This one is for you nerds

This morning in perpetually sunny London, as I walked from my flat to the Warwick Avenue tube station, I noticed something that almost made me tremble in awe and excitement. I could barely hold my iPhone still to take a picture. I’m living around the corner from the house where Alan Turing was born! ALAN TURING! Even though I’m not a programmer myself, I find that pretty awesome. Behold and rejoice, my fellow nerds:

Alan Turing's birthplace

Alan Turing, one of the fathers of computer science, formalised the concept of the algorithm through his description of Turing machines.

At Mendeley, we’re fond of algorithms. While we strive to keep our software’s user interface as simply and appealing as possible, there are quite a lot of complex algorithms huffing and puffing and toiling away in the background.

One automatically extracts the metadata from the text of an academic paper (to spare you from typing it in manually), while another takes a fingerprint from the paper’s text and anonymously matches it against other fingerprints on the Mendeley server, with the goal of improving the metadata recognition quality – so the more people use Mendeley, the better the quality becomes.

A further not-so-simple algorithm parses the cited references in the end and turns them into a machine-readable format (so you can search them, apply citation styles, and export them). An additional one matches these extracted references to documents already in your library (to automatically capture the hidden citation network already existent on your computer). Then there’s the building of the full-text index and, coming soon, the recommendation engine.

By the way, the place where Alan Turing was born is now the Colonnade Hotel. If you’re a rich nerd, you can stay there! So did Sigmund Freud, who’s got a suite named after him.

This is how we look while working for Mendeley…

…metaphorically speaking:

My girlfriend Irina sent me this delightful video a few days ago, and I remain mesmerized. I’ve watched it several times now – it never fails to crack me up (my favourite part starts after exactly one minute!).

You may rightfully wonder what this performance could have in common with life at our start-up. Well, for one, it’s the buzzing exuberance and enthusiasm we have for our vision of Mendeley and what it could become for the research community. When we’ve imagined, designed and specified a new feature, when there’s progress on our website, when something starts to work for the first time in our software, we go “WOW! How great is THAT! Imagine what a difference it could make if every researcher used this!”.

Then, everything happens at a breakneck pace. You’re trying to coordinate everything as best as you can and plan your next steps, but sometimes you’re still just goofily flailing your arms, juggling the myriad of tasks thrown at you all at the same time. Describe a new website functionality down to the last mouse-click and pixel placement, brainstorm about Mendeley’s strategy, design interfaces in Photoshop, find a new office, talk to beta testers, keep up with the latest research relevant to our technology, wrangle lawyers and legal affairs, find talented developers to hire, visit universities, hunt down the latest software bugs, and that’s just today before lunch.

Admittedly, I know the analogies are flimsy at best – mainly I was just looking for an excuse to smuggle this charming little video into our blog. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I do. On a side-note, Irina and I have decided that we just have to learn to dance Charleston sometime.

Designing statistics

So I’m currently designing the visual representation of the statistics you’ll be able to access on our website. For example, this is one of the graphs which will let you track how the readership of your own publications is evolving:

readership

When I was finished and took another look at it, the color and the shape vaguely reminded me of one of my favourite works of art, The Great Wave off Kanagawa:

The Wave

Of course it’s far-fetched, and I’m not trying to imply that our stats are anywhere near as beautiful as Edo period woodprints. But: We love statistics and data, so you’ll find a healthy dose of them on Mendeley!

Office evolution

Mendeley officeFor everyone who is looking for office space in London at the moment: There are those places which don’t cost a fortune and aren’t as tiny as a broom closet, but they are very hard to find. Keep on looking…

The first office we got here in London was a nice little room with a big table and four chairs. It looked very much like a kitchen (perhaps because it was my kitchen). Since I was the first of us three founders living here, my flat was our London base in the early days of Mendeley when we were all living in different cities.

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How our name evolved from B-movie monster to Mendeley

Nosferatu readingYou can probably imagine that coming up with a name for a start-up is hard. It should be memorable, unique, and as short as possible. It should also sound good, possibly have a connection to what you’re doing, and (that’s the trickiest part) the .com- and .net-domain should still be available.

When we got started with our idea, the working title of the project was “Literacula” because we imagined how our software would sink its teeth into literature and automatically (supernaturally?) suck the metadata out of it. Besides, the cheesy “B-movie monster” sound of the name made us giggle.

Unfortunately, no one else liked it, let alone knew how to pronounce it. So we decided to ditch “Literacula” (prompting my Ph.D. thesis advisor Thorsten Hennig-Thurau to exclaim “Good riddance!”) and started to think about a new name.

We tossed around quite a few and got mixed reactions: Horizontina (“how do you pronounce that?”), Horizontas (“Pocahontas?”), Theora (“sounds boring”), Sciendia (“too generic”), Scientree (“nah”), Thoughtweaver (“too much like Dreamweaver“), and the list goes on. After I had read the enormously entertaining autobiography of eminent physicist and prankster Richard P. Feynman – “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman” – we were quite high on the name “Feyn” for a while. It sounded short and sweet in German, our native language, but was pronounced like “feign” by our English friends. Clearly not the best connotation in the academic context, so we dropped that one, too.

Dmitri MendeleyevBut we felt we were on to something: Scientists’ names! The chemists and biologists among you may have already deduced from whom we derive our name: Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev (alternatively spelled Mendeleev), who developed the periodic table of elements, and Gregor Mendel, who is often called the “father of modern genetics”.

Gregor MendelWe liked the analogies: Just as Gregor Mendel studied the inheritance of traits in plants, Mendeley will enable you to trace how ideas and academic theories evolve and cross-pollinate each other. Dmitri Mendeleyev formed the periodic table based on the properties of known elements, then used this data to predict the properties of elements yet to be discovered – and Mendeley will help you discover new literature based on the known elements in your library.

In addition, it seemed reasonably short and sounded good. Thus, after months of searching, we happily settled on Mendeley. Feel free to let us know what you think of our name in the comments section!

P.S.: If you’re trying to come up with a name for your start-up, you might find these articles helpful: “The Name Game” by Guy Kawasaki, “How To Name Your Company” by Michael McDerment, and “How NOT To Name Your Company” by Michael Kanellos.

Even if you’re not looking for a name, I urge you to read this brilliant and hilarious Salon.com article by Ruth Shalit. It describes the “Pynchonesque netherworld” of professional naming agencies like Landor, Idiom, and A Hundred Monkeys which charge their corporate customers a hundred thousand dollars for a single vowel. Here’s an excerpt:

Tom Lagow, US Air’s executive vice president of marketing, says it was exciting for him, too. “They did an extensive amount of research,” he says. “A hundred to 150 hours of interviewing. And I’ll tell you, I was very impressed. They peeled the onion back to the point where they were able to define what business we were in. They determined that we were in the business of proficiency. And that, very unfortunately, that message of proficiency was not conveyed by the name US Air.”

What was the new name? I asked. And when would it be unveiled? I was guessing Skystar, Glident, Proficienta.

“Oh, it’s already been unveiled,” Lagow explains. I was perplexed. “But isn’t US Air still US Air?” I asked. “I was just in an airport the other day, and I could have sworn …”

“No, no,” Lagow says. “It’s been changed to US Airways.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

“That’s all we needed!” he said eagerly. “What we found was that airlines that end in ‘Air’ tend to be thought of not as major. What we found is that if you stretch the name a little bit – don’t throw it out, just stretch it a little bit – you create the perception of a larger, more substantial airline. Strategically and structurally, we are now oriented toward the international.”