Graduate+: He came, he saw brilliance, he conquered

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In the computer world, he has fame. His company has been bought for millions. Yet a few years ago John Snyder of Muscat was mocked. He retraces his path to glory with Rachelle Thackray.

All the best ideas, they say, are born in a flash in a darkened room. For the entrepreneur John Snyder, founder of the prodigiously successful computer company Muscat - snapped up for more than pounds 5m by MAID in August and now under the wing of Knight-Ridder - eureka came when, as a young Cambridge anthropology undergraduate in his professor's study, he noticed an assistant quietly archiving university records on his computer.

"I remember meeting this little academic guy in the corner; I saw his software and thought `This is really good stuff'," says Snyder, 31, whose search engine technology now serves clients from Reuters to Channel 4.

The "little academic guy" turned out to be Dr Martin Porter; Snyder approached him two years later, asking to commercialise his work.

What drew him? "It was about probabalistic retrieval," explains Snyder, who spotted the beauty of using natural language, instead of a complicated sequence of words - to retrieve information.

"With PCs round the corner, people didn't want key words. They wanted to search across the whole thing. If you are on a page of text, you might want a hypertext link, and someone would have pre-authored that link. But you don't have to spend a year putting in all these links, like in a maze. In multi-media you end up with a myriad of directions. You just allow the user to find where to go."

Porter agreed to collaborate, and in 1991 the pair managed to turn over pounds 15,000. It was a year in which Snyder, by this time married and a new father, nearly gave up. He was even forced to rent out his house to save money.

"It felt like David and Goliath. I would come to computer shows with a black-and-white business card because I couldn't afford colour, and walk on to stands saying `Here's really good technology'. People would throw me off as a timewaster, saying `We want to talk to real customers.' " At this year's Online 97 Olympia exhibition his stand was centre of attention.

"I just remember feeling very frustrated, but I knew there was something good in it."

Reuters gave Muscat an initial pounds 5,000 to demonstrate retrieval facilities. But a greater breakthrough came when Microsoft rang Porter to request one of his algorithms. Astutely, Snyder pursued the link and was eventually whisked first-class with Porter to Seattle to demonstrate their product in front of a dozen Microsoft executives.

"It was quite clear that we had some unique selling points," Snyder says. "Microsoft made noises about licensing, but they weren't going to buy from us. In the meantime, Reuters kept in touch, and we kept trying to show we could do things quite big.

"I wasn't trying to get lots of customers; I was just taking three or four like Reuters, because I knew I would be able to use that to gain access."

Snyder, who was by now confident enough to invest in his first employee, decided to put a `front end' on his technology, "to make it look sexy". This generated interest from Cascade, which resold Muscat's product to companies as diverse as Conde Nast, Channel 4 and The Los Angeles Times.

"The idea is that you give them the crown jewels and they work out how to use them," Snyder says.

Another turning point came with the popularisation of the Internet. "We were extremely reactive," he recalls. "We saw an opportunity and suddenly business really took off. We were ahead of more traditional people; I think they had seen it but we just turned it round really quickly. It was gut reaction, total impulse."

He was also advised by Herman Hauser, the Acorn guru, to look out for key strategic partners, one of whom was MAID's Dan Wagner, who wanted to buy Muscat.

At around the same time, Snyder forced down a slice of humble pie by bringing in Ionica's Chris Nowell as chief executive and demoting himself to become business development manager.

"I had this dilemma: do I grow or do I get swallowed up?" says Snyder. "In the end, I got a kind of triple-win deal. Dan came in and bought equity, which meant that having done our bit, we got some financial reward, but we were still running the company ourselves.

"MAID opened us up to some other accounts, because these guys had already knocked on all the doors. It was a beautiful way for Muscat to be introduced to that huge international customer base."

He admits it was painful to relinquish headship of Muscat, which still employs only 28 people, based in Cambridge.

"It's kind of my baby, and it's very hard to have someone come in and take over. I had initiated it, having recognised my own weakness - sometimes entrepreneurs are such control freaks - and I have to swallow my pride," says Snyder, whose acumen is matched, unusually in his line of business, by emotional intelligence.

His anthropology studies crucially influenced his attitude to both customers and staff, he says. "Business is a culture. People may buy things because they are cheap and they work, but they actually buy from people. It is about respecting people, not being a power merchant, and not trying to dominate or whiplash."

What does the future hold? Snyder is keen to innovate in different markets - hand-held "personal digital assistants", for example - and aims to have most of the FTSE 100 companies using his software.

"I would like to feel that it's Muscat's technology that is used behind the scenes by people all over the place, to give them easier access to information," he says. "It's a hidden kind of joy."