Owler Looks at How APIs Fit into a DaaS Business Model

Serial entrepreneur Jim Fowler is seeking to replicate the success he created with Jigsaw — which was eventually acquired by Salesforce.com for $142 million in 2010 — with his new venture, Owler. The new business wants to collect global company information in a user-friendly format and sell it back to enterprise customers who usually have to invest in the procurement of company data privately.

“Our business has two sides,” explains Fowler. “Owler is completely free. We keep you up to date on your competitor set and can send you competitor reports with crowdsourced data and CEO ratings. Our users give us this data because we give them valuable data in return, but we also sell it at an enterprise level, which is how Jigsaw did it.

“We have a set of APIs out now that are creating feeds out of our data. But our vision is for us to become the data source that everyone comes to. We are in the pretty early stages of where we are going, so at the moment it is really about building more information, we don’t want to spend too much time on the APIs to move that data.”

The service relies on crowdsourcing as the primary data collection mechanism; uses the company’s URL as the base company identifier; and draws on RSS feeds from the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission and similar national government entities around the world (“the Brits are particularly good, they even give revenue data as well,” says Fowler).

Governments Failing to Make Company Data Open via API

Owler’s data collection approach via RSS reveals how far open data APIs still have to come in order to support new business initiatives.

For example, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is the government collector of all publicly-listed company information, does not have an API to allow access to that data. Companies must file their annual financial reports with the SEC and that includes a heap of additional business information that is useful to mine, such as any subsidiary companies, locations of offices, relationships with parent companies and industry classification codes. But while the SEC provides this information publicly, it is done so in eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) which is not designed for automated use or integration into external databases in the way that APIs enable. So pulling data from SEC into user-friendly formats ends up being done by proprietary data providers like EDGAR Online who funnel SEC data into their financial and business data platform and then provide that data back out as the EDGAR Online API.

Like EDGAR Online, the non-profit, open-to-donations CorpWatch scrapes published SEC company filings and provides an API free-of-charge. Rank and Filed and Last10K also provide APIs to better access SEC company data, with Rank and Filed having been created by a former SEC employee who was so frustrated by the lack of APIs that he spent seven months learning how to code and now makes the API resource available.

While they would prefer to use an API if it was available, Owler instead uses the SEC’s RSS feeds to draw in the information to populate their basic profiles, and then fosters a crowdsourced approach to encourage Owler users to add to the business information datasets and to answer questions around approval ratings of CEOs, and to share their acquisition predictions.

The Data-as-a-Service Business Model

Owler’s entry into the market may create stronger competition amongst several suppliers who already seek to provide business profile information via an API pipeline, including Dun & Bradstreet, EDGAR Online, and CrunchBase. “We want businesses to get out of needing to produce business information data themselves,” confirms Fowler.

According to Himani Jain’s Data-as-a-Service business model typography published by Harvard Business School, Owler is a data fabric layer, where “Players will act as the custodian and aggregator of the data providing controlled access to that data through an API. Part of this offering would be stream processing, where data is analyzed immediately after it has been created.”

ABOVE: Data-as-a-Service business model layers, by Himani Jain (Source: Identifying Value Layer in the Big Data as a Service (DAAS) Business Model)

The Owler business model demonstrates some of the nuances around collating and supplying data that may seem counterintuitive. Having tested his theories with Jigsaw, Fowler firmly believes that “the data business highway is littered with the roadkill of data aggregators. You make money by making your own proprietary data supply.”

Fowler’s take is that while government open data APIs for basic company information are extremely useful for his business, he is not looking to aggregate data supplied from other proprietary sources, who may charge for the data and have caveats on rights to commercialize or on-sell that data to others.

At present, Owler uses social media APIs to collate data on levels of followers of companies, but sees the API play as a later stage, when they are more focused on selling their data to enterprise customers who will need a way to integrate it directly into their business systems.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities.