For Jeffrey Stibel MS’99, graduate study in cognitive and linguistic sciences didn’t lead to a research or academic career but to a trail of corporate successes. Currently CEO and president of Web.com, the 33-year-old Stibel uses his knowledge of the brain – which he developed in part as a grad student at Brown – to create Web sites that meet customers’ needs.
“My every waking moment is about understanding how decisions are made,” he said.
Stibel currently runs Web.com, a company founded in 1995 to create, host and maintain Web sites for small to medium businesses. Stibel said he has transformed the company’s management style and made it more efficient since his arrival in August 2005.
Stibel has started about a dozen companies and currently sits on the board of half a dozen others, most of which are managed and owned by Brown graduates. He also serves on the board of the Brown University Entrepreneurship Program. “I guess I am a serial entrepreneur,” Stibel said.
Stibel’s business career began while he was still in grad school. He formed a laboratory group of about a dozen students and professors from Brown’s computer science and cognitive and linguistic sciences departments.
The group combined linguistic, cognitive and computer science methods to improve web search engines by enabling them to differentiate between various meanings of the same word.
Though such a feature may seem commonplace today, at the time it was a revolutionary improvement in Web technology. The group created Simpli.com in 2000 and sold the company to NetZero later that year.
“Jeff managed to motivate a bunch of academics, something very hard to do,” said James Anderson, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences.
Stibel remembers asking Anderson if his ambition to turn research into a for-profit enterprise would create a conflict of interest. “He said, ‘I don’t have a problem as long as I can join in,’ ” Stibel said.
Stibel said he always knew he wanted to apply cognitive science and psychology to business. As an undergraduate at Tufts University, he majored in psychology and philosophy. While working toward a master’s degree at Brown, he was also enrolled full-time at MIT Sloan School of Management, where he studied decision-making in business.
“I was studying the business side of the same problem at Sloan and the cognitive side processes behind decision-making at Brown,” he said.
In order to complete degrees at two universities simultaneously, Stibel had to divide his time between Providence and Cambridge, Mass. “I traveled a lot,” Stibel said.
But he doesn’t think a business education is necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur. “Get as much experience as you can and surround yourself with great people, ” he said.
Stibel has worked with the same team of Brown grads throughout his ventures. Some of his colleagues have also started their own companies. Stibel said they have been integral to his success in business.
“I am loyal to them to the core. For selfish reasons too,” he said.
Stibel sits on the board of the Search Agency, a Rhode Island-based Internet company founded and managed by Carl Dunham ’86. Dunham said he feels a similar loyalty to Stibel and describes him as a person with an extraordinary vision, knowledge and organizational skills. “There are people who have one of these qualities, but he has them all,” Dunham said.
Stibel has had to make personal sacrifices for his career, but he can’t imagine retiring, he said. He has had to move often around the country with each new venture, from Providence to California and now to Georgia. He said he has made more money than he could ever need, but he is not in it for the money any more. “I tried it, retirement. For three days, but it didn’t work,” he said.
Stibel said that Brown, the “anti-establishment establishment,” in many respects defines his career. “You have to have the ability to wear different hats,” he said.