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Jigsaw tries leveraging 'Wisdom of Crowds'

Company that built a user-created database of contacts for salespeople is now trying to amass data about private companies.

A start-up that built an innovative, user-created database of business contacts for salespeople is looking to ideas raised by the popular book "The Wisdom of Crowds" and turning to its members to provide hard-to-find data about private companies.

Since last year, Jigsaw Data, of San Mateo, Calif., has built a database of more than 1.2 million business contacts, all of which were submitted and vetted by the company's members.

Each Jigsaw member either pays $25 a month for access to the contacts, or submits 25 names, along with current phone numbers, titles, e-mail addresses and the like, thereby ensuring that the company has a steady and growing source of both contacts and revenue for its database.

Image: Mining data

As more salespeople have learned about the company, which has only 28 employees, it has increasingly become a relevant alternative to data giants like Dun & Bradstreet, Hoover's and Harte-Hanks, which each charge at least $1,000 for contacts database access. Thus, for Jigsaw's 17,000 users, all of whom depend on accurate, up-to-date contact information for executives at companies around the United States and the world, it is playing in what almost seems like an entirely different arena.

"Jigsaw is onto something enormous," said Emmanuelle Skala, director of sales operations for Cambridge, Mass.-based Endeca Technologies. "The (thing) we like about it is that it is other, similar people putting in their information knowing they're getting something in return."

Until now, Jigsaw has provided information only about individuals. But as it's grown to become better known and respected, it's felt the need to further differentiate itself from its larger competitors.

As such, it's turning to its chief asset--its members and their collective pool of insight about the companies they sell to--and tasked them with providing information about private companies' revenues and employee counts, data essential to salespeople but extremely difficult to come by using traditional methods.

"What struck us is that we've got a community (of members) and these guys are the eyes and ears of organizations," said Jim Fowler, Jigsaw's CEO. "They're the ones touching other businesses and learning firsthand about those businesses in a way that's very hard to replicate."

Fowler said that after reading "The Wisdom of Crowds," James Surowiecki's hit book extolling the collective intelligence of groups, he hit on a way to arrive at valid educated guesses about companies' key metrics.

How it works
The idea is that if multiple members voted on a selection of figures when submitting or reviewing contacts for people at individual companies, Jigsaw could aggregate the votes and arrive at what would likely be accurate information on those companies.

"Salespeople are in a unique position to figure out what kind of revenue and how many employees a company has because they have to have that kind of information in order to do their business," Fowler said.

The system works, he explained, by having the first member to submit a contact for a company vote on the metrics. Rather than forcing members to come up with raw data, Jigsaw asks them to choose between ranges of employees and revenue. For example, for employees, members can select zero to 25, 25 to 100, 100 to 250, 250 to 1,000 and so on. For revenue, the ranges start at $0 million to $1 million, $1 million to $10 million and go up from there.

Fowler acknowledges that because the system is relatively new--it's only weeks old--the number of people voting on each company is relatively small.

Some wonder if the size of the "crowds" Jigsaw has pooling their wisdom is a problem.

"You're going to need more than just five people to make guesses," said Kent Allen, an analyst who runs The Research Trust in San Francisco. "I guess there's a couple different ways you can look at the wisdom of crowds. Crowds are not always so wise."

'That looks right'
But Fowler argued that even three or four members voting on a company is enough to arrive at numbers that are likely accurate.

"Once you've got enough votes and everybody says, 'Oh, that looks right,' the votes kind of tail off," he said. "It starts coming into the right range pretty quickly. Some of our members take wild guesses, but most haven't because they've got their names attached to (their votes)" and they don't want to look out of touch.

For example, eight Jigsaw members voted on the metrics for The Staubach Company, a property leasing and management firm in Addison, Texas. One said Staubach had 100 to 250 employees, while another voted for 250 to 1,000. But six voted for 1,000 to 10,000. Similarly, one voted for revenues of $1 million to $10 million, while seven cast a ballot for more than $1 billion in revenues.

The takeaway, then, is that The Staubach Company likely has between 1,000 and 10,000 employees and sales of more than $1 billion.

Fowler also acknowledges that arriving at ranges for the metrics isn't the same as coming up with pinpoint numbers. But he said that for salespeople, ranges are generally all that's needed.

"They don't have to know exactly how much revenue" a company has, he said. "A lot of salespeople will get territories and only target companies between $10 million and $50 million in revenues. Most products have a sweet spot."

Notwithstanding his concern that Jigsaw doesn't yet have enough people participating in the "Wisdom of Crowds" feature, Allen does see some merit in it.

"I'll look at the private companies and try to do the best guesses on the basic metrics," Allen said. "And I think it makes a whole lot of sense if (Jigsaw) can get enough people to do it....It's a heck of a lot cheaper (than other alternatives), and it's a way to hone an estimate, and that's something that's very valuable to the marketplace."

Allen also agreed with Jigsaw's contention that its members are uniquely suited to coming up with the kind of information on private companies that makes its new feature worthwhile.

"Salespeople (are) pretty savvy," he said. They "trade information a lot, and they're on the front lines."

Indeed, Jigsaw's members think the company is onto something given that private companies typically keep their key metrics close to the vest.

"From a private company perspective, this is probably the only way I can think of to get that information," said Paul Jones, sales manager for Forum Systems in Sandy, Utah.

And while he would prefer to see more participation in the "Wisdom of Crowds" feature, Jones said the data it produces is better than his alternatives.

"It's more information than I would have on my own," he said. "The collective wisdom of five people is more than my own wisdom if I don't have any information about that company."