‘Growth is something we think about a lot’ — Interview with Richard Price, founder of Academia.edu

Richard Price is the founder and CEO of Academia.edu, a social networking site for academics, which now boasts over 16 millions users. Richard founded Academia.edu while studying a D.Phil in philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford, where he was a Prize Fellow.

Jean Petreschi: When did you have the idea for Academia.edu and how did you test it?

Richard Price: I had the idea in August 2006 when I was nearing the end of my D.Phil in philosophy. I was thinking about how I needed to create a website to share the papers from my D.Phil thesis, and it occurred to me that others may have that problem.

Initially I asked around my friends at Oxford to see if they wanted to share their papers online, and to see if creating an academic website was a pain point. There was agreement from people in various fields that it was a pain point.

I then hired a contractor and we got a prototype built, and we got a few hundred people using that.

What is the biggest challenge you faced while starting Academia.edu? And what was the breakthrough that made you think ‘ok this is going to work’?

Growth is the biggest challenge: getting lots of users signed up and engaging on the platform. There have been many stages of growth at Academia.edu: getting the first ten thousand users. Then getting to 1 million. Now we add a million users a month. Growth is something we think about a lot.

When you were a student in Oxford, did you feel that the University was conducive to student entrepreneurship?

Oxford Entrepreneurs made a huge difference. I was able to find co-founders for my startup LiveOut.co.uk, which was an online database of student accommodation. Seeing other students start companies alongside their studies was also inspiring.

Did you have an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ as a student?

I started a number of companies whilst a student. The first was Richard’s Banana Bakery, which sold cakes to cafes and offices in London. The second was Dashing Lunches, which produced and sold sandwiches to offices.

Then I wanted to do something on the internet, and started LiveOut.co.uk with some co-founders that I met through Oxford Entrepreneurs. Next I started PeopleRadar, which was a photo rating site on Facebook that came to be the largest app on Facebook for 9 months. Then I had the idea for Academia.edu, and committed to building that company after my D.Phil finished.

What is your advice for today’s student entrepreneurs?

University is a good place to try entrepreneurial experiments. You can try something, run it for a few months, and then shut it down if you decide it’s not working in the way you want. I ran Richard’s Banana Bakery and Dashing Lunches in the vacations of my PhD. I learned about what kind of entrepreneur I wanted to be through the various experiments I ran. From my offline experiments, Richard’s Banana Bakery and Dashing Lunches, I realized that I wanted to do something scalable on the internet. From LiveOut.co.uk, I realized that I would prefer something that is pure internet, rather than a hybrid: LiveOut.co.uk had a significant offline component in that we had to travel around estate agents and convince them to upload their properties to our site.

PeopleRadar was pure internet and scalable, but I realized that it wasn’t something I couldn’t be proud of. If I was going to devote years of my life to something, I wanted it to be a project that I could be proud of: Academia.edu has turned out to be that project for me.

Why did you choose to move to the Valley?

I moved because I saw that the majority of the top tech companies were based in the Valley, and I wanted to be around people who worked there in order to learn as much as possible.

What do you think are the most disruptive forces in the tech economy at the moment?

The spread of programming skills, and the ease of starting a company using AWS and small amounts of money, mean that the pool of entrepreneurs is increasing. That is a great thing because there are more people to come up with imaginative ideas.

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