400 qualified applicants for every position," says Blachly. Although it's not a job prerequisite, everyone on the staff knows a second language. "Such extracurricular interests suggest the intelligence and passion we are looking for that extend beyond listed job requirements," she says.
In light of all the success, the company has coped with competition by pursuing a strategy that continues to produce a unique product. LibraryThing was the first social cataloging service on the market. Other companies, such as Goodreads, which was recently acquired by Amazon, appeared to be a looming threat to the company's continuity. Yet LibraryThing's user numbers skyrocketed the day of the merger announcement. Why? Blachly hints that some new users are wary of the data held by Amazon. She believes that there is still space for LibraryThing and Goodreads companies since each offers niche services. "We are careful to zig where they zag," she says.
LibraryThing's profits are driven by the data it collects from users. With more than 96 million tags on books, LibraryThing may have developed the world's most comprehensive folksonomy. The tags that go onto be used in LibraryThing for Libraries products are vetted by librarians first.While the data can provide quirky statistics, such as informing a user how many bathtubs or UHaul boxes their book collection would fill, the aggregate level of tags also offers to booksellers and publishers coveted data about user habits and interests. Thus, LibraryThing makes a profit selling data to book publishers, libraries, and booksellers.
The data end of the business has given way to the "LibraryThing for Libraries" division, which Blachly currently leads. She is helping libraries unleash the power of the tags to build search engines and to help users identify books of interest. The data should open the doors to developing applications.
Innovation and product improvement are also at the heart of LibraryThing. Products like StackMap provide customized user-friendly maps inside the library catalog to guide patrons to items in any library's collection. Their latest app is BookPsychic, a personal recommendation system. Using the same principles as the Netflix's ratings system, BookPsychic allows users to rate books and gives recommendations based on the user's library holdings. "It is fun because it gets people hooked into the library's catalog," says Blachly, and allows libraries to individualize their book outreach efforts to the members of their community.
We do not need a psychic app to tell us the future looks bright for LibraryThing. An innovative team and strategic business plan offer a promising future for the company and for book lovers.