By David Gottlieb
Citation Technologies is about to celebrate its 20th birthday, more or less. Like my great-grandmother, no one remembers our exact date of birth (but we think we have the year right).
Our founder is retired and might be in Costa Rica. That leaves me, a 16-year employee, as the person with the most complete memories of how a modest startup grew up to be a modest success.
It all started in 1995, when Citation Technologies was called Citation Publishing, and when its staff consisted of a president, an editor, three assistants, and a salesperson.
Its product was a series of diskettes containing a few federal regulations concerning EH&S (environmental, health and safety) compliance, plus a smattering of recent Federal Register articles about the same subjects. These were updated monthly and sold to a couple hundred subscribers, mostly small and medium-sized companies who wanted their regulations in electronic format.
The editor, who shall remain nameless (partly because I can’t remember his name), collected the articles from the Federal Government, put them into the desired electronic format, and organized them on diskette with a rudimentary menu and search system. He did this every month until one day he decided that he was so important to the business that he should be a part owner.
The existing owner disagreed. The editor got angry. He took the company’s only server, climbed to the roof of the building, and threw it off the edge.
It turned out to be a great break for the company (pun intended) because it resulted in my being hired as a consultant to write software to automate the process of creating the product.
Our new system, together with the advent of CDs which allowed us to publish much larger amounts of data, resulted in a more extensive product, with large chunks of the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register and even regulations from some of the more important states! We were able to sell to more and larger companies, and even raise our prices.
Then we had a great idea. Why not put our content on an Internet website and charge for accessing it?
This was 1997. Amazon was two years old. The coming of age of electronic commerce, widely regarded as occurring around 1998 or 1999, had not yet happened. Our website accounted for a whopping 2% of our sales. Our competitors yawned and chose not to follow suit, maybe because our total market share was under 1%, and 2% of 1% is … well, it’s pretty small.
Those were the days! I remember them well.
State regulations were a special challenge because they were never available on the Internet. Usually we had to scan hard copy of varying quality, and then do optical character recognition (OCR) to recover the text so that we could write HTML documents. The OCR software of the time was none too good, so we drove our editorial assistants crazy correcting its output.
Of course, we used electronic sources whenever they were available. The state of Washington produced a magnetic tape where every paragraph in their regulations was its own file. The file titles were helpful though (1, 2, 3, 4, …).
We called a southern state once (again, no names) to see if maybe they had their regulations in WordPerfect format, or something else that we could read electronically. The lady who we spoke to was amused.
“Heavens, no”, she said, “Why, we just got electric typewriters last year.”
Even more amusing was our experience with another state in the same area. We gleefully found a website one day – a website! – that had their regulations. It looked official. This was too good to be true!
For months we took the material we needed from that website, until one day we noticed that it had not been updated for a while. And some of the regulations looked a little strange. So we called the state and were told that the website had been put up by a junior at one of the state colleges, and that he had graduated. So much for that.
A closer look revealed that he had also decided that he could write better laws than the state legislature. Most of his changes were in the area of criminal penalties for drug use. But he also inserted a clause in state forestry regulations prohibiting logging within a very large circle centered on the state capital, a region that I calculated included substantial portions of the Antarctic subcontinent. (Sorry, I got carried away and made up the last sentence, but the rest is true)
Anyway, by 2000 the company had grown to the point where there was real professional management, a decent staff, and even machine-printed paychecks. We were on our way. But it has never been quite the same for me.