The Founding Fathers of Big Data – Dun & Bradstreet Challenges
By Charles W. Stryker

This is the first in a series of posts that will examine the Founding Fathers of Big Data – specifically the companies and people which helped shape and create the notion of Big Data as we know it today.

When we look back at the formation of the Big Data ecology, we need not look very far back – to the mid 1800’s. Some of the leading data companies of today began when modern American commerce was in its infancy. Companies that today can boast of being leading information sector operators like D&B, Thomson Reuters and Associated Press all began roughly at the same time.

The mid 1800’s, Europe was characterized by a period of social, political, cultural and industrial upheaval and change. In the U.S., the same air of innovation and industrial competitiveness was also emerging. Although thousands of miles and the Atlantic Ocean separated the continents of Europe and North America, the challenges were similar and the solutions were – though different in methodology – formed from the same need to overcome obstacles to growth.

Louis Tappan established the Mercantile Agency in 1849 to consolidate credit information as business ventures were proliferating faster than merchants could evaluate on their own. Over the years the Mercantile Agency morphed into the Dun and Bradstreet Company, today known as D&B, the recognized name worldwide for business credit information.

Louis Tappan, like other entrepreneurs who were responsible for laying the foundation for the modern Big Data ecosphere, were driven in their respective businesses by one or more technological innovations. By today’s standards these innovations seemed trivial but in the early days these technological advances made for profound changes that allowed them to overcome logistical barriers and propel them to a place that the competition could never reach.

Today, D&B remains the clear leader in its field. It is very likely that some of the decisions made by the founding fathers at D&B more than 165 years ago are still at work today keeping the Company ahead of the competition.
What D&B shows through this sustained leadership in a part of the Big Data ecosphere is that the entrepreneurs who capitalize on opportunities – born out of challenges in the day-to-day running of the business – can serve as the bedrock to build information businesses that last hundreds of years.

Technological innovation, while an important component in longevity of an information business, is not sufficient to ensure success. The other part of that is it has to be tied to a period of dramatically changing market conditions. In the 1850’s an explosive industrial growth was underway in the U.S. as business expanded West and South from the Northeast. As commerce spread to Chicago and then followed the Gold Rush, the need to track business creditworthiness followed in step. When business dealings were merchant-to-merchant in local communities, credit confidence was easily obtained by reputation in the local community. As commerce expanded, another solution was required.

D&B’s ability to quickly establish satellite offices and recruit local business analysts was key to the company’s early success. By employing rudimentary technology improvements of the time such as adopting the typewriter to produce credit reports and adopting crude but effective copying techniques, D&B was able to supply communities across the country with company credit reports.
Distributed commerce was the social event that propelled D&B into its leadership role.

In the next installment, we will examine the factors that have sustained D&B’s competitive edge over the years and look at some of the other “Founding Fathers” of today’s Big Data ecosphere.