TECHCITYINSIDER100: RefME is a reference generator tool that automates the process of writing bibliographies. In under two years the startup has added 500,000 users and has plans to hit 5m by the end of 2015. A big funding announcement for the business is now imminent. Co-founder Tom Hatton tells Toni Sekinah about the product – and how he plans to take on Google.
Anyone who has ever written an academic essay understands the tedium of creating bibliographies. Accurately noting page numbers, publishers, authors and more is a time-consuming but necessary process, as lecturers usually dock points for incorrect referencing.
Luckily for today’s students, there’s now an app for that.
RefME came to Tom Hatton at university when one of his lecturers warned him against using the referencing tools available at the time, saying they wasted more time than they saved. So, he decided to create one that would actually be fit for purpose.
“I felt that technology should automate the referencing process,” he says. “There were tools that could help in creating references but the quality of output was either poor or incorrect. I knew that if I built a tool that was easy to use but with a high quality of output, I’d be winning.”
RefME automatically generates a bibliographic reference from a book’s barcode or a URL. Its Android and iOS apps work by scanning that barcode and sending a request to an external database. The same happens on the RefME web platform when a user inputs a URL for a book chapter, film, journal article, video or web page.
Bibliographic metadata is taken from those external databases and that information is cleaned up and put into forms called CSLs. This generates the reference in one of 7,000 formats requested by the user. The user can then export the bibliographies to Word, Evernote – or just copy and paste it into their essay.
RefME initially sourced all of its bibliographic metadata from external sources like Google Books. However as a result of caching all information from the references it created, RefME has been able to create its own database, which is now the first port of call.
Hatton arrived at RefME less than five years after graduating, with a short CV whose main entry was as founder of award-winning digital agency T and Biscuits.
Within six months of dedicating himself to RefME full time in 2013, the product had acquired 50,000 users. When he went to a marketing agency to understand how to grow the platform further, he met the wife of the man who was to become his co-founder, Ian Forshew.
Forshew, who had helped to grow big tech companies in the student space, was looking to join a tech company with a big idea. He believed that RefME was solving a small problem for a lot of people and came on board at the start of 2014.
The RefMe app is free, so RefMe generates revenue in three other ways.
First, it has a freemium model that will charge enterprise users around £6 a month for better tools and storage space.
Secondly, the team is also working on ‘lucrative’ partnerships worth an estimated £50,000 with libraries and 1,000 UK universities in the UK, US, India and China.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, RefME has built a widget that will sit on published content and allow anyone to create a reference from that content. Publishers will get charged a tiny fee for pushing people towards their books. “There’s a massive opportunity,” he says. “Even if it’s a hundredth of a penny, we’ve got billions of pages with RefME icons on them.”
Having built a solid base of users in the UK, RefME is now concentrating on growing its presence in the US, Australia and New Zealand. Within the next six months, they plan to break into India, South Africa and some countries in Latin America.
By summer 2016, RefMe is looking to have 10 million users. The company has built this phenomenal user growth through a bottom-up marketing strategy with social media at its core – and word of mouth recommendations of its adopters.
The key challenge for Hatton and the RefME team is to continue to deliver a great product while maintaining the firm’s exponential growth.
“The goal is to a build the best product whilst also growing as quickly as possible by hiring the best team,” he says. “We can deliver the growth as long as we get the product right.”
Investors are clearly also excited by these rapid growth prospects.
Hatton was unable to confirm full details at the time we spoke, but RefMe is at any time now set to announce a “seed plus” six-figure funding round from an unnamed super-angel and an institutional investor in the education space. “We’ve probably raised one of the largest seed pre revenue edtech rounds in Europe,” he says.
“What is very exciting for our new investors,” says Hatton, “is the fact that we know what kids in Harvard have access to, what they are researching and what they are using and we can share that around the world.”
RefMe has clearly attracted interest beyond the often-arcane world of academia. In 2014 it joined a trade mission to the US led by UKTI and London mayor Boris Johnson and at the end of February this year it was named as the Guardian’s startup of the year.
Hatton has a vision to disrupt more than just the education space – and to take on Google itself.
He describes the data RefME has amassed as “crowdsourced validated knowledge” and he sees it being of value way beyond the realm of academia.
“This validated knowledge is appropriate not just in academia but also in health, financial services, legal, even just on the internet,” he explains.
He believes that the great thing about this automated citation data is that “it almost can’t be wrong” and being able to see something online and know whether or not it is factually accurate is increasingly important.
“If we can really provide a quicker way to find information then we see people using RefME instead of Google to find information. That is very ambitious but I don’t see why we can’t do it,” he says.
Hatton is certain the RefME would be able to return four or five accurate search results compared to 40,000 from Google’s ubiquitous search engine.
With a team of 30 people, including a former NASA employee, Hatton hopes to be taking on the big boys within a couple of years.
“The way that RefME is set up and the information we collect, we believe in two to three years, we’ll be positioned to validate information that you see anywhere and that’s something we’re really working towards.”
Tom Hatton – CV
Chief executive, RefME
Founder, T and Biscuits Media.
BA history of arts and music, Oxford Brookes University.